Skincare pilling, the many different reasons it can happen, and how we can avoid it?

'Arghhhhh’ you cry, as you’re applying your brand new face cream and to your horror, it appears as if your skin is falling off into your hand!! Fear not, for it’s not your skin, but little balls of the product you applied 10 seconds ago, or, the product you’re currently applying.

Pilling is a very common issue in skincare, but none the less annoying when you’ve just gone out and spent your hard-earned money on a beautiful skincare product that’s full of promises.

As a skincare formulator I’m lucky enough to try and test hundreds of beauty products, and I can guarantee you that pilling is fairly commonplace, however I too can encounter the odd surprise every now and again, and it’s normally when I apply the product before thoroughly reading the INCI list on the back of the packaging. You’d think by now I would have learnt not to do that, but new products are new products, and I still get just as excited as the next person when opening a beautiful new arrival.

Now you may be thinking that I’m going to give you one or two reasons your skincare could be pilling, but sadly not. The issue can be much more complex and I’m therefore going to give you a multitude of reasons (sorry), that your skincare could be doing this. Figuring out which reason or reasons apply to you, is very much a case of personal investigation, but with me giving you the clues from which to do so. With the best will in the world, without being in your bathroom, and without analysing your skin, I wouldn’t be able to give you a definitive answer.

So, let’s start with the most obvious, and sadly nowadays, probably the most common reason for skincare pilling:

Using a product or products that contain polymers, microplastics, and silicone compounds.

Natural skincare formulas shouldn’t contain any of these ingredients, but it’s worth checking the INCI list to ensure they don’t – you may be surprised!

The most common culprits are liquid silicones. They can be used in cosmetics as emulsifiers, as emollients, or to give a better distribution of product (spreadability).

Although they’re derived from silica (which is mainly sourced from sand or quartz), this doesn’t give ‘silicones’ any natural credentials. The large cosmetic giants will hail shock and try to convince you that because they originate from sand, a mineral compound found in nature, that they’re neither harmful nor problematic. Let’s be clear, liquid polymers are inert synthetic compounds, and because they are inert, they have no way of nourishing the skin.

They leave skin looking healthy, they aid application, and give formulas that lovely silky glide, BUT, looks can be deceptive. For starters, the effect of silicones are temporary, and the line filling, smoothing and plumping effect they have is short-lived. But before we delve a little deeper into this group of ingredients, you’ll be wondering why products that contain these cause pilling.

Once you’ve applied a product (any product, whether it be a cleanser, serum, or face cream) that contains silicones, nothing, and I mean nothing that you apply afterwards is going to a) absorb into your skin and therefore b) have any positive effect.

Even a completely natural product applied over the top of a silicone based product will roll right off your skin. Or, if you apply a natural product first, then quickly follow it with a silicone-based product, without allowing the first product to absorb, you’ll end up with the same problem….natural oils, hydrosols and extracts, rolling around in a whirlpool of microplastics…on your face!

I’ll expand….silicones are best known for their occlusive properties, so in a way they are forming a layer on your skin. You may think, ‘hoorah…my skin barrier is going to thank me,’ but alas, it won’t be thanking you, it will be really quite cross with you.

Silicones are hydrophobic, which means they despise water. Because of this, they’re actually pretty stubborn to remove from the face, and oil-based cleansers are normally needed to remove them thoroughly. As they are so tricky to remove, they tend to attract other comedogenic substances which go on to cause dirt, sebum and dead cells to get trapped, increasing your chances of spots and acne flare ups.

Again, the big boys may try to convince you that if silicones are safely used for wound healing, then hey, what’s all the fuss about, but wound healing has an entirely different set of requirements.

If this isn’t enough to put you off using them, then perhaps the eco morals are. Please know that silicones are bio-accumulative. Once they’re rinsed down the drain, they contribute to the build-up of sludge pollution in oceans and waterways and may not break down for hundreds of years. Is your very temporary skincare fix worth the burden on your conscience?

If you’re struggling with pilling, reconsider the INCI of the products you’re using and look for the most common silicone ‘Dimethicone’ or any of the below. A helpful tip to quicky find them is to look out for anything ending in “con” “cone” “onol” or “xane”, such as:

  • cyclopentasiloxane
  • cyclohexasiloxanes
  • cyclomethicone
  • dimethicone
  • dimethiconol
  • methicone
  • polysiloxanes
  • cetearyl methicone
  • cyclopentasiloxane

If you’ve checked the INCI, and you’re sure that silicones or microplastics aren’t the culprit, then it’s a process of elimination from here on out:

Dehydrated skin

I personally think that having dehydrated, dry or flaky skin is another very prevalent reason for pilling. In these cases, the product/s may adhere to the dry, rough patches (rather than being absorbed as efficiently as expected). As a result, this can cause serums and moisturisers to roll up or form small balls as they are applied or layered onto the skin. Having dehydrated skin is very much linked to an inadequate skincare routine, or using below par products, both of which can unknowingly compromise your skin barrier. Our slugging article in The Root is great at explaining skin barrier issues, how to avoid them, and also how to correct them. Before you exclude this possibility, don’t forget that dehydrated and dry skin isn’t always visible to the naked eye.

