Do you really need an eye cream? The answer depends on what you want to achieve. The structural uniqueness of your eye area skin makes it highly absorptive and easily irritated. You can also leverage this to your advantage with the right active ingredients.
So, do you really need an eye cream ....
- no if you are a minimalist and don’t want to achieve much with your skin care,
- yes, if you want to push the envelope with results.
I like to push the envelope.
Why is your eye area skin different?
Again, as a dermatologist, I see the uniqueness of the eyelids manifest clinically every day. Your eyelid skin is prone to eyelid dermatitis – allergic and irritant reactions - to ingredients in skin care, airborne droplets, contacts carried to the eyelids from your hands etc. And, it’s hard to test for the same reaction and identify the culprit because we use back skin or inner arm skin and that skin is thicker and won’t manifest sensitivity like an eyelid will. We say your eyelids are “the canary in the mine shaft” for ingredient intolerances. It’s just a fact.
This uniqueness of eyelid skin is due to its structural anatomic and physiologic differences. - Dermatologist Dr. Bailey
We all know that eyelid skin is the thinnest skin on the body.
That makes it more delicate and fragile. The upper eyelid skin measures about 0.1mm in thickness. This is compared to a skin thickness of about 1mm above your lip. The barrier layer that 'waterproofs' skin, called the stratum corneum, has about 9 cell layers on the eyelid compared with at least 12-16 elsewhere. Of course, thick areas like palms, soles, elbows and knees are much thicker.
Eyelid skin cells are also structurally different than any other skin cells on your body.
They are larger and able to hold more water. This is because the cell turnover rate is surprisingly much slower than other skin on your body. When the living eyelid squamous cells transition to corneocytes (dead cells) they are extraordinarily large. Corneocytes are always filled with keratin protein and the uniquely large size makes eyelid cells better able to hold moisture. This enhances cell pliability, which in turn makes them surprisingly permeable.
You can understand the benefit of this in that the adaptation is a requisite for precise blinking – you need your eyelids to blink efficiently to protect this precious sensory real estate from harm. Evolution has favored the pliable when it comes to eyelids and that means enhanced absorbency of these unique cell layers. Thus, eyelid skin is like none other. From a clinical perspective, you must treat your eyelids with care. - Dermatologist Dr. Cynthia Bailey
There is less barrier lipid between these large eyelid cells.
The barrier layer of the dead cells, called the stratum corneum, also has a lower lipid content than other areas of your skin, resulting in a weaker skin barrier and greater transepidermal water loss. Said another way, your eyelid skin is weaker, drier and more prone to dehydration than any other skin on your body. In addition to less lipid, the pH is slightly higher than adjacent skin on your face. Basically, it's important and unique cutaneous 'real estate'.
Superficial blood flow is significantly higher in the eyelid skin than elsewhere.
This enhances the potential for congestion, edema (puffiness) and redness.
In summary, eyelid skin barrier is poor and the skin is delicate because:
- The corneocytes (dead cells of the stratum corneum barrier) are huge, soft and flexible potentially holding - or losing - more water. This makes them more absorptive.
- The large corneocytes are surrounded by less lipid.
- The entire skin layer is thin.
- There is greater surface blood flow, favoring congestion and redness
The bottom line is that your eyelid skin is different than all of the rest of the skin on your body and need individualized care. - Dr. Bailey
5 reasons to treat your eye area skin
- It’s thinner
- It’s drier
- It’s sensitive
- It’s the first area to show age with wrinkles and thinning, which then highlights oil glands as bumps under your eyelids
- It’s more permeable so active ingredients penetrate better
Why you should invest in an eye cream
You can leverage the unique eye area opportunities with a product mindfully formulated with antiaging ingredients, water binders and lipid replenishers. There is even the potential to see results from some unique actives like caffeine, peptides and decongesting ingredients that may penetrate meaningfully here but not elsewhere on thicker skin.
I'm often asked by patients, customers and journalists,
Is an eye cream really different than face cream?
