why skincare pills or balls up

Have you heard of skincare pilling? You may not know what it’s called, but you sure have experienced it. Here’s what it looks like: you’ve spent 10 minutes putting your skincare on and now that you’ve reached the last layer, everything’s flaking off?! You’ve got tiny little balls of product? Dead cells? Dirt? all over your face. What’s going on here?!

Your face’s got a bad case of pilling. It’s super annoying. You don’t want to waste products and you certainly don’t want to take everything off and start again. Is there another way? Yep. Here’s why your skincare is pilling and how to stop it from happening in the first place.

What The Heck Is Product Pilling?

Let’s get something straight from the beginning: those little flakes you’re rubbing off your skin are NOT dead skin cells. It’s product. Yep, you’re rubbing off one or two of the products you’ve just applied. How? Why? What?

“”It’s called pilling, and it’s the effect of either over-layering products, or when product textures don’t agree with each other combined with the friction of hand/brush application, resulting in bobbles of product appearing on the skin, a bit like flakes of rubber when you rub something out on paper,” says says Ada Ooi, founder of 001 Skincare.

In the age of IG influencers and Korean skincare galore, you’re encouraged to put a gazillion products on your skin every morning and evening. But, that can actually backfire. While most skincare products play well together, every now and then you’ll meet a couple who can’t stand each other. Try as you might, there’s no way to get them both to stay put. One or both is balling up and leaving your skin. That’s how much they hate each other. So what can you do about it? How can you stop this from happening?

Confused what products you should NOT use together? Download your FREE “How To Combine Actives Like A Pro” cheat sheet to find out:

What Causes It?

So your moisturiser hates your sunscreen. Your foundation can’t stand your primer. But WHY?

“Pilling happens when products containing silicones are being layered,” explains Ada. “Silicone is a family of occlusive ingredients, which sit on the surface of the skin and are not properly absorbed, meaning that friction occurs with application.”

“Another culprit is gel-form products, when you don’t allow enough time for drying or proper absorption before applying another product, the polymer left on the skin can easily act up with the other product you’re rubbing in.”

That’s a good indication of what products to be careful with when layering. You can stop here or you can delve deeper into the science with me. The most 3 common causes of skincare pilling are:

  1. You mix products high in oils with others high in water
  2. You use products with a high concentration of silicones
  3. You apply products too quickly

Let’s go through them one by one, ok?

a'kin rosehip oil with vitamin C 01

Product Pilling Reason #1: Oil And Water Don’t Mix

Have you ever wondered why you can’t remove oil cleansers with water alone? Or why you need to shake your bi-phase eye makeup remover to make the layers mix? Oil and water DON’T MIX. If you were to drop some oil into a glass of water, the two liquids would form two distinct layers. If you want them to play together, you need to add some sort of emulsifier.

Most products are balanced that way. They use water, oils and emulsifiers to get them to mix into the same lotion/serum. Most. A few skincare products contain a lot of oils and no water while others are higher in water than oils. Put them one on top of each other and it won’t end well. Oil-based and water-based products repel each other, causing the dreading flaking.

Related: The Complete Guide To Facial Oils

vichy slow age fluid moisturizer

Product Pilling Reason #2: High Concentration Of Silicones

Silicones get a bad reputation, but there’s a reason they’re so popular in the skincare world. They’re very multi-tasking (and cheap):

  • They give slip to a product, so that it glides on your skin smoothly
  • They fill in fine lines and wrinkles, so they look smaller to the naked eye (this effect is temporary)
  • They make your skin silky soft to the touch
  • They form a barrier that traps moisture in, so skin stays hydrated for longer.

But you know what they say: too much of a good thing is a bad thing. Silicones are designed to stay on top of your skin. Their job is to smoothen out its surface. They couldn’t do it properly if they were absorbed. Problem is, it’s hard to spread a new product on top of one that hasn’t fully absorbed. When you do, you tend to remove what you’re already applied!

Related: Are Silicones Bad For Skin?

elemental herbology dry skin range

Product Pilling Reason #3: You’re Rushing Your Routine And Applying Skincare Products Too Quickly

Reason #3 is related to reason #2. Remember when I said it’s difficult to spread a new layer over an old one that hasn’t fully absorbed? Well, sometimes you can use two products that are perfectly compatible (both water-based, for example) and still have them balling up.

Dermatologist Dr Sam Bunting shares: “Rushing your skincare application can mean wiping off one product when you apply the next – you lose some of the benefit and it can make a mess when you try to apply makeup as it won’t adhere well to skin.”

