We’ve all been there. You’re face to face with a coworker in the break room when they tilt their head sympathetically and observe, “You look tired.” It’s bad enough when you actually did spend the night tossing and turning. But when you got in a solid seven to nine hours of sleep and feel perfectly rested, it’s even more frustrating to hear someone’s concerned commentary that basically translates to, “Hey, you look like crap.” Thanks, coworker, what a helpful comment!
The truth is, a lot of people have dark circles or puffy eyes. And though there’s nothing wrong with that, many of us are looking for ways to minimize them. While they are often hallmarks of a lack of sleep, there are other causes that have nothing to do with how many zzz’s we catch (or don’t catch) each night. In fact, you might have another health concern or lifestyle habit causing your tired-looking eyes that you may want to address.
Here are eight things other than lack of sleep that can make your eyes look tired.
“Allergies release a chemical—histamine—that can dilate blood vessels, leading to increased blood flow under the eyes,” Christopher Sanders, M.D., plastic surgeon at Geisinger in Danville, Pennsylvania, tells SELF. “Histamine also causes itchiness, which can also cause swelling, inflammation and fluid accumulation under the eyes, leading to dark circles and a tired appearance of the eyes, particularly after rubbing or scratching your eyes.” This puffiness associated with allergies can be treated fairly easily with over-the-counter antihistamine meds, as well as nightly cold compresses to reduce swelling.
- Eye strain
If you stare at a computer screen all day—or if you’re resisting getting glasses, and find yourself squinting to see far-away signs or while reading—you might be straining your eyes, and, surprisingly, that could actually show on your face. “The increase in eye strain causes the blood vessels around the eye to dilate,” explains Dr. Sanders. “This increase in blood flow can exacerbate the appearance of dark circles and tired eyes.” Try giving your eyes a break from the computer screen by following the 20/20/20 rule: Every 20 minutes look at something 20 feet away for 20 seconds. And it may be time for a pair of glasses.
Many of us have a goal to drink more water every day—a goal that seems shockingly hard to meet. Dehydration is not only dangerous for our health and a total productivity killer, but it can also make us feel tired and lead to tired-looking eyes, even after eight hours of sleep. “Dehydration decreases your blood volume and makes your heart work less efficiently, leading to exhaustion,” warns Rebecca Lee, R.N., a nurse based in New York City. “The skin around the eyes is very sensitive to hydration and the environment.”
- Excessive under-eye pigment
“Some people just have more pigment genetically (more melanin) which can lead to darker circles under the eye,” Tania Elliott, M.D., allergist and chief medical officer of EHE, tells SELF. To determine if you’re looking at darkness from pigment or something else, dermatologist Loretta Ciraldo, M.D., recommends using your index finger to lightly press below your eye. “If, when you lift your finger, you see that the circle has lessened and then it becomes dark again, this means that the circle is made up of blood vessels,” she explains. “If light pressure doesn’t make an improvement in the dark circles, the problem is excess pigment.” To lighten dark circles caused by excess pigment, she recommends using a product like Dr. Andrew Weil for Origins Mega-Bright Dark Circle Minimizer, $46, which contains the brightening agent vitamin C. Too much sun exposure can exacerbate hyperpigmentation, warns Lee, so be sure to wear sunscreen every day. Some formulas are made to be gentle on the sensitive eye area, like SkinCeuticals Physical Eye UV Defense
- Bone structure
Some people simply have a genetic predisposition to forming dark circles under the eyes, which are often present as early as childhood, explains Dr. Sanders. That may be a result of the contour of your skull and how your skin and the fat underneath it interact with it. A deep tear trough—a groove extending from the inner corner of the eye out along the cheek—can create a noticeable semicircle under the eye. Some people have eye sockets that are further sunken in, and the shadow of their bone structure makes it appear as though their dark circles are worse, adds Dr. Elliott.
- Prominent veins
Sometimes the cause of bluish-black circles is oxygenated blood in the veins under the skin beneath the eyes. “Skin around the eyes is fragile, transparent and extremely thin, making it easy for blood to show through,” explains Lee. “Blue circles are most noticeable in the morning times after we’ve been lying down, allowing fluid to accumulate throughout the night.” Dr. Ciraldo says that sometimes a vitamin K-based cream, applied twice a day, can reduce vascular dark circles. “Since this trick doesn’t work for everyone, try it under one eye for at least two weeks—if you see the improvement in the eye where you apply it, it’s a winner, but if you don’t see any change, you may need to see a cosmetic physician for other options.” Cane and Austin makes a Glycolic Treatment Eye Cream, $105, that contains vitamin K as well as hyaluronic acid, which helps moisturize and plump skin.
- Your age
Natural aging can contribute to dark circles in several ways. Firstly, when we age, we lose elasticity and volume in our skin. This, Dr. Sanders explains, occurs when the fat in the face wastes away and the collagen production slows down, thinning the skin and causing it to lose its elasticity. “As this thinning occurs, the blood vessels can become more visible under the skin, leading to the appearance of dark circles,” he says. Additionally, weakening connective tissue can cause skin sagging, or bags, which impart a heavy, sleepy look.
- Salty foods
If the puffiness under your eyes is worse in the morning and better by later in the day, this is likely the result of fluid retention—and that can be caused by eating too much salt, according to Hadley King, M.D., a dermatologist at Skinney Med Spa and clinical instructor of dermatology at the Weill Medical College of Cornell University. To decrease this kind of puffiness, she recommends reducing your salt intake, increasing your water intake, sleeping propped up on a couple of pillows, and using an eye cream that contains caffeine, such as 100% Pure Coffee Bean Caffeine Eye Cream, $26, to constrict blood vessels.