We Ask a Derm: How Do You Prevent Your Sunscreen from Pilling?

Does your sunscreen frequently pill on your skin like an old sweater? Don’t worry, there are solutions. We checked in with a dermatologist for her tips on how to prevent sunscreen from pilling (and why it happens in the first place), because even when your sunscreen is being a pill, you still shouldn’t skip it.

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Meet the Expert

What causes sunscreen to pill on your skin?

“Pilling is when a product rubs off the skin in tiny flakes or granules,” explains Dr. Alexiades. “It can be caused by improper application of your products or a formulation error in either your sunscreen or the skincare products you’re using beneath it.”

Is there a specific ingredient often found in sunscreens that causes this to happen?

Dr. Alexiades tells us, “Silicones such as dimethicone, amodimethicone and cyclomethicone are commonly included in sunscreen because they create a barrier on the skin’s top layer to protect against environmental stressors such as wind and water. This increases their overall efficacy but can also cause the formula to clump together on your skin.”

Other common culprits include xanthan gum, which “is used in countless products as a thickener, stabilizer and binder to enhance a product’s texture and feel but can lead to pilling when included in higher concentrations” and carbomer, “which needs to be neutralized properly” or else it can cause the sunscreen to ball up.

TL;DR: If your sunscreen is always flaking or pilling, check the label for ingredients that might be causing this to happen like dimethicone, amodimethicone, cyclomethicone, xanthan gum and carbomer. While this isn’t an exhaustive list, it’s a start.

Are physical or chemical sunscreens more likely to cause pilling?

Physical formulas can have a high mineral content and can lead to pilling—especially when they’re excessively rubbed onto the skin. This is because mineral sunscreens lay on the surface of the skin, whereas chemical formulas are absorbed into the skin.

How do you prevent sunscreen from pilling?

1. Always start with a clean slate

This means using a cleanser and toner as your first steps. For those with oily or acne-prone skin, exfoliation may be helpful for removing dead skin cells and debris, "which can prevent maximum absorption of your skincare products, thus increasing the risk of sunscreen pilling."

2. Give your skincare products time to absorb

The actual application of your skincare products, or rather, the timing of your application is also important here. You want to make sure any serums and creams are fully absorbed into your skin before adding any sunscreen on top. "This is why I tell my patients to allow each layer about ten minutes to absorb before applying sunscreen as the final step of their routine. On that note, you want to apply your sunscreen at least 15 minutes before stepping out into the sun."

3. Take a closer look at the ingredients in your skincare products and your sunscreen

In addition to watching for certain silicones and carbomer in your sunscreens, the type of skincare products you use plays a huge role in how they react with sunscreen on top. If pilling is a persistent issue for you, you may want to steer clear of products that contain "petrolatum, mineral oil or waxes, which can be occlusive or form a film over your skin. The larger molecules in these ingredients prevent the smaller molecules from absorbing into the skin properly, forming the gunky residue that could lead to sunscreen pilling."

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Jenny Jin

Beauty Director

Jenny Jin is PureWow’s Beauty Director and is currently based in Los Angeles. Since beginning her journalism career at Real Simple magazine, she has become a human encyclopedia of...
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