Q & A: Product “Pilling”

As previously mentioned, friends and acquaintances occasionally ask me about their skincare and makeup routines. I’ve decided to integrate some of these questions into a weekly Q & A post. Here goes round two:

Q: My makeup primer always “pills” (rolls up into little balls of product) when applied immediately after moisturizer. What gives?

A: Film-forming agents (check the ingredients list for polyvinylpyrrolidone, acrylates, acrylamides, and copolymers) are used in primers to create a smooth, even skin texture. They rest as a film on top of the skin, allowing makeup to glide easily over them. These film-forming agents are also strongly hydrophillic. Since oil and water don’t mix, by applying a hydrophillic primer over a hydrophobic moisturizer, you’ve bought yourself a first-class ticket on the express train to pill-town. Oil-based moisturizers (e.g. products containing petrolatum, dimethicone, and mineral or plant oils) will resist and repel primer, causing it to ball up rather than glide over skin evenly.

Other pilling culprits are gelling agents in primers (e.g. xanthan gum, dimethicone/vinyl dimethicone crosspolymer) which are added to impart a pleasantly thick texture to the product. They are similarly hydrophilic and won’t stick to oil-moisturized skin.

There are two feasible solutions to this pesky pilling problem: either change your moisturizer, or give your existing moisturizer more time to absorb. I would recommend allowing your moisturizer a chance to sink in before applying primer and beginning your daily makeup routine. An extra five, ten, or fifteen minutes can make a world of difference. That said, I would not advise switching to an oil-free moisturizer. There are a wide variety of oils suitable for facial use on the market such that, for every skin type and concern, there is a product that will provide an optimal level of moisturization and other benefits. Additionally, between researching ingredients and patch testing, there is a lot of time and energy that goes into integrating a new moisturizer into your routine. If you already have a moisturizer that works for you, don’t go through the unnecessary trouble of replacing it when simply allowing it more time to absorb will solve the problem. 

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