Shopping basket full of cosmetic bottles and packaging on pink background, view from above. Cosmetics sale or discount concept.

The label on your favorite beauty products can be littered with phrases and complex ingredients that can leave you scratching your head thinking, “I just wanted to know if this is hydrating; what does all of this stuff mean?” There is a reason for some of those words on the packaging — like label warnings on aerosol products or an expiration date — but a lot of the claims are marketing, making it difficult to differentiate between the two. Based on current trends, the occasional new phrase can start making its way onto products. The most recent example: “free from microplastics.”

Microplastics aren’t unique to beauty. They’re everywhere: on the ground, in the ocean, in your bloodstream, and yes, in your beauty products. They’re defined as tiny particles of plastic less than five mm in size that occur from both product development and larger plastics breaking down. They’re harmful to the environment, especially our oceans and marine life.

Typically, microplastics are grouped into two categories: secondary and primary. “Secondary are produced when bigger plastics — like water bottles — degrade over time after being released in the environment,” Lizzie Horvitz, sustainability expert and CEO and founder of Finch, tells POPSUGAR. “Primary microplastics are those that are released into the environment in their already tiny form, like microbeads.”

Secondary microplastics are hard — scratch that, nearly impossible — to avoid in the plastic-centric world we live in, which begs the question: is it even possible for a product to be free from them?

The answer is complex. If your beauty products are housed in plastic packaging, or even just feature a plastic pump, then they’re contributing to the microplastic problem. “Through packaging alone, the beauty industry creates 120 billion units of plastic waste every year, and according to The Plastic Soup Foundation, nine out of every 10 cosmetic products contain microplastics,” says Conny Wittke, PhD, founder of Superzero.

Most products made of plastic will likely be broken down into smaller microplastics if they’re not recycled properly.

The category of secondary microplastics is especially hard to avoid. While your products may be free from them when they’re formulated, they may degrade into microplastics after you’re finished with them. “Brands can be free of primary microplastics, but most products made of plastic will likely be broken down into smaller microplastics if they’re not recycled properly