“Why is my moisturizer pilling!?” I wailed, alone in my bathroom, to no one in particular. I’d just applied my favorite face cream, and the formula was balling up into rubbery curds before my very eyes. The more I tried to rub it in, the worse the situation got.
“Peeling?” my boyfriend called from the living room.
“Pilling,” I repeated, exasperated.
Anyone who has experienced skincare pilling will understand the frustration it sparks. Often used in the context of fabric, “pilling” is a pesky phenomenon in which excess material balls up on the surface of the fabric (think about an old, pilly sweater). In the context of skincare, pilling can look flakey, chunky, or as if it’s “gapping” across certain areas of your skin.
According to Dr. Frauke Neuser, Principal Scientist for Olay®, “Pilling happens when you are applying a skincare product to the skin and [the product] doesn’t fully absorb.” Think back to the last time you slapped on a moisturizer and started rubbing it in, only to find it balling up into snakey little rolls. Explains Dr. Neuser, this signifies that “the product is collecting on top of the skin,” instead of actually sinking in like it’s supposed to. So, not only is skincare pilling incredibly annoying — it’s also a sign that you’re not getting those good-for-you skincare ingredients where they need to go.
Admittedly, I used to address pilling by wiping everything off and simply giving up on skincare for the day. I’d given little thought to why my products might be pilling in the first place — and, consequently, created a lot of avoidable frustration for myself.
Below, four reasons your skincare might be pilling — plus, how to combat each issue.
The issue: You’re not exfoliating enough
As we age, our cell turnover — or rate at which our dead skin cells shed — slows down. As a result, dead skin can accumulate more quickly and create a barrier of sorts.
In addition to making our skin look dull, this “barrier” can also impede product penetration. And, as previously mentioned, unabsorbed product can lead to pilling.
The solution: Establish an exfoliation routine
Most derms will tell you to exfoliate twice a week, either with a chemical exfoliator (e.g. glycolic acid) or a physical exfoliator (e.g. a face scrub). Establishing a skin-sloughing routine will ensure your face is always fresh and ready to take in all the goodness you apply. Ever notice how estheticians exfoliate your skin before they apply powerhouse products? This is because chemical and physical exfoliation sweep dead skin cells away, thereby removing a potential barrier to product absorption.
Bonus: After you’ve exfoliated, you could also consider face steaming to “open” your pores, or using a gua sha to gently press products into your skin.
If you take blood thinners, talk to your doctor before using a gua sha or rolling tool.
The issue: You’re mixing oil and water
If you’ve experienced skincare pilling, perhaps you’ve noticed it tends to happen when you mix thin, water-based products with rich, oil-based ones. This is not a coincidence: Similar to how oil and water do not mix in “real life” (think of salad dressing), oil-based products and water-based products tend to repel each other in the skincare world, too. Confirms Dr. Neuser, “Pilling can occur if you are layering or mixing products high in oils with products high in water.”
The solution: Layer like with like
One option is to stick to a skincare regimen that’s entirely oil-based or entirely water-based. A simpler solution: Layer your skincare products from thinnest to thickest, waiting for each layer to absorb before applying the next. Thin products are more likely to be water-based, whereas thicker ones are more likely to be oily.
This layering rule may have some exceptions — but for the most part, it checks out. As Dr. Neuser illustrates: “If you use face oil first, there will be a thin layer [of oil] remaining on the skin surface.” This layer of oil acts as an occlusive barrier, and prevents subsequent products from reaching the skin, she explains. Given that pilling is a product of poor absorption, this does not bode well!
The issue: You’re slathering on silicone
Certain ingredients are inherently more prone to pilling, notes Dr. Neuser. Of these, silicone is the most notorious. It’s not all bad, though; silicone is excellent for creating a smooth, even, poreless-looking finish. For this reason, you’ll find silicone in many primers — and even in many moisturizers.
The solution: Dial it back
Dr. Neuser doesn’t suggest skipping silicone entirely; instead, she advises limiting how much silicone you’re incorporating into your skincare (and makeup) routine.
Alas, silicones aren’t always easy to “sniff out” on a product’s ingredient list because they come in many different forms, each of which has a unique name. According to Paula’s Choice®, common forms of silicone in skincare include types of dimethicone and phenyl trimethicone, as well as cyclopentasiloxane and cyclohexasiloxane. In addition to looking for these particular words, keep your eyes peeled for ingredients that end in “-cone” and “-ane,” which may be silicones, too.
To gauge how much silicone a product might contain relative to other ingredients, look at where it’s listed. (Generally, skincare products list ingredients from most prevalent to least, in descending order.) Stacking silicone-spiked products atop each other increases the overall amount of silicone you’re dealing with — and thus, your likelihood for pilling. To set yourself up for smoothness, use no more than a blueberry-sized dollop of product.
The issue: You’re using too many products/you’re apply too much product in general
It’s tempting to succumb to the “more is more” approach in skincare, especially with the popularization of glow-inducing techniques like the 7-skin method. It’s worth noting, however, that many products in most multi-step, K-beauty skincare routines are lightweight and airy, and thus can be more easily absorbed. Slapping on every cream in your arsenal likely will lead to product build up — your skin can only absorb so much at a time!
The solution: Use fewer products
When it comes to pilling prevention, less really is more — both in product quantity, and number of products you layer. One simple way to mitigate pilling risk: use a 2-in-1 product, which is pre-blended to be cohesive. Dr. Neuser loves the Olay Regenerist Whip Moisturizer SPF 25, which contains the all-important moisturizer/SPF combo in a positively pilling-free formula. (Check out more of the best SPF-spiked moisturizers here.)
In short, preventing skincare pilling boils down to a few simple things: layering wisely, picking your products carefully, and keeping up with your exfoliation routine. Heed this advice, and you’re much less likely to find yourself with a case of balled-up skincare on your hands — er, face.
Read more about how to layer products: