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 • Makeup  • Makeup Guides  • The 7 Main Reasons Your Makeup is Always Pilling (and How To Fix it)

The 7 Main Reasons Your Makeup is Always Pilling (and How To Fix it)

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Main image – Dianevilladsen/Stocksy

Ever applied your foundation and noticed it not absorbing properly? Instead, you notice what feels like tiny balls under your fingers or brush and the product is sitting on the outer layer of your skin, rather than sinking in. 

These ‘balls’ are called pills and the process is called ‘pilling’. But don’t worry, there are many reasons for why it might be happening to you and luckily, it’s easily fixed. 

Makeup artists Ashley Gibson, Azesha Ramcharan and Nyssa Green are here to debunk the reasons for pilling. All so that you can be out with the pills and in with the smooth. 


Reason 1: You need to rethink your skincare

One of the main causes of pilling is your skin not being smooth enough in the first place for any makeup to absorb. If there are dead skin cells present, they can get in the way of an even, smooth foundation application. 

The fix:

Exfoliation is particularly key here. “Regularly exfoliate your skin to remove dead skin cells,” recommends Gibson. “This helps create a smoother base for makeup application. However be gentle and don’t over-exfoliate, as this can irritate the skin.”

Also, make sure you are getting rid of all bacteria and debris on your skin by cleansing with water morning and evening. This will help to create a smooth canvas for makeup. Caudalie Skincare Vinopure Purifying Gel Cleanser (£19.50 from Sephora UK /$30 from Sephora US) is my personal go-to for starting my skin from scratch at the end and beginning of each day. 

Make sure your skin is always well hydrated too. “If your skin is dehydrated, products may not adhere well and can pill,” Gibson says. “Apply a suitable moisturiser for your skin type and let it sink in before applying makeup.”


Reason 2: You’re using too much product

“Overuse of products can lead to a build-up that the skin can’t absorb, resulting in pilling,” Gibson explains.


Image – Ohlamourstudio/Stocksy

The fix:

Try not to apply more than you need. Also, “layering multiple skincare or makeup products can increase the likelihood of pilling, especially if they have different bases (oil, water, silicone),” she says.  


Reason 3: Your products might be incompatible

“Makeup pilling happens when product ingredients don’t mix well, so it’s not the product necessarily but the combination that causes pilling,” explains Green. This includes both makeup and skincare products. 

The fix:

“Don’t mix water and silicone-based products,’ she continues. “Pilling happens because the products that have been put on, chemically, do not mix. Instead, it just sits on top of the skin and pills, never being able to penetrate the skin barrier.”

And Ramcharan has an easy peasy way to tell if your product is silicone or water based. “Makeup that is silicone based will have ingredients that end in ‘cone’ or ‘siloxane’ such as dimethicone or cyclopentasiloxane’, she explains. 

“Makeup that is water based will have water as the first ingredient followed by ingredients such as propylene glycol, butlene glycol and glycerin as the other top ingredients.”

The advice is that whilst one isn’t less likely to cause pilling over the other, you should still pick a team and stick to it. “If your skincare has silicone among its top ingredients, it would be a good choice to use a silicone-based foundation as well,” explains Ramcharan

Feeling unsure? “You can always try with just a sample on your hand to see how the products work together,” advises Green.

Another thing to consider are mismatched makeup textures. “Applying powder before liquid or cream-based products can create a texture that makes pilling more likely,” warns Gibson


Reason 4: You’re not using a primer 

Whilst a makeup primer definitely isn’t essential, it might help to add one into your regime, after moisturiser, as an extra precaution.

The fix:

“Primer can create a smooth, even surface for makeup and act as a barrier between skincare and makeup, reducing pilling,” explains Gibson

It can be hard to find a primer that isn’t silicone based. My favourite non-silicone-based primer is Ren Clean Skincare Face Perfect Canvas Clean Primer (£44 from Boots UK /$49 from REN US) which feels like a serum, rather than a slippery cream/gel.


Reason 5: You’re not letting your products absorb

It’s easy to apply all your products without giving them enough time to absorb when you’re in a hurry, but the experts say this could be causing your makeup pilling.


Image – Ohlamourstudio/Stocksy

The fix:

Wait a while before you apply your next product as letting your product sink in is particularly key for a pill-free makeup application. “If you don’t give each layer (like moisturiser, sunscreen, primer) enough time to absorb into the skin before applying the next, it can lead to pilling,” Gibson adds. 

“Give moisturiser and primer about 5-10 minutes to absorb,” advises Ramcharan


Reason 6: You’re using the wrong application technique

“How you apply makeup matters,” says Gibson. “Using the wrong technique or tools for application like rubbing instead of patting, can also cause products to pill.”

The fix:

Pat on your serums and moisturisers, avoiding any sort of rubbing motion as this can irritate the skin and encourage dead skin cells to come to the surface. To apply foundation with minimal pilling, use a very clean brush to minimise the chances of any more product build-up or a damp sponge blender. 


Reason 7: Your products have expired

“Products past their expiration date may change in texture and consistency leading to pilling,’ Gibson says. 

The fix:

Check the label for your product’s expiry date. It will normally say something like ‘6m’ or ‘12m’ (6 months/12 months) which is indicated from around the date you bought it. 


The takeaway

So, now you know all about pilling, and most importantly how to avoid it. Pill-free skin starts with a smooth canvas, so a regular skincare regime is particularly key, especially weekly exfoliation to get rid of dead skin cells.

Don’t forget to give your products ample time to sink in and try not to mix silicone-based products with water-based ones. Introducing products like a primer into your regime can help reduce pilling. And when it comes to your skincare products, remember – pat, don’t rub!


Meet the experts

Ashley Nichole Gibson is a licensed aesthetician and makeup artist who owns Paraposh, which provides on-site makeup services. Specialising in bridal makeup, her experience also extends to training and education for cosmetic brands, conducting master classes at Ulta, and working as a makeup artist at QVC for beauty brands.


Azesha Ramcharan is a makeup artist based in NY’s Hudson Valley region. Clients have included NBC, The Juilliard School, Hessel Museum of Art, Craftsy, and VOZ.


Nyssa Green is the Owner at The Green Room Agency. She has been voted “Best Makeup Artist” in Atlanta 4 times, and has has more than 15 years experience in TV, film, and print. Nyssa’s clients Include: Ebony Magazine, Real Simple, Vibe, Atlanta Magazine, Jezebel, The Atlantan, Simply Buckhead, USA Today, MTV, CNN, Fox 5, NBC, Bravo, and E! News.


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Beauty Editor

The former Beauty Editor of Glamour UK, Philippa has been a beauty and lifestyle journalist for over 16 years, picking up countless tips and tricks from makeup artists, hair stylists, dermatologists and celebrities. In that time she’s written for names like Cosmopolitan, The Sunday Times Style, The Telegraph, Grazia, Refinery 29 and Byrdie. Philippa lives in the UK with her husband, two children and their hyperactive cockapoo, Paddy.

Expertise: Makeup, hair care
Education: Oxford Brookes University

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