A good one is – it’s not just face cream in a smaller jar with a higher price tag. A good eye cream is crafted to leverage the opportunities in this exceptional and highly visible anatomic region.
What are the ingredients you should look for in an eye cream?
Retinol is the best OTC retinoid in an eye cream to fight fine lines, wrinkles and sun damage.
The concentration of retinol used in the eye area will be less than on the rest of your face. I can’t count the number of patients with irritant eyelid dermatitis that I’ve seen because face concentrations were used in the eye area. Heck, it even happens to me sometimes because the retinoids I use on the rest of my face may melt and migrate into my eye area when I sleep (thank you hot flashes!).
Melanin pigment inhibitors help reduce dark undereye circles that are brown.
There are two types of ingredients that specifically target melanin in skin:
The first are called tyrosinase inhibitors and they interrupt melanin synthesis. Of these, hydroquinone is the best, but most dermatologists only recommend it for short term use because it can be an allergen. Other tyrosinase inhibitors that you can use indefinitely include arbutin, kojic acid, licorice, bearberry and azelaic acid (azelaic acid can be irritating). My Pigment Fading Pads contain the best of these ingredients.
The second way to reduce melanin in your skin it to interfere with melanin pigment granule transfer from melanocytes to skin cells (keratinocytes) and here is where niacinamide shines. Niacinamide, retinol and the other ingredients listed below are present in the right amounts in my Advanced Corrective Eye Cream.
Green tea is the best antioxidant for eye cream
Green tea polyphenols and vitamin C are the two best antioxidants in skin care. Vitamin C is too irritating for an eye cream, in my opinion. Green tea is perfect and has good scientific studies to prove its free radical fighting benefits. Free radicals damage precious skin structures. They form from UV ray sun exposure and other skin stressors such as pollution and the normal metabolic processes of life. Skin loaded with antioxidants suffers less free radical damage.
Eye creams with ceramides can replenish and enhance the low lipid content of eyelid skin to enhance skin barrier integrity.
Is a powerful and popular water binder (humectant) capable of binding up to 1000 times its weight in water. Different forms of hyaluronic acid, such as sodium hyaluronate and hydrolyzed sodium hyaluronate, are fractionated for even deeper skin penetration.
The more the better when it comes to eye creams. In addition to hyaluronic acid, look for more humectants such as time-honored glycerin and sodium PCA (part of your skin’s natural moisturizing factor). The more moisture held to the keratin in the large eyelid corneocytes, the softer and plumper your skin will look and feel. This means smoother and younger looking skin with less crepey texture, fine lines and wrinkles.
What should NOT be in an eye cream - dermatologist's opinion:
- essential oils,
- harsh preservatives, and
- chemical sunscreen filters
I’m not also not a fan of using AHAs (i.e. glycolic acid) or BHAs (salicylic acid) in the eye area. These ingredients are always irritants. I love them for facial skin care except in the eye area due to their potential for irritation. I've seen so many patients with raw and stinging irritant dermatitis of the upper eyelid crease due to harsh skin care ingredients that migrate and concentrate in the fold. Chapping, wrinkles and dryness of the entire eye area also happens quickly when the eyelid skin barrier is taken beyond its capacity to sustain irritants.
I am also not a fan of Vitamin C products applied in the skin folds of the eyelids. Again, the harsh acid pH of a good Vitamin C product will be too much here. It is OK to apply Vitamin C to the crow’s feet but no closer to the eyelid than that.
Bottom line for the best age-fighting ingredients to have in an eye cream:
- Retinoids are the gold standard ingredient to fight skin aging. Of the retinoids, retinol is much easier to tolerate than prescription tretinoin. Other retinoids have much weaker evidence for age fighting prowess than retinol and tretinoin.
- You also want a powerful and non-irritating antioxidant in your eye cream and green tea is the clear winner here.
- A top-quality eye cream should also include ceramides, humectants and it doesn't hurt to try some less well proven ingredients like peptides!
Of course, my Advanced Corrective Eye Cream has all of these ingredients in the purest and highest quality form. This cream is formulated for stability in an FDA regulated lab.
