How To Stop Your Sunscreen From Pilling

Sunscreen has earned its place in the pantheon of must-have skincare products, and at this point, most of us know that it's vital to a well-rounded beauty routine. Whether you follow an extensive, 18-product skin prep and makeup regimen or prefer a quick cleanse before you're out the door, sunscreen should be an everyday staple in your rotation. After all, it can help prevent issues from sunburn to skin cancer and premature aging (via Johns Hopkins Medicine).


But sometimes, this crucial step can throw a wrench into your plans. One moment, you're halfway finished with your skincare routine and ready to apply sunscreen. But in the next, your face is suddenly covered with tiny, grainy balls of congealed cream that refuse to absorb into your skin. What gives?

This unpleasant sunscreen phenomenon, known as "pilling," can be an annoyance, a setback, and an expensive waste of skincare. Plus, it can undermine the efficacy of your SPF, meaning that your skin isn't getting the full protection it was promised (via Dr. Rachel Ho). But what causes pilling, and — more importantly — what can you do about it?

Why sunscreen pilling happens

Pilling of any skincare product is a sign that your skin isn't fully absorbing it, leaving behind excess that balls up and rolls around as you try to rub the product in. There are probably two factors involved: what kind of products you're using and how you're applying them (via Byrdie).


In skincare, there's a general rule to move from lightweight products first to heavier products later. As your skin absorbs each one, it will gradually become more saturated. So by the time you reach sunscreen toward the end of your routine, there may already be a lot going on. Ask yourself: have you already applied several heavy creams or lotions before your sunscreen? Your skin may be saying, "Enough's enough!" This issue can occur even more quickly if you're using silicone-based products like primers, which can be very prone to pilling (via The Klog).

"SPF products that contain silicones, talc, mica, and iron oxide have a tendency to ball up or flake on the skin rather than being absorbed by the epidermis. Although these ingredients can be to blame for non-absorption, the problem could also be caused by layering too many skincare products or using them in the wrong order," aesthetic practitioner Amar Suchde tells Stylist.


Using too many competing skincare products can also irritate your skin, causing an oil imbalance. Whether your skin is left parched and dry or greasy as an oil slick, both of these unideal conditions can make pilling worse. So, apart from giving up on skincare altogether, what steps can you take to improve the situation?

How to prevent sunscreen pilling

To create the perfect canvas for sunscreen application, it's important to greet your sunscreen with smooth, absorbent skin. So, first things first, you may want to gently exfoliate once or twice a week. This can help sweep away dead skin cells and aid in absorption (via Healthline). Next, consider streamlining your routine to minimize heavy layers and irritation from too many products. Which steps in your skincare regimen are delivering the most value for your skin? Prioritize those first, and only add other products back in as needed.


When applying each step, also give your products time to dry and absorb before adding the next. Even 30 to 60 seconds between products can be enough to help keep them from mixing and competing on your face (via Byrdie). And if you're not taking this approach already, remember to apply lighter products like serums first before moving on to heavier moisturizers. This will help each product sink in as much as possible.

Once you're finally ready to add sunscreen, it can also help to switch from a sweeping or rubbing application style to softly patting the product into your skin. This reduces friction and, by extension, the likelihood that your sunscreen will roll itself into pills. Finally, if these steps still haven't put your pilling woes to bed, it may be time to take a hard look at some ingredient lists. Are any products in your routine utilizing ingredients that tend to pill, like silicone? Perhaps it's time to swap them out.


In the end, no matter you choose to combat pilling, there's only one thing you mustn't do: don't skip the sunscreen! Because nothing is more important than the health and safety of your beautiful skin.