January 30, 2023

Few things are more irritating than finding out the hard way that a new skincare product you had high hopes for doesn’t deliver. A few weeks ago, I overheard one of my fashion-editor friends complaining about her new SPF. She explained that she had seen beauty editors rave about it but felt let down because she was having some sort of reaction that was causing her skin to peel upon application.

I was confused. I had never heard of an SPF causing such an extreme reaction. I asked her to show me what she meant. As she rubbed the product into her skin, small balls (that, in fairness to her, did look a bit skin-like) started forming on the surface. I quickly explained to her that the good news was she wasn’t having an allergic reaction, but the bad news was her skincare wasn’t working as it should. Her skin wasn’t peeling; her skincare was pilling.

How to stop makeup and skincare pilling: @fiahamelijnck

“When layering skincare or makeup products, or when product textures do not agree with each other, you may experience pilling. This is when you can see the product appearing on the skin or on your hands in little bobbles,” reveals Alexandria Henderson, aesthetic practitioner and founder of CB Aesthetics. 

The downside of pilling makeup is evident—bobbly, flaky foundation is not a look anybody is striving for. But it’s not just the way pilling skincare and makeup look that makes it annoying. In fact, pilling is a sign that your skincare hasn’t been absorbed properly by your skin, meaning you’re unlikely to reap the intended results.

The good news, however, is that pilling can be prevented very easily. So whether it’s makeup or skincare pilling you’re grappling with, keep scrolling to discover the six very simple ways to stop it from happening.

1. Watch Out for Silicones

Silicone is a very popular ingredient in a number of skincare products. It helps to smooth the appearance of skin, leaving it feeling silky-soft. But while silicones certainly have their benefits in skincare, they also play a big part in pilling.

“Watch out for using too much silicone,” warns Helen Cowan, senior skin therapist at Dr Nestor’s Medical Cosmetic Centre, Edinburgh. “Silicone doesn’t absorb into the skin. When you apply a serum or moisturiser followed by makeup products that contain silicones, the skin doesn’t absorb the products, causing them to pill.”

Most commonly found in skin-smoothing primers, pre-makeup moisturisers and SPFs, silicones can hide in unlikely places. If a product feels particularly smoothing and silky, there’s a high chance it’s formulated with silicone. Look out for ingredients that end with “methicone” on INCI lists to spot a silicone. Dimethicone is one of the most commonly occurring silicones.)

In order to avoid pilling, it is best to avoid silicone-heavy skincare products. However, if you particularly like the way they feel on the skin, when layering skincare, be sure to use lightweight layers. 

Shop Silicone-Free Primers
Laura Mercier Pure Canvas Primer Hydrating
Laura Mercier
Pure Canvas Primer Hydrating

This hydrating primer helps give skin a subtle, lit-from-within glow.

Milk Makeup Hydro Grip Primer
Milk Makeup
Hydro Grip Primer

If it’s long-lasting makeup you’re after, look no further.

Rare Beauty Always an Optimist Illuminating Primer
Rare Beauty
Always an Optimist Illuminating Primer

This illuminating primer is ideal for dull, lacklustre skin.

2. Look for Lightweight Formulas

Another surefire way to ensure your skin doesn’t absorb skincare is by slathering it in thick, heavy and rich formulas. Typically, the more lightweight the formula, the more easily the skin will absorb it. “Be sure to choose lightweight skincare and makeup products that are easily absorbed by the skin if you want to avoid pilling,” suggests Spirithoula Koukoufikis, senior medical aesthetician at Skinfluencer.

If your skin is dry and benefits from using thick, rich creams but you find your products are pilling, look for lightweight, hydrating serums that contain supercharged ingredients such as hyaluronic acid, ceramides, squalane and glycerin—they deliver essential moisture without overloading the skin.

Shop Lightweight Hydrating Serums
Glossier Super Bounce
Super Bounce

Jam-packed with hyaluronic acid, this lightweight milky serum helps keep skin looking plump and bouncy.

Byoma Hydrating Serum
Hydrating Serum

With a tri-ceramide complex, squalane and glycerin, this serum is about as hydrating as they come.

Vichy Minéral 89 Hyaluronic Acid Hydrating Serum
Minéral 89 Hyaluronic Acid Hydrating Serum

The watery consistency of this lightweight serum feels impossibly fresh.

