Exploring your favorite makeup looks for spring, summer, winter, or fall is one thing. But layering your skincare products under your makeup? Maybe not so much. Especially if it causes “pilling.” Pilling can happen when your products don't set on your skin, turning into little flakes or “pills” (like those annoying fluffy bits that always ruin your favorite sweater). It might look like flaky dry skin, but it’s usually a sign that your combination of products doesn’t mesh well or that they’re not fully absorbing into your skin. There’s not one specific cause of pilling, however, so preventing it can be tricky.
Read on, as we break down potential causes of pilling and how to avoid it.
Noticed some pilling after carefully doing your makeup? Common causes of pilling include using too much product or the specific ingredients in your products. Let’s try to catch the culprit that's causing your favorite makeup looks to pill:
A skincare routine with too many moisturizers, creams, or serums may lead to pilling. All these products are designed to absorb into the skin, so using too many at once can simply overload your skin. (Think of a sponge that can’t soak up any more liquid.) Too much of a product may lead to clumps. This can be especially true when applying makeup on top of all of your skincare, so remember, “less is more” is the golden rule. (Of course, this doesn’t apply to sunscreen!)
Ever slept through your alarm and had to cram your entire morning routine into 10 minutes, only to find your products flaking off later in the day? (Oversleepers of the world, we feel your pain!) Pilling may be a sign that your products are mixing together on your skin before they have a chance to set. For example, a moisturizer probably needs to rest a few minutes before you apply foundation. So be sure you give your products the time they need to have their optimal effect.
Some makeup ingredients (like talc) rest on top of your skin and often expand as they soak up the oils in your skin and makeup,¹ which may also lead to clumps. Some people notice pilling when they use silicone-based products, too, although that doesn't necessarily mean you need to throw out your favorite primer. Remember, whether a certain product pills depends on the overall formula of a product and your skin.
While the optimal order to layer skincare products can vary with the specifics of your routine, you generally want to think about product consistencies and work from light (like a liquid serum) to heavy (like a thick moisturizer). Case in point: If you apply an oil or thick moisturizer on your skin before something like a serum with a more water-like consistency, the serum may not absorb into your skin as effectively.
If you’re pressed for time, you may be better off skipping non-essential products like eye cream or a brightening face mask and just stick to the basics. Your best bet to help prevent pilling? Keep your skincare routine simple—see our suggested AM and PM routines below. If you have additional products in your routine, remember that the general rule of thumb is to go from thin to thick.
Cleanse. The first part of your morning skincare routine should always be your favorite cleanser. A gentle, nourishing cleanser is an important part of your morning routine.
Moisturize. Before your sunscreen, apply your hydrating moisturizer, taking care to look for products labeled non-clogging, non-acnegenic, or non-comedogenic.
Apply SPF. You probably hear it all the time (at least from us), but even so, we’ll say it again: SPF is a game-changer when it comes to caring for your skin. Regularly use a broad-spectrum sunscreen with SPF 30 or higher to protect your skin from both UVA and UVB rays, and be sure to give the sunscreen plenty of time to absorb into your skin before applying makeup.
Remove makeup (if you’re wearing it). To start your nighttime routine, first, thoroughly remove any makeup. You can try a micellar water (like our micellar makeup remover) or an oil-based makeup remover like a balm or a cleansing oil.
Cleanse. Just like in the mornings, the right cleanser can remove dirt, sweat, and oil after a long day.
Treat. If you use a skin treatment, like the Curology Custom Formula, give it time to soak into your skin after applying.
Moisturize. Your skin rejuvenates at night,² so it’s important to give it a good moisturizer to help it stay hydrated and healthy while you sleep. Press in your moisturizer or night cream gently to help your skin absorb all the hydration it can.
Dead skin cells mixing with your products can also lead to pilling. Using a physical or chemical exfoliant helps remove dead skin cells, which may also help reduce pilling. That said, exfoliants aren’t typically meant for daily use—once or twice a week is plenty. Over-exfoliating isn’t good for your skin because it can cause irritation,³ so take it easy and scrub gently!
Another common cause of pilling is dry skin. Moisturizing consistently, can help prevent this, and remember, always give your moisturizer plenty of time to settle into your skin completely.
Along with consistent moisturizing, giving your skin plenty of time to absorb the product is also a good idea. Think of your skin like a sponge just waiting to soak up all the benefits a moisturizer has to offer.
A good moisturizer will no doubt help maintain your skin’s natural moisture. But with so many options out there, what exactly should you look for? Moisturizers may contain many different ingredients, which makes it all the more important for you to find the combination that’s just right for your skin.
Frustrated and confused as to why your skin is still pilling, no matter how hydrated your skin is? The answer may lie in the ingredients that make up (you guessed it!) your makeup. Just like in science class, the ingredients in your makeup products might not mix well with each other (okay, maybe it’s not just like a chemistry lab, but you get what we mean).
Silicone. Silicone is found in many different foundations and primers because it gives a smooth, almost airbrushed look. It achieves this smoothing effect by sitting on top of your skin, which can unfortunately cause buildup or pilling if you place certain products over it.
Iron oxide. Another ingredient that could lead to pilling is iron oxide, an ingredient typically used to create synthetic pigment. You might find it in your tinted sunscreen or concealer. Iron oxide may help protect skin from blue light,⁴ but mineral sunblocks can have a greasy consistency that may not mix well with your other products.
Fluorphlogopite. Fluorphlogopite is often used to give products a thicker consistency.⁵ A potential cause of pilling can be too much of a thick product on your face, so be sure to check your favorite foundation or highlighter for this pilling-causing culprit.
One way to prevent pilling is to let your skin rest for a few minutes between each layer of product. This is especially important on days where you’ll be applying a full face of makeup. In our experience, it’s best to wait 15-30 minutes after moisturizing before applying foundation or primer. If you do use a primer, wait another five minutes or so before applying your foundation.
Because less product can equal less chance of pilling, simplifying your routine can definitely help. Using the right products can set your makeup up for success when you apply it.
Some 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 labeled “pore-filling” or “blurring” and reach for ones labeled “hydrating” instead.
Remember, 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 may want to try setting powders with mica, which tends to blend more easily into the skin.
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 can also be applied before makeup to prime your skin.
When it comes to your skincare, you want to make sure you’re giving every product in your routine time to absorb so that each one can work to its full extent. Additionally, getting the most out of your skincare products can help your makeup go on smoothly.
In general, when it comes to layering your makeup, never forget that golden rule: Less. Is. More! Using thin layers of makeup will help prevent buildup that can lead to pilling.
Learning how to layer all your different skincare products and makeup may seem confusing, especially at first, but we’re here to help. With Curology, you get custom skincare that is dermatologist designed to take the guesswork out of it. Curology is simple and made just for your unique skin; sign up for a free month of Curology if you haven’t yet. You’ll pay $4.95* (+ tax) to cover shipping and handling on your first subscription box, featuring a bottle of customized cream with a mix of three active ingredients for your unique skin, plus recommended routine essentials.
Common causes of pilling include using too much product or the specific ingredients in your products. Let’s try to catch the culprit that's causing your favorite makeup looks to pill:
Too much product
Rushing through your routine
Formula and ingredients
When it comes to your skincare, you want to make sure you’re giving every product in your routine time to absorb so that each one can work to its full extent. When it comes to layering your makeup, never forget that golden rule: Less. Is. More! Using thin layers of makeup will help prevent buildup that can lead to pilling.
Food and Drug Administration.Talc. (n.d.).
Leger D., et al. “You look sleepy…” The impact of sleep restriction on skin parameters and facial appearance of 24 women. Sleep Medicine. (January 2022).
American Academy of Dermatology. How to Safely Exfoliate at Home. (n.d.).
Bernstein E.F., et al., Iron oxides in novel skin care formulations attenuate blue light for enhanced protection against skin damage. J Cosmet Dermatol., (2021).
Becker L.C., et al. Safety Assessment of Synthetic Fluorphlogopite as Used in Cosmetics. (2017, December 17).
This article was originally published on August 6, 2020, and updated on July 25, 2022.
We’re here to tell you what we know. That’s why our information is evidence-based and fact-checked by medical experts. Still, everyone’s skin is unique—the best way to get advice is to talk to your healthcare provider.
* Subject to consultation. Subscription is required. Results may vary.
Donna McIntyre, NP-BC