There’s nothing more annoying than going through your 10-step skin-care routine thinking it will give you glowing, radiant skin…only to be left with a finish that more closely resembles a pilling old sweater. You know what I’m talking about: When something mysterious in your beauty regimen decides to start rebelling, and instead of soaking calmly and obediently into your epidermis, forms into tiny balls that sit on top of the surface and just. won’t. go. away.
Since no one wants their skin-care to resemble winter layers that’ve been washed a few too many times, what gives? “Pilling happens when you are rubbing a skin-care product on the skin and it never quite soaks in. As you rub it in, the product is pilling, or collecting on top of the skin,” says Purvisha Patel, MD, a board-certified dermatologist and founder of Visha Skincare. “It means the product’s being hindered from absorbing and is just coming back off. There’s an occlusive barrier that’s preventing absorption, and it happens if too many products are used at the same time, or in the wrong order.”
There’s one ingredient that’s usually to blame for the issue: Polymers. “Skin pilling is usually do to incompatibility of products used together, and is typically caused by polymers,” says cosmetic chemist Ginger King. “Polymers are used to form a film on skin for a longer lasting effect, but if the ratio is too much or you’re using something else silicone-based or oil-based, you will see pilling.”
You’ll know there’s a potential pill-causer in your product if you see ingredients ending in -icone, -conol, or -xane, according to Dr. Patel. So think of the product with polymer as saran wrap: Everything you put on top of it won’t penetrate what’s underneath. You can still use them, though—just be sure to do it wisely. Dr. Patel’s tip? “Apply products from thinnest to thickest, starting with water-based serums to thicker creams.” It’ll also help if you simply use less products that have more active ingredients, which means you’ll get the maximum results with minimum layering.
The last bit of advice to follow? Make sure you’re exfoliating enough. The dead skin cells on your face need to be removed, and if they aren’t sloughed off, they can form a blockade that keeps your products from entering your complexion. “Exfoliating properly before product application also helps to remove oil and residue that could hinder product absorption,” adds Dr. Patel. Now you’re on your way to pill-free product use 365.
To keep your skin freshly exfoliated, try incorporating a solid chemical exfoliation—AHA or BHA—product into your regimen. And don’t be afraid to use your retinol and glycolic acid together.