We’ve been dragging our feet on this topic for a while! The main reason we have been avoiding the big eye cream question for so long is simply because the data here is depressingly sparse. The few studies that exist in the eye cream category can lack logic or have lackluster results. All in all, not the most scintillating or uplifting of skin concerns for us to talk about. However, we can’t ignore the fact that eye area concerns are a big topic. Plus it happens to be a personal concern of ours too. So it’s finally time to breakdown the eye cream category, chemist style!
In this article, we’ll go through the biology of eye area concerns, the state of data behind tackling eye area concerns, and how that translates to shopping for an eye cream.
Why Eye Area Biology is One Big Spaghetti Monster
Eye area concerns can typically be broken down into four categories: crows feet, dark circles, eye bags, and puffiness. Wrinkles for the most part is the most well-understood category of the bunch strictly because of the wealth of knowledge we have around facial wrinkles. And because this concern has the best outlook in terms of topical treatment (think retinol!), we won’t spend too much time here.
Dark circles would probably rank second in terms of understanding and treatment. It’s a complicated concern that can stem from volume loss in the tear trough area, skin laxity, translucent skin, excessive pigmentation, allergy, and/or vasculature changes. Of the research out there, we like this breakdown done by a research group in Taiwan, which tries to put some order to dark circles. They’ve broken down dark circles into four types:
- P type: responsible for the brown hues. This is the same pigment that contributes to hyperpigmentation and melasma.
- V type: Responsible for the blue, pink, and purple hues. It’s common that this type of dark circle pigmentation also lends to undereye puffiness.
- S type: Shadow hue. This is typically caused by a change in the structure of the eye area that leads to a hollowing effect and can cause eye bags to develop.
- M type: This is typically a combination of the three types listed above. Most of us that have eye area concerns typically fall into this category.
One additional complication to add is that under eye puffiness and eye bags can be difficult to differentiate from each other. However, the theory is that puffiness is usually located in front of the fat pad and is caused by vascular leakage and this fluid buildup can lead to the purple, pink, or blue pigment hues. Eye bags usually result from a change in the structure of the fat pad. It’s also possible to have both concerns at the same time.
Ultimately, understanding the biology helps us untangle and structure the way to think about our eye area concerns…but then comes the real challenge because most of the data on treating the eye area doesn’t follow the same approach.
Because there’s isn’t a strong foundation of understanding around eye area concerns, that means the research in terms of treatments is even more unorganized and sparse. This is especially true for topical treatments. The best way for us to summarize the landscape for you is to take it ingredient by ingredient. There are some papers that try cocktails of actives but because of their lukewarm results, we won’t share that here.
Here is an update of ingredients that have been looked at in published research:
- Vitamin K (phytonadione): This is a pretty popular active in research that gets mentioned a lot in dark circle care. However, there is such a lack of evidence that it’s hard for us to gauge how effective this active really is. The only clinical we could really find was a study carried out in 2015, one group tested a 3% caffeine + 1% vitamin k on 11 subjects (read: tinY!) where they applied the treatment pad to one eye while they applied water to the other eye. After four weeks of use, they found that subjects saw a ~16% improvement from baseline. To be honest, with how small the test group was, the relatively minimal improvement, and short test duration, we’re not convinced.
- Caffeine: That leads us to caffeine. For some reason this ingredient continues to trend as a major eye cream active, but we have never been able to figure out why. The theory on caffeine is that this ingredient causes vasoconstriction which should reduce the amount of fluid (aka. puffiness) around the eye area. Well instead of reading our rant about why we think caffeine is useless, we’ll let a Thai research group tell you their feels. In 2010, this group tested a 3% caffeine treatment on 34 subjects that went without a night of sleep. Their conclusion:
- “However, the overall efficacy of the selected caffeine gel in reducing puffy eyes was not significantly different from that of its gel base. It could be concluded that the cooling effect of the hydrophilic gels was the main parameter in reduction of eye puffiness rather than the vasoconstriction of caffeine.”
Of the few studies we could find on caffeine, most were blends with other actives or had paper-thin data sets. We’ll leave caffeine to rest here.
- Vitamin C: Probably the best paper of the bunch that captures how stubborn dark circles was done by a group in India in 2016. This very small study of 16 melanin rich subjects split them into 3 groups: 1. Received monthly 20% glycolic acid peels 2. Received monthly 15% lactic acid peels 3. Applied vitamin C nightly. They found that 73% of subjects in the glycolic acid group vs. 57% of subjects in the lactic acid group vs. 27% of individuals in the vitamin C group saw improvement. While we can’t make hard conclusions from such a small study, it does give us a decent summary of how challenging this concern is even when using some heavy-hitting concentrations of these tried and true actives.
- *Caution: We do not recommend using these levels of AHAs at home. We only get one set of eyes people.
Now with that roster of data, it doesn’t create a ton of excitement. However, keep in mind that since the biology is multi-factored, it makes sense that no single ingredient really can tackle these eye concerns in a big way. This makes the case for looking at blends of actives and the clinical data that comes with it…which means! This will be the category we heavily look to brands on the testing they’ve done on their eye cream products. Let’s get shopping!
