Foundation pilling: what it is and how to prevent it

Foundation pilling can happen to anyone when applying make-up—luckily, it’s pretty easy to prevent.

Young woman with curly hair is seen against a pale background applying make up with a brush and a collage with product images that are good for foundation pilling
(Image credit: Getty Images / Westend61 / Disciple / Bobbi Brown)

There’s nothing worse when applying your make-up base than noticing your product is balling up rather than blending in. This make-up annoyance is called foundation pilling and it often occurs when your product formulas don’t gel properly. 

Even if you pick the best foundation for sensitive skin, mixing it with the wrong products beneath will result in this bobbling of your base.

We spoke to a make-up expert to find out how to combat this when you’re applying your foundation.

Foundation pilling: why does it happen?

To understand how to fix foundation piling you have to get to the root of the problem and find out what exactly is causing it. According to Warren Dowdall, Bobbi Brown senior pro artist (opens in new tab), the formulation of your chosen foundation and how it interacts with the skincare you have on beneath it has a lot to do with creating a seamless application.

“If there’s a lot of silicone-based products in your skincare, silicone in your primer plus your foundation has a lot of silicone in it, this can be an overload and they basically repel each other and start to pill up,” warns Dowdall. If you’re not sure if there are silicones in your product choices then Dowdall advises checking the ingredients list, “look for anything with -cone at the end of it high on the ingredients list as this will be a silicone or a silicone derivative.”

Another thing that can cause your foundation to pill is applying too much product, layer on layer. “I see this a lot with primer,” says Dowdall. “You only need a thin layer of primer before make-up for a flawless finish. Be sure to pat in your skincare and primer and avoid too much rubbing as this can cause pilling up also.”

So, there we have it, it seems thin layers are key to allowing each step in your routine to sink in without the products interacting too much.

Avoid foundation pilling by layering products in the right order

Starting with thoroughly cleansed skin, to ensure your skincare sinks in, you need to apply the lightest-textured products first. “Apply your lightweight textures first like essences and toners, followed by a pump or two of serum, and then moisturizer. If you use a face oil, this can be applied here to seal in the moisture,” says Dowdall.

Give a moment or two between your final skincare product and applying your foundation so the textures don’t mesh and pill. If you do this and you’re still finding that your foundation is piling, think about the base of your products and foundation. “You can try matching your skincare bases and foundation bases,” says Warren. “For example, if your moisturiser is water-based, you can pair it with a water-based foundation while if your moisturiser is oil-based, that will work well with an oil-based foundation.”

Does foundation pilling occur more on any certain skin textures?

While there isn’t a particular skin texture that is more likely to experience foundation piling, there are things that you can do as a part of your routine to minimize the chances. “Using an exfoliant to remove dull surface skin cells means a better finish for your make-up as your skin is better able to absorb your skincare products meaning less likelihood of pilling.” Advises Dowdall.

Bobbi brown radiance boost and disciple juicy mist, Products to use to avoid foundation pilling

(Image credit: Bobbi Brown / Disciple)

Banish foundation pilling with these products

Incorporate a weekly mask in your routine like the Bobbi Brown Radiance Boost Mask (opens in new tab) will slough away dead skin, for the best canvas for application. It contains kaolin clay to clarify while the algae extract and sodium hyaluronate in the formula balance moisture. A good mist is also a great addition to your regime, rehydrating your skin before applying foundation. The Disciple Juicy Mist (opens in new tab) includes the ingredient hyaluronic acid to attract moisture into the skin, which helps your skin absorb products better.

Bobbi Brown, Radiance Boost Mask, $55 (opens in new tab)

Bobbi Brown, Radiance Boost Mask, $55 (opens in new tab) |  £35 (opens in new tab)

Disciple Skincare, Juicy Mask, $18 | £15 (opens in new tab)

Keeks is an award-winning digital & social content specialist a hair & beauty writer and a brand consultant. You can find her work in Cosmopolitan (in print and online), Refinery29, Harper’s Bazaar, Woman and Home, Women’s Health, My Imperfect Life, OK! Online and Hairdressers Journal