Why You Should Never Use a Retinol Eye Cream, Plus 6 Eye-Safe Anti-Aging Treatments to Try

For many, the delicate eye area is first to reveal signs of aging. This makes sense — not only is the skin around the eye about sixty percent thinner than the skin on the rest of the body, but the structures underneath that skin are also very fragile, making this part of the face especially susceptible to signs of wear and tear. When patients visit my practice for ophthalmology appointments, they often complain about fine lines, bags, and dark circles — and when they do, I ask what topical products they’re using. 

Most people have learned from the beauty industry that the most effective, clinically-proven anti-aging ingredient is vitamin A, which can be purchased as retinol (an over-the-counter topical treatment), retinoids (a prescription-strength topical treatment), or isotretinoin (a powerful, prescription oral medication known as Accutane, typically used for acne). The data does prove that retinol can stimulate collagen synthesis, which is essential for firmer, tauter, skin — but the ophthalmologist community is staunchly against the use of vitamin A, as it’s also proven to kill both meibomian glands and goblet cells, essential components of the eye. Without them, tears evaporate much more quickly, leaving your eyes dry, irritated, and painful — permanently. 

Even when applied carefully to a specific area, beauty products like serums, moisturizers, and creams migrate, making it far too risky to try your luck with a retinol eye cream. But there are still worthy skincare and treatment options that can help you look younger while supporting your eye health. Below, a few of my favorites.

Cold compresses: This affordable DIY can yield impressive results if you’re trying to fight undereye bags or dark circles. You can use a small resealable bag filled with eye cubes or even a bag of frozen peas — just be sure to wrap whatever you use in a washcloth to act as a buffer between your skin and the ice. Simply rest it on your closed eyes for five to 10 minutes to help soothe the area, reducing inflammation and blood vessel dilation for brighter-looking eyes. Bonus: This feels great when you’re suffering from allergies or eye strain, too.

Hyaluronic acid: While the word “acid” might make you wary, don’t be fooled — hyaluronic acid, or HA, is actually a sugar molecule that occurs naturally in the body and is known for its ability to attract and hold up to 1,000 times its weight in water. Though HA doesn’t boast anti-aging properties, hydration is essential to healthier-looking skin. Fine lines are less visible on moisturized skin than they are on parched skin, too.

Peptides: Peptides are basically chunks of amino acids, the building blocks of protein. Skin is mostly made up of proteins known as collagen, elastin, and keratin, and peptide-infused products penetrate the skin to help act as messengers, telling the skin to produce more of those proteins. More collagen results in firmer-looking, thicker skin — and by thickening the skin, the blood vessels responsible for dark circles will be less visible, and fine lines will appear smoother.

Resveratrol: This ingredient is frequently derived from grapes or red wine and is a potent antioxidant. Antioxidants are substances that defend skin from free radicals, unstable molecules produced by things like UV light and environmental pollution. Free radicals are a major source of skin damage, so antioxidant defense is key to help protect your skin from aging.

Botox: One of the original uses of Botox was to treat blepharospasm, or chronic eye twitching and closing of the lids. Botulinum toxin (the active ingredient in Botox) works by temporarily limiting the use of the treated muscle, and by injecting the treatment into the muscle responsible for closing eyelids, spasms are diminished. Botox is also used for cosmetic reasons, and it’s the definitive treatment for crow’s feet, those lines that fan out from the corners of your eyes, which are formed by repetitive blinking and squinting. In fact, crow’s feet treatment with Botox is administered in the same muscle as blepharospasm treatment — the orbicularis oculi. However, this muscle is essential to the function of your meibomian glands, and if Botox is injected incorrectly into this area, it could contribute to significant dry eye. To avoid this, consider booking your treatment with a skilled, licensed injector who is intimately familiar with eye anatomy, like an ophthalmologist or oculofacial plastic surgeon.

Fractional laser resurfacing: Though there are many different devices used for this procedure, you may have heard of the treatment referred to as Fraxel or CO2. Laser skin resurfacing treatments work by carefully and deliberately damaging the first layer of skin. This triggers your body’s healing response, resulting in collagen production and thus firmer, smoother, and brighter-looking skin upon recovery. When used around the eye, it can help the skin look smoother, tauter, and even a bit lifted. This procedure can be performed with varying degrees of intensity, so your downtime will vary, though you can expect to spend at least a few days recovering indoors. If you’re considering laser skin resurfacing, it is important to select a provider who understands eye safety; metal eye shields should be used when treating this delicate area.