Here’s How to Find the Exact Product That’ll Brighten Your Under-Eye Area

Photo: Stocksy/ Studio Firma

Between holiday, shall we say, indulgences (whatever form they take), the related lack of sleep, and cold, dry winter air, the delicate skin around the eyes (the thinnest on the body!) takes a beating. The good news? Beauty brands have made it their job to help everyone look a little more awake.

But, if you've perused the eye category at Sephora lately, you know that the options are so abundant, finding the one that’s best-suited to your concerns presents a bit of a challenge. When should you reach for creams versus gels? And uh, when did eye balms and eye serums become a thing? It kind of makes you want to phone a friend...or better yet, ask a dermatologist.

“The main difference between eye gel, serum, cream, and oil lies in the formulation and the occlusive capacity of each,” explains Dr. Shereene Idriss, cosmetic dermatologist at Union Square Laser Dermatology. And that means that if you're interested in trapping water in the skin to plump up the area, versus targeting a specific concern, such as brightening, you need to know what's up with each. Generally speaking, Dr. Idriss says that strong, active ingredients come via serums, while rich, occlusive hydration is best provided by creams. Want more intel? She breaks the eye treatment types down even further, right this way.

Keep reading for the details on when you need each eye product.

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For oily skin types, gels might just be your best friends, because they're lightweight and sink in super quickly, yet still manage to bring the hydration. “Eye gels are the most lightweight formulas, traditionally concocted with ingredients suspended in alcohol and water. This allows the product to settle into the skin quickly without leaving behind any thick or greasy residue. And that makes them an excellent option in the a.m. for concealer-wearers (read: basically everyone) because you don't have to wait around for ages for them to dry. Try the ultra-cooling Tammy Fender Awakening Eye Gel ($84), which is packed with elderflower, green myrtle, and carrot seed oil to reduce puffiness and firm up the under-eye area.


Oils are “best used as intense hydrators and are great for repairing dry or damaged skin,” Dr. Idriss says. In particular, they’re a “wonderful add-on during the dry winter months when the environment is harsh and skin tends to be more sensitive.” Tara Foley, CEO and founder of the clean-beauty store Follain, notices an uptick in sales of oils and balms in the cold, dry months of winter, so they're a timely buy. “Oils are able to hold whole plant botanicals really well, and let them work their magic quickly," Foley explains. "They also don't need to contain any emulsifiers or even a lot of preservatives, so you're only applying the purest powerful ingredients on that important eye area." 

One such as Maya Chia Eye Achiever ($70) comes in roller ball form, and is packed with nutrient-rich sea fennel, sea lavender, astaxanthin, and vitamin C ester (to name a few). "It was designed to be a comprehensive treatment to brighten and reduce dark circles, diminish puffiness, increase firmness and elasticity," explains the brand's founder Susan Norwitz. 


Balms, thanks to their thicker texture, are best for super dry, thirsty skin. “The molecules in balms are bigger, so these products literally sit on top of your skin, providing a protective barrier while nourishing your skin too,” Foley explains. She's a fan of the One Love Organics Vitamin E Active Moisture Eye Balm ($49), which she calls “the all-time best for those with extremely dry skin around their eyes, who also want brightening and firming benefits.” In this formula, those come courtesy of mango seeds, kelp, and eyebright herb, which is, unsurprisingly a recurring ingredient in many eye-essentials.  


Like the serums we use on the rest of our face, an eye serum is an opportunity to deliver larger amounts of powerful actives right where they’re needed most. “Eye serums are lightweight, fast absorbing, and usually oil-free,” Dr. Idriss says. “Serums are great for those looking to maximize the anti-aging effects of eye products. I recommend serums be applied first followed by an occlusive agent in order to boost absorption of the active ingredients.” Tata Harper Elixir Vitae Eye Serum ($265), is a winner in this category. It’s a lightweight formula made with 33 powerful botanical ingredients and powerful neuropeptides that work to smooth lines and pesky crow's’ feet.


Finally—the classic—creams are good at boosting the moisture in the area. “Eye creams are made to hydrate the delicate skin around the eyes and usually consist of oil suspended in a water base,” Dr. Idriss explains. “This enables the cream to create a thick moisturizing barrier.” Goldfaden M.D. Bright Eyes ($55) stands out for its dark-circle fighting and eye-bag-de-puffing abilities. Pack your bags, bags!

There is tons of advice out there for getting rid of dark circles and covering them up. Here's a quick refresher on how to nix them ASAP and here are a few quick pointers on how to use concealer to cover them up.

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