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What causes dark under-eye circles?

March 4, 2013 -- Updated 1723 GMT (0123 HKT)
Dark under-eye circles can be genetic as well as a result of lifestyle and environmental factors.
Dark under-eye circles can be genetic as well as a result of lifestyle and environmental factors.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Bluish circles under your eyes can be due to oxygenated blood under the skin
  • Brown under-eye circles may be caused by hyperpigmentation
  • Sunscreen could be the key to banishing a panda-like visage

(Real Simple) -- If your dark under-eye circles aren't quite as adorable as a panda's, you don't have to grin and bear it. Try these (en)lightening strategies to minimize them.

Your plan of attack depends on the color of your circles. Look straight into a mirror in natural light, then lower your chin slightly to expose the shadows under your eyes. This way, you'll see clearly whether your circles are more blue or more brown.

Blue circles
The cause: Blue circles result from oxygenated blood pooled beneath the under-eye skin. Skin here is very thin and almost transparent, so blood shows through. This is more noticeable in the morning: When we've been horizontal for a while, fluids accumulate and the veins expand to hold more blood.

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Blue circles may get worse with age. "As we get older, we lose subcutaneous fat, which can mask blueness below the surface of the skin," says dermatologist Joshua Zeichner, the director of cosmetic and clinical research at Mount Sinai Medical Center, in New York City.

OTC treatments: There are a few options that work in different ways, though their effects last only a day at most. Topical creams with stimulating ingredients, like caffeine, can constrict blood vessels and temporarily boost circulation; potent hydrators, such as hyaluronic acid, plump the area, pushing the skin up and away from the pooled blood.

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Retinoic acid creams thicken the outer layer of the skin to conceal shadows. Another quick fix: products with stainless-steel rollerball-tip applicators. "The cool metal causes vessels to constrict," says New York City dermatologist Eric Schweiger.

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Professional treatments: A few other treatments approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for use on the rest of the face can effectively treat under-eye circles. One noninvasive solution is a cream with a prescription-strength retinoid.

Blue circles can also be significantly diminished by a treatment called Thermage, which involves a high-tech handheld radio-frequency device. It is nonsurgical, requires no downtime, and is thought to increase the production of collagen, which builds up and tightens the skin.

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One session costs about $1,000, and the results last three to five years. Zeichner treats dark circles by injecting a hyaluronic acid filler, such as Juvéderm or Restylane, to plump the skin and hide blueness; the injections can last a year or longer and cost $700 to $900 a pop.

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Brown circles
The cause: Brown circles result from hyperpigmentation, triggered by chronic eye-rubbing, sun exposure, or genetics. They are most prevalent among Asian and African American skin tones.

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OTC treatments: Your best bet is daily use of a cream or serum spiked with a skin brightener, like soy or citrus, which can lighten circles over a period of four to six weeks. Avoid hydroquinone, a go-to lightener for sun spots and scars, as most dermatologists agree that it's too heavy-duty for the eye area.

Professional treatments: As with blue circles, there are treatments dermatologists use elsewhere on the face that can also lessen the look of brown circles. They respond well to low-concentration TCA (trichloroacetic acid) peels, which exfoliate.

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Plan on spending about $100 a treatment, and you may need several over a couple of months. For enhanced results, there are lasers, like the Q-switched or Fraxel, which destroy pigment cells and even out skin tone with a beam of light energy. Most circles lighten after two or three $500 sessions.

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Preventive measures
Reason No. 734 to wear sunscreen: It will keep circles from returning after treatment and can also stop them from developing in the first place. Sun protection prevents skin from both thinning prematurely (exposing blueness) and tanning (getting browner).

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