The Fix For Tired Looking Eyes: How Do Eye Creams Even Work?

Welcome to Pretty Healthy, FLEETSTREET’s in-depth beauty series. We are uncovering how ingredients like caffeine, HA, retinol and others can boost the efficacy of eye creams. Beauty starts with healthy skin and hair, and this column delivers the goods on making that a reality. Know, though, when you buy something through our retail links, we may earn an affiliate commission. Tap for more info.

I think I’m a pretty straightforward, honest person. But after a longhaul flight, an evening out (with too many glass clinks) or a night of thinking instead of sleeping, my eyes share my secrets while the rest of my face tries to smile through things: I’m exhausted. Recently, though, my makeup tricks (thank you concealer and light eyeliner) have started to need eye cream support. 

And if you were to look in my Sephora shopping cart, you’d think I had this all figured out. But the dozen or so eye creams I’ve looked at are just a symbol of just my confusion. Some claim impressive results. Some have clinical trials. Some tout their innovative ingredients. Me, I just want something that works. 

To find out about which eye creams work, I connected with two dermatologists to talk about skin health and the products that will revitalize my eyes. 

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What makes my eyes look tired?

Obviously a lack of sleep and excess stress affect the eyes, but eye creams and serums won’t fix my bedtime routine or knock things off my to-do list. So what do they do? They instead go after the physical effects of fatigue and skin health. 

“Tired looking skin is often a function of a dull or uneven complexion; a lack of luminosity or radiance that can be the result of dehydration, dryness, stress or pollution,” says Dr. Sonya Abdulla, board-certified dermatologist at DLK on Avenue in Toronto. And, “when skin is dehydrated, it tends to look dull and exhibit a rough texture, tightness or sensitivity,” says Dr. Katie Beleznay, Vancouver-based and board-certified dermatologist and spokesperson for Neutrogena. “Many of these characteristics are common in what people refer to as ‘tired-looking’ skin. And a lack of sleep can contribute to dehydrated skin, dullness and dark circles.”

It surprised me that dehydration is a key indicator of fatigued eyes. My naturally dry skin soaks up whatever I put on it, from serums to makeup. I can look tired, but not always. 

What Dr. Abdulla and Dr. Beleznay tell me makes sense. A healthy complexion is the goal. Lacking moisture makes skin look thin, dark and textured. And, duh, we call it eye cream for a reason.  

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  • This brightening eye cream offers a texture that’s velvety thick, making it easy to apply. It made my skin feel and look smooth – a perfect base for concealer. It conains 5% tetrahexyldecyl ascorbate (vitamin C), as well as caffeine. Herbevore Super Nova, $64, at Detox Market

The eye cream debate: Are eye creams even necessary?

Could a moisturizer be enough? Some people don’t use eye creams and opt for the cheaper moisturizer version instead. And that’s perfectly fine for them and their peepers. For proof of a basic eye cream, the research is tough to navigate, as most of it is limited-subject clinical trials for specific brands and their creams. And if hydration is your only concern, then it is worth trying your moisturizer is enough. And, consensus (from Byrdie to The New Yokr Times) suggests that a basic moisturizer should work for around the eyes, yes.

For me, though, it wasn’t enough. So that’s why my cart was filled with caffeine, peptides, ceramides, and so on. My bags needed more luggage.

What to look for in an eye cream

Back to my cart. I have a mix of things: singular ingredient; tinctures with multiple powerhouse ingredients; depuffers and brighteners; cheap ones and expensive ones; cooling applicators, small batches and mass brands; and more. You name it, and I’ve zoomed in on the claims. 

Dr. Beleznay tells me to look for humectants. “These are ingredients that draw moisture from the environment into your skin, and two of the most common are glycerin and hyaluronic acid.” 

Daily use of HA, says Dr. Abdulla, will show up in six to eight weeks. 

However, when tired, I actually want instant results, much the same way I feel after doing my hair or stepping into heels. I want to look better right away. Dr. Abdulla says alpha hydroxy acid (AHA) and retinol can exfoliate layers of the stratum corneum (the top layer of skin) to help the skin look and feel more radiant. Know that retinol increases skin’s sensitivity to light, so best to use at night or under an SPF product. “Sun protection will always be your first line of defense” she says, adding to use “broad spectrum UVA and UVB coverage with an SPF 30 or higher for daily use, year-round regardless of weather or climate.”

Other ingredients they point to, many of which I recognize from the products I’ve been trying, include: vitamin C (stimulates collagen), caffeine and green tea (tighten skin), peptides (smooth the look of fine lines and pigmentation), ceramides (another fine-line ingredient). 

Of course, it’s always best to discuss with a healthcare and/or skincare provider to truly be sure what will give you the results you want. 

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How to instantly look more awake

If you have time to plan for a treatment, that can help revive instantly or relatively quickly. Chemical peels, gentle laser resurfacing, radiofrequency microneedling, injectables, skin tightening, lasers or even surgery, are all treatments that may help, says Dr. Abdulla.

While the results are much sooner than that six to eight weeks of a product, you will need the time to book and receive the treatment. It’s not a just-woke-up-and-💩-I-look-tired fix.

For those times, Dr. Abdulla says to look for temporary remedies. “Cooling the [skin] tissue with age-old tricks like cucumbers or cold compresses can take down some of the puffiness,” she says. “Massaging the tissue with a chilled gua sha or roller can also be helpful.” That, in addition to a hydrating eye cream (think: hyaluronic acid and ceramides) with a boost of caffeine should immediately soothe tired eyes.

The best way to apply eye cream

Does the ring-finger approach work? Do those rounded applicators really make a difference? Dr. Abdulla recommends using a small amount of eye cream on your ring finger, lightly patting the area under and up the outside of the eye. The application is the same if it’s an eye cream, eye balm or eye gel. As for the best time of day to apply eye cream? That depends on the ingredients. “They can be formulated for day use or night use and should be used accordingly,” she says. 

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Ultimately, it’s about looking good inside out

It’s good to follow a holistic approach, says Dr. Beleznay. “Keeping our bodies well hydrated is important for overall skin health but water intake alone is not enough to ensure skin does not get dehydrated […] Topical skincare alone is not always enough. Lifestyle factors – including diet, exercise and sleep – all play a role in the appearance of skin. Furthermore, certain skin concerns – such as wrinkles, sun spots or dark under eyes – may be best addressed with in-office treatments.”