I love this eye cream! I have virtually no wrinkles or darkness under my eyes. I use all of Dr. Bailey’s products and I get complimented on my skin often! Thanks Dr. Bailey! Sandy
Do fancy ingredients like peptides work in eye creams?
Who knows? We can hope but the evidence is still far from conclusive. That said, if they are going to work anywhere, it's the eyelid skin. I would not purchase a cream just for the peptides, but if they are included - why not give them a try.
Peptides are something we all want to ‘believe in’, but it's a leap of faith because rigorous scientific evidence for real life benefit is still lacking. There is, however, some sound scientific reasoning to expect some peptides may benefit skin. Thus, I'm on the fence about them, though I don't think they can hurt. - Dermatologist Dr. Cynthia Bailey
There are 3 main types of peptide ingredients in skin care: 1) some claim to inhibit enzymes like the ones that break down collagens, 2) others claim to boost activity that build important dermal structures like collagen, and 3) others deliver cofactors for this process. Some also claim to help stimulate tissue lymphatic drainage and skin firmness.
I think it is reasonable to try and capture some of the potential ‘magic’ of the most popular peptides including Palmitoyl Oligopeptide and Palmitoyl Tetrapeptide-7 (these two are combined in Matrixyl 3000). There is some suggestion that these peptides can reduce inflammation and glycation damage to skin (the process where glucose causes tissue stiffening and damage). They may also boost skin collagen and other support structures. Together with Hesperidin Methyl Chalcone, a citrus derived flavonoid, they have some evidence to decrease under-eye bags and capillary permeability that leads to edema. Hesperidin Methyl Chalcone is also an antioxidant shown to reduce UVB induced skin damage.
This magic peptide trio is in my Advanced Corrective Eye Cream because 'time is of the essence' with our anti-aging skin care; I think scientific evidence will eventually prove the benefit of these peptides in the eye area.
Does vitamin K reduce under eye circles?
Again, the studies are not compelling but it is believed that some formulations of vitamin K have the potential to reduce skin redness and improve tone. The devil is in details and the vitamin K is often coupled with caffeine or retinol so who knows. I don't see a down-side, so why not give it a try if you struggle with under eye circles.
Will caffeine temporarily constrict blood vessels to fight puffiness?
There is some evidence that an eye cream with caffeine may help fight vascular congestion and puffiness of eye lid skin. Caffeine certainly can’t hurt. It is the same concept in the DIY home remedy for puffy eyelids using cool brewed tea bags. Usually eyelid puffiness is a much bigger problem in deeper skin layers, but short-term superficial swelling may respond. Also, a small study done with caffeine, vitamin K in emu oil showed some improvement in undereye circles
The bottom line with eye creams:
- I want an eye cream with the best proven age-fighting ingredients including retinol, green tea, ceramides and skin hydrators such as hyaluronic acid, glycerin and sodium PCA.
- The cream must have a firm texture to help smooth and support fine wrinkles and any crepey skin texture.
- The product consistency must provide a good base for eye makeup and concealer. The product should resist migrating into eye folds, creasing makeup and enhancing wrinkles as eyes blink and water throughout the day.
- Skin brighteners and pigment reducers are important to enhance a 'bright eye' appearance so I want the right concentration of niacinamide for the eye area.
- Additional speculative ingredients such as vitamin K, caffeine and peptides may prove beneficial someday - so why not?!
This is the key ingredient combination in my Advanced Corrective Eye Cream, which I wear daily in my delicate and sensitive eye area. Advanced Corrective Eye Cream also feels wonderful on my skin and doesn't smear or crease my pure mineral eye makeup. I apply it to my eyelids and apply other age-fighting products out beyond that area. During the day I top everything with one of my zinc oxide sunscreens. I feel good about the care I am giving my eye area. - Dr. Cynthia Bailey
More commonly asked questions about problems with the eye area:
What is the best anti-aging strategy for the eye area?