Navigating the Product Landscape
Because there isn’t enough third party research or solid active ingredient knowledge to help organize the eye cream landscape, what ended up making the most sense to use was to categorize by the quality of clinical testings these eye creams came with. Really the most telling piece of information for eye creams isn’t a transparent ingredient list, it’s the quality of their testing. With that in mind, we break the eye cream landscape into three tiers:
- The “Get Religious” Category
These eye creams come with zero testing. That means no consumer testing and no clinical testing. So this is really a Hail Mary here. We’ll say a little prayer and hope it’ll do something.
- The Mid Eye Cream
These eye creams come with consumer perception studies. We consider this the B team of testing simply because of its anecdotal nature. Consumer perception studies are self assessment studies where subjects come in at specific time points and self-evaluate their experience and any improvements they may have noticed.
One thing to note is that many eye creams that solely do consumer perception will still use the lingo “clinically tested.”
Chemist Top Tip: How do you tell the difference between consumer perception and actual clinical measurements? Consumer perception claims used humanized verbs like “__% saw improvement” or “__% agree that skin felt…”, etc.
*For a full list of these, please head here where we built out and organized these products. We do receive a small commission for using our affiliate link. Thank you for feeding a chemist!
- The Gold Star Eye Cream
This eye cream comes with actual measured clinical data! You may here lingo such as “___% subjects saw significant improvement” or “study participants saw ___% improvement”. Something to keep an eye out for (hee hee get it?) here is the duration of the study. We’d give studies between 6 to 12 weeks a lot more weight than shorter studies. We see some tests as short as 2 weeks with “clinical improvement”. This type of timeline definitely tickles our skepto-meter. Even though we all want to see dramatic results ASAP, patience and consistency over at least 4 weeks is still the key here to seeing real improvements.
Navigating Eye Cream Claims: Level 2!
3 Types of Eye Cream Claims to Look Out For:
- The Faux Clinical Claim: “100% showed a brighter under eye area*”
Upon reading the asterisk, you find that this was after one use. We call this a faux clinical claim because no eye cream will brighten eyes after one use unless…you use optical powders (think makeup). There are many eye creams that claim these rapid results, but you’ll often find soft focus powders like boron nitride, silica, iron oxides, etc. that are used in makeup to give that immediate blurring, lightening effect. These type of instant effects can be helpful especially when paired with a concealer during the day, buttt we wouldn’t call this a true clinical claim.
- The Not-So Clinical, Clinical Claim: “Up to 100% reduction in dark circles after 8 weeks”
100% reduction sounds pretty convincing! But when you read more general wording like “Up to” have a healthy dose of skepticism. This could mean that in a ~30 subject study, maybe only 1 of those subjects saw a 100% reduction vs. the rest saw very little reduction. For this type of claim we would want to see a follow up claim that __% of participants showed significant improvement to get the full picture.
- The Clinical Claim: “97% showed a reduction in puffiness after 8 weeks”
We’ve hit a legit clinical claim! There was marked improvement via instrument or expert grader after 8 weeks. To make this claim even better, we’d like to see statistical significance. The claim would then change to “97% showed a significant reduction in puffiness after 8 weeks.” It’s a one-word difference but makes it significantly more convincing.
While this blog article may not come with the same pizazz as our other articles, the thing to keep in mind is that it’s all about managing expectations. Will eye creams fade your dark circles, puffiness, and eye bags completely? No, for that degree of improvement it’ll require an in-office procedure. But good eye cream formulas can probably help lighten your dark circles somewhat and minimize wrinkles. Ultimately we view eye creams as an enrichment product to your skincare routine rather than a must-have and consider a great concealer sidekick as well!
- Eye area concerns can be broken down into four major categories: crows feet, dark circles, puffiness, and eye bags
- Most of us with eye area concerns have a mix of these concerns.
- The data around single ingredients as eye area treatments isn’t robust or convincing. So it's hard to shop by decoding ingredient lists in search for proven super stars here.
- The best way to find a more helpful eye cream is to look at clinical testing done by the brand.
- Quality of clinical tests matter and can give you a much better understanding of what level of efficacy you should be expecting. The gold standard should be a test that’s 8 weeks with results measurable by professional graders or instruments rather than self perception.
Huang, Y.-L., Chang, S.-L., Ma, L., Lee, M.-C., & Hu, S. (2013). Clinical analysis and classification of dark eye circle. International Journal of Dermatology, 53(2), 164–170. doi:10.1111/j.1365-4632.2012.05701.x
Seidel R, Moy RL. Reduced appearance of under-eye bags with twice-daily application of epidermal growth factor (EGF) serum: a pilot study. Journal of Drugs in Dermatology : JDD. 2015 Apr;14(4):405-410. PMID: 25844616.
Dayal, S., Sahu, P., Jain, V.K. and Khetri, S. (2016), Clinical efficacy and safety of 20% glycolic peel, 15% lactic peel, and topical 20% vitamin C in constitutional type of periorbital melanosis: a comparative study. J Cosmet Dermatol, 15: 367-373. https://doi.org/10.1111/jocd.12255
Ahmadraji F, Shatalebi MA. Evaluation of the clinical efficacy and safety of an eye counter pad containing caffeine and vitamin K in emulsified Emu oil base. Adv Biomed Res. 2015 Jan 6;4:10. doi: 10.4103/2277-9175.148292. PMID: 25625116; PMCID: PMC4300604.