Why is my skincare product pilling up?

Why do skincare products pill up? Here's why and how to stop it!

Have you ever had a serum or moisturizer start pilling up into little balls in the middle of your skincare routine? You’re halfway through your perfectly planned 10 step skincare routine and suddenly a product starts rebelling and you’re left with gross little pills of product.

This is such a frustrating feeling! I’ve had this happen with both skincare and makeup products and it’s super annoying to have your routine slammed to a halt by pilling and also having to wash it off and start from square one. 

Mixing Silicone and Water Based Products

What causes products to pill?

There are three main culprits that can cause pilling. The first and most common bad guy is caused by two products fighting each other. If products with very different formulations are mixed together (for example water based and oil based formulas) they tend to hate each other and ball up.

Silicone is usually the problem child here. Oil and water can’t mix so we can’t expect a silicone-based (oil) and a water-based product to play nicely with each other. There are a few ways around this if you take your time and use a light hand. If you can’t live without using certain products, you can prevent pilling by always using water based products first and giving them ample time to fully absorb. Then carefully (and sparingly) pat your silicone product on top. But here’s a plot twist, this can also happen when mixing serums even if they’re all water-based! 

Sticking with water-based formulas is usually the makings for a great skincare routine but not always. Sometimes higher weight hyaluronic acids can act like silicone and will sit on the first few layers of skin. Then when you add in another product, the first serum will start pilling up! This is a “this face ain’t big enough for the two of us” situation. 

Can you use too much of a skincare product?

You’re using too much!

The next culprit is you! If you’re using more product than your skin needs, you can end up with excess serum/moisturizer hanging out on the surface of your skin. This is very likely to pill up when you move to your next step and try to pile on even more product! I’m not a good example to follow here, I’m guilty of slathering on waaaay too much night creme when I’m having a bad skin day. Make sure to use a light hand when putting on heavier products like eye creams, night creams, and moisturizers. You can always add more if you need it but you can’t backtrack without undoing all your hard work! 

You also need to give each product time to fully soak in before layering on another. One way I force myself to not rush through is staggering my skincare steps throughout my morning routine. I’ll cleanse my face, apply toner and serum and then brush my teeth before adding moisturizer. This gives all those base products ample time to absorb into the deeper layers of my skin and not get mixed up too early with a heavier cream.

You might be using products in the wrong order

The last reason for products pilling up can be caused by applying your skincare in the wrong order. Skincare should always be applied in order of lightest to heaviest consistency. If your order gets out of whack and a watery product is placed over a heavier cream it will cause some funky textures.

In his interview with RD dermatologist Michael Lin, MD, advises:

“In general, you apply the products with lower viscosity first, allow to dry, then apply the next layer,” he says. “Applying products in the wrong order may inhibit penetration and absorption. Higher viscosity inhibits penetration of other products.”


Can you fix pilling or should you start from scratch?

If pilling occurs during your nightly skincare routine and you’re near the tail end I would first say stop rubbing the product in asap when you notice the pilling start. You can gently pat the rest of the product in gently to finish it off and avoid any further pilling. If you can catch it before it gets too severe it should be fine to go to bed with all your products still on.

On the other hand, if your product had the audacity to pill in your morning routine and you’re about to apply makeup, it gets a bit trickier. When you’re pressed for time you can use a fluffy brush to brush off the pills without creating more and then cautiously continue with your routine. Just make sure to pat everything else in, and avoid massaging/rubbing at all costs!

If you’re not about to head out the door I would advise throwing the towel in and starting from scratch. After a product has pilled it’s very tricky to apply foundation and powders without making it worse. I once owned a Hard Candy color correcting primer that pilled with absolutely everything and was just a nightmare to work with. I loved how well the primer color corrected my reddened skin tone so I put up with its pilling B.S for way too long. No product is worth the headache of non-stop pilling!

How to stop product pilling

Here’s a quick run through of how to troubleshoot and stop your skincare product from pilling up.

  • Apply your products in order of lightest to thickest
  • Don’t mix silicone and water-based formulas
  • Let each product fully absorb and don’t rush
  • Use a light hand with the problem product
  • Pat in the product instead of rubbing it in to lessen friction
  • Switch the problem child away to your opposite routine (AM or PM) to keep it far away from your other skincare goodies
  • Start with damp skin (this benefits product absorption)

Have you fought with product pilling before? If you have any tips that weren’t listed here I’d love to hear them. Let’s fight pilling together and banish it from our faces forevermore!


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