Start using a really good eye cream as soon as possible. Always top it with a really good broad spectrum mineral zinc oxide sunscreen daily. Invest in a really great pair of sun glasses that wrap out to the edges of your eyes and a great hat for when you are in intense UV exposure. I recommend my Sheer Strength Pure Physical Matte Tinted, Invisible Creme or Spray SPF 50+ Sunscreens.
Can an eye cream get rid of severe bags and puffy eyelids?
Nope, eye creams work on skin color, texture and tone. Significant eye bags and puffiness involve redundant skin and deeper tissue edema that are beyond the influence of an eye cream. You need a different strategy for these eye area problems:
To reduce eye area puffiness due to edema sleep more (sleep is proven to work!), eat better, drink less alcohol, eat less salt and skip the MSG. I've also heard one influencer who has had luck with her puffiness by sleeping on an incline wedge pillow!
Eyelid puffiness can also happen when the fat in the eye socket herniates out and down into the lower lid; this fat is synched like a belt by the inflexible ligament that sits at the bottom of your orbital bone to hold the fat and eye socket contents in. The eye bag from herniated fat is sort of like a muffin-top between your waist and your beltline. The fat protects your eye from impact injury but our facial fat pads sag over time. Surgery is the only way to reduce the herniating fat in the eye socket. In the meantime, a good eye cream will brighten the skin but it won't take the place of surgery.
What is the best eye cream for eyelid hooding, deep wrinkles and sagging?
Again, you need to be realistic here – the answer is that this is a surgical problem; surgery is usually needed to tighten deep wrinkles and eyelid hooding. Laser can help but the laser treatment needs to be pretty aggressive if you expect a 'wow' result. That said, eye creams that brighten and treat fine lines and wrinkles will help provide a more glowing and youthful skin texture and tone.
What is the best way to improve dark undereye circles with skin care?
There are 3 steps to a skin care routine for dark undereye circles:
Add a product with tyrosinase inhibitor pigment lighteners including hydroquinone (typically 3-4 months), arbutin, kojic acid, licorice, and/or bearberry. An example is my Pigment Fading Pads.
- Apply your eye cream on top of the pigment lightening ingredient and look for one with retinol, niacinamide and vitamin K.
- Wear a really good broad spectrum zinc oxide sunscreen layered on top during the day.
Concealer and makeup are layered on top of sunscreen during the day or eye cream in the evening.
Try this for 4 months and see how it works. It can lighten melanin pigment that contributes to the dark circles.
What is the best way to reduce fine lines, wrinkles and dullness in the crow’s feet?
The crow’s feet outside your orbital ridge (eye socket) may tolerate your facial age-fighting skin care routine with higher retinoid concentrations, AHAs and gentle exfoliation. The skin of this area on your face is more similar to the rest of your face than it is to your eyelids. Products applied here, however, may melt or migrate into the eye area so watch for that. Be sure to wear a mineral zinc oxide sunscreen daily.
Can you use your regular face products around your eyes?
Maybe, if they are gentle and deeply hydrating. Strong anti-aging or acne care products need to be kept off the eyelid skin. I encourage you to look at the area within your eye socket as unique. I am a fan of precisely identifying the key regional areas of your face and giving them exactly what they need for the best results. The 4 main unique regional facial skin areas are:
- eye area (within your orbital rim and the subject of this article),
- T-zone (which is oilier)
- the redness prone seborrheic and rosacea areas (including the brows, along the sides of the nose, your nose crease and your cheeks, all of which may have barrier compromise),
- the rest of your face (including the lateral cheeks, crow’s feet, perioral area, chin and forehead).
These 4 areas are prone to different problems and need different care for many people. See if your facial skin demonstrates different product intolerance or preferences based on these 4 regional variations. I like results and I’m a fan of targeting skin care to leverage the unique anatomic and physiologic variations of these 4 facial areas.
Do dermatologists recommend eye creams?
I do! I use one daily. I top it with zinc oxide sunscreen and makeup during the day and I apply my age fighting skin care adjacent to it on the skin of my face. I want results without irritation and I get it with my Advanced Corrective Eye Cream.
Click here to learn more about Advanced Corrective Eye Cream.
Thanks to Nordique for the cute racoon photo!