We Ask a Dermatologist: Why Does My Sunscreen Pill? And Tips for How to Prevent It

A few ingredients to look out for

Why Does My Sunscreen Pill? And How To Prevent It Universal: a woman applying sunscreen to her face
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Does your sunscreen pill on your skin like an old sweater? As someone who frequently tests new products for a living, I've definitely experienced this, which is why I can assure you that there are solutions. I checked in with a board-certified 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.

Meet the Expert

Dr. Macrene Alexiades is a board-certified dermatologist in New York and founder of Macrene Actives. Dr. Alexiades holds three Harvard degrees: a BA in Biology, a MD and a PhD in Genetics. She runs her own Park Avenue private practice in dermatology and laser surgery, a research clinic, and a lab focusing on skincare, acne, skin cancer and lasers. She is a Diplomate of both the American and European Boards of Dermatology and the Associate Clinical Professor at Yale University School of Medicine.

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.”

Which Ingredients Cause Pilling?

According to Dr. Alexiades, some common culprits include:

  • Silicones such as dimethicone, amodimethicone and cyclomethicone: "These are often 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.”
  • Xanthan gum: "This 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.”
  • Carbomer: “This is another common ingredient that's used to keep sunscreens from separating into their oil and liquid components, but it needs to be neutralized properly or else it can cause the sunscreen to ball up on your skin."

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 washing your face thoroughly with a cleanser (and optional toner) as your first step. This is especially important for those with oily or acne-prone skin, as you don't want to apply products over a greasy surface.

2. Keep up with exfoliation

Exfoliation can be helpful for removing dead skin cells from the surface, which Dr. Alexiades says can prevent maximum absorption of your skincare products, thus increasing the risk of sunscreen pilling.

3. Layer your skincare products in the right order

A general rule of thumb is to layer your products from thinnest to thickest. So if you use a toner or an essence, start there. Next comes any serums you might use (I'd suggest a vitamin C or another antioxidant serum here to boost protection against free radicals). Lastly, apply your moisturizer and finish your routine with sunscreen. If you have oily skin, you can skip the moisturizer and go straight to sunscreen, and on that note, I'd also recommend looking for a non-greasy formula.

4. 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," adds Dr. Alexiades.

5. Reapply your sunscreen the right way

And by that, I mean reapply the right formula for your skin type and lifestyle. If you wear a lot of makeup, you may want to look into a SPF mist or spray, whereas if you're more of a light-to-no makeup person, you can simply reapply your regular sunscreen or my personal preference: swipe a sunscreen stick every few hours.

6. 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 beauty products that contain petrolatum, mineral oil or waxes. "These ingredients 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," says Dr. Alexiades.

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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...