Not cleansing skin properly

I maintain that cleansing and prepping the skin for leave-on products is so so important to obtaining and maintaining healthy skin. If you don’t start with the basics, you can’t expect amazing results, and not cleansing properly can cause many problems, one of which being pilling.

If skin is congested with dead skin, dirt and debris, these can easily combine with fresh product and cause little balls of disgustingness! Likewise, dead skin cells can combine with sebum to block pores. Once pores are blocked, the skin will physically block your products from being absorbed and they can collect and flake on the surface of the skin.

Lack of exfoliation

When I speak to customers as they’re about to embark on the Robyn Skincare routine I always advise exfoliating twice a week for the first few weeks of use. This not only expedites the performance of the range, but also avoids potential pilling due to the debris build-up that may have accumulated whilst using their previous range.

Disruption in the desquamation process

Another reason that products can roll around on the surface is due to skin cells that are past their sell-by date lingering on the stratum corneum due to disruptions in the desquamation process.

Desquamation is a lovely word (not sure exactly why I like the word so much), but it refers to the shedding of the outermost layer of the skin known as the stratum corneum. It’s one of those biological processes that seems so simple, but actually has quite a few phases, and it’s another example of just how clever the human body is.

So how exactly does it work?

  1. Corneocyte formation: The process begins in the deepest layer of the epidermis, called the stratum basale, where new keratinocytes (skin cells) are produced through cell division.
  2. Cell migration: As new keratinocytes are formed, they start migrating towards the surface of the skin, undergoing a process called keratinization. During this process, the cells flatten, lose their nuclei, and become filled with keratin, a structural protein that provides strength and protection.
  3. Cornification: As the cells reach the outermost layer of the epidermis, the stratum corneum, they are called corneocytes. These corneocytes are tightly packed together and held in place by lipids, forming a protective barrier against environmental stressors and water loss.
  4. Desquamation process: After a certain time, the corneocytes in the stratum corneum start to shed or desquamate. This process is facilitated by the breakdown of the lipids and proteins that hold the corneocytes together.
  5. Enzymatic degradation: Enzymes, such as proteases and lipases, play a crucial role in the desquamation process. These enzymes break down the proteins and lipids that hold the corneocytes together, allowing them to be shed from the skin's surface.
  6. Natural exfoliation: The shed corneocytes, along with other debris and environmental pollutants, are removed from the skin's surface through natural exfoliation.

This completely natural regeneration process normally takes between 28-30 days, but is heavily influenced by various factors, such as age, environmental conditions, and skin health. In healthy skin, the desquamation process occurs at a balanced rate, ensuring that the stratum corneum remains intact and functional (in other words protective, yet still able to absorb skincare products). However, in certain conditions like psoriasis, eczema, or ichthyosis, the desquamation process can be disrupted, leading to excessive or incomplete shedding of the corneocytes, and a compromised skin barrier. In terms of age, the process can slow down, leaving corneocytes in place for longer, and acting as a literal barrier when it comes to absorbing products. Now as we all know that ageing is an inevitable part of life, I should explain this in a little more detail because at some point, it’s going to affect you! As we get older, several changes occur in the skin that can impair the normal desquamation cycle:

  • Reduced cell renewal: With increasing age, the cell renewal rate in the basal layer of the epidermis slows down. This means that fewer new keratinocytes are produced to replace the ones being shed.
  • Impaired cell migration: The migration of keratinocytes from the basal layer to the upper layers of the epidermis can become sluggish with age, delaying the entire desquamation process.
  • Decreased enzymatic activity: The enzymes responsible for breaking down the proteins and lipids that hold corneocytes together become less active with age. This reduces the efficiency of the desquamation process.
  • Changes in skin barrier function: As we age, the skin's barrier function deteriorates due to changes in lipid composition and reduced production of natural moisturizing factors (NMFs). This can lead to increased cohesion between corneocytes, making it harder for them to shed.
  • Hormonal changes: Hormonal shifts that occur during aging, particularly decreased estrogen levels in women, can negatively impact the desquamation process and overall skin renewal.

The desquamation process can take up to twice as long in older adults compared to younger individuals, and moreover, the accumulation of corneocytes can disrupt the skin's barrier function, increasing water loss and making the skin more susceptible to environmental damage and inflammation.

So, revisiting the exfoliation topic….I’m not suggesting you exfoliate every day, however it is something I’d recommend doing atleast once a week (especially if over the age of 30), and most definitely before starting a new skincare routine or product. This is particularly important when you’re starting out with hyaluronic acid serums (more on that later…)

Incompatible Product Formulations

The good old saying ‘opposites attract’ most certainly doesn’t apply here, and instead of being a match made in heaven, they can literally run away from each other screaming if not formulated or applied properly! The incompatibility between the ingredients or formulations of different skincare products used together can cause problems including pilling. When products with conflicting ingredients or textures are layered on top of each other, e.g. a pure water-based formula, followed by a pure oil-based formula, and without allowing adequate time for the absorption of either, you may encounter issues. However, many serums are water-based, and many moisturisers (especially those designed for the evening, over 35’s or for restorative rather than preventative purposes), have a higher oil content than light-weight day creams. So, the trick is to allow the products time to absorb into the stratum corneum properly, rather than applying your next product whilst the original one is still sitting on the outer surface of the epidermis.

