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Eye cream is an anti-aging skin-care staple. But how well does it work?

The effectiveness of eye cream is heavily debated on Reddit beauty threads. (Audrey Valbuena/The Washington Post)

Eye creams have earned a skeptical side-eye from skin-care professionals in the beauty world, who have argued the popular anti-aging staple is actually a glorified moisturizer. This skepticism is echoed by beauty enthusiasts on Reddit, a social media platform with moderated topic-specific discussions that’s become an important space for beauty dialogue.

As The Washington Post’s resident beauty nerd, I spent several weeks following the eye cream conversation on Reddit and identifying the biggest underlying questions users had about their effectiveness. Then I tapped two experts — Los Angeles-based aesthetician Nayamka Roberts-Smith and dermatologist Noëlle Sherber — to help fact-check the skin-care advice shared among users.

Their short answer is that eye creams can help, but the level of success can hinge on less obvious factors such as a person’s facial anatomy or genetics.

Through six key tips, the women explained how your skin type, diet choices and the use of preventive ingredients such as sunscreen are central to the eye cream debate.

Do shoppers need to spend extra money on an eye cream if they already use a facial moisturizer?

Generally, the eye is a problem area because the skin is delicate and thin. It’s prone to dryness and wrinkles because the area doesn’t produce much sebum, the skin’s natural oil. Roberts-Smith said exclusively using a facial moisturizer is only useful if dryness or dehydration are the only concern. But in some cases, applying a moisturizer on the eye’s skin can make things worse. A heavy moisturizer may clog the pores under the eyes and cause tiny pimples or bumps called milia.

For dark circles due to dehydration, the self-titled “LA Beautyologist” Roberts-Smith suggested eye creams with humectants such as glycerin or hyaluronic acid to help the skin retain moisture and alleviate dryness.

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Do eye creams with vitamin C treat dark circles?

Under-eye circles can appear for a number of reasons, and vitamin C eye creams may not effectively treat some of them, experts say. But brands often market ingredients such as vitamin C and vitamin K — which consumers recognize — as a catchall for dark circles, according to Roberts-Smith. These skin-brightening ingredients are best for true hyperpigmentation, which is caused by skin inflammation. Inflammation near the eyes can happen for a number of reasons such as repeated exposure to the sun, untreated allergies or rubbing your eyes too aggressively. Some are also predisposed to hyperpigmentation under the eyes based on genetics, and in that case, a vitamin C eye cream may not provide visible results.

A guide to vitamin C and other common ingredients in skin-care products.

Another form of dark circles are known as under-eye shadows, and these appear when the fat that supports under-eye tissue loses volume or shifts. The eye’s thin skin can also invite blood and other fluids to collect near the under-eye area, causing them to look dark or puffy. To address puffy or fatigued under-eyes, Roberts-Smith suggests finding products with caffeine, green tea and ginseng.

Sherber, co-founder of Sherber + Rad dermatology and plastic surgery in Washington, said consumers should perform a stretch test to determine what kind of dark circles they are experiencing. If you stretch the darkened skin and the pigment subsides, the culprit is likely under-eye shadows — a consequence of fat loss and shifting facial anatomy, which can come with age.

The takeaway: Vitamin C and vitamin K can help with true hyperpigmentation, but not necessarily for eye shadows, which may require consultation with a skin-care professional.

Is retinol the holy grail of ingredients for most anti-aging skin concerns, including fine lines, wrinkles and under-eye darkness?

Retinol, a low-concentrated form of vitamin A, is an antioxidant that can effectively treat aging skin, but Sherber cautioned that not all products containing it are intended for the eye area. Retinol is part of a broader group of vitamin A ingredients known as retinoids. “Applying a prescription-strength retinoid such as Differin to the eyelids can feel very intense,” she said. “I recommend starting with a retinoid that’s specifically designed for the eye skin.” Consumers can typically find products containing retinol in over-the-counter products such as eye cream.

Unfortunately, the only way to really know if retinol agrees with your eyes is to test it. Any intense burning or stinging that doesn’t subside, rashes or redness might indicate the product isn’t for you. If retinoids aren’t ideal for your skin type, collagen and peptides can support the skin’s firmness and reduce the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles.

Does wearing SPF prevent stubborn eye challenges like hyperpigmentation, wrinkles and sun damage?

Wearing an SPF is routine skin-care advice repeated ad naseum by beauty experts. Sherber said the core tenets of a “good” facial-care routine, such as sun protection and antioxidants, can have a positive effect on the eye area. The thin skin near the eye is vulnerable to air pollution, sun exposure and other environmental stressors. Wearing an SPF protects the area from hyperpigmentation or under-eye darkness, but shoppers should steer clear of chemical sunscreens, Sherber said. The fragrances and SPF ingredients like avobenzone called “chemical filters” in sunscreens can cause eye irritation. Shoppers — especially those with sensitive skin — should try a mineral eye cream with SPF for the best results.

Can eye creams help genetic eye concerns such as dark circles?

Unlike some of the concerns listed above, genetic concerns are unlikely to respond to an eye cream. For stubborn dark circles due to genetics, Redditors suggested eye fillers, which can cost up to $1,000 or more depending on the patient. The results can be “magical” as one Redditor said, but the experience can be terrifying and risky. If the procedure is done improperly, patients risk eyesight damage or blindness. The brave and interested should consult with a board-certified dermatologist or plastic surgeon who has experience with the procedure.

Can I avoid needing an eye cream by making the right lifestyle changes?

Drinking enough water and getting adequate sleep are the standard anti-aging advice. But is it really that simple when wrestling with stubborn dark circles and wrinkles? Yes, said skin-care professionals, but it’s mostly preventive. While getting more shut-eye certainly won’t add to your eye-care concerns, it isn’t going to significantly improve genetic causes. Seasonal allergies or consuming too much salt or alcohol are other areas to watch if puffiness and dark circles are a concern, according to Sherber.

It’s all solid advice, but it isn’t going to perform a miracle. Roberts-Smith said the skin is part of the excretory system or a “mirror” for what’s going on internally. “That’s not to say if you drink water that all your skin problems will go away. That’s not true,” she said. Similar to taking a multivitamin, proper water intake supports your overall health but it isn’t necessarily an eye treatment.

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