Why Your Skincare Pills Or Balls Up On Your Face (And My Fave Tricks To Avoid It)

by Gio

why skincare pills or balls up

WTH?

You’ve spent 10 minutes putting your skincare on and now that you’ve reached the last layer, everything’s flaking off?! What’s going on here?!

Your face’s got a bad case of pilling.

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?

Here’s the deal: not all skincare products play well together. Most of them will go along just fine. But, 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.

Why Does Product Pilling Happen?

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

A few reasons:

  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.

How Do You Fix This?

Take a look at the ingredient lists. 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. Simples.

Related: The Complete Guide To Facial Oils

vichy slow age fluid moisturizer

Product Pilling Reason #2: High Concentration Of Silicones

Me loves some silicones:

  • 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
  • They make your skin silky soft to the touch
  • They form a barrier that traps moisture in

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!

How Do You Fix This?

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.

Your best bet is to avoid products that are too high in silicones. But if you have a special occasion to go too and really need that silicone-laden primer, try this: use less products and wait a few minutes before applying your makeup.

Related: Are Silicones Bad For Skin?

elemental herbology dry skin range

Product Pilling Reason #3: You Apply 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. Why?

Because 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.

How Do You Fix It?

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.

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 Do You Fix It?

You can do several things here. You can switch to an oil-based product. Or, if you want to keep using your fave water-based moisturiser, you can try applying less, patting it on rather than rubbing it in and exfoliating your skin before application.

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.

Have you ever had to deal with pilling? Share your experience in the comments below.

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24 comments

Porcelina December 5, 2017 - 7:21 am

Aha!! Thank you for this – you’ve just explained a recently developed problem since I added some new products to my routine. I will check labels – and try to exercise some patience…

Reply
Gio December 10, 2017 - 2:02 pm

Porcelina, glad this helped. Let me know how it goes. 🙂

Reply
Jeanne Kim December 7, 2017 - 7:29 pm

I just found your blog today and I really appreciate the knowledge that you share! I found your blog through the peptides post because I was trying to see if they really worked or not. I’ve read through three posts already and found them all very helpful. Thank you! 🙂

Reply
Gio December 10, 2017 - 2:23 pm

Jeanne, my pleasure. I’m so glad to hear you’re enjoying my blog and hope to see you her often.

Reply
Lume December 9, 2017 - 9:21 pm

I’m trying to fix my dehydrated skin, so at night I’ve been slathering on the moisturizers. Eventually I’ve put too much on and they pill, but my skin isn’t itchy or dry anymore. If moisturizers are pilling, are they still doing their job? Is my face still being moisturized?

Reply
Gio December 10, 2017 - 3:01 pm

Lume, if there is pilling, then some of the product is being rubbed off. I’d suggest switching to a richer formula or on oil.

Reply
Megann April 6, 2018 - 2:38 pm

Thank you so much for this. I tried a brand new moisturizer this morning and this happened to me! I tried it twice with the same result. I thought my skin was peeling off! I guess this is not the one for me!

Reply
Gio April 8, 2018 - 11:24 am

Megann, if you’re not willing to change something else in your skincare routine, it’s best to ditch it indeed.

Reply
Britt May 1, 2018 - 5:58 pm

Moisturizer, primer and foundation are all water based but the pilling is out of control 🙁 I guess its time to try some oil based products!

Reply
Gio May 4, 2018 - 7:59 pm

Britt, are you waiting a little between application?

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Bethany May 6, 2018 - 4:14 pm

Hi, my nighttime routine is all the ordinary
Hylauronic + b5 I wait 5 minutes before adding
Niacinamide and zinc then half an hour before
2% retinoid emulsion
I then wait until just before I go to sleep to add the rosehip seed oil, this could be anywhere from half an hour to 2 hours but it still goes all bitty. On the ordinary site all these products apparently go together. Any idea what could be happening.
Thanks

Reply
Gio May 18, 2018 - 3:34 pm

Bethany, is your skin oily? They may be reacting with the natural oils on your skin.

Reply
Mercedes June 18, 2018 - 6:49 pm

Any reason why Clindamycin Phosphate/Bezoyl Peroxide Gel (Prescription) and my sunscreen are pilling on my face? Do these products not work well together? My sunscreen is by Paula’s Choice – Extra Care Non Greasy Sunscreen SPF 50.

Reply
Gio June 22, 2018 - 12:28 pm

Mercedes, have you tried waiting a few minutes in between application? It usually helps.

Reply
claudia July 13, 2018 - 2:40 pm

Hi Gio – great info as I found this when searching for a solution to make my Derma E Baby sunscreen work! I use the Hada Labo Premium Hydrating Lotion then I’ve tried with or without moisturizer adding the Derma E sunscreen and it just rolls off when trying to really spread it or even worse when adding foundation/concealer on top. I will try the sunscreen on my bare face and if that works, I’ll try it without the Hada Labo.

Reply
Gio July 21, 2018 - 9:04 pm

Claudia, glad this post helped. Let me know how it goes.

Reply
fran January 5, 2019 - 7:14 pm

Arghhh… I have been having issues with this for a few weeks now. I tend to change my skin care routine every few months or have atleast one new product once a month as I get subscription boxes (glossy box, birchbox etc). I currently use a micellar water (charcoal) toner with a cotton pad first. Then I apply 100% aloe vera gel straight from the plant..i then use a serum (currently nip & fab or revolution.. Then a moisturiser (currently a sorbet one with mostly water or I use marcelle city). Then oil (currently cbd oil by revolution) and then last I spray with queen of hungary mist.

After around 10 mins I touch or rub my face and I end up rubbing my whole face to get it all off (which is grose coz it looks and feels like dirt & if you don’t understand Pilling then you think it’s horrible and don’t understand why you’re face is dirty when you’ve literally just cleaned it!)

I have tried applying in different orders or every other night illiminating a product to find the culprit but to no avail! It’s still happening! I would say I have normal/oily skin but I only really get oily on my chin and around my nose. Maybe it could be my skin? Who knows! It’s piles up especially around my eye sockets, my jawline and around my lips!? Strange!

Obviously I want to get to the bottom of it, as I don’t want to be basically rubbing money off my face and wasting products I pay good money for! My skin is clearer than its been in years and texture wise its great.. But obviously something isn’t right!
Any help would be greatly appreciated, loved your info and found this blog the most helpful one of them all out there!

Pleaaaaase reply lol thanks 🙂
Fran, North Wales UK
Age 30
Fair skin
Normal/oily skin

Reply
Gio January 24, 2019 - 6:14 pm

Fran, glad to hear my blog helps. Unfortunately it’s impossible for me to know exactly what the culprit is as I am not familiar with all these products. But there are a couple of things you can try:

1. Wait a few minutes between application and see if it helps
2. Take one product out of your routine at a time and see if it makes a difference. If one specific product is causing the pilling, by taking it out you should be able to identify it.

Reply
todd January 17, 2019 - 7:12 pm

Which ingredients would you say a formulator should increase to prevent pilling? Should we increase oil content from 6% to 7% or increase plant base wetters like isoamyl Laurate? Curious for your input. Thanks for your fab blog.

Reply
Gio January 19, 2019 - 5:36 pm

Todd, I don’t think that’s a formulator concern. Their job is to create the best product they can. Pilling is a concern when you start mixing products. There are literally millions of products on the market so I don’t think you can formulate something to be 100% unpillable.

Reply
Amy February 19, 2019 - 2:11 am

This has helped me so much !! I thought I was the ONLY one having these problems. Thank you FOREVER

Reply
Gio February 20, 2019 - 5:58 pm

Amy, my pleasure. Glad it helped.

Reply
D. Shelton July 30, 2019 - 12:30 pm

How do you determine how much silicone a product has?

Reply
Gio August 9, 2019 - 4:36 pm

D. Shelton, look at the ingredients. If there are too many ending in “cone” and are present towards the beginning, it has a ton.

Reply

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