This happens when you didn’t give the first product enough time to sink into your skin. Anything that hasn’t fully sunk in has the potential to compromise the absorption of what you use next. Sometimes, the next layer simply sits on top of your skin. Sometimes, it makes everything ball up.

Related: How Long Should You Wait Before Applying The Next Skincare Product?

blissoma phototonic facial sunscreen + daily moisturizer SPf 25

What If I Only Use Moisturiser/Sunscreen And It Still Balls Up?

I know some of you like to use only one or two skincare products. If it works for you, it’s totally fine.

But sometimes, even that one product can ball up. How is that even possible if there’s nothing else interfering?

Your skin is interfering. Your skin’s natural protective barrier is oil-based so it could repeal any water-based products you put on it.

How To Stop Your Skincare Pilling

Now you know why your skincare is pilling, here’s what you can do to stop it from happening:

1. Avoid Products High In Silicones

Your primer is the worst culprit here. It’s usually the product most loaded with silicones. But your foundation, serum or moisturiser can have their fair share, too. If you have a special occasion coming up and you need to use a silicone-laden primer, then follow the other tips in this post. Mostly, wait a few minutes before applying the next skincare products. Yes, I’ve said minutes, ladies.

2. Use Like With Like

Take a look at the ingredient lists of the products you’re applying when your skincare is pilling. You’re looking for oil-based products with little water and water-based products with little oil. Found them? Don’t use them together! Apply the water-based product in the morning and the oil-based one at night. Simple.

3. Take Your Time To Apply Your Skincare Routine

I know it’s a pain. You want to apply all your skincare products in a couple of minutes and be done with it. But if you’re tired of the dreaded pilling, you need to wait for a layer to fully absorb before you go in with the next. Here’s what Dr Bunting recommends:

“Taking your time means you build up a nice smooth base which ultimately leads to easy makeup application. Wait for your morning treatment product to absorb, then apply moisturiser where needed. When this has sunk in (it’s the perfect amount of time to get dressed), apply sunscreen. Once this has dried completely (check emails), apply makeup.” 

4. Exfoliate Regularly

You should be doing this anyway. Exfoliation is the quickest way to get glowing skin. It removes dead cells off the surface of your skin to smoothen out and brighten the complexion. It also helps your skincare products to better absorb into your skin, reducing the risk of pilling. I recommend you avoid manual/physical exfoliation as it’s too harsh for skin. Instead:

  • If you have dry skin, use glycolic acid 3 nights a week. It also has hydrating properties.
  • If you have oily, acne-prone skin, use salicylic acid every other night. It helps treat and prevent blackheads, whiteheads, and pimples.
  • If you have sensitive skin, use lactic acid. It’s the gentlest exfoliant for your skin type.


  • Drunk Elephant T.L.C. Framboos Glycolic Night Serum ($68.40): This exfoliant contains glycolic, salicylic, and lactic acid to exfoliate, brighten and treat acne. Best for combination skin. Available at Cult Beauty, Sephora and SpaceNK.
  • Paula’s Choice Resist Daily Smoothing Treatment With 5% AHA ($33.00): A gentle glycolic acid treatment to exfoliate and brighten dry skin. Available at Paula’s Choice, Selfridges, and SpaceNK.
  • Paula’s Choice Skin Perfecting 2% BHA Liquid ($29.00): An iconic salicylic acid exfoliant to treat and prevent acne. Available at Cult Beauty, Paula’s Choice, Selfridges, Sephora, and SpaceNK
  • The Ordinary Lactic Acid 5% + HA 2% (£5.50): The gentlest exfoliant for sensitive skin. Available at Boots, Cult Beauty, Sephora, SpaceNK, and The Ordinary.

5. Apply Less Product

I know what you’re thinking: if I use a bigger dollop of retinol, I’m going reduce those wrinkles faster. If I apply a generous dose of moisturiser, I’ll wake up with baby soft skin. Wrong. Applying too much of a skincare product can apply in a base case of irritation (like with retinol or glycolic acid) or with extra product sitting on the skin doing nothing (like moisturiser or Hyaluronic Acid). Plus, it can cause pilling too. Instead, use only as much product you need to cover your entire face. Sunscreen is the only exception. Apply sunscreen generously.

Related: Pat Or Rub: What’s The Best Way To Apply Your Skincare Products?

The Bottom Line

If your skincare balls up, flakes off or pills, chances are some of the products you’re using are incompatible or take too long to absorb. Use skincare products with similar ingredients together and let them fully absorb. It takes a bit longer, but it’s a small price to pay to never have to deal with pilling again.