Feb 15, 2019 · 7 min read
If you’re trying to layer skincare products or like 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 balls 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.
If you notice pilling, there’s no need to panic. It’s harmless, and it’s most likely a symptom of applying too much product to your face, dryness, or both. Pilling is a common occurrence that many people experience, so there’s nothing to be embarrassed about. It’s easy to accidentally overdo it with facial products, even if you aren’t all about an elaborate multi-step skincare routine. All it takes is the wrong combination of ingredients. With so many options out there and many with complicated ingredient lists, it’s easily understandable if you don’t know how your skin could possibly react (or whether they could have an interaction that could actually 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! After all, too much of a good thing isn’t necessarily good (or so the saying goes).
If a little bit of a good thing is good, then more is better, right? Not necessarily. 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” usually 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 its delicate balance.
If you’re uncertain whether you’re inadvertently overloading your skin with products, here are a few signs to look for:
Your products aren’t sinking into the skin
You’re looking oily no matter what “mattifying” products you use
Your makeup isn’t staying in place
So why does this happen, and how do you fix it? The excess winds up sitting atop of your skin and looking oily or greasy (or, if you wear makeup, it won’t set or stay in place). The simple fix? Reduce the quantity of each product you use until you notice a difference.
If your skin is sensitive, and your routine is causing it to look red or flaky and sting or itch, it’s probably best to give it a break and let it breathe. Skip any products with active ingredients for a few days or so until your skin has had a chance to calm down.
How much product is too much product? That depends on your skin and on the environment you live in. For example, your skin may be able to tolerate certain ingredients during those hot, 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 drier winter winds.
It also depends on the concentration of the active ingredients in a product. The “stronger” the product, the less of it you need to apply! If you’re starting a new active ingredient (such as retinoids), start low and go slow.
If your makeup or skincare products don’t seem to absorb but rather roll off your face then it’s probably due to pilling. Thankfully, preventing pilling is pretty simple. But it requires a bit of patience (or more specifically, time).
Let your moisturizer, serum, or other skin treatments sink in or dry for a minute before applying the next layer on top.
Start by applying less product than you think you need, then add more only if needed. Sometimes pilling is caused by too much product buildup on the skin!
If you notice pilling, it could be due to a lot of different factors. Again, you could be applying your products in the incorrect order (generally lightest to thickest consistency is the way to go), or you could be experiencing flakiness from dry skin or a combination of other factors.
You may have to go through some trial and error to figure out the cause of your pilling, but if you’re in doubt, a dermatologist may be able to give you more specific advice based on the products you use and your unique skin.
Dry skin can also contribute to pilling, so here are a few extra tips and tricks to keep your skin super hydrated and as pill-proof as possible.
Check for the right ingredients. Finding a good moisturizer can be difficult, but the first step is always with the right ingredients. Look for hyaluronic acid to help keep your skin feeling hydrated.¹
Use a humidifier. Are you using all the right ingredients in your moisturizer, but your skin still feels dry? If you are in a dry environment, whether it’s cold or hot, your skin could feel extra parched, so a humidifier might help bring some more balance to your skin’s moisture.²
Use gentle warm water. A super hot shower can feel great, but your skin might not feel the same. Instead, opt for warm gentler water when showering and cleansing your skin.²
Apply moisturizer right away. Once you wash your face or get out of the shower, apply moisturizer. This way, your face cream can trap in the existing moisture.²
Apply SPF. A sunburn can not only be painful, but you may also notice dry, irritated skin. Make sure to wear broad spectrum sunscreen with SPF 30 or more to help keep your skin protected from the sun’s rays.³
If your skin looks or feels like you’ve overdone it (i.e. you’re experiencing temporary dryness, flaking, burning, redness, or mild itching), 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.)⁴ To find out more about what chemical exfoliants are, check out our chemical exfoliation article. If you’re using chemical exfoliants, avoid using exfoliating cleansers, scrubs, or cleansing brushes at the same time.
If your skin stings, feels tight and dry, and looks red, it’s most likely irritated. It could be from using too many chemical exfoliants (such as acids), from scrubbing too much, or even a sunburn. Whatever the case, just remember: contrary to the old-school rhetoric, the “burn” does not mean it’s working.
Be patient. 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,⁵ and absorbing active ingredients too fast may lead to irritation! So, if you let your skin dry all the way first, it can absorb the active ingredients more slowly.
Be gentle. While exfoliating is great to remove dead skin cells, 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.⁴
Don’t forget to moisturize. Apply a moisturizer before you apply a retinoid (or, for example, if your custom Curology cream contains a retinoid). This can help soothe your skin and counteract possible irritation from the ingredients.⁶
Go easy on active ingredients. In general, it’s a good idea to wait before you combine over-the-counter active ingredients, such as AHAs or BHAs (glycolic acid, salicylic acid, etc.) or retinol, with prescription-strength skincare ingredients (like tretinoin!). 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 ingredients in your custom formula.
If you’re a Curology member and want more help with your skincare routine, check out our guide for what products to use/not use for new Curology members!
If you’re unsure about layering products you can 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 licensed dermatology provider who’ll evaluate your skin and prescribe a Custom Formula with a mix of active ingredients chosen for your unique skin concerns, plus any of our recommended products.
And if you opt for the set, complete with our cleanser and moisturizer, you can easily wrap up your skincare routine in less than five minutes. Sign up for a free* trial at curology.com, and your first month is on us!
That depends on your skin and on the environment you live in. It also depends on the concentration of the active ingredients in a product. The “stronger” the product, the less of it you need to apply! If you’re starting a new active ingredient (such as retinoids), start low and go slow.
Papakonstantinou, E., et al. Hyaluronic acid: A key molecule in skin aging.Dermato-endocrinology. (2012, July 1).
American Academy of Dermatology, Dermatologist's Tips for Relieving Dry Skin. (n.d.).
Mayo Clinic Staff. Sunburn. Mayo Clinic. (2020, July 17).
American Academy of Dermatology. How to Safely Exfoliate. (n.d.).
Arimoto, H., et al. (2016). Analysis of absorption and spreading of moisturizer on the microscopic region of the skin surface with near-infrared imaging. Skin research and technology : official journal of International Society for Bioengineering and the Skin (ISBS) [and] International Society for Digital Imaging of Skin (ISDIS) [and] International Society for Skin Imaging (ISSI). (2016).
Lynde, Chuck W et al. Moisturizers and Ceramide-containing Moisturizers May Offer Concomitant Therapy with Benefits. The Journal of clinical and aesthetic dermatology (March 2014).
This article was originally published on February 15, 2019, and updated on May 5, 2022.
*Cancel anytime. Subject to consultation. Trial is 30 days + $4.95 shipping and handling. Results may vary.
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.
Nicole Hangsterfer, PA-C