After over a year of staring at ourselves on Zoom, we’ve gotten intimately acquainted with every pore, every blemish, every fine line. And if you’re like me, you may have also noticed that you look suddenly haggard, cursed with dark circles that scream, “I haven’t slept well since March 2020.” It turns out, a global health crisis and the avalanche of stress it triggers will do that to you! It’s time, it seems, for an eye cream.
But where to start? Retinol eye cream promises to do double duty by helping to reduce those pandemic-induced dark circles and preventing and reducing wrinkles in the thin skin around your eyes. And when it comes to the latter, it’s best to start early by “prejuvenating,” says Dr. Ava Shamban, M.D., a board-certified dermatologist in California and founder of Ava MD. “It is a much easier journey when you are trying to maintain levels of skin-plumping collagen in the skin rather than reclaim,” she says.
Here’s everything you need to know about retinol eye cream.
Wait, what is retinol again?
Retinol is a skincare superstar that has a reputation for being a little intimidating. As far as skincare ingredients go, it feels serious, known for the period of adjustment many people’s skin goes through when they first start using it. Known as the retinol “uglies” the transition phase is “the period of time some will need to adjust to retinoids where the skin can be ruddy, flaking, irritated or dry,” Dr. Shamban explains.
The reality is, retinoids can actually improve skin texture and thickness — particularly in that thin skin around the eyes.
“Retinols work topically by interacting at the superficial layers of our skin to increase cellular proliferation and turnover ‘revealing’ new skin,” says Dr. Shamban. In the process, they also encourage skin cells to produce more collagen, which helps to fill in fine lines. The ingredient is also a “gold standard” in treating pigmentation issues like post-acne scarring or sun damage, Dr. Shamban adds.
It’s because of these qualities that retinol has recently become the hero ingredient in eye cream and eye serum formulas. But one note of caution: they’re not for everyone. Retinols shouldn’t be used if you’re pregnant or breastfeeding. There’s a “very rare, very remote” possibility that retinol absorbed through the skin can cause birth defects, so dermatologists strongly advise staying away from them. “It is recommended that all retinol be discontinued at least 30 days prior to the cycle of effort to conceive,” Dr. Shamban says.
So, is retinol too harsh to use on the sensitive skin around my eyes?
Not at all. “There is actually a misperception that retinol and retinoids will ‘thin’ the skin, so there have been some misguided directions not to use around the eyes,” Dr. Shamban says. “The skin under our eyes is naturally the thinnest, so there may be an unformed assumption that aggressive ingredients have no beneficial business there.”
The reality is, retinoids can actually improve skin texture and thickness — particularly in that thin skin around the eyes. Remember the ingredient’s ability to encourage cell turnover and collagen production? “The loss of our natural elasticity, bounce and thickness in our skin is what causes the skin to become weak and frail. This is also when skin presents more lines and wrinkles,” explains Dr. Shamban. “The boost from retinoids helps keep skin density and also increases the natural collagen and hyaluronic acid production, thus keeping the undereye skin both plump and moist.”
Retinol eye creams and serums are “formulated to be used in the delicate eye area, so they are likely to be less potent and rich with moisturizing, anti-inflammatory and skin-soothing ingredients,” says Dr. Hadley King, M.D., a board-certified dermatologist in New York.
How does retinol eye cream help my dark circles?
If you’ve ever dealt with dark circles, you know they’re notoriously hard to shake. But retinol can help — depending on what’s behind the issue.
In cases where dark circles are caused by pigmentation or thinning of the skin, “retinol can have benefits by boosting collagen, elastin and supporting skin thickness and structure,” explains Dr. Shamban.
“Topically applied retinoids also influence the function of melanocytes,” which are the skin cells that produce pigment, adds Dr. King. “They block the transport of melanin to [cells on the outer layer of the skin] and diminish the activity of stimulated melanocytes.” Translation: retinol can help prevent dark circles at the cellular level in addition to promoting plumper skin.
However, stubborn dark circles are often caused by actual shadows influenced by bone and skin structure. As we age, explains Dr. Shamban, the skin around our eyes loses fat and volume creating a “sunken cave-like condition” that has nothing to do with skin pigment.
“Retinols will not help darkness resulting from those factors and causes,” she says. Fillers can be a powerful antidote in these cases. If it’s something that bothers you, talk to your dermatologist.
What other ingredients should I look for in an eye cream?
When looking for a solid eye cream (retinol or not), derms say you should have one mantra in mind: moisturize, moisturize, moisturize.
“Look for ingredients that are highly emollient and good humectants,” like plant oils (emollients) and hyaluronic acid or glycerin (humectants). Dr. Shamban recommends looking for eye cream labels that list safflower oil, hyaluronic acid, niacinamide or vitamin E. If you’re concerned about redness potentially caused by the retinol, you may also want to grab a formula with calming ingredients like Centella Asiatica or chamomile, adds Dr. King.
How often should I use retinol eye cream or serum?
“When someone first starts using a topical retinoid, I recommend applying it every other night to see how well the skin tolerates it,” says Dr. King. If you have sensitive skin, start with once a week. If you’re not experiencing any irritation, you can work your way up to using retinol eye cream nightly.
And remember, retinoids can make skin more sensitive to the sun, so any product that contains retinol should be part of your nighttime skincare routine only.
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