Again, reading the INCI list thoroughly can help you predict if your products are going to play nicely. One basic rule in skincare application is to apply the thinnest consistency product first (normally water-based), followed by the more viscous products (oil-based).

Excessive Product Application

Now this is an interesting one. When we purchase a new product we’re dying to try it out. The unwrapping of the packaging is like a ritual, the first pump, the aroma, and the expectations are too much to bear. As a result, we get a little excited and often apply way too much product. This is a recipe for disaster because a) we should always go slow when using a new product for the very simple reason that our skin needs time to adjust, and b) applying too much of a product can also contribute to pilling. When too much product is applied to the skin, it can create a thick, uneven layer that doesn't ever fully absorb or dry down. As a result, the excess product can roll up into small balls, especially when rubbed or touched (in the form of applying your next product, or applying foundation and make-up). Follow the directions on packaging carefully. Premium cosmeceutical products contain actives, and you often only need a very small amount.

Using an excessive number of different products, and from different brands

We’re all led to believe that the more products we use the better, but this really does just line brands pockets. Layering one serum, on top of another, and another, followed by a face cream or two, is not a good idea. The skin can’t take it, and it causes excessive product build-up and an uneven texture to put the product onto. Different brands have different ethos’ too, and very formulaic formulas if that makes sense; so in terms of finding complementary formulas but from multiple different brands, you really need to decipher the full INCI list, and know exactly which ingredients do what. However there are so many ingredients out there, it would be a pretty lengthy task. Instead, don’t be tempted to over layer from different sources, and air on the side of caution with the number of products you’re using in total. You can also add in some home skincare devices to boost performance. Microneedling devices such as Dr. Pen, and LED masks, such as the Thera Face Mask and Deessepro can help to optimise skin health, increase collagen production, curb premature ageing, decrease pigmentation, and also reduce acne.

Improper Application Technique

The way skincare products are applied can also play a role in the dreaded pilling, especially if the formulations are thick or heavy. Gentle patting or pressing motions are generally recommended to ensure even distribution and proper absorption of the products. If you’re applying a hyaluronic acid serum, followed by a facial oil (which is often recommended to lock in the hyaluronic mechanism), it’s a good idea to pad the facial oil onto the skin when you first start using it, rather than sliding fingers repeatedly across the face.

Expired or Dried-Out Products

The age and condition of skincare products should also be considered. Expired or dried-out products may have a thicker, more uneven consistency, making them more prone to rolling up when applied to the skin. It's important to use products within their recommended shelf life and to store them properly to maintain their optimal texture and performance. Natural products in particular require cool, dark conditions.

Environmental Factors

Environmental factors, such as humidity, temperature, and pollution, can also influence the way skincare products interact with the skin. High humidity or moisture in the air can cause some products to become tacky or sticky. Are you applying your products in a hot steamy bathroom after a shower? Then layering another product straight over the top? Similarly, extreme temperatures or exposure to pollutants can affect the stability and performance of certain formulations, increasing the likelihood of pilling.

Before you go away and do your research on the products you’re using, there is one particular type of ingredient that needs a little further explanation. Many of us use this, and if you don’t, you should be!

Hyaluronic acid

Not all types of hyaluronic acid are equal, nor are all hyaluronic acid formulas, but the general rule of thumb is that it has an exceptional ability to attract and retain moisture, which is why it’s so widely used in skincare, and why our multi-molecular weight HA serum is so popular. However, the unique properties of HA serums can contribute to increased pilling under certain circumstances:

Texture and Formulation: Many HA serums have a gel-like or sticky texture due to the viscous nature of it. This texture can sometimes cause the serum to roll up, especially when layered with other products or rubbed into the skin too vigorously. Ensure skin is damp, gently glide the product over the face (once), then allow the hyaluronic to do the work for you.

Drying Time: HA serums often contain high concentrations of humectants like glycerin to boost their moisturizing capabilities. These humectants can take longer to fully absorb into the skin, increasing the likelihood of pilling if subsequent products are applied too quickly. In an ideal world, you would wait atleast 10 minutes before applying your next product.

Environmental Humidity: Hyaluronic acid is a highly hygroscopic molecule, meaning it readily absorbs moisture from its surroundings. In high humidity environments, HA serums may become tacky or sticky on the skin, leading to increased pilling when layered with other products.

But don’t let this put you off using it in your daily skincare routine. As we age we produce less and less HA of our own, so it’s one of the most beneficial ingredients out there.

And yes, pilling is an irritating aspect of skincare, but with a little patience, some research, and a willingness to know your individual products inside out can help you avoid it entirely. 

Until next time….


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