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Skin

Why your skincare and makeup is pilling (and how to stop it)

June 15th 2022 / Anna Hunter and Ingeborg van Lotringen / 0 comment

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Image: Shutterstock

If your skincare or makeup is pilling (that's the technical term for it forming into weird balls) as you apply it, here’s what’s going on and how to prevent this infuriating rolling-off of your precious products

It’s a strange phenomenon mainly associated with knitwear, but pilling can strike your skincare routine as well as your cashmere, causing the pricey skin serum or high end foundation you forked out for to quite literally roll off of your face. Not okay and immensely frustrating when you’ve got a life to be getting on with. It even happens to makeup pros. "I do know that I sometimes struggle with layering a cream formula on top of a silicone-based product but why, scientifically, skincare and makeup pilling happens, I'm not sure, says MUA and makeup entrepreneur Daniel Sandler. And Rose Gallagher, helpfully, took to Instagram to explain some of the main causes of pilling and share her hacks for dealing with it

Here’s why your skincare or makeup could be flaking off of your face in tiny grey worm-like bits, and what to do about it, short of lint-rollering your head (this won’t work because you’re not a coat).

You’re rushing your regime

This is one of the most common factors in skincare and makeup pilling according to Dr Sam Bunting: “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.”

The solution: Follow Dr Sam’s slow protocol - there’s less risk of pilling and you’ll probably start the day in a far more relaxed manner too:

“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.” Or, she suggests, simplify your routine as much as possible with well-formulated products that do it all, like a daily sunscreen with age-defying ingredients. "It’s going to be much easier to apply and that’s so important in your morning routine where product pilling can ruin your day!"

Rose Gallagher agrees with Dr Sam's slow flow, saying: "Leave more time in between each step in your skincare and makeup routine. Make a cup of tea between your moisturiser and foundation."

You’re applying too much product

We’ve all gone too gung-ho on skincare application - when you’ve got a vial of something silky and comforting to dive into it’s all too tempting, yet applying a surplus of product not only wastes your cash but it makes pilling more probable as loading on skincare and makeup decreases absorption and adherence to your skin. " Use a little bit less of everything in your routine because pilling can be caused by using too much product," confirms Rose.

The solution: You knew this was coming - apply less product to encourage penetration and nip pilling in the bud.

Ingredients in your skincare or makeup are ‘reacting’

There are several skincare and makeup culprits that make pilling more likely, the main player being silicone. Silicones essentially sit on the surface of your skin, helping to to prevent moisture loss while also creating a smooth, silky, long-lasting canvas, which is why you’ll see ingredients ending in ‘cone’ on the label of most primers and foundations, and in many 'creamy' products such as cream blush. As silicone doesn’t absorb into the skin, if you apply a serum or moisturiser containing silicone and follow up with silicone-heavy makeup, you’ve got a potential pilling issue on your hands (well, face) as the double whammy of silicone that you’ve applied has nowhere to go.

Cosmetic scientist and Cosmetics a la Carte founder Lynn Saunders points to an 'opposing magnets' principle: "If, for example, your foundation and blush are silicone-based, your blush can slide and separate, then pill. Silicones can repel each other unless the type of silicone in either product is identical, which is not likely as there are so many different cosmetic silicones,” she says.

Other pill-prone ingredients in skincare and makeup are those that are powders that don't dissolve in water, including iron oxide, talc, mica and fluorphlogopite (a synthetic version of mica typically used to create shimmer or ‘glow’ in makeup). Max out on these or layer too many products containing them and pilling becomes all the more likely.

Mineral sunscreens zinc oxide and titanium dioxide, which are powder suspensions (meaning oil-based fluids with fine powders 'hung up' in them') can cause this problem as well, explaing why that final layer of necessary sunscreen or mineral-based liquid foundation can so often cause a pilling disaster.

Combining oil-based and water-based products at the same time has pilling potential as well - as you might remember from rudimentary chemistry lessons, the two don’t mix all that well and can ‘separate’ on the skin, essentially opposing each other and causing skincare or makeup to shed off, snake-style. The main culprit here is ever-popular superhydrator hyaluronic acid, which, the late human cosmetics encyclopedia Brandon Truaxe of The Ordinary told us, in its basic form consists of very large molecules that form a film on the surface of the skin. Even 'low molecular weight' hyaluronic acid serums (meaning those with much smaller, more penetrating HA molecules) tend to leave a measure of this film. HA-based hydrating sheet masks are prime offenders as well, as they leave a super-load of the hydrator sitting on your face. Top it too soon with a face oil or oil-based cream, and the whole lot will roll off like a pilling party.

Now, if the thought of interrogating every ingredients label in your bathroom and assessing compatibility makes you want to throw the towel in on this skincare thing, we don’t blame you, but don’t sweat the small stuff…

The solution: You can get around the problem relatively easily. When it comes to clashing silicones, “use very little product and let, for example, your BB sink in before rubbing on blush,” says Saunders. The solution for hyaluronic acid is much the same: wait 15 minutes (in the case of HA sheet masks, this time is a must) before applying cream or oil, and think about patting these in rather that rubbing, especially in the case of oil. It's also best to wait at least ten minutes before applying mineral sunscreen or foundation over serum and/or cream, especially if these contain a lot of hyaluronic acid. You can also tone down the silicone based products if you’re experiencing a lot of pilling and check that other flake-prone ingredients are towards the bottom of ingredients lists rather than at the top. Ensure that you’re not sandwiching in too many silicone heavy serums, primers and foundations too, which brings us to the next point on pilling...

You’re applying skincare in the wrong order

As a general rule of skincare layering, apply water-based products before oil based skincare, as the thinner-textured water-based products will have a chance to absorb, while any oil-based products applied on top are there to ‘seal the deal’ and keep actives and moisture in. Do it the other way round and you’ve not only got a ‘pants over your trousers’ skincare scenario, whereby the precious rejuvenating ingredients in your serum, essence or lotion can’t penetrate into your skin, but any product applied on top of a heavier oil based layer is far more likely to ball up and run for the hills.

The solution: If you’re using a rich cream or facial oil, be sure to apply it as the final step in your skincare routine. See this handy video by Dr Sam on what skincare to apply when during your morning and evening skincare routine for pointers.

Your skincare or foundation is too heavy

You’ve nailed the skincare-layering thing but still the teeny weeny white balls keep rolling. This could be down to the fact that you’re using skincare or makeup that’s too occlusive for your skin, so it’s sitting around on the surface rather than melting in nicely. If your skin is also getting greasy pre-midday, your makeup won’t stay put and/or you’re noticing dullness or breakouts after using a particular lotion or potion, these could also be signs that your skincare is weighing you down.

The solution: Lighten up your skincare and makeup textures and formulas to see if the pilling stops.

You’re rubbing in your skincare

as mentioned before, it’s not just slapping on skincare in a hurry that ups the odds of balling up - overzealous rubbing can cause skincare and makeup pilling too, particularly if the products contain silicone, hyaluronic acid or mineral sunscreens.

The solution: Pat and press, don’t rub. This will encourage products to absorb rather than travel around your face. Dr Sam uses a '13 dot' technique, whereby you "dab products on evenly over the skin, which reduces the need to distribute it too aggressively with the hands. This minimises friction."

A tool could come in handy too if everything falls to pieces. Rose recommends switching to a Beauty Blender or a sponge to apply your makeup, so you press your product in rather than rub it around.

You need to exfoliate

If you’re applying skincare and makeup on top of layers of dead skin, the flakiness potential increases as product won’t sink in or stick as well as it would on freshly exfoliated, ‘newer’ skin cells.

The solution: Add an exfoliating acid to your skincare routine to encourage regular skin cell turnover and rejuvenation and even out skin texture. This will in turn optimise and speed up the absorption of any skincare or makeup you apply afterwards and decrease chances of pilling. To find an exfoliating acid to suit your skin type, read our expert guide.

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