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Pilling 101

Prone to pilling? Let's talk causes and solutions.

Woman applying product to her cheeks

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Barefaced Tinted Protection SPF 50+
Tinted Protection SPF 50+

What is Pilling?

It's not a serious skin condition but man-oh-man, it can be so. stinking. annoying. Pilling is when skincare products or makeup don’t get properly (fully) absorbed into the skin. Instead, they sit on the surface and ball up into little “pills.” The bad news: some people are just “pillers."

The good news: there are things you can do to prevent and minimize pilling!



Common Culprits For Pilling + How to Fix Them


CULPRIT: Rushing your routine.

FIX: The most common mistake is when we rush things, not giving layers enough time to dry. If you’re a ‘piller,’ plan ‘drying time’ between layers – for instance, apply serum, make tea; apply moisturizer, brush teeth; and so on. This dramatically reduces the incidence of pilling.

You may even need to wait a full 5-10 minutes until all your skincare products are dry before applying SPF or makeup. These products are notorious for collecting on the surface.

In formulating the products for Barefaced, founder Jordan Harper was very conscious of the need for the layers to work together so that layering runs smoothly.

Infographic on Patience with SPF


CULPRIT: Your pores being blocked.

FIX: Exfoliate often. Chemical exfoliants, like the ones in Toning Pads and Glow Peels Pads, help slough away dead skin cells. This means your products are more likely to penetrate the skin barrier properly instead of sitting on top.

Infographic on Exfoliating with Glow Peel Pads

In particular, say hello to Glycolic Acid + Retinaldehyde! The two are great on their own, but when used in the same skincare routine they become a tag-team powerhouse.

Glycolic acid is the smallest molecule of the Alpha Hydroxy Acid family allowing it to penetrate the skin more effectively than other members of the AHA family. This allows the glycolic acid to gently exfoliate (chemically) which in turn removes dead skin cells, dirt, and debris from the skin's outermost layer (Stratum Corneum). This leaves the skin clean and unobstructed, allowing the retinaldehyde to penetrate deeper into the skin to promote overall collagen production and cellular turnover. The two together work to target sun damage, uneven texture, hyperpigmentation, fine lines, wrinkles, and acne.

Infographic on effect of AHA + retinoid

If you look at the image above, you can see the skin starting off damaged with signs of pigmentation and dead skin build up which caused dull and rough/uneven textured skin. After using glycolic acid, the dead skin cells were removed and the skin began to even out. The glycolic acid has cleaned up the top layer of skin, preparing it for the retinoid. As you can see, when the retinoid was added the pigmentation starts to lighten and the skin's texture is smoother, lessening the visible signs of aging.

If tolerated, it is important to use Toning Pads/Toning Pads II daily (after you build up to once/twice a day) and the Glow Peel Pads can be used 1-3 times a week (do not use the same night as RetinAL Skin Therapy to minimize irritation). For the RetinAL Skin Therapy, work into your routine by using three nights a week on alternating days and gradually increasing to 5 nights per week. *Remember consistency is key!


CULPRIT: Applying too much product. 

FIX: Use just enough product—especially for serums. Too much can cause the excess to pill. This is one time you don’t want to be extra! (We’re looking at you guac lovers.)

Apply products correctly…thinnest to thickest. Best practice for most people is to apply serums on damp skin. (Splash some water on if you need to!) This all helps with absorption.

Infographic on Product Layering

Other tips: Dab products on evenly over the skin, which reduces the need to distribute it too aggressively with the hands. This minimizes friction.

When applying foundation over sunscreen, try using a Beauty Blender. This can be a game-changer in reducing pilling with makeup application – the action of pushing makeup into skin, rather than ruffling up the layers underneath with brushes or fingers, reduces the risk considerably.


CULPRIT: The ingredients in the products.

FIX: If you’re still plagued by issues after slowing down and exfoliating properly, it’s time to look at the ingredient list.

Silicones are great at creating a smooth, priming finish on the skin but in some individuals, they can pill, especially if used in more than one layer or in too-generous quantities.

Talc, iron oxide, and mica can also pill – and these are common ingredients in sunscreen and foundation.


It’s almost impossible to predict who will experience pilling and who won’t. I’ve used exactly the same routine in multiple patients: 9 out of 10 will layer like a dream, and one might experience problems. Sunscreen is probably the number one culprit for pilling and it’s a real barrier to daily use for some individuals. Give it tenacious trial and error — there’s a sunscreen out there that will layer as beautifully as your favorite primer — you just have to find it.



Content adapted from: 

The Skin Health and Beauty Pyramid: A Clinically Based Guide to Selecting Topical Skincare Products, published in the Journal of Drugs in Dermatology, April 2014, Volume 13, Issue 4.

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