What causes bags under the eye? [CREDIT: NATIONAL EYE INSTITUTE, NIH]
** Editor’s Note: Happy Columbus Day! This article originally appeared September 14, 2008.**
If the eyes are the window to the soul, then what do those hefty bags beneath your eyes say about you? Co-workers, loved ones and even your coffee shop barista might be quick to point out that they make you look like a sleepy soul.
While people often associate under-eye bags with lack of sleep, one main cause may actually be much more fundamental: gravity. The gravitational pull weighs down on all Earthly objects, including your skin. The longer you’re exposed to gravity (i.e., the older you get) the more your facial tissues sink toward the floor.
But prolonged exposure to gravity is not the only bag-forming effect that the aging process bestows on us. As we get older, the tissues around our peepers change.
The upper and lower eyelids are composed of skin, muscle and fat. With age, the muscles weaken and can’t hold up the skin as tightly. Skin also changes because the collagen inside it degrades. Collagen is a protein that gives structure to our cells. In skin, it provides elasticity. With less collagen, the skin starts to wrinkle and sag.
Beneath the skin and muscle, the main culprit for under-eye puffiness is fat. “As you get older, your fat, like everything else, starts drooping,” says Dr. Melanie Grossman, a dermatologist in New York.
Fat deposits around our eyes help protect them. But in our 40s and 50s, these cushiony fat pockets can escape from the membrane that normally contains them. As the membrane weakens with age, the fat slips out and occupies new spaces under the skin. “When people have puffiness it may be misplacement of the fat,” says Grossman.
A new study by plastic surgery researchers at the University of California, Los Angeles shows that this long-accepted theory may be off the mark. Rather than the membrane weakening with age, the scientists report that the amount of fat beneath the eyes actually increases to cause baggy lower eyelids. More research is needed to pin down the exact mechanism to explain droopy lower eyelids, but scientists agree that as the calendar pages turn, the bag-forming process naturally progresses.
So is it fair when friends point fingers at your puffy eyes and tease that you’re not sleeping enough? Dr. David McDaniel, a dermatologist in Virginia Beach, says that while there is no proof of a relationship between snoozing and under-eye bags, it does seem that a lack of sleep affects the severity of the condition.
Some other behaviors that appear to affect puffiness are eating salty foods, which causes your body to retain water, and rubbing the eyes because of allergies. Irritants in the air such as pollutants and mold also seem to exacerbate the bags.
But changing your behavior won’t obliterate sagging lower lids from your face. There is a genetic factor at play as well. If your parents puffed up, then you probably will too at around the same age.
Envy those lucky individuals whose genes predict that their eye fat will remain at bay and the skin below their eyes will stay nice and tight. For the rest of us, there are remedies that people claim can at least minimize the bags.
Plastic surgery called blepharoplasty can remove or reposition the fat that creates under-eye bags. Sometimes surgeons pair this with Botox or facelifts to revitalize the face. Some specialty eye creams found on drugstore shelves claim to reduce puffiness.
Cheaper alternatives include folk remedies like cucumber slices and tea bags laid on top of closed eyes. People use them because they think the cooling from the cucumbers or the natural anti-diuretic in caffeinated tea might help. But there’s no proof that these techniques work, says Grossman. It’s not clear whether the caffeine can even penetrate the skin and, if it can, whether it has any effect.
If you’re genetically predisposed to get under-eye bags, there is not much chance of avoiding them. But maintaining the health of your skin can play down their appearance. “Overwhelmingly, good diet, exercise and sleep are probably the things you can do to help yourself,” Grossman says.
While there’s no definitive link between healthy behavior and smooth skin surrounding the eyes, that advice seems to echo the common refrain from doctors. “Your eyes reflect the health of your skin and your body,” says McDaniel.
And one more thing: dark circles under the eyes often coincide with bags, but these two ugly features occur separately. Aging is partially responsible for both. So what we see in others seems to be older (not sleepy) souls.