3. Reduce Portion Sizes

You may have noticed that your skincare and makeup pills particularly badly when you have applied a lot of product in one go. “Try applying a little less product,” advises Henderson. When it comes to skincare, more isn’t always more. In fact, slathering on thick layers of product, whether it be a serum, moisturiser, primer or foundation, is bound to cause pilling. The more product you apply, the higher the chances your skin won’t be able to absorb it properly. 

Many people find that pilling is at its most prominent during foundation application. To help mitigate some damage, look for lightweight foundation formulas that layer well and are easily blendable.

Shop Blendable Bases
Clinique Even Better Clinical Serum Foundation SPF20
Even Better Clinical Serum Foundation SPF20

A tiny bit of this satin-matte, full-coverage foundation goes a very long way.

Rose Inc Tinted Serum
Rose Inc
Tinted Serum

This lightweight skin tint layers really well.

Charlotte Tilbury Charlotte's Beautiful Skin Foundation
Charlotte Tilbury
Charlotte’s Beautiful Skin Foundation

Build up thin layers of this foundation until you reach your ideal coverage.

4. Layer Thinnest to Thickest

One of the most notable reasons that products pill is because they have been applied in a nonsensical order. Certain skincare ingredients are occlusive on the skin, meaning they work by sealing in moisture rather than delivering it, and can’t be absorbed into the skin. Occlusive ingredients will also stop any products applied over the top of them from being absorbed into the skin.

“Always start with water-based products, and then move on to cream-/oil-based products. In practical terms, this means your serums should go on first and a rich cream or facial oil should be the final step in your skincare routine,” says Koukoufikis. 

Shop Face Oils
Elemis Superfood Facial Oil
Superfood Facial Oil

This lightweight face oil doesn’t leave skin feeling greasy.

Drunk Elephant Virgin Marula Luxury Facial Oil
Drunk Elephant
Virgin Marula Luxury Facial Oil

This face oil is rich and helps to deliver nourishment to damaged skin barriers.

Votary Super Seed Facial Oil
Super Seed Facial Oil

If your skin is sensitive, this fragrance-free oil is sure to help soothe irritation.

5. Allow Time for Absorption

If you like layering your skincare and makeup and often find your products pill, it’s of utmost importance to ensure you are allowing enough time for each layer to absorb before you apply the next. “Rushing your routine is one of the most common factors in skincare and makeup pilling. By rushing, you are essentially wiping off the product you have just applied with the application of the next one. Build up a nice, smooth base slowly, giving enough time for each product to be absorbed into the skin,” says Cowan. 

To help cut back on the wait time between layers, reach for fast-absorbing serums and creams.

Shop Fast-Absorbing Skincare
Chanel No1 de Chanel Revitalizing Serum
No1 de Chanel Revitalizing Serum

This luxe serum helps to restore skin’s youthful glow in a matter of seconds.

Shiseido Essential Energy Hydrating Day Cream SPF20
Essential Energy Hydrating Day Cream SPF20

You really don’t need a lot of this moisturiser to nourish your skin—just one dab will do your face and neck. 

Biossance Squalane + Probiotic Gel Moisturizer
Squalane + Probiotic Gel Moisturizer

This refreshing gel moisturiser sinks into skin with unrivalled ease.

6. Exfoliate

It might seem counterintuitive, but it turns out making sure you exfoliate your skin once or twice a week will help prevent pilling. “Optimised absorption of products decreases chances of pilling. So, add an exfoliator into your skincare routine to encourage regular cell turnover and ensure skin is as healthy as possible,” says Cowan.

But be sure not to overdo it. “If you apply skincare and makeup on top of dead skin cells, your skin will struggle to absorb any of it. Exfoliate twice a week with a mild exfoliator to remove dead skin cells,” recommends Koukoufikis.

Shop Exfoliators
Paula's Choice Skin Perfecting 2% BHA Liquid Exfoliant
Paula’s Choice
Skin Perfecting 2% BHA Liquid Exfoliant

Swipe this exfoliating treatment over skin to unclog pores and slough away at dead skin cells.

Dr. Barbara Sturm Enzyme Cleanser
Dr. Barbara Sturm
Enzyme Cleanser

Use this enzyme cleanser once a week to keep skin renewed and fresh-looking.

Youth to the People Mandelic Acid + Superfood Unity Exfoliant
Youth to the People
Mandelic Acid + Superfood Unity Exfoliant

If your skin is on the slightly more sensitive side, this mandelic acid treatment is a good option.

Next up, these are the only 16 exfoliators that actually help get rid of my blackheads.