Dark circles under the eyes are a common cosmetic concern for many people. These darkened areas of skin can make us look tired, stressed, or unhealthy. But what actually causes dark circles? And is lack of sleep really to blame?
What are dark circles?
Dark circles refer to darkened skin under the eyes. This discoloration can range from light shadows to dark brown or blue-tinged skin.
Dark circles are also sometimes referred to as periorbital dark circles or periorbital hyperpigmentation. Periorbital refers to the area around the eyes.
What causes dark circles under the eyes?
There are many possible causes of dark circles under the eyes, including:
- Lack of sleep – Insufficient sleep can lead to paleness of the skin under the eyes, allowing the underlying blood vessels to show through and look darker.
- Allergies – Seasonal allergies or eye allergies like hay fever can cause under-eye swelling and dark shadows.
- Ageing – As we age, our skin becomes thinner. Shadows start to appear as the fat pads under the eyes begin to diminish.
- Genetics – Dark circles can run in families. Your genetic makeup can affect how thick and pigmented your undereye skin is.
- Sun exposure – Exposure to UV rays can cause an increase in melanin production, making the under-eye area darker.
- Hyperpigmentation – Dark circles can sometimes be caused by an excess production and deposit of melanin, the pigment that gives skin its color.
- Tear troughs – These are hollows or depressions in the lower eyelids that cast shadows and can look like dark circles.
- Lifestyle factors – Things like smoking, drinking alcohol in excess, high salt intake, stress and hormonal changes can exacerbate dark circles.
- Medications – Certain prescription medicines like oral contraceptives can contribute to dark under eye circles.
- Medical conditions – Dark circles may be linked to medical problems like allergies, eczema, asthma, thyroid disease and diabetes. Kidney, liver or iron deficiency can also cause eyes to look hollow and discolored.
How does sleep deprivation cause dark circles?
Lack of sleep is a key culprit when it comes to dark under-eye circles. Here’s why sleep deficiency can lead to darker circles under our eyes:
- Fatigue – When the skin is fatigued and tired, it can appear paler. This causes blood vessels under the thin undereye skin to become more visible and appear darker.
- Fluid accumulation – Insufficient sleep may cause fluid to accumulate under the eyes, causing puffiness that emphasizes darkened tissues underneath.
- Lifestyle factors – People who are sleep deprived often experience many other lifestyle issues like poor diet, lack of exercise, excessive alcohol intake and smoking. All these factors can exacerbate undereye circles.
- Stress – Lack of sleep stresses the body and can cause depression of the immune system. Stress leads to inflammation, which can worsen undereye discoloration.
- Loss of collagen – Collagen gives our skin its plumpness and youthful elasticity. Sleep deprivation reduces collagen production, making dark circles more pronounced.
How sleep deprivation affects collagen
Collagen is the main structural protein of our skin, made up of amino acids like glycine, proline and hydroxyproline. It provides structure and resilience, helping the skin stay firm and supple.
Our body’s collagen production relies heavily on adequate sleep. Growth hormone is produced during deep sleep, and this human growth hormone boosts collagen synthesis. Without enough quality sleep, collagen regeneration suffers.
Studies show that restricting sleep can result in up to a 60% decrease in a protein that promotes collagen growth. This loss of collagen leads to thinning of undereye skin and wrinkling, making dark circles and hollows more prominent.
How sleep deprivation impacts fluids around the eyes
Fluid retention around the eyes is another mechanism by which lack of sleep contributes to darker undereye circles. Some hypotheses suggest this fluid buildup happens for a few reasons:
- During sleep, fluid in the body is redistributed due to changes in hydrostatic pressure. Lack of sleep may interfere with this process, causing accumulation of fluid around the eyes.
- Insufficient sleep impacts a hormone called anti-diuretic hormone (ADH) which regulates fluid balance in the body. The improper functioning of ADH results in fluid retention around the eyes.
- Lack of sleep stresses the body and activates the hypothalamic pituitary adrenal axis. This triggers cortisol production, which in turn leads to excess fluid retention in the area under the eyes.
This accumulation of fluid can cause under eye bags, puffiness and swelling. It stretches the thin skin and exhibits the darker tissues and blood vessels lying underneath, creating a shadowy appearance of dark circles.
How long does it take for lack of sleep to cause dark eye circles?
Dark under eye circles may start to become visible after just one night of poor sleep. However, it’s unlikely that a single night of sleep loss will cause dramatic dark circles on its own.
