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The eye cream debate

There are two dueling factions when it comes to eye creams: the believers and the, well, nonbelievers. Some women and men swear by the stuff, dutifully patting expensive potions around their eyes twice a day with hopes of easing their fine lines, dark circles, and puffiness.

The naysayers adhere to the notion that whatever they’re using to moisturize their face simply has to be good enough for their eyes, too. It can only help … right?

We wish there was a straightforward answer. When it comes to eye creams, the answer seems to vary depending on who you talk to, which articles you read, and what you’re hoping to accomplish.

Simply put, most specialists believe there are certain issues that eye creams can help treat, but some concerns, no matter how much cash you shell over to Sephora, are untouchable.

There’s ongoing contention about eye creams’ efficacy, and Dr. Katrina Good, DO, of Good Aesthetics in Maine, is one of the naysayers. “In my experience, eye cream is not very helpful,” she says. “Even [high-end lines like] SkinMedica, which I carry! The creams you use on your face are just as helpful as eye cream, regardless of name brand.”

But there’s no question that the skin around your eyes is more fragile than the rest of your face. It’s best to be extra careful with it. “[This skin] is some of the thinnest and most delicate, and is also subject to constant micromovements,” explains Dr. Helen Knaggs, vice president of Global Research and Development at Nu Skin in Utah.

For this reason, some experts believe it’s better to use a specially designed cream or gel for the eye. “Many regular facial creams or moisturizers may irritate the thin skin [there],” adds Dr. Gina Sevigny of Ormond Beach Dermatology in Florida.

The fragility of the area also explains why it’s often the first part of your face to start showing signs of age. It’s natural for our skin to become drier over time. Not surprisingly, a lack of hydration is also a wrinkle-causing factor. According to Dr. Knaggs, “It makes sense that a moisturizer in this area appears to [benefit] dehydrated skin.”

As the Journal of Cosmetic Dermatology notes, some studies indicate that certain anti-aging eye treatments can, indeed, help improve under-eye smoothness and reduce the depth of larger wrinkles.

Kerrin Birchenough, an esthetician and makeup artist in Portland, Oregon, is an eye cream devotee herself. She uses a retinol-based SkinMedica cream. But, she admits, “I can’t say [definitively that] eye creams really work — but I can say that certain ingredients work.”

Though there’s no magic extract that will stop the aging process altogether, a good eye cream can help diminish the look of wrinkles. But, as Birchenough noted, only if it has the right components. She suggests an eye product with retinol to boost cell turnover. She prefers gel formulations because they’re lighter and more easily absorbed.

“As we get older, our skin cells don’t reproduce as quickly,” Birchenough explains. “Retinol helps speed up the process.”

Indeed, retinol (a derivative of vitamin A) has long-proven efficacy when it comes to fighting aging. Apparently, that’s not all it can fight, either. Retinol has actually been used for more than 3,000 years to help address all kinds of health problems, including night blindness (!).

Dr. Knaggs recommends vitamin C and peptides as well as established ingredients with anti-aging benefits. She adds that these will help strengthen the skin and make it more robust. Antioxidants can help protect against free radical damage, and Knaggs likes components like sodium pyroglutamic acid (NaPCA) to help boost the skin’s moisture.

Dr. Sevigny suggests ceramides for moisturization, though she doesn’t consider it a long-term solution for fine lines. Birchenough likes products with hyaluronic acid to help reduce the look of wrinkles. “It’s more of an immediate plumping fix,” she notes.

No matter which product you choose to use, you should always use it with caution. Should you develop extreme redness, irritation, and swelling, you should discontinue its use immediately.

If you have bags under your eyes, it might be hereditary. This means no amount of eye cream will minimize their appearance.

“The younger an individual starts to exhibit bags and puffiness would be an indication that there may be a hereditary component,” says Dr. Knaggs, explaining that bags and dark circles begin as a result of inflammation triggered by UV exposure from the sun, free radical oxidation, stress, fatigue, and allergies.

Sometimes, adjusting lifestyle factors — including drinking more water or staying on a fixed sleep schedule — may remedy sunken eyes a bit.

“The microvessels in this area become permeable and can leak fluid, which pools under the eye,” says Dr. Knaggs. This swelling usually subsides when the body reabsorbs the fluids, though this can sometimes require a few weeks of waiting time.

In the meantime, Knaggs suggests gently massaging your face, including the skin under your eye, to help improve the circulation and temper the fluid buildup. And you’ve probably heard the advice to pat your eye cream on gently in an upwards motion — this also holds true.

For many people, eye creams may not do much — especially if you have hereditary bags or dark circles. You can try making small lifestyle changes, like reducing salt intake, but there’s no guarantee these methods will work. At least not as a miracle cure.

Your best bet, no matter where you stand on the eye cream debate, is to religiously use sunscreen and take care of your body.

“Go back to basics,” Birchenough says. If you don’t have the funds — or the desire! — to spend your hard-earned cash on a fancy eye cream, Birchenough also has simple advice: “Eat healthy, take a multivitamin, and drink a lot, lot of water. Get exercise, get enough sleep, and wear sunscreen. Those are the ABCs of skin care.”

Laura Barcellais an author and freelance writer currently based in Brooklyn. She’s written for the New York Times, RollingStone.com, Marie Claire, Cosmopolitan, The Week, VanityFair.com, and many more.