How to prevent skincare and makeup pilling

In my lifelong quest to find the perfect facial SPF, I found myself reading the Boots reviews of a sunscreen recommended by a top beauty editor.

Half of them raved about the product, while the rest ranted about the ‘pilling’ that occurred after application.

Pilling? Huh?

Confused, I head to Google and my tiny mind was blown.

What is ‘pilling’?

The term pilling is most commonly used to describe those annoying little bobbles that form on fabrics like wool, but the same thing can happen to products you put on your skin.

It’s sometimes called ‘skin pilling’, which is a bit misleading as – thankfully – it’s not actually your skin that’s peeling off, rather, little flakes of product.

‘Generally, pilling is the result of either an application error, a mix of incompatible formulations, or inadequate skincare,’ explains Amish Patel, aesthetics practitioner and skincare expert at Intrigue Cosmetic Clinic.

The good news is there are a number of things we can do to avoid it; the bad news is it might take a bit of trial and error.

Check the INCI (ingredients list)

Silicones are known for pilling, and are commonly used in skincare, and makeup primers.

‘Silicone is in a family of occlusive ingredients, which means they sit on the skin surface, locking in moisture, so they don’t get absorbed,’ explains Ada Ooi, founder of 001 Skincare.

‘Friction can then occur with application of further products.’

However, you don’t necessarily need to avoid silicones altogether – simply look for products with a lower concentration of them. There are hundreds of possible silicone-based ingredients, but keep an eye out for anything ending in ‘-cone’ or ‘-siloxane’.

Ingredients will be listed from larger amount to smaller amount on the INCI (ingredients list), so if silicones are in the top five, it’s likely to be pretty silicone-heavy.

Oils, beeswax and petrolatum are also occlusive ingredients.

Unfortunately, SPF is a known culprit for pilling, as it often contains iron oxide, zinc oxide or titanium oxide, which all sit on the skin, rather than being absorbed. However, pilling isn’t an excuse to ditch the sunscreen – simply find one that works for you.

Not a cosmetic chemist? Us either. Check out INCIdecoder, an online cosmetics database that allows you to search your products, and decode the labels in layman terms.

Make sure you layer correctly

You’ve probably heard the skincare rule of ‘lightest to heaviest’, and it exists for a reason – if you use a lightweight moisturiser after an oil, the moisturiser won’t be able to penetrate the heavier oil, and will just hang around on top of your skin.

SPF should always be last in your skincare routine (followed by primer and/or makeup) so it’s best to keep heavier skincare products for your evening routine.

You also need to make sure you’re not using products with conflicting ingredients – like silicone and water – which can cause pilling when they interact.

‘In general, products made by the same brand have been formulated together and tested to work together,’ explains cosmetic chemist, Kelly Dobos.

‘That’s not to say you can’t mix and match, but you’ll have to experiment.’

Kelly also advises letting creams and lotions dry thoroughly between layers (and makeup), working quickly when blending liquid makeup, and applying dry powder on top of liquids. For example, if you use a powdered mineral foundation with a cream concealer, make sure you apply the concealer first.

Don’t use too much product

You might think that applying loads of primer will give you that extra flawless base, but sadly, the opposite may be true.

‘There’s a class of silicone polymers we call silicone elastomers – these might appear as vinyl dimethicone crosspolymer on a label – that feel really silky,’ explains Kelly.

‘They help blur imperfections and help hold pigment to the skin, which is why they make excellent primers.

‘However, you really only need small amounts of these products to work because they can pill up when you use too much.’

Unsure of how much moisturiser or serum to use? The label should be able to tell you – using more than advised is just a waste of money.

Press product in; don’t rub

It’s best to use clean fingers or a beauty blender to press product into the skin, rather than massaging it – vigorous rubbing can cause friction, which may lead to product pilling.

Ensure your skin is in tip-top condition

Even after scouring ingredients lists and only layering compatible products, if your canvas – AKA your skin – isn’t in great condition, you may still have issues.

‘Oily skin can cause pilling, as it creates a barrier that stops the product being easily absorbed into the skin, while flaky, dry skin creates an unstable base for application,’ explains Amish.

‘Regularly cleanse and exfoliate the skin to remove excess oil, flaky skin and dead skin cells. Look to incorporate skincare products containing vitamin C if you have oily skin, as their antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties will positively benefit the skin.’

However, be careful not to exfoliate too much, as this can also damage the skin. Most experts recommend two to three times a week, but everyone’s different, so build up gradually and see how you go.

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