My Pointless Battle Against Puffy Eyes

I've tried creams, wands, and almost got surgery. Now, a new treatment is on the horizon.

Katie Martin / The Atlantic

​In high school, I was locked in a competition with another girl over who would prevail in the class rankings. Because in a given year there were only so many tests, and thus opportunities to inch ahead, most of our day-to-day warfare was psychological.

I made fun of her for things I no longer remember. She made fun of me for being ugly.

My denim jacket was the wrong color. My hair was too flat. (I should mention I’m from Texas, where good hair is big hair.)

There was another, less-competitive girl in our class who would try to keep our spirits aloft between the quarterly rankings announcements, like an accordion player in the trenches.

“Olga, you look nice today,” she said one day when I walked into class. “That outfit matches your eyes.”

My rival piped up: “All I see when I look at your face is your under-eye bags.”

You could say I’ve never really had a “healthy glow.” I'm quite pale, especially compared to the average sun-smooched Texan. And there's something else about my face I'm only now beginning to accept as "part of my face:” Over the course of almost every single night, the areas under my eyes swell up to form two bloated hemispheres, like a shortbread cookie broken in half and glued to my skull. I don't have “dark under eye circles.” I have what looks like the aftermath of an oddly strategic fist-fight.

I think the bags might be the result of some strange hormonal imbalance, or from my explosive allergies—some doctors have referred to them as “allergic shiners.” “Swelling can be from congestion of blood vessels around and under the eye,” Purvi Parikh, an allergist with Allergy & Asthma Network, told me. “This congestion can be caused by a variety of medical reasons ... allergies as well as stress, lack of sleep, kidney problems, and autoimmune issues.” I have at least four of those five.

Some doctors have told me they’re genetic, but neither of my parents have them. (My grandparents I’m not sure about; they had bigger concerns than vanity, such as Nazis.) Other experts have told me older people develop under-eye bags because over time their skin loses elasticity and the fat in their faces begins to protrude in weird ways. But that wouldn’t explain why I’ve had them for as long as I can remember being aware of my face. In 9th grade art class, when we drew self-portraits and were told to include our most distinctive facial features, I remember asking if I could please just leave them out.

I’ve tried sleeping more, and less, and with my head raised, and with a little strip of plastic adhered to my nose to open up my airways. I’ve watched endless YouTube cover-up tutorials, many of which seem to be made by Irish teenagers and none of which seem to work for me. When I go on TV, the green-room makeup artists attack my under-eye area first and fiercest, slathering on various hues of foundation until, by a trick of the light, my face looks all one color from jaw-bone to lower eyelash. I always wonder what step they skip—a second sweep of blush?—to find time to make my 30-year-old eyes not look 70.

When I was 17, I scraped together my earnings from my job at a deli and headed straight to the mall, to the makeup store Origins. I asked one of the waif-like sales clerks what to do about my eyes. “Are you more worried about the puffiness or the dark circles?” she asked.

I bought a small, turquoise bottle of a goop called “No Puffery,” which, coincidentally, was similar to what I would angry-whisper at my eyeballs every morning. At $20-something, it was the most expensive product I had ever owned. I squirted some in a little plastic pill box so I could always have it with me, even at summer journalism camp.

Each morning, I would swipe the clear gel over my “periorbital area,” praying its “active ingredient” of cucumber would work its magic. Of course, it never did, but being proactive felt better than not. At least I know I’m doing all I can! Over time and varying levels of poverty, I’ve tried cheaper and more expensive “de-puffing” creams, but all of them seem to be equally effective—which is, not at all. Today, I use Garnier’s Clearly Brighter, a little green wand with a metal ball at the end which, with its “anti-oxidant” and “micro-stimulation,” supposedly “rolls away under-eye puffiness for a brighter, more rested look!”

“Unfortunately, most available topical creams do very little to permanently reduce under-eye bags,” said Kally Papantoniou, a cosmetic dermatologist in New York, telling me something many hundreds of dollars and hours at the bathroom sink have already resoundingly declared. Even clinical-strength gels only tighten the skin or reduce inflammation temporarily, she said. If they do, I haven’t noticed.

The most blissful time was college, when the lighting in our dorms made everything look like an overexposed photograph from 1995, and the bags seemed to recess into the general, faded glow that illuminated my face. I got a boyfriend and pretty much didn’t think about them for four sweet years.

But then, of course, I moved out of the dorms. I got dumped. It was easier to blame it on my under-eye bags than the literally thousands of other problems with our relationship, such as the fact that he liked to wear whimsical hats to bed. When a phalanx of allergists and ENTs and endocrinologists couldn’t help me—during one appointment, the doctor exclaimed “you look like a vampire!”—I began Googling plastic surgeons.

I was interested in a procedure called “lower lid blepharoplasty,” where the bag of excess fat is sucked out through a small cut on the inside of the eyelid. The surgery would be a couple thousand dollars, and I intended to splurge all my savings on it.

The surgeon, a man who looked to be in his 60s, sat behind a big wooden desk in a dark, cluttered office. He told me I would know he was good because he could draw two dots on a piece of paper exactly an inch apart, without measuring it first.

He pulled out a sheet of printer paper and drew two tiny circles in the middle of it. Then he reached for a ruler and lined it up against the marks.

He was way off. I left quickly and never followed up.

At the time, surgery was the only permanent option, but Papantoniou told me about a less-invasive alternative that might be forthcoming. An ointment called XAF-5, designed for glaucoma, was found to also deflate fat cells under the eyes. It’s in clinical trials and could be available next year if it’s approved. An effective under-eye cream would be a minor miracle, of course, but I’ll believe it when I no longer look like I’ve pulled 40 consecutive all-nighters.

I have stopped caring, mostly. Or, at least, I care so much less than I used to that it feels chill and empowered by comparison. (Perhaps it’s because, like my grandmothers before me, I’ve lately become worried about Nazis.) I’ve gone to Starbucks without concealer on—and given them my real name for the cup! Out of pure compulsion, I still roll my Garnier wand over my lower eyelids each morning, though I increasingly feel like some sort of Sisyphean steamroller, doomed to forever try to flatten out lumps that are, it seems, not going anywhere.

I never did beat the other girl in the class rankings. I did, however, use my plastic-surgery money to get a new denim jacket.