3 reasons your cosmetics are pilling

Why your makeup or skincare balls up like an old sweater

Stephanie Papanikolas Avatar

Stephanie Papanikolas
Aug 06, 2020 · 5 min read

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We’re here to share what we know — but don’t take it as medical advice. Talk to your medical provider if you have questions.

If you’re trying to layer skincare products, or trying to top off your skincare with makeup, you might experience pilling — that’s when your makeup or skincare doesn’t set on your skin, turning into little flakes or “pills” (like those annoying fluffy bits that always ruin your favorite sweater). Pilling is usually a sign that your products don’t mix, or aren’t absorbing into your skin. That said? There’s not one specific cause of pilling, so preventing skin pills can be tricky.

1. Too much product. A skincare routine with too many moisturizers, creams, or serums may lead to pilling. All of these products are designed to absorb into the skin, so using too many at once can be overload. Likewise, using too much of a product may lead to clumps. This can be especially true with makeup, where “less is more” is the golden rule.

2. Rushing through your routine. Have you ever had to cram your AM routine into 10 minutes, only to find your products flaking off later in the day? (Oversleepers of the world, unite!) Pilling may be a sign that your products are mixing together on top of your skin, rather than absorbing or setting. For example, a makeup primer might need to rest a few minutes before applying foundation on top.

3. Formula and ingredients. Ingredients (like talc) rest on top of your skin and often expand as they soak up the oils in your skin and makeup, which can lead to clumps. Some people notice pilling when they use silicone-based products, too, though I personally love my silicone primers. Whether or not a certain product pills depends on the overall formula of a product and your skin type.

How to layer skincare

There’s no clear consensus from dermatologists about the optimal order for products. Consider the product’s consistency when layering products, working from light (like a liquid serum) to heavy (like a thick moisturizer). When it comes to your skincare routine, it makes the most sense to use products that cleanse the skin first and products that absorb into your skin later.

Instagram photo of "how to layer your products" image

If you’re pressed for time, you might be better off skipping non-essential products. Your best bet to help prevent pilling is to keep your skin routine simple:

  • Morning routine: simply cleanse and apply SPF.

  • Night time routine: cleanse, treat (if needed), and moisturize.

To scrub or not to scrub?

Some say that you can reduce pilling by using an exfoliating face scrub (or light chemical peel) to remove dead skin cells. The idea, here, is that dead skin cells are mixing in with your products, leading to pills. That said? Exfoliants aren’t meant to be used daily — once or twice a week is plenty. Over-exfoliating isn’t good for your skin, so take it easy!

Most importantly: wait for your products to absorb.

Personally, I let my skin rest for 5–10 minutes (or even longer) between each layer of product. This is especially important on days where you’ll be applying a full face of makeup; in my experience, it’s best to wait 15–30 minutes after moisturizing before applying foundation or primer. If you do use a primer, wait another 5 minutes or so before applying foundation on top.

How to layer makeup

Because less product = less chance of pilling, simplifying your routine can definitely help. For example, skip primer and setting powder; instead, use foundation by itself. It might be easier said than done, though — I know I can’t skip either of those products in the Florida heat. Instead, you can try reaching for these products for a flake-free makeup look:

Before and After makeup graphic

1. Moisturizer with SPF. Some sunscreens have sticky, tacky formulas that sit on top of the skin, which may lead to pilling with makeup. But a moisturizer with SPF (like CeraVe AM Facial Moisturizer SPF 30) sinks into the skin, so it doesn’t tend to leave a film. Bonus: because they’re a 2-for-1 that moisturizes and protects against UV rays, they also cut down your skincare routine!

2. Silicone-free primer. Some people find that silicone-based products lead to pilling because they sit on top of the skin. If that sounds familiar, you may want to avoid primers with ingredients that end in -cone. You also might want to ditch primers labelled “pore-filling” or “blurring” and instead reach for ones labeled “hydrating,” like NYX Bare With Me Hydrating Jelly Primer.

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3. Talc-free setting powder. As mentioned earlier, talc sits on top of the skin and absorbs oil, which can lead to clumping. Unfortunately, it’s also the main ingredient in many setting powders (both drugstore and high-end). Instead, you might want to try setting powders with mica, which blends more easily into the skin. My go-to is the BareMinerals Mineral Veil Finishing Powder.

4. Non-comedogenic setting spray. If you don’t like the texture of setting powders, try a setting spray instead. A setting spray creates a layer on top of makeup that helps to keep it in place. Just spritz your face once or twice and you’re good to go! Some setting sprays, like Revlon PhotoReady Prep, Set, Refresh, can also be applied before makeup to prime your skin.

So that’s what I know, as Curology’s resident beauty geek — for what it’s worth, we’re not affiliated with any of the above brands, and we never make a commission off of products we recommend on the blog. But do feel free to sign up for a free month of Curology, if you haven’t yet! You’ll pay $4.95 (+ tax) to cover shipping/handling on your first subscription box, featuring a bottle of customized cream with a mix of 3 active ingredients for your unique skin.

Stephanie Papanikolas Avatar

Stephanie Papanikolas

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