When it comes to delving into unpleasant and downright weird beauty topics, we've covered everything from drying out pimples to the benefits of smearing snail mucus on one's face. There's one strange phenomenon in the world of skincare and beauty that doesn't seem to get a lot of attention, however, and that is product pilling. You might not have heard the name for this phenomenon before, but if you use skin care products or wear makeup at all then you've probably experienced it at least once. Despite the fact that it's a pretty common occurrence that most women have probably experienced, it seems like nobody ever talks about it. And yet, if you describe the problem to a friend chances are they will exclaim, "Oh my gosh, that's happened to me too!"
So what is product pilling anyway, and what can you do about it? It's basically like when a sweater pills, except it happens to products on your skin. The bad thing is that it's incredibly annoying — but the good thing is that it's not impossible to prevent. Two experts gave their insight on the phenomenon of product pilling: Dr. Norman Rowe, MD, a NYC-based board-certified plastic surgeon, and Dr. Jody Comstock, a leading dermatologist in Tucson, Arizona.
Let's get to the bottom of this, shall we?
1. What is product pilling?
You know how annoying it is when your favorite sweater starts pilling? Well, it's even more annoying when the same thing happens on your face. According to Dr. Rowe, product pilling is "the description of when a topical cream applied to the skin starts 'balling-up' after it’s applied." You may have noticed this happen immediately after applying makeup or skin care, or perhaps a few hours later. You touch or rub your face and feel the products on your skin rolling up into grimy balls.
It's pretty gross, but don't worry: you're not a monster. There's a perfectly good reason why this happens to everyone, and it's not because your skin is dirtier or greasier than anyone else's.
2. What causes product pilling?
Dr. Rowe said, "Product balling has to do with ability of the product to be absorbed by the skin. The less a product is absorbed, the more it balls up." Along the same lines, Dr. Comstock said, "Pilling is more common with thicker moisturizers." So if you've been using a heavy moisturizer or foundation that feels like it's just sitting on top of your skin, then don't be surprised if that product starts pilling.
Another reason could simply be user error. As Dr. Rowe explained, "Products can pill up because of incorrect application as well — too much product was used or the order of application of products." Try using a less heavy-handed approach to your makeup or skincare routine, and if that doesn't work then try switching up the order in which you apply products if at all possible. You could use process of elimination to determine which product is causing the pilling, and then stop using it if you feel that product isn't worth it.
One more thing that can cause product pilling is skipping an important skin care step. "One may need to exfoliate the skin prior for the product to penetrate into the skin," Dr. Rowe advised. So consider adding a chemical exfoliant to your regular skincare routine if you don't already use one, whether it's a simple drugstore product such as Stridex Acne Pads or a more sophisticated exfoliant such as Drunk Elephant T.L.C. Framboos™ Glycolic Night Serum. Then give it a few minutes to be absorbed by your skin before moving on to the next product in your routine.
3. Why do some products tend to pill on your face while others don’t?
Pilling happens to me sometimes, but not all the time. This made me think that it had to be caused by specific products that I only used occasionally. Dr. Rowe confirmed that the ingredients in some products may make them more prone to pilling: "Silicone-based products are not absorbed by the skin, therefore if a product contains silicone it could ball up." A lot of beauty products contain silicones so if you're experiencing a lot of product pilling on your face, you may want to look at the ingredient lists of your favorite products and try nixing anything with silicones (look for ingredients like "dimethicone" or basically any words that end in "cone").
Other ingredients that could be causing pilling, according to Dr. Comstock, are talc, iron oxide, mica, and fluorphlogopite. Talc especially is often found in makeup. Dr. Comstock suggests using products containing these ingredients last to avoid pilling.
Also, as Dr. Rowe said previously, you can consider getting rid of any products that aren't being absorbed by your skin because they're simply too heavy.
4. What can be done to avoid product pilling?
Other than not using products that contain silicones and applying products with a light hand, there are other approaches that you can take to avoid having products pill on your skin. Dr. Rowe has a couple of suggestions. First, "In order to avoid product pilling, use products that are organically based [and] therefore easy for the skin to absorb." This makes a lot of sense since organically-based beauty products aren't likely to include man-made silicones. So if you were looking for a reason to switch to organic, natural beauty products, there you go.
Dr. Comstock advises putting products on in a certain order: "Apply products in order of weight and viscosity. So one should apply water-based products first (the texture is more fluid) and oil-based products last to 'seal the skin.' So toners and serums go first and creams/sunblocks/makeup go last." As long as you put on lighter, thinner products first and heavier, oily products last, you should be good.
Another helpful tip from Dr. Rowe has to do with ingredients and the order of application: "Also, do not apply a product over an oil-based product as oil-based products decrease absorption and therefore balling." So, for example, if you like to use a facial oil at night (my favorites are pictured above) be sure to pat it onto your skin last, after you've already applied your other products.
Both Dr. Rowe and Dr. Comstock advise regular exfoliation as well as time in between each product application to help with pilling. Dr. Rowe said, "It’s important to remember to exfoliate the skin prior to use and make sure there is time in between application of products so the skin has time to recover." If you layer a bunch of products on your skin without giving them time to be absorbed, then it makes sense that everything is going to slide off your skin and into little balls of product.
Dr. Comstock also advised giving your skin time to absorb products: "Pilling is often caused by not giving skin enough 'breathing' room between layers. Give skin a little space for 'drying' and being absorbed. Blow dry your hair, put make up on, brush your teeth, drink your coffee between layers especially if the product is a little heavy." She also recommends using a brush instead of fingers to apply makeup, because the warmth of your fingers can also cause heavier products to pill.
So remember to layer your products in the correct order, take your time so they can all be absorbed, use an exfoliant regularly, and try to avoid heavy products or anything with silicones. If you follow those guidelines then you should no longer have to worry about your products pilling on your face.
Images: Kelly Dougher