Why your skincare and makeup products are balling up on your face (and how to prevent it).

We’ve all been there. You’re happily applying your layers of skincare, and something goes wrong. Product turns into little balls on your face, everything is ruined, you have to take it off and start again. Even worse if it’s in the morning and it happens to your makeup. So, what’s going on? 

We asked Melbourne-based dermatologist Dr Shyamalar Gunatheesan, and cosmetic formulator Annalisa Branca for their tips. 

What is pilling and why does it happen?

"Pilling occurs when skincare products or make up have not absorbed into the skin," says Dr Gunatheesan. "This can be due to using products with a high concentration of silicones, mixing oil rich products with water-based creams, [or] using too much product and applying it all too rapidly."

Watch: The products and ingredients you need to know about. Post continues below. 

how to stop products pilling
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If something isn’t absorbing as well as it could, it sits on top of your skin instead. "Sometimes I see people using whole pipettes of serums or face oils and that is not necessary," warns Branca. She adds that issues can arise "when we layer products from different brands that [were] obviously not designed to be layered together."

So, are there any ingredients notorious for pilling?

"Silicone is a key player, found in most foundations and primers," suggests Dr Gunatheesan. "If your serum also contains silicone, chances are the products may start pilling."

But that's not all. "Look out for iron oxide, talc and mica - things often fall apart at the sunscreen stage, as they tend to contain these ingredients," adds Dr Gunatheesan. "Mixing oil-based products with water-based creams can lead to piling, as we all know oil and water tend to separate."


Image: Supplied  

If you want to deep dive, Branca adds that "polymers like natural gums, [...] synthetic polymers [and] polymeric emulsifiers could also cause ball up."

Don’t worry, though - you don’t need to get rid of everything containing these ingredients, more just approach with care. 

How, you ask?


"Know how to layer the products," Dr. Gunatheesan recommends. "Ideally, start with water-based serums that should penetrate the skin first." She also suggests we pat the skin as opposed to rubbing products in.

"Friction by rubbing and overworking layer[s] can [...] contribute to pilling," Branca adds. Makes sense, no?

Listen to Mamamia's podcast for your face, You Beauty, where we talk about how to stop makeup pilling. Post continues below. 

Both experts agree that if you can’t minimise the number of different products used, you can allow each layer to dry before applying the next. "That should not take long [if] an excessive amount of product is not used," says Branca.

Dr Gunatheesan reminds us to "make sure your skin starts as a clear canvas that is not dry, flaky or inflamed. Use a lactic acid serum or cleanser to aid the skin renewal system."

You could also try waiting five to 10 minutes after your skincare is well-absorbed before applying makeup, and use a beauty blending sponge to apply makeup, Dr Gunatheesan suggests.

We love a derm-approved makeup tip!

Some extra skinfluencer tips:

  • Face oils can break up the film formed by silicones. Fun fact - that’s why oil cleansers work so well. I get around it by using, say, two pumps of moisturiser and adding two drops of facial oil, rather than applying each as a separate layer. A word of warning though - never, ever mix your sunscreen, as you could destabilise the protection.

  • Pilled product can sometimes be brought back from the brink if you mist over top then pat it back in.

  • Apply serums to damp skin. You don’t need a fancy mist -  you could use something like Avene Thermal Spring Water Spray or regular water, or just leave your skin damp after cleansing.

There we have it! Now go forth and apply your skincare and makeup uninterrupted by pesky pilling.

You can follow Dr. Shyamalar Gunatheesan on Instagram here, and Annalisa Branca here for more science-based skin content. You can also reach me here.

Feature image: Getty

Do you have any tips or tricks to avoid product pilling? Share with us in the comment section below.