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Myth Buster: Skin Pilling and How to Stop It

Skin pilling – whether it’s misbehaving makeup, moisturiser, serum or sunscreen – is a common skincare complaint that can disrupt your routine, waste precious product and generally make a mess.

What is skin pilling?

Let’s make it clear that pilling on skin isn’t the same as peeling. Skin peeling is when the outer layer (or epidermis) of skin is shed due to sunburn, irritation or heavy exfoliation. 

Skin pilling is when topically applied products refuse to spread evenly or be absorbed into the skin. Instead, they form tiny balls that stubbornly hang around, transfer onto your hands and generally get in the way until you cleanse all over again.

Why does skin pilling happen?

Pilling can happen if you’re rushing your routine and your skin isn’t ready to absorb skincare properly. Try stripping back the number of products you use. Leave plenty of time before applying additional layers, and apply them in the right order so the ingredients complement each other.

If you’re using an oil-based product first, it can leave an occlusive barrier on the skin. An occlusive barrier is when a product sits on the surface of the skin to prevent moisture loss. The waterproof coating is useful to protect from dehydration but it can prevent absorption when you start layering other products on top. This is especially true if your other products are humectants that attract water into the skin such as hyaluronic acid.

Examples of occlusive skincare ingredients include petroleum (Vaseline), silicones, squalane and shea butter. Beware pilling (or less effective absorption and challenging application in general) if you mix these oil-based products with water-based products on top.

Pilling can happen if you’re rushing your routine and your skin isn’t ready to absorb skincare properly. Try stripping back the amount of products you use.

Why does makeup pilling happen?

You’ve likely got an ingredient disagreement going down. A lot of cosmetics contain occlusive silicons – to boost skin hydration and make your skin feel smooth to touch.

Pilling can happen, if your oil-based moisturiser is followed by a silicon-packed primer and then perhaps an oil-based sunscreen. These products won’t be making friends fast – especially if you’re in a hurry yourself.

How to stop skin pilling

There are a few easy wins here. Starting with skin that’s prepped for smooth product application is number one. Gentle exfoliation (think AHAs, BHAs or retinol) can help even out your skin texture. 

Also, make sure that your skin is well hydrated with a moisturiser that suits your skin type and has time to absorb. If your skin isn’t too dry, save your richer, oil-based cream for the evening. Pair up water-based products for daytime.

If you come up against pilling regularly, take a look at the products you’re using and minimise the steps in your routine. The chances are you’re using too much product, in combinations that encourage friction. 

Lighten the load, give yourself time and be formulation-savvy to save your skin from those awkward pilling pile-ups.

Medical facts checked by Consultant Dermatologist, Dr Malvina Cunningham 

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