Dr. Kim Foster: Wicked Health


What Causes Dark Circles Under Your Eyes?

And how to kick them to the curb.

Dark circles under your eyes—is there anything more instantly aging? If you don’t happen to be a middle linebacker, the dark smudge look is probably not what you’re going for. So what causes those pesky, persistent dark shadows under your eyes? And more importantly—what can you do about them?

Here are the most common issues at play:

Nasal congestion

If your nose is stuffy, there will be a back-up of pressure in the veins that drain from your eyes to your nose. As a result, those dilated vessels cause a shadowy cast and a darkening of the skin. Treat nasal congestion with a neti-pot, saline rinses, or prescription nasal spray.

Iron deficiency anemia

Anemia essentially means low blood count, and it’s a common cause of fatigue in women (it can also afflict kids and mess with their sleep, among other things). Outwardly, anemia tends to give you the oh-so-flattering combination of pasty skin and dark shadows under the eyes. Once detected (via a blood test), anemia can be treated with dietary modification and/or iron supplements.


Dark circles can sometimes be caused by excessive pigment in the skin around the eyes. This is often hereditary; it can be a common problem for certain skin types, especially in people of African or Asian descent. But pigment can also be caused by pregnancy, or excessive sun exposure. Wearing a high SPF, broad-spectrum sunscreen, and sunglasses, are your preventive strategies. Treatments like skin lightening cream and lasers may help—see a dermatologist for these.

Shadows cast by puffy eyelids

This one, to me, is evidence of injustice...in a universal sense. Nobody should have to endure simultaneous puffiness and deep shadows. How is that even possible? Sadly, it is. Listen, if your swollen eyelids are big enough to cast an actual shadow…girl, you need to go straight here and get some help for all that puffiness.


Well, chalk this up to one more thing you can blame your mom for. (Don’t worry, ladies—your own daughters will do the same.) Your genes can give you excessive skin pigment (see above), or deep-set bone structure that causes more pronounced shadows, for example. Or, some people have naturally more transparent skin, which will also worsen the appearance of under-eye shadows. I’m mentioning the heredity factor, because I think a certain acceptance is in order, here. Sometimes, it’s just the way your face is made.


A bruised discolouration under the eyes is a common sign of allergies. Why? It’s probably a combination of nasal congestion (see above) and skin irritation due to itchiness. If allergies are at the root of your dark circles, there are plenty of options for treatment: antihistamines, allergy shots, nasal spray, eye drops, and prevention through avoidance of your allergen. Again, see your doctor for an individually tailored regimen. 


More unfairness, coming up. With age, we lose fat and collagen in our faces, and this is simply a natural process. But your overall body weight has something to say about this. I’ve written in the past about the adage that a woman, over a certain age, has to choose between her face and her rear end. A nice trim behind means less body fat, and less facial fat…which potentially means a more sunken appearance under your eyes. All you can do is maintain a healthy weight. That, you can control. Getting older every year? Not so much.

Lifestyle factors

Some of the same factors that contribute to under-eye bags can also contribute to under-eye shadows. These are things like insufficient sleep, excessive alcohol intake, stress, and smoking. Keep yourself healthy, keep your habits in check...be rewarded with a more bright-eyed look.

Beyond the specific solutions for the above problems, there are more general remedies for dark circles. Options like surgery, fillers, and laser treatment may be worth considering. And then, of course, there’s concealer. Personally, I’m finding that as I get older I’m using a lighter hand with under-eye concealer…because the only thing worse than dark shadows under your eyes is dark circles inexpertly concealed with cakey concealer that settles into your wrinkles. Am I right?