Sun protection is crucial for skin health, but applying sunscreen doesn't always go as planned. Sometimes sunscreen can leave a white cast, greasy residue, or flaky texture. While the first two issues are easily remedied by choosing the right formula, the third is the frustrating result of something going haywire in your sun care routine. It's called sunscreen pilling, and it can deter you from applying sunscreen daily—and compromise your skin's protection.

Here's how to prevent sunscreen pilling so you never miss a day or waste a drop.

1. Apply Products to a Clean Complexion

How often you wash your face can depend on your skin type, but everyone should use a facial cleanser at least once a day. It's part of a good skin hygiene routine, and it can help keep sunscreen pilling at bay. For best results, apply sunscreen to a clean, dry face.

2. Exfoliate Regularly

Skin renews itself: out with the old skin cells and in with the new. However, dead skin cell buildup can hinder this natural process. Exfoliating encourages shedding and sloughs off dead skin cells so they don't accumulate, leaving your skin feeling smoother and allowing your skin and sun care products to penetrate deeper. Ultimately, using a gentle exfoliant once or twice a week can increase your sunscreen's absorption so it's more effective and less likely to pill.

Two fingers worth of sunscreen is typically the appropriate amount to cover the face and neck.

3. Apply Products from Thinnest to Thickest

There's a trick to remember the right order of skin care products. Consider the formula's consistency, and apply your products from thinnest to thickest. Heavier products, such as creams, can prevent the active ingredients in lighter products, such as serums, from penetrating. When you apply sunscreen, those formulas can mix and form balls of product on the skin. To prevent pilling, apply your products in the following order: cleanser, serum, moisturizer, sunscreen.

4. Give Your Products Time to Dry

Allow your products to fully dry before moving on to the next step in your routine. This helps ensure each product is fully absorbed so it can operate at maximum efficiency. This technique can also improve how your products lay on your skin. To give your sunscreen the best chance at going on smoothly, don't breeze through your skin care steps. Give each step the chance to absorb and dry down.

5. Avoid Ingredients That Contribute to Pilling

Sunscreen pilling isn't always the result of how you apply it—it could be due to the sunscreen itself. Ingredients like Talc and Mica Oxide are common culprits. EltaMD UV Sheer Broad-Spectrum 50+ is a hybrid sunscreen that avoids these ingredients. It's also incredibly lightweight and doesn't leave behind any residue.

Your other products' ingredients may also be to blame for sunscreen pilling. It's common for sunscreen to pill after moisturizer, for example. Heavy, oil-rich formulas can cause clumping with sunscreen, so you may want to try a lightweight moisturizer during the day and reserve heavy creams for your nighttime routine.

6. Complement Your Skin Type

You can't control your skin type, but you can adjust your skin care routine to complement your skin. Both dry and oily skin types can contribute to pilling. Patches of dry skin or an otherwise uneven skin texture can make it difficult for sunscreen to absorb into the skin, resulting in flaking. On the other hand, excess sebum can cause sunscreen formulas to slip and slide on—rather than sink into—the skin.

Resolving issues caused by your skin type won't happen overnight, but you can start by assessing your skin care regimen. To combat dryness, look for ingredients that attract water, such as Hyaluronic Acid and Glycerin. To remove excess oil, use a gentle face wash twice daily and consider oil-free serums and moisturizers.

7. Avoid Overapplying Sunscreen

There are a lot of misconceptions about sunscreen. For example, SPF 30 isn't twice as effective as SPF 15, and water-resistant sunscreens aren't waterproof. Similarly, going heavy on the sunscreen isn't the best approach. Applying large quantities of sunscreen at once can prevent the product from absorbing, which may lead to buildup and—you guessed it—pilling.

The average person needs about a nickel-sized dollop of sunscreen for the face and the equivalent of a shot glass for the full body.

How to Prevent Sunscreen Pilling Once and for All

While flaking sunscreen is frustrating and wasteful, it's not just an inconvenience. It may also mean your skin isn't fully protected from the sun. Perfecting your skin and sun care routine isn't an exact science, and since everyone's skin is different, what works for someone else may not work for you. This means preventing pilling could require some trial and error, but it's worth the effort so you can put your best face forward.


  • Lacey Muinos

    Lacey is a Southern California-based freelance writer who combines her passions—fitness, health, and a vegan lifestyle—with her work to help readers feel and be their best. Her work has been featured in Healthline, Livestrong, Verywell Fit, Eat This Not That, KinderBeauty, and more.

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