Scientist Uncover Dark Circles’ Secrets

dark circles under eyesDark circles under the eyes can make you  feel like you look tired or old.  They are a major cosmetic concern for both men and women, although women seem to feel the weight of the problem. They are a difficult issue to address because they are caused by a variety of conditions – some of which do not respond well to treatment, diet or lifestyle factors.

Scientists can measure skin color in order to accurately determine degree of changes using a spectral imaging camera that detects skin chromophores – the parts of molecules that determine its color.  This improvement on contact-type spectrophotometers allows better evaluation of skin color.

Causes of Dark Circles under Eyes

Vascular Cause

The skin under our eyes is one of the most delicate and thinnest skin of our body.   As we age, our skin naturally becomes a little thinner.  About one third of dark circles under the eyes conditions are caused by this thinning skin which allows the fine capillaries under the skin to lend a blueish tint to the skin. This is known as a vascular cause of dark circles.

Vascular & Genetics

Lack of pigment of fair skin toned people makes the blueish tone more apparent.  For those people with olive-based skin tones, the vascular cause lends a brown or yellowish color to the dark circles.

How Common is the Vascular Cause?

In one study involving 100 patients, scientists used a visual exam, a medical history, and the Wood’s lamp test to determine the cause of the dark circles conditions.  The Wood’s lamp test uses ultraviolet light to look at the skin.  By means of the test researchers are able to determine if bacterial or fungal infections exist, or porphyria or various skin coloring changes are present and measure the degree of coloration.   Of the 100 patients 35 had dark circles due to vascular causes combined with thin skin.  54 had the condition due to vascular causes along with other causes.1


Swelling of the area under the eyes – due to allergies and sensitivities, inadequate nutrition and not enough sleep can acerbate the problem. The bagginess casts a shadow that accentuates dark circles under the eyes.


Excessive pigmentation seen in skin conditions such as dermal melancytosis or allergic contact dermatitis.  In these cases the symptom is a slightly curved band of brownish skin under the eyes, which is darker when the skin under the eyes is baggy.3

In some cases there are colored lesions that develop under the eyes, such as dermal malocytic hyperpigmentation which appear to be genetic in origin.

Treatment Options

Chinese herbal medicine

Kidney Meridian Support

Chinese herbal medicine suggests that when dark circles under the eyes are due to insomnia, stress and poor diet,  herbal combinations that address the health of the kidney meridian (and endocrine system) can be helpful. This may also be due to some dark circles instances where allergies and diet issues are contributing factors.

Rehmannia-8, which replaces Vision Tone, is based on the classic “Six-Ingredient Pill” and includes the Chinese medicinal herbs  Rehmannia (Liu Wei Di Huang Tang), Cornus, Rehmannia, Alisma, Dioscorea, Poria, Moutan plus Bilberry, Lycium Berry, White Peony, American Ginseng, Chrysanthemum Flower, Gingko, Licorice, Wild Yam, Shou Wu and Hoelen.

Rehmannia 8 is not a topical treatment, but is taken internally to support kidney qi.

Topical Treatments

These creams, lotions and salves need to be used for many weeks before any changes are noticed.

Purple Gold Formula

purple-goldIn addition to being useful for reducing dark circles under the eyes, Purple Gold Formula is a generally nourishing cream for the skin based on Chinese herbal medicine.

  • Lithospermum’s antioxidant capacity helps to protect the skin against loss of collagen and oxidative stress on keratinocytes, the major cell type in the skin and neonatal fibroblasts, the cells responsible for collagen. In one study lab tissues that had been pretreated with a lithospermum preparation resisted oxidative damage from UV and from hydrogen peroxide.8
  • Purple gold also contains Coix Lachryma-job, also known as Job’s Tears, or Adley.  Researchers have found that it inhibits tyrosinase activity in cells.  Tyrosinase is an enzyme that acts as a catalyst in the production of melanin due to oxidative stress.  When you see a potato being blackened after you peel it – this is the action of tyrosinase.  They further found that it exhibited antioxidant behavior in fighting free radicals and could act as a natural antioxidant in skin care products.9
  • Glycyrrhiza glabra (licorice) has been studied, both by itself and in conjunction with other components, such as citrus peel, for its capacity to protect and nourish the skin.  It is rich in polyphenols that act as antioxidants.  By itself the ability to be absorbed into the skin is somewhat limited, but in cooperation with other ingredients, such helpful absorption is improved.10
  • Angelica sinensis (dong gui) has been used traditionally for skin disorders.  Researchers looked at its anti-inflammatory effects and ability to alter skin thickness, reduce mast cells (cells found in connective tissue that release histamine, etc  during allergic reactions.  This ingredient becomes helpful for its anti-inflammatory quality.11
  • Vitamin E has long been associated with anti-aging products and skin care.  It is frequently found in compounds for that purpose because of its antioxidant capacity.  It exists in several forms, a-tocopherol and tocotrienols, both of which are potent antioxidants.  Because it is fat-soluble it is readily absorbed into cell membranes where it fights free radicals.12

Vitamins A, C & E

In one study scientists looked at use of a cream or lotion containing vitamins A, C & E in 24 patients  with mixed-type dark circles.  The subjects were treated with a test product for 8 weeks.  The cream  contained 3 % vitamin C, .1% vitamin A and .5% vitamin E below only one eye and the results were compared 8 weeks later.  The results showed statistically significant changes through skin thickness, melanin index, and other measures that were instrumental in the appearance of dark eyes.1

Suma, Muira Puama, Madonna Lily

Another study evaluated a compound comprised of Pfaffia paniculata (Suma, from the Amazon basin), ptychopetalum olacoides B (Muira Puama from the Amazon in Brazil), and lilium candidum L (Madonna lilly, native to Greece), (PPLAC) to study its effect on dark circles caused by a type of congestion in the tissues under the eye, and also to study its capacity in vitro (in the lab) as an antioxidant and anti-inflammatory agent.  The researchers noted significant improvement in most of the 21 volunteers.4


Hydroquinone is a drug recommended by many dermatologists – it reduces pigmentation through inhibition of RNA/DNA, melanosomes, and melanocytes – with results in 5-7 weeks.  It can be used along with other agents but there are a number of potential side effects.7

Retinoic Acid

Another drug used by dermatologists is retinoic acid which inhibits certain amino acids and thins the skin, with results becoming evident after 24 weeks.  It also carries a number of potential side effects.7

Chemical Peeling

Superficial peeling with trichloroacetic acid and/or lactic acid destroys the surface skin. Researchers have found that a combination of the two types of acid used in treating 30 patients resulted in improvement in 93% of the patients.  The effects of the treatment remained for 4-6 months in patients who protected the skin from the sun.  (6) Side effects and complications increase according to the strength and duration of the application and it is only appropriate for some people, if at all.3

Laser Treatment

Laser treatment has been becoming more common using Q-switched ruby laser (Q-laser), Q-switched alexandrite laser  (Q-alex) and neodymium-doped yttrium aluminium garnet (Nd:YAG).    A number of studies have compared the value of various types of laser treatment; they seem to be generally similarly effective, with effective rates ranging from 23% to 34% after one treatment and 70%-90% after two treatments.  Researchers who reviewed the literature on different studies of various laser types concluded that Nd:YAG or Q-alex seemed to have the best results.  The Nd:YAG seems to treat both excessive pigmentation and the vascular cause of dark circles.5

Laser treatment was also generally effective in dark eyes caused by puffy skin and thin skin.

Eye protection is essential in any laser treatment, since the retina is very vulnerable to this kind of light.

Due to the risk of scarring there has been great interest in less invasive methods that, for example, target only water-containing tissue.3

Autologous Fat Transplantation

To surgically address the issue of thin skin which reveals the vascular color under the skin, plastic surgeons restore fat or soft tissue fillers under the skin beneath the eyes.  The idea is that the additional layer of fat or soft tissue will hide the bluish (or brownish in olive-skinned patients) tint of blood vessels under the skin.  In one very small study patients received an average of 78% improvement in skin color after such surgery.  The filler used in soft tissue filler surgery is often hyaluronic acid gel, but some patients did notice dark pigmentation increasing after this type of surgery.3


Another surgical procedure is called transconjunctival (below the eye) blepharoplasty (eyelid surgery) which removes excess baggy tissue from below the eye.  It is sometimes combined with chemical peels.  This is a fairly invasive procedure and should be approached with caution.3

Next: Learn more about skin care and nutrition for dark circles.

Footnotes & Sources

  1. S.R. Park, et al, Classification by causes of dark circles and appropriate evaluation method of dark circles, Skin Research & Technology. September, 2015.
  2. F.M. Freitag, et al, What Causes Dark Circles Under the Eyes?, Journal Cosmetic Dermatology. September, 2007
  3. Ryung Roh, MD, et al, Infraorbital Dark Circles: Definition, Causes, and Treatment Options, Dermatologic Surgery, May, 2009.
  4. Samara Eberlin PhD, et al, Effects of a Brazilian herbal compound as a cosmetic eyecare for periorbital hyperchromia, Journal of Cosmetic Dermatology, June, 2009
  5. Gan Ma, MD, et al, Treatment of Venous Infraorbital Dark Circles Using a Long-Pulsed 1,064-nm Neodymium-Doped Yttrium Aluminum Garnet Laser, Dermatologic Surgery, August 2012
  6. Charitomeni Vavouli MD, et al, Chemical peeling with trichloroacetic acid and lactic acid for infraorbital dark circles, Journal of Cosmetic Dermatology, September 2013.
  7. Tania Ferreira Cestari, et al, Acquired Hypermigmentations, Anais Brasileiros de Dermatologia, February, 2014
  8.  H.G. Yoo, et al, Lithospermum erythrorhizon extract protects keratinocytes and fibroblasts against oxidative stress, Journal of Medicinal Food, August, 2014.
  9.  H. C. Huang, Inhibitory effects of adlay extract on melanin production and cellular oxygen stress in B16F10 melanoma cells, International Journal of Molecular Science, September, 2014.
  10. Damle, M., Development and Evaluation of a Novel Delivery System Containing Phytophospholipid Complex for Skin Aging, AAPS PharmSciTech, August, 2015
  11. J. Lee, et al, Topical Application of Angelica sinensis Improves Pruritus and Skin Inflammation in Mice with Atopic Dermatitis-Like Symptoms, Journal of Medicinal Food, August 2015.
  12. Wikipedia, Vitamin E.