Chronic sleep deprivation is more likely to lead to pronounced dark circles that get progressively worse over time. Ongoing lack of sleep causes fatigue, impaired collagen production, fluid retention and other effects that can exacerbate discoloration and shadows under the eyes.
Studies suggest eye bags and dark circles are significantly more prevalent in people with chronic insomnia and other long-term sleep disturbances. The longer someone suffers from inadequate sleep, the darker and more stubborn their undereye circles may become.
Can dark circles be reversed once sleep improves?
The good news is that in many cases, dark under eye circles caused by lack of sleep will lighten and reverse once you restore healthy sleep patterns.
Getting sufficient, high quality sleep allows the body to fully recharge and recover. Fluid retention and inflammation ease, collagen production ramps back up, fatigue fades, and those ominous-looking shadows should start to lift.
However, if the discoloration persists even after sleep quantity and quality improves, other factors might be at play:
- Pigmentation – Dark circles related to genetics and pigmentation issues may not resolve just by catching up on sleep.
- Aging – Age-related hollows and thinning of the under eye area cannot be reversed by short-term improvements in sleep.
- Allergies – Allergy-induced dark circles need to be treated at the root cause with antihistamines or immunotherapy.
- Medical conditions – Dark undereye shadows linked to medical issues like thyroid disorders will require appropriate treatment to lighten up.
In these cases, consult your doctor to identify any underlying causes. You may need adjunct treatments beyond sleep restoration to adequately address difficult dark eye circles.
How much sleep do you need to prevent dark circles?
The amount of sleep needed for optimal health is individualized, but general recommendations suggest:
- Adults should get 7-9 hours of sleep per night.
- Older adults often require 7-8 hours of sleep.
- Children need 9-12 hours, depending on age.
- Teens need 8-10 hours of sleep per night.
However, optimal sleep extends beyond just duration. Your sleep also needs to be high quality and efficient, with minimal disturbances throughout the night.
Signs that you’re getting adequate, high quality rest include:
- Waking up refreshed and restored in the morning
- Rarely needing an alarm clock to wake up
- Falling asleep easily and sleeping soundly through the night
- Not needing to take naps during the day
If you have these indicators of sufficient, restful sleep, dark under eye circles are less likely to appear.
Tips for preventing dark circles related to sleep deprivation
Here are some tips to ensure you get enough sleep to help minimize dark under eye shadows:
- Prioritize your bedtime. Make sleep a priority, not a luxury. Keep a consistent sleep schedule, even on weekends.
- Wind down before bed. Unwind with calming routines like reading a book to relax your mind and prepare for sleep.
- Limit blue light. Avoid screens at least 1 hour before bedtime. Blue light exposure suppresses melatonin release.
- Optimize your sleep environment. Room darkening curtains and a comfortable mattress set the stage for quality sleep.
- Restrict fluids before bed. Reduce fluid intake 2-3 hours before bed to decrease chances of nighttime waking to urinate.
- Avoid stimulants at night. Cut out sources of caffeine, nicotine or other stimulants several hours before bedtime.
Developing strong sleep hygiene habits helps ensure you clock in enough hours of high quality sleep to prevent those undesirable dark circles from forming.
Medical and cosmetic treatments for dark circles
If you’ve optimized your sleep but dark under eye circles persist, consult your doctor or dermatologist. They can assess your particular situation and determine if additional cosmetic or medical treatments could help reduce this stubborn discoloration.
Topical creams may be prescribed to lighten pigmentation. Laser therapy, chemical peels and dermal fillers are options to plump up hollowness and build collagen. Allergy medications can treat seasonal allergies contributing to dark circles.
For pigmentation, lasers like Q-switched Nd:YAG lasers help remove melanin deposits. Intense pulsed light (IPL) and photodynamic therapy are also used on pigmented or vascular undereye circles unresponsive to other treatments.
Dermal filler injections of hyaluronic acid can effectively fill depressions and minimize the shadowy appearance of dark hollows under the eyes. Synthetic fillers tend to work better for tear troughs compared to fat injections.
Discuss risks, benefits, side effects and downtime for any treatment with your provider. Often a combination approach is used for optimal improvement of tired-looking eyes.
In summary, lack of sufficient sleep is one of the leading causes of dark circles forming under the eyes. Chronic sleep deprivation can lead to thinning of the delicate undereye skin, fluid accumulation, and loss of collagen and elasticity.
Prioritizing your nightly sleep is the first step to prevent and reduce dark under eye circles related to fatigue and sleep loss. Be proactive about your sleep habits for a well-rested, vibrant and youthful appearance.