Dark Circles vs. Bags: The Difference & What To Do About Them

mbg Beauty and Lifestyle Senior Editor By Alexandra Engler
mbg Beauty and Lifestyle Senior Editor
Alexandra Engler is the Beauty and Lifestyle Senior Editor. She received her journalism degree from Marquette University, graduating first in the department.
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You'll hear these similar phrases interchangeably: I have the worst under-eye bags today or My dark circles are so deep right now. The problem, however, is that these are actually two very distinct, separate issues. And sure, it's not the end of the world if you misidentify these while chatting with a friend—but the issue comes up when you're looking for a fix.

Depending on what you actually have, you'll need two very separate creams, treatments, or routines.

Dark circles

Let's start with dark circles: These appear as discolored half-moons under your eyes. They can be purple, red, olive, or brown depending on your skin tone; they can be chronic or exacerbated from lifestyle factors (lack of sleep is the common complaint). 

Ultimately, however, they are caused by a few factors—which contribute to them either independently or compounding.

  • Thin skin around the area reveals blood vessels underneath, contributing to discoloration. While you can simply have thin skin in the area naturally, the color can become exacerbated by lack of sleep or lifestyle issues that cause blood vessels to expand, resulting in more blood in the area. To treat these, you can look into two types of topicals: Brightening agents, like antioxidants, or caffeine, which will help constrict the dilated blood vessels. 
  • More melanin production can cause skin in the area to become darker naturally. This is more common with people with darker skin tones. You'll want to look for brightening actives, like vitamin C, arbutin, kojic acid, or niacinamide.  
  • Fat loss as you age can make the blood vessels more visible, as there's no longer a buffering layer of tissue. While you can't do anything about this with topical creams, you can attempt to plump the skin with ceramides, hyaluronic acid, and so on. 
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Bags

Bags are actually a structural issue caused by fat pads under your eyes. These are a genetic thing: meaning you are born with them and you can't really affect them with creams or tonics. You might notice it gets worse with age, and that's because the skin loses collagen and elastin and will begin to sag. This makes the bag appear more pronounced. (See when you're young, your skin's structure is stronger; but as you age, skin loses some of that strength and isn't able to keep the fat pad in place.) 

These are generally harder to treat. If you have bags caused by fat, your only option is procedural, notes board-certified dermatologist Mona Gohara, M.D.: "The only way to get rid of them is to remove the pads surgically." 

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However, you can also take preventive measures so your bags do not worsen with age. Notably? Maintaining healthy natural collagen levels. You can tend to the skin with collagen-enhancing topicals (vitamin C and retinols come to mind), but you can also go internal. Collagen supplements have been shown to support skin cells' fibroblasts, or the parts of the skin cells that produce collagen and elastin. This helps your body enhance collagen production on its own.  

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Puffiness

OK, the last one that tends to be a lesser complaint, but should be noted regardless as it's quite common: puffiness. This is what happens when the skin around your eye feels bloated, commonly due to lifestyle factors. As physician Bindiya Gandhi, M.D., told us, these might be triggered allergies—food, environmental, or otherwise: "Obviously symptoms vary from person to person and food to food, but many times, physical manifestations of allergies include watery eyes, itchy skin, or puffy face and eyes." They can also be caused again by lack of sleep, salt intake, or even stress. ("With stress, your body goes into this fight-or-flight mode and you retain bodily fluids because your body thinks you need it. It's a physiological reaction," says Gohara.)

The takeaway.

Who knew the eye area was so complicated? Considering the area is so delicate, it makes sense a few things can go awry. It's nothing to be too worked up about, but it is important to figure out what exactly your underlying concern is so you can better fix it.

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