Avoid those flaky little balls that your skincare products can create with these top expert tips

Many skincare routines consist of several steps including eye cream, serums and moisturiser followed by an SPF (to name just the essentials). And while these products can work wonders, layering them can often lead to something called ‘skin pilling’. This is when your products form tiny balls on your face that can interfere with achieving that all-important smooth finish.

A sign that your skincare routine (or how you apply it) isn’t working, skin pilling can thankfully be avoided with several simple measures. Here, we ask the experts to break down what causes skin pilling and how to avoid it. 

What is skin pilling?

"Skin pilling is when a product – such as a moisturiser or serum – doesn’t soak into your skin but instead, collects on the surface as tiny particles that stubbornly hang around or transfer onto your fingertips," explains Dr Derrick Phillips, consultant dermatologist. Because the products haven't been absorbed properly, it’s unlikely you’ll reap the benefits.

How to know if my skin is pilling

Skin pilling is easy to spot. "If you apply a product on your skin and notice that it sits there for longer than usual, this can be a clear sign," says Dr Derrick. "As well as lack of absorption, the product will form a gunky consistency that rolls on your skin's surface," he continues. Not to be confused with skin peels, pilling is product balling up while peeling is the outermost layer of skin flaking off.

What causes skin pilling?

"Skin pilling can occur for several reasons, but the main cause is the presence of certain ingredients in skincare," says Dr Stefanie Williams, cosmetic dermatologist and founder of EUDELO Dermatology London. Dr Stefanie’s advice? Try to identify the culprit and remove it from your skincare regime. "Look at your gel formulations first, as they are most likely to cause the issue, and see whether pausing the product stops the problem."

According to Dr Derrick, other common causes of skincare pilling include rushing your skincare routine and applying too much product.

Top tips to prevent skin pilling 

1. Check your products’ ingredient labels

Silicone is an ingredient that’s especially prone to pilling. "Pilling can occur when silicone-based products are layered as they are not readily absorbed," explains Dr Derrick, "leading to friction and a build-up of tiny particles." His top tip? "Avoid using silicone-based serums or moisturisers in combination with silicone-based make-up products." This product pairing can result in uneven make-up that appears flaky.

Try silicone-free primers:

Try: Laura Mercier Pure Canvas Primer

• Size: 50ml

Not only is this luxurious primer silicone-free, but it also contains olive extract and marine botanicals to hydrate and smooth skin for a beautiful, radiant base that will grip onto foundation to boost your make-up’s staying power. 

Try: REN Clean Skincare Perfect Canvas Clean Primer

• Size: 30ml

• Silicone-free

Minimise the appearance of pores with this silicone-free primer that delivers a soft-matte finish. Blended with agave extract, the primer gives foundation more ‘grip’ – extending its wear for long-lasting coverage.

2. Give your skincare time to absorb

"It’s important to leave a few minutes between each step of your skincare routine to allow time for your products to fully absorb," says Dr Derrick. Otherwise, you run the risk of your products pilling. Also, "pat and press the products on gently, rather than rubbing too much," adds Dr Williams.

3. Be smart when layering products

"Start with the thinnest products before ending with the thickest to allow for optimal penetration of each layer," says Dr Williams. "The exception is that sunscreen should go on last – regardless of consistency," she continues. It’s also worth noting that layering incompatible products can cause pilling. "Oil-based moisturisers form an occlusive barrier, locking moisture into skin," says Dr Derrick, "and while this is great for dry skin, the occlusive barrier may prevent absorption of products layered on top." To avoid this, stick to his rule: "apply water-based formulas first, before oil-based products."

Try: Clinique Moisture Surge 100H Auto-Replenishing Hydrator

• Size: 15ml

• Oil-free

• Fragrance-free

• Alcohol-free

• Suitable for all skin types

Thirsty skin? Turn your face to this hydrating hero, pronto. Oil-free and ultra-lightweight, this moisturiser is jam-packed with hyaluronic acid and aloe bio-ferment to plump up the look of skin and nourish it. 

Try: Simple Water Boost Hydrating Gel Cream

• Size: 50ml

• Fragrance-free

Loaded with skin-loving minerals and plant extracts, this fuss-free gel cream moisturiser refreshes and hydrates skin with its lightweight formula. Apply whenever skin feels dry, rough or dehydrated for instant relief. 

4. Exfoliate often (but not too often)

"It’s a myth that pilling is caused by infrequent exfoliation, because the tiny 'beads' are not composed of skin material, but rather (skincare) product material," says Dr Williams. With that said, regular exfoliation is important to ensure skin is fresh and free of pore-clogging debris. "When you exfoliate, you remove dead skin cells that are sitting on the skin’s surface, creating a barrier against your products," says Dr Derrick.

Try a gentle exfoliator:

Try: Erborian Milk & Peel Mask

• Size: 60ml

• Suitable for all skin types

• Vegan-friendly 

Treat your complexion to this hard-working face mask that smooths the appearance of your skin, hydrates with sesame milk and sunflower oil, and removes dead skin cells thanks to an exfoliating enzyme. Apply onto dry, clean skin and leave on for five minutes.

Try: No7 Pure Retinol 0.3% Retinol Night Concentrate

• Size: 30ml

• Fragrance-free

Retinol is considered the gold standard in anti-ageing by countless dermatologists. Find it in abundance in this skin-smoothing serum that gets to work while you snooze to bolster radiance and promote cell turnover.

Try: REN Clean Skincare Ready Steady Glow Daily AHA Tonic

• Size: 250ml

• Contains AHAs and BHAs

• 100% recycled bottle

Re-energise dull, tired and lacklustre skin with some glow-boosting chemical exfoliation, courtesy of this tonic formulated with a powerful cocktail of AHAs and BHAs to tighten and brighten the appearance of skin. Simply dispense onto a reusable cotton pad before sweeping all over the skin.

5. Choose your SPF carefully

SPF is an everyday essential that should be worn all year round. However, "layering make-up over sunscreen can sometimes produce an uneven texture and pilling," says Dr Derrick. As with all skincare, not all SPFs are created equal. "Oil-based SPFs are especially prone to pilling," continues Dr Derrick. And how can you tell if you’ve got an oil-based SPF? If the first two or three ingredients on the back of the product are oils, such as lanolin, then this is likely to be an oil-based SPF. 

If you put our above tips into action, like taking your time between layers and applying your products from thinnest to thickest, your favourite SPF will be all the less likely to pill. 

Try these smart SPFs:

Try: Shiseido Urban Environment Age Defense SPF30

• Size: 30ml

• Oil-free

• Water-resistant

This lightweight, skin-savvy SPF protects skin from harmful UV rays, plus is also laced with hyaluronic acid to hydrate skin. Double tick!

Try: Lancaster Sun Beauty Sun Protective Face Fluid SPF30

• Size: 30ml

• Water and sweat-resistant

• Non-comedogenic

• Vegan-friendly

This vegan pick protects skin from harmful UV rays without feeling heavy on skin. Simply apply a generous layer as your final skincare step and let the invisible formula absorb fully before applying make-up.

Try: Soltan Sensitive Lotion SPF30

• Size: 200ml

• Water-resistant

• UVA and UVB protection

Sensitive skin? Give this SPF from Soltan a whirl. The dermatologically-tested formula is fragrance-free, lightweight and loaded with goodies to help protect skin from environmental aggressors.

Not sure on the right product for you? Try our skincare tool & find a personalised solution