Skip to main content

How it works:

  • Share your skin goals and snap selfies

  • Your dermatology provider prescribes your formula

  • Apply nightly for happy, healthy skin

How it works:

  • Share your skin goals and snap selfies

  • Your dermatology provider prescribes your formula

  • Apply nightly for happy, healthy skin

  1. blog
  2. > Skin Concerns

Is your makeup pilling? Here’s how to help prevent it from happening

Master the art of skincare layering to avoid pilling and maintain smooth skin all day.

Curology Team Avatar
by Curology Team
Updated on Apr 24, 2024 • 14 min read
Medically reviewed by Elise Griffin, PA-C
Young woman with pilling makeup
Curology Team Avatar
by Curology Team
Updated on Apr 24, 2024 • 14 min read
Medically reviewed by Elise Griffin, PA-C
We’re here to share what we know — but don’t take it as medical advice. Talk to your medical provider if you have questions.

In this article

What can cause pilling?
More

Exploring your favorite makeup looks for spring, summer, winter, or fall is one thing. But layering your skincare products under your makeup? Maybe not so much. Especially if it causes “pilling.”

Pilling can happen when your products don’t set on your skin, turning into little flakes or “pills” (like those annoying fluffy bits that always ruin your favorite sweater). It might look like flaky dry skin, but it’s usually a sign that your combination of products doesn’t mesh well or that they’re not fully absorbing into your skin. There’s not one specific cause of pilling, however, so preventing it can be tricky.

Read on, as we break down potential causes of pilling and how to avoid it.

What can cause pilling?

Noticed some makeup pill after carefully doing your makeup routine? Common causes of pilling include using too much product or the specific ingredients in your products.

Let’s try to catch the culprit that's causing your favorite makeup looks to pill:

1. Too much product

A beauty routine with too many moisturizers, creams, or serums may lead to pilling. All these products are designed to absorb into the skin, so using too many at once can simply overload your skin. (Think of a sponge that can’t soak up any more liquid.) Too much of a product may lead to clumps. This can be especially true when applying makeup on top of all of your previous products, so remember, “less is more” is the golden rule. (Of course, this doesn’t apply to sunscreen!)*

2. Rushing through your routine

Ever slept through your alarm and had to cram your entire morning routine into 10 minutes, only to find your products flaking off later in the day? (Oversleepers of the world, we feel your pain!) Pilling may be a sign that your products are mixing together on your skin before they have a chance to set. For example, a moisturizer probably needs to rest a few minutes before you apply foundation. So be sure you give your products the time they need to have their optimal effect, reducing the chances of pilling.

3. Formula and ingredients

Some makeup ingredients (like talc) rest on top of your skin and often expand as they soak up the oils in your skin and makeup,¹ which may also lead to clumps. Some people notice pilling when they use silicone-based products, too, although that doesn’t necessarily mean you need to throw out your favorite primer. Remember, whether a certain product pills depends on your skin and the formula of a product.

How to layer skincare

While the optimal order to layer skincare products can vary with the specifics of your routine, you generally want to think about product consistencies and work from light (lightweight products like a liquid serum) to heavy (like a thick moisturizer). Case in point: If you apply an oil or thick moisturizer on your skin before something like a serum with a more water-like consistency, the serum may not absorb into your skin as effectively.

Instagram photo of "how to layer your products" image

If you’re pressed for time, you may be better off skipping non-essential products like eye cream or a brightening face mask and just stick to the basics. Your best bet to help prevent pilling? Keep your skincare routine simple—see our suggested AM and PM routines below. If you have additional products in your routine, remember that the general rule of thumb is to go from thin to thick.

Morning routine

  • Cleanse. The first part of your morning skincare routine should always be your favorite cleanser. A gentle, nourishing cleanser is an important part of your morning routine.

  • Moisturize. Before your sunscreen, apply your hydrating moisturizer, taking care to look for products labeled non-clogging, non-acnegenic, or non-comedogenic.

  • Apply SPF. You probably hear it all the time (at least from us), but even so, we’ll say it again: SPF is a game-changer when it comes to caring for your skin. Regularly use a broad-spectrum sunscreen with SPF 30 or higher to protect your skin from both UVA and UVB rays, and be sure to give the sunscreen plenty of time to absorb into your skin before applying makeup.

Nighttime routine

  • Remove makeup (if you’re wearing it). To start your nighttime routine, first, thoroughly remove any makeup. You can try a micellar water (like our micellar makeup remover) or an oil-based makeup remover like a balm or a cleansing oil.

  • Cleanse. Just like in the mornings, the right cleanser can remove dirt, sweat, and oil after a long day.

  • Treat. If you use a skin treatment, like the Curology Custom Formulaᴿˣ,** give it time to soak into your skin after applying.

  • Moisturize. Your skin rejuvenates at night,² so it’s important to give it a good moisturizer to help it stay hydrated and healthy while you sleep. Press in your moisturizer or night cream gently to help your skin absorb all the hydration it can.

Before and After makeup graphic

To scrub or not to scrub?

Dead skin cells mixing with your products can also lead to pilling. Using a physical or chemical exfoliant helps remove dead skin cells, which may also help reduce pilling. That said, exfoliants aren’t typically meant for daily use—once or twice a week is plenty. Over-exfoliating isn’t good for your skin because it can cause irritation,³ so take it easy and scrub gently!

Deciding between chemical and physical exfoliation involves understanding how each method suits your unique skin needs and preferences.

Chemical exfoliation

Chemical exfoliants gently dissolve the bonds between your skin cells, making it easier to shed dead skin and reveal smoother, more radiant skin underneath. Here’s what you should know about the different types:⁴

  • α-Hydroxy acids (AHAs) like glycolic, lactic, and malic acids are fantastic for improving your skin’s texture and hydration. They’re water-soluble and work on the surface of your skin.⁵

  • β-Hydroxy acid (BHA), primarily salicylic acid, is your go-to if you have oily or acne-prone skin. Being oil-soluble, it can penetrate deep into your pores to clear them out.⁶ Try our Liquid Pore Exfoliant that contains both AHAs and BHA to help effectively exfoliate your skin.

  • Polyhydroxy acids (PHAs) such as lactobionic acid and gluconolactone are larger molecules that exfoliate your skin more gently, offering hydration and being well-suited for sensitive skin.

Chemical exfoliation is your best bet if you’re dealing with acne, uneven skin texture, hyperpigmentation, or signs of aging. It promotes cell turnover, helping to even out your complexion and reduce fine lines. However, remember that higher concentrations (above 10% to 15% for AHAs and 2% for BHA) need professional handling. At home, opt for products with lower concentrations and a pH above 3.5 to keep irritation at bay.⁷

Physical exfoliation

If you’re after immediate results and enjoy a more hands-on approach, physical exfoliation involves manually sloughing off dead skin cells using scrubs or tools.⁸ This method can give you a quick polish, but be gentle to avoid damaging your skin barrier. Physical exfoliation is great for when you want to quickly remove flaky skin or prep your skin for better product absorption. Use gentle motions and avoid overdoing it, especially if your skin is sensitive or prone to acne, to prevent irritation.⁹

When to choose which method

Opt for chemical exfoliation if you have concerns like acne, oiliness, or aging signs, or if your skin is sensitive. Gentle acids like PHAs can be particularly beneficial for you.¹⁰ Physical exfoliation might be more up your alley if your skin is less sensitive and you’re looking to remove surface-level dead skin for a smoother appearance. It’s a good pick for an instant refresh but should be limited to 1-2 times a week to avoid over-exfoliation.

Choosing the correct exfoliation technique is essential not just for your skin’s health and radiance but also for ensuring your makeup applies smoothly and stays put throughout the day. Always follow up with a moisturizer and SPF, especially since exfoliated skin can be more vulnerable to dryness and sun damage. If you’re unsure which method suits you best, consider consulting a skincare professional for personalized advice. Remember, your skin’s needs can change, so listen to it and adjust your exfoliation practices accordingly.

Soothe dry skin

Another common cause of pilling is dry skin. Moisturizing consistently, can help prevent this, and remember, always give your moisturizer plenty of time to settle into your skin completely.

Along with consistent moisturizing, giving your skin plenty of time to absorb the product is also a good idea. Think of your skin like a sponge just waiting to soak up all the benefits a moisturizer has to offer.

A good moisturizer will no doubt help maintain your skin’s natural moisture. But with so many options out there, what exactly should you look for? Moisturizers may contain many different ingredients, which makes it all the more important for you to find the combination that’s just right for your skin.

Ingredients to avoid

Frustrated and confused as to why your skin is still pilling, no matter how hydrated your skin is? The answer may lie in the ingredients that make up (you guessed it!) your makeup. Just like in science class, the ingredients in your makeup products might not mix well with each other (okay, maybe it’s not just like a chemistry lab, but you get what we mean).

  • Silicone: Silicone is found in many different foundations and primers because it gives a smooth, almost airbrushed look. It achieves this smoothing effect by sitting on top of your skin, which can unfortunately cause buildup or pilling if you place certain products over it.

  • Iron oxide: Another ingredient that could lead to pilling is iron oxide, an ingredient typically used to create synthetic pigment. You might find it in your tinted sunscreen or concealer. Iron oxide may help protect skin from blue light,¹¹ but mineral sunblocks can have a greasy consistency that may not mix well with your other products.

  • Fluorphlogopite: Fluorphlogopite is often used to give products a thicker consistency.¹² A potential cause of pilling can be too much of a thick product on your face, so be sure to check your favorite foundation or highlighter for this pilling-causing culprit.

Wait for your products to absorb

One way to prevent pilling is to let your skin rest for a few minutes between each layer of product. This is especially important on days when you’ll be applying a full face of makeup. In our experience, it’s best to wait 15-30 minutes after moisturizing before applying foundation or primer. If you do use a primer, wait another 5 minutes or so before applying your foundation.

Tips for wearing makeup without pilling

Because less product can equal less chance of pilling, simplifying your routine can definitely help. Using the right products can set your makeup up for success when you apply it.

1. Silicone-free primer

Some find that silicone-based products lead to pilling because they sit on top of the skin. If that sounds familiar, you may want to avoid primers with ingredients that end in “-cone.” You also might want to ditch primers labeled “pore-filling” or “blurring” and reach for ones labeled “hydrating” instead.

2. Talc-free setting powder

Remember, talc sits on top of the skin and absorbs oil, which can lead to clumping. Unfortunately, it’s also the main ingredient in many setting powders (both drugstore and high-end). Instead, you may want to try setting powders with mica, which tends to blend more easily into the skin.

3. Non-comedogenic setting spray

If you don’t like the texture of setting powders, try a setting spray instead. A setting spray creates a layer on top of makeup that helps to keep it in place. Just spritz your face once or twice, and you’re good to go! Some setting sprays can also be applied before makeup to prime your skin.

Why is it important to layer your skincare and makeup in the right order?

When it comes to your skincare, you want to make sure you’re giving every product in your routine time to absorb so that each one can work to its full extent. Additionally, getting the most out of your skincare products can help your makeup go on smoothly.

In general, when it comes to layering your makeup, never forget that golden rule: Less. Is. More! Using thin layers of makeup will help prevent buildup that can lead to pilling.

The key takeaways

  • Overloading your skin with too many products can lead to pilling. Use a minimal amount of products and ensure they fully absorb into your skin to avoid the formation of pills.

  • Rushing through your skincare routine without allowing products to set can cause them to mix improperly on your skin, leading to pilling. It’s crucial to give each layer time to absorb fully.

  • Your products’ specific ingredients and formulas play a significant role in whether they pill. Silicone-based and talc-containing products, for instance, are more prone to pilling, so it’s important to choose your products wisely.

  • To minimize pilling, apply your skincare products in order of consistency, from thinnest (like serums) to thickest (like creams). This method helps promote better absorption and effectiveness of the products.

  • Dead skin cells can mix with skincare products, contributing to pilling. Regular physical or chemical exfoliation can help remove dead skin cells and prevent pilling, but be cautious not to over-exfoliate.

  • Curology offers personalized skincare solutions designed by dermatologists to meet your unique skin needs and reduce the guesswork in product selection and layering. With customized products that fit seamlessly into your routine, you can minimize pilling and enhance your skin’s health and appearance.

Get your personalized skincare routine with Curology

Learning how to layer all your different skincare products and makeup may seem confusing, especially at first, but we’re here to help. With Curology, you get custom skincare that is dermatologist-designed to take the guesswork out of it.

Get your personalized skincare routine with Curology

Get your personalized skincare routine with Curology

curology bottle
curology bottle

Curology is simple—all you have to do to get stared is take a few photos of your skin and complete a skin quiz. If Curology is right for you, you’ll get paired with a licensed dermatology provider who can prescribe a customized treatment to help you reach your skincare goals. Start your Curology trial today!***

FAQs

What can cause pilling?

Common causes of pilling include using too much product or the specific ingredients in your products. Let’s try to catch the culprit that’s causing your favorite makeup looks to pill:

  • Too much product

  • Rushing through your routine

  • Formula and ingredients

Why is it important to layer your skincare and makeup in the right order?

When it comes to your skincare, you want to make sure you’re giving every product in your routine time to absorb so that each one can work to its full extent. When it comes to layering your makeup, never forget that golden rule: Less. Is. More! Using thin layers of makeup will help prevent buildup that can lead to pilling.

Can changing the order of skincare products reduce pilling?

Yes, altering the sequence of your skincare routine can significantly reduce pilling. Start with the lightest consistency products, like serums, and end with thicker creams or oils. This ensures better absorption and minimizes the risk of product buildup that leads to pilling.

How can I tell if my skincare products are incompatible?

Incompatibility between skincare products often manifests as pilling, irritation, or reduced effectiveness. Pay attention to how products absorb into your skin. If they leave a residue or if pilling occurs, it may indicate that the products are not working well together. Consider consulting with a skincare professional to create a harmonized routine.

Is it possible to prevent pilling while using sunscreen over other skincare products?

Yes, to prevent pilling when applying sunscreen over other skincare products, ensure that each product has fully absorbed before adding another layer. Choose sunscreens with formulations that complement your underlying skincare products, such as water-based sunscreens over water-based moisturizers, to enhance compatibility and absorption.

• • •

P.S. We did the homework so you don’t have to:

  1. U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Talc. (2024, April 5).

  2. Léger, D., et al. “You look sleepy…” The impact of sleep restriction on skin parameters and facial appearance of 24 women. Sleep Medicine. (January 2022).

  3. American Academy of Dermatology Association. How to Safely Exfoliate at Home. (n.d.).

  4. Rodan, K., et al. Skincare Bootcamp: The Evolving Role of Skincare. Plast Reconstr Surg Glob Open. (2016, December 14).

  5. Moghimipour, E. Hydroxy Acids, the Most Widely Used Anti-aging Agents. Jundishapur J Nat Pharm Prod. (Winter 2012).

  6. Moghimipour, E. Hydroxy Acids, the Most Widely Used Anti-aging Agents. Jundishapur J Nat Pharm Prod. Ibid.

  7. Rodan, K., et al. Skincare Bootcamp: The Evolving Role of Skincare. Plast Reconstr Surg Glob Open. Ibid.

  8. Rodan, K., et al. Skincare Bootcamp: The Evolving Role of Skincare. Plast Reconstr Surg Glob Open. Ibid.

  9. Rodan, K., et al. Skincare Bootcamp: The Evolving Role of Skincare. Plast Reconstr Surg Glob Open. Ibid.

  10. Rodan, K., et al. Skincare Bootcamp: The Evolving Role of Skincare. Plast Reconstr Surg Glob Open. Ibid.

  11. Bernstein, E.F., et al. Iron oxides in novel skin care formulations attenuate blue light for enhanced protection against skin damage. J Cosmet Dermatol. (February 2021).

  12. Becker, L.C., et al. Safety Assessment of Synthetic Fluorphlogopite as Used in Cosmetics. International Journal of Toxicology. (2015, December 17).

Elise Griffin is a certified physician assistant at Curology. She received her Master of Medical Science in physician assistant studies from Nova Southeastern University in Jacksonville, FL.

**Restrictions apply. See website for full details and important safety information.

***Cancel anytime. Subject to consultation. Results may vary.

• • •
Our medical review process: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.
Our thoughts on sun protection: *Sunscreen is only one part of UV protection—cute sun hats and shades are also recommended.
Curology Team Avatar

Curology Team

Elise Griffin, Physician Assistant Curology

Elise Griffin, PA-C

Related Articles

Sunscreen for eyes: How to protect your delicate skin from UV raysWhat is micellar water and how can you use it effectively?What should your underarm care routine look like?SPF 15 vs. 30: What are the main differences between the two?Skincare tips for dry skin, according to dermatology providers

Popular Articles

Ask Curology: Is my cold breaking me out?Slugging: The dermatologist-approved skincare hack going viral on TikTokTretinoin vs retinol: What’s the difference?How to create a self-care routine that actually sticksYour 2023 skincare horoscope
Try prescription skincare
30-day trial. Subject to consultation. Cancel anytime.
Get routine essentials
Hand grabbing product on display with other Curology Custom Formula bottles on a white shelf.
Hand grabbing product on display with other Curology Custom Formula bottles on a white shelf.

Good skin days ahead

Join the 1M+ patients who’ve tackled everything from acne, to fine lines, to hair thinning with prescription-powered treatments, personalized by a Licensed Dermatology Provider.
Ingredients proven to tackle
  • Breakouts
  • Redness
  • Fine lines
  • Dark spots
  • Hair thinning

$29.95/month

*Subject to consultation. Cancel anytime.
Get StartedShop ProductsWhy CurologyGuidesOur StoryCommunity
All Rights Reserved 2014-2024 Curology Inc.
Terms of ServicePrivacy Notice
Do Not Sell or Share My Personal Information