We’ve all seen and may well have actually experienced the dark marks that you sometimes get around the eyes. They are known as dark marks, dark circles and spider veins. They vary in colour – they can be black, blue or purple. The cause of them is that the skin is particularly thin on this part of the face. This makes the blood capillaries there particularly prone to damage, both as a result of rubbing them and to things that affect the size and permeability of the blood vessels. The result is that blood cells can get out of the blood stream and accumulate into this dark coloured structures. The spidery appearance is due to them following the lines of the capillaries. Having got there they can trigger an inflammatory response making the skin puffy as well.
This is something that we get more prone to as we get older. There are a number of causes. Simply rubbing the eyes is one problem. Smoking tends to have a vasodilatory effect, so the capillaries expand and then contract putting them under stress. Alcohol has similar effects. A less obvious one is lack of sleep. A good night’s sleep is essential to keeping blood pressure under control, and late nights tend to lead to an increase in blood pressure. This is again extra stress on the capillaries causing more loss of blood cells and creating the dark marks and puffiness. Having a good night out with friends, enjoying a few cigarettes and some drinks and getting to bed late might be fun. But sadly the evidence of your Bohemian lifestyle will show up on your face.
This is a problem that cosmetic chemists would love to help with. Outside of Europe the active ingredient of choice for this condition is vitamin K. Vitamin K plays a role in blood clotting so it is sort of logical that it might help, and indeed there is some evidence that it does. The evidence is not extensive, and the effect detected is not great. But the bar for cosmetic ingredient activity in general is not set very high by the cosmetic industry, so vitamin K gets used a lot. It has now been banned by the EU though. The reasoning is rather tortuous. Vitamin K is used as a treatment for anemia. If you are exposed to vitamin K in cosmetics, then you risk becoming allergic to it. Frequent exposure is necessary for an allergy to develop, so the logic is sound enough. I am not at all convinced that there are all that many people who are big users of dark circle products, prone to allergies and in need of treatment for anemia simultaneously though. But the story I heard indirectly was that the proposal was made to the committee responsible, and when nobody responded to their request for comments from interested parties they felt that they had no choice but to go on with the ban.
This leaves us without a proven active ingredient for use in Europe. Or it did, until a company in Monaco came up with an alternative based on an extract from elderberries. They have gone about it in a very systematic way. They have looked at some inflammatory markers in the lab, and shown that the elderberry extract suppresses them. This kind of work is generally regarded as suggestive of possible activity rather than solid proof. They have done some small scale trials on people suffering from the problem. The before and after photos are not especially impressive, but at least they do seem to show some kind of benefit. They have presented this work not in a peer reviewed journal but a trade magazine. They may be planning to get it into a scientific journal as well, and there is nothing wrong with trade magazines as sources of information. But it does mean that their work hasn’t been subjected to being looked at by independent experts, so it isn’t quite as convincing as it would have been had it been an academic publication.
But having said all that, there is no other active available that has any supporting data at all. So if you are given the job of coming up with an anti-dark marks product you really don’t have any other choices.
So if you are looking for a product to treat this condition I wouldn’t trouble to seek out products that contain this active ingredient, but I’ll concede that if it is there it might be doing some good. I think the most you can hope for is to find a product that is a good moisturiser which works well for this particular area of skin. There characteristics it should have would be to be easy to apply. You don’t want to have to put too much work into rubbing it in. That might be doing more harm than good. There are silicone based ingredients that might work for this, or something lubricious like jojoba oil would be good too. You want a low viscosity with a lot of body. This is kind of formulation is often called a serum – though marketers are pretty haphazard about how they name these things.
I am not convinced that any active ingredient will do very much. It may help a little. On the other hand improving the moisture level of skin has multiple benefits. The one that is likely to be most beneficial is simply allowing the body’s own enzymes to work effectively. There is a whole toolkit of repair mechanisms available in the bloodstream. These work best when there is plenty of moisture around and don’t work well when the skin is dried out. This may be all that is needed. And even if we find something that works specifically for this condition it is most likely to work better in skin that is well moisturised.
So if you are formulator you may as well take advantage of the published benefits of elderberry. It might do some good and can’t do any harm. But make sure to deploy your formulating skills to the best effect you can. If you are consumer, keep an eye out for something really easy to apply but which has a really strong moisturising effect.
An Extract of Elderberry Flowers for the Treatment of Dark Circles and Puffy Eyes, Emmanuel Coste, Jean-François Nicolaÿ Personal Care Europe September 2016