Ever had your products start balling up on your face like an old sweater?
Maybe you've noticed it right away after applying certain makeup or skincare on top of one another. Or it could be hours later, when you touch your face and it feels like it's covered in tiny flakes or globs of product.
Either way, it's SO annoying. But this phenomenon—known as "pilling"—is a common pitfall when layering skincare products!
What Causes Pilling
Pilling happens when products haven't absorbed into the skin, whether due to:
- the type of ingredient,
- the amount applied,
- the other products you're using, or
- the condition of your skin.
With so many of us experimenting with multi-step skincare routines, the pilling struggle is all too real!
Here are my best tips if you're dealing with this issue.
How to Prevent Pilling
1. Exfoliate Regularly
The first thing you want to make sure you're doing is exfoliating on a regular basis.
To be clear, the little balls that form are composed of product, not dead skin. But it's still important to maintain a good exfoliation routine, because it will help your products to absorb more effectively, rather than remaining on top of a surface layer of dead skin.
I've found that a combination of gentle manual and chemical exfoliation works best. Acids do most of the legwork in loosening dead cells, and then a little buffing helps to fully remove them. As per my skincare routine, I do BHAs twice daily, and hot cloth cleansing or the Foreo Luna a few times a week.
- Oil and cloth cleansing (if you're sensitive, you can just do this)
- Gentle AHAs such as Biologique Recherche Lotion P50
- More lactic acid picks here
- Gentle BHAs such as COSRX BHA Blackhead Power Liquid
- More salicylic acid picks here
- Foreo Luna 2, the BEST gentle cleansing brush
- PMD Personal Microderm for an at-home alternative to professional microdermabrasion treatments
2. Avoid Silicones
Silicones are probably the WORST ingredients for pilling, because they stay on top of the skin to smooth its surface, instead of sinking in.
[Read more about why to avoid silicones on your skin]
You may be able to eliminate pilling by switching to a silicone-free or low-silicone makeup and skincare routine.
To figure out if a product is low in silicones, look at its ingredients list. I don't like to see silicones among the first five ingredients, which typically compose about 80 percent of the product. If they're listed after that, I would consider the product low-silicone (and therefore less prone to pilling).
[Download this cheat sheet to learn more about identifying and avoiding silicones in beauty products]
- Silicone-free sunscreens such as Drunk Elephant Umbra Sheer Physical Daily Defense SPF 30
- More silicone-free/low-silicone SPF picks here
- Silicone-free hydrating serums such as Indie Lee Stem Cell Serum and Consonant HydrExtreme
- More silicone-free/low-silicone serum picks here
- Silicone-free moisturizers such as OSEA Atmosphere Protection Cream and Omorovicza Elemental Emulsion
- More silicone-free/low-silicone moisturizer picks here
- Silcone-free vitamin C treatments such as Dermalogica BioLumin-C and The Ordinary Ascorbyl Glucoside Solution 12%
- Silicone-free primers such as REN Perfect Canvas Skin Finishing Serum and ILIA True Skin Radiant Priming Serum
- Silicone-free foundations/tinted moisturizers such as Sappho New Paradigm Essential Foundation
- More silicone-free foundation picks here
Note: If you've cut back on silicones but are STILL getting pilling, it could be another ingredient that isn't penetrating. Anything too thick (think: gums or emulsifiers) might be leaving too much residue on your skin and contributing to pilling. See if the next tip helps!
3. Use Less Product
Simply using too much product can be a cause of pilling, as you're overloading your skin with more than it can take in.
Experiment with less. While The Ordinary suggests applying "a few drops" of its Ascorbyl Glucoside 12% Solution, a dime-sized amount is really all you need with treatment serums. For moisturizer and sunscreen, aim for the size of a nickel.
Note: The more products you layer, the more challenging it is to prevent pilling!
4. Don’t Overwork the Products
The more you touch your skin, the more you disturb the products and encourage them to pill.
It goes without saying that rubbing your face is a a big no-no, as this will only cause surface residue to bunch and roll up.
Use light, patting motions to apply your products, and resist the urge to touch your face any more than absolutely necessary.
5. Layer Compatible Ingredients in the Right Order
Ever heard the saying that oil and water don't mix? Well, the same thing applies with pilling! When ingredients are too different, they may ball up.
So try separating your oil-based products from your water-based products, if possible.
That means you'd layer an oil-free moisturizer over a watery essence or serum. Or apply a face oil on top of an oil-based serum.
- BIOeffect EGF Serum and Hylamide C25 Stabilized Vitamin C Booster have oily textures that pair nicely under face oils like Indie Lee Squalane Facial Oil
- Consonant HydrExtreme and SK-II Facial Treatment Essence are thin and watery, so they go well under Omorovicza Elemental Emulsion (which is oil-free)
Also keep in mind that you always want to be going in the direction of lightest to heaviest with your layers. So water-based formulas should go on first, then creams, then oils.
[Download this cheat sheet to learn more about applying your skincare products in the most effective order]
6. Add a Drop of Oil
If you can't stick to only water-based or only oil-based layers, adding a drop of oil may do the trick.
This one comes from Drunk Elephant. They suggest mixing a drop of Virgin Marula Luxury Face Oil or C-Firma Day Serum (an oil-based vitamin C) with the Umbra Sheer Physical Daily Defense SPF 30 to eliminate pilling.
I don't think you need to use their products, though—squalane, jojoba and coconut oils should all have the same effect.
Note: If you're mixing oil into sunscreen, just make sure it's only one drop, as too much could dilute the formula and decrease your level of protection.
7. Mist First, and In Between Layers
Did you know that damp skin helps products to penetrate better?
That's why your face mist or thermal water could prevent your other products from pilling.
Try lightly spritzing your face before you apply your first product, and again in between each layer. Your skin should more readily accept the ingredients, reducing leftover residue.
- Herbivore Rose Hibiscus Coconut Water Hydrating Face Mist
- Éminence Lime Refresh Tonique
- More face mist picks here
8. Wait in Between Layers and Let the Final One “Set”
It may not always solve the problem, but it's worth checking if waiting makes difference.
Give each layer some extra time to be absorbed—even up to half an hour—and make sure your skin is completely dry to the touch before adding the next product.
You also want to wait after your last layer. With Derma E Natural Mineral Sunscreen SPF 30, I've found that there is FAR less pilling if I wait a good 20 minutes or so before touching my face or applying makeup!
9. Try Short Contact Therapy
If it's an active ingredient that's giving you pilling, short contact therapy is an option.
To try this, apply the active as your first layer and leave it on your skin for a short time before rinsing it off. I recommend at least 30 minutes, as that will allow it to completely absorb and give you most of the benefits.
Usually, dermatologists suggest short contact therapy for people with sensitive skin who are having trouble tolerating acids or retinoids.
But I don't see why you couldn't try it with any active—even The Ordinary Niacinamide 10% + Zinc 1%, which is notorious for pilling! (I think it's the seed gum.)
Note: Obviously, you shouldn't do this with sunscreen!
Let me know if these tips cut down on pilling—or if you've tried anything else that has helped!
Remember, if all else fails and your products won't play nice together, you can always switch to nighttime use. Yes, even vitamin C and niacinamide treatments can be used at night, no problem!
Just give yourself plenty of time in between layers and after the final layer. That will ensure you've absorbed most of the beneficial ingredients before they pill onto your pillowcase!
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Have you experienced product pilling?
What has helped you to prevent it?