Skin pilling is when your skincare products such as moisturizer or serum don’t absorb into your skin but rather clump up as you rub your skin. Skin pilling can be caused by the way you apply your products as well as the formulation of the products you use. If you’re experiencing pilling in your skincare or while using certain skincare products, below are the possible causes and the best ways to prevent skincare pilling.
If you’re not sure if your skin is pilling, here’s what skincare pilling looks like. This is a moisturizer coming off the skin as I rub it.
What Causes Skincare Pilling?
If your serum, cream, lotion, or moisturizer is pilling, below are the most possible causes and how you can avoid them.
1. Layering multiple products with film-forming properties.
This is the most likely reason why your skincare is pilling. Skincare products, whether it’s serums or daily moisturizers, can contain film-forming ingredients. If a skincare ingredient has film-forming properties, it means that it’s meant to coat the skin like a thin film layer and not absorb. These types of ingredients are meant to sit on top of the skin.
And when you layer the same type of film-forming products on top of each other, you’re very likely to experience pilling. The most common film-forming ingredients are silicones. Bear in mind that not all silicones pill. It certainly does not mean that silicones are bad. Pilling depends a lot on the amount of silicone your products contain, and the quality of the silicones.
First thing first, identify the problem and check to see which of your products are high in silicones. Start with your moisturizers because silicones are commonly found in cream-based products, causing your moisturizer to rub off and flake off. Silicones come in different names such as dimethicone, cyclomethicone, cyclohexasiloxane; practically names that end in -one.
If there are lots of these in the first ten of the ingredient list, assume that the product has high silicone content. Remember that serums can contain silicones too.
If you’ve decided that you’re experiencing pilling because your products contain silicones, avoid layering similar products in the same skincare routine. Use them in separate routines. You can also consider using silicone-free products in general.
2. Layering too many products.
I’m a skin maximalist. And I love using multiple products in my routine. But obviously, there is only so much your skin can take until it starts to collect everything on top while you watch your serums turn into clumps and tiny rubber balls.
Pilling caused by layering lots of products commonly happens with moisturizers. On a side note, that’s why I prefer serum layering, but still. Pilling can happen with serums too, especially if you’re using thicker, goopy vitamin C serums or even hyaluronic acid serums.
If you’re a 10-step skincare routine person, you’re going to have to minimize the number of products you use in your routine. If you enjoy layering, focus more on clear, water-based serums that tend to absorb better than creamy serums and thick moisturizers.
Also, your skin can handle more products at certain times and can’t handle 3 other times. For example, during the summer season when the skin tends to be a lot more oily, my skin becomes a lot less absorbent. Even a simple, lightweight lotion can pill. On the flip side, I can layer different serums and lotions in winter when my skin is extra thirsty. So keep this in mind if this is a sudden or seasonal thing.
3. Having residual makeup/skincare on the face from before.
Maybe you’re using very few products and you’re paying attention to ingredient compatibility but you’re still experiencing pilling. In that case, you need to make sure you don’t have makeup or skincare product residue on your face from before.
This sounds like an obvious mistake nobody could make. However, some people prefer washing and cleansing their face only once a day. For example, people with sensitive skin or dry skin tend to go for once-a-day facial cleansing and they usually prefer doing it in the evening.
In the morning, they wash their face with water and head on to apply skincare products. In the meantime, the serum and moisturizer from the night before, even if they’re somewhat wiped off, are still there, preventing the new skincare products from sinking in.
One of the easiest ways to make sure your skin absorbs skincare is to apply your product on clean, dry skin. Whether you use a toner, serum, or lotion, you can avoid skin-care pilling simply by doing your skincare routine on freshly cleansed skin.
Additionally, if you don’t exfoliate when you need to, especially if you have mature skin with a slower skin turnover rate, you might be responsible for your skin care products pilling on your skin.
Exfoliation removes the dead skin cells from the surface of the skin and enhances skin penetration. Regular exfoliation can prevent skin pilling, but also can improve the absorption and efficiency of your skincare products.
4. Not waiting long enough between each product.
Not waiting for your skincare product to absorb before moving on to the next one is another common reason for skin-care pilling. If you use a lot of skincare products, you need to pay attention to the time between each one.
Otherwise, you’re basically slathering on different formulations and mixing them together on top of your skin. Eventually, everything clumps up into tiny balls and just comes off your face.
Each of your skincare products requires a few minutes to fully absorb into the skin and dry down. Let that happen. After layering one product, wait a couple of minutes. Then touch your face to make sure your face isn’t sticky and the product has completely dried down. Only then you should apply the next product.
The good thing about this method is that it makes it easier to identify the problematic product if there is any. Skin pilling doesn’t usually happen when your skin is wet. The product usually peels off after it dries down. By waiting between each skincare step and letting the product dry, you can easily identify when the skin pilling occurred and which product caused it.
5. Applying products in the wrong order.
Even though applying skincare products in the wrong order is a potential cause of skin pilling, it’s not very likely. As a general rule of thumb, you should layer your skincare based on consistency. When you don’t follow the right order, such as when you apply an oil-based product first and follow with a water-based serum, the water-based serum stays on top of the skin and does not absorb.
But what usually happens is that you visibly see the formula staying on top of the skin or feel it not sinking into the skin. Because oil repels water. But you usually don’t see skin pilling here. But again, this might be the case for some people.
You should first apply your lightest products, which are usually water-based toners and serums. Once your skin is dry, follow up with lotion-like products and finish off with cream-based products like your moisturizer and face cream or night cream. Remember to use little amounts.
Also, some people assume the product won’t pill if you don’t smear it and if you just press it in. This can work and minimize the potential for pilling. However, it certainly wouldn’t make any difference if you’re using two silicone-based products.
So these are the most common causes of pilling in skin care and ways to avoid and prevent it. Again, the most likely cause is layering two or more products that have a similar formula. Pilling shouldn’t be a concern. It certainly is fixable with the tips above. Just make sure you did everything you could before tossing away your product.