Skincare overload: pilling and other signs you’re overdoing it

How you know it’s time to lay off the products for a while

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Curology Team
Feb 15, 2019 · 7 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.

As anyone who’s suffered the wrath of a clingy ex, grown up with a helicopter parent, or killed a plant by over-watering it will agree, yes, it is possible to care too much.

Orange / yellow clothes in yellow chair

It’s easy to accidentally overdo it with skincare products, even if you aren’t all about an elaborate multi-step skincare routine. All it takes is the wrong combination of ingredients to make your skin go haywire! There are so many skincare products out there with complicated ingredients lists, you might not know what they do to your skin, or if certain ingredients could have an interaction that’ll irritate your skin. That’s why we believe that simplifying your skincare routine can benefit your skin.

Remember, your skin is like a garden: it’s an ecosystem with its own natural processes that can get thrown out of balance by too much or too little of anything. That includes the products that are supposed to be good for your skin! You know what they say: too much of a good thing…

Less really is more

It’s definitely not uncommon to think “if a little is good, then more is better”! And in some cases, it is. For example, if your skin is really dry, layering a non-comedogenic face oil underneath your moisturizer is a good thing. But that’s about where the “extra benefits” end. In most cases, adding more than the recommended amount of a skincare product isn’t going to do your skin any favors — it might just upset the balance.

Clothes falling from the sky (Photo Cred: @mayparlar on Instagram)

Photo Cred: @mayparlar on Instagram

If you’ve inadvertently overloaded your skin with products, it can go one of two ways (if not both): you could end up with the product sitting on top of your skin and looking oily/greasy (or if you wear makeup, it won’t set or stay in place); or, your skin may become irritated and red.

  1. If your skin is sensitive, red, stingy, itchy, or flaky, that’s its way of telling you to take a break and let it breathe. Skip any products with active ingredients for a few days or so, until your skin feels normal again.

  2. If your products aren’t sinking into the skin, if you’re looking oily no matter what “mattifying” products you use, or if your makeup isn’t staying in place, you might be using too much product.

How much is “overdoing it”?

That depends on your skin and on the environment you live in. For example, your skin might be able to tolerate certain ingredients during humid summer months, but those same ingredients might be too much for your skin during the winter months, when it becomes dehydrated from indoor heating or dry winter winds.

It also depends on the concentration of the active ingredient(s) in a product. The “stronger” the product, the less of it you need to apply! If you’re starting to use a new active ingredient such as retinoids, start low and go slow: apply once every other 2 days, at least, for the first couple of weeks, or until your skin adjusts and shows no signs of irritation.

Why is my makeup/skincare product pilling?

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 sunscreen doesn’t set on your skin, turning into little flakes or “pills” (like those annoying fluffy bits that always ruin your favorite sweater). This can also happen if your skin is irritated and unable to absorb products as usual.

Woman resting her head on hand

Pro tips to avoid pilling

  1. Let your moisturizer, serum, or other skin treatments sink in or dry for a minute before applying the next layer on top.

  2. Start by applying less than you think you need, then add more if needed. Sometimes pilling is caused by too much product buildup on the skin!

Some ingredients just don’t belong together

If your skin looks or feels like you’ve overdone it, the combination of ingredients you’ve been using could be the problem. Using too many exfoliants at once is easy to do without even realizing it, so check your products for AHAs or BHAs (glycolic acid, salicylic acid, etc.) before using them in the same day. (To find out more about what chemical exfoliants are, check out our Chemical Exfoliation Guide!) And if you’re using chemical exfoliants, avoid using exfoliating cleansers, scrubs, or cleansing brushes at the same time.

Beware photosensitive ingredients!

If an ingredient is “photosensitive,” that basically means using it on your skin will make sun exposure extra-risky. Retinoids or alpha hydroxy acids (AHAs), for example, are skincare ingredients that can make your skin more sensitive to the sun’s rays. If you use either of these, you gotta wear sunscreen every day, or else you’ll sunburn more easily, which is no fun! Besides, not protecting your skin from the sun kind of defeats the purpose of using all those skincare products, right?

🌞Check out our recommended list of face sunscreens for every skin type to find one that’ll work for your skin🌞

Closeup of man rubbing in skincare cream to his face

Over-exfoliating is not doing your skin any favors

You can tell if you’ve over-exfoliated your skin based on a few hallmark reactions.

*Don’t* let it shine

Over-exfoliated skin may look shiny, even if it’s not oily at all. That’s because over-exfoliated skin has lost too many surface skin cells, which gives it the effect of light reflecting off of glass. This may sound good in theory, but it’s actually not a good thing for your skin to be too smooth. The rough texture of our skin’s surface actually diffuses light, so we can have that glowy look without glaring like a polished hubcap in the afternoon sun.

Feel the burn?

If your skin stings, feels tight and dry, and looks red, you’ve probably burned the surface a bit. It could be a chemical burn from too many chemical exfoliants (such as acids), or a “rub burn” from scrubbing too much, or even a sunburn (especially if you’ve been using retinoids or AHAs without wearing sunscreen). Just remember: contrary to what you might have heard, the burn does not mean it’s working.

How to *not* irritate your skin

  1. Wait about 10 minutes after washing your face and gently pat it dry before applying any retinoids and other active ingredients. Damp skin absorbs more quickly, and absorbing active ingredients too fast can overload your skin! So, if you let your skin dry all the way first, it will absorb the active ingredients gradually.

  2. Don’t scrub too hard or use a rotating brush such as Clarisonic while you’re using active ingredients that can sensitize the skin — at least while your skin is adjusting to a new ingredient. Check out our Guide to Exfoliation for more tips.

  3. Apply a moisturizer before you apply a retinoid (or, for example, if your custom Curology cream has a retinoid in it). This can help soothe your skin and counteract possible irritation from the powerful ingredients.

  4. Wait before you combine use of over-the-counter active ingredients, such as AHAs or BHAs (glycolic acid, salicylic acid, etc.) or retinol, with prescription-strength skincare ingredients. For example, if you’re using Curology, it’s a good idea to take it easy on the over-the-counter products while your skin adjusts to the powerful ingredients in your custom formula.

🌞Check out our guide for what products to use/not use for new Curology members!🌞

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Take the guesswork out of it

If you’re unsure about layering products — and with so many ingredients to consider in skincare products out there, why wouldn’t you be?! — you could always opt for an all-in-one solution like Curology. We take the guesswork out of finding the right products for your skin by connecting you to a dermatology provider who’ll whip up a custom prescription skin cream just for you. And if you opt for the set, complete with our cleanser and moisturizer, you can easily wrap up your skincare routine in under 5 minutes. Sign up for a free trial at and your first month’s on us!

Custom superbottle for breakouts | Free Trial button

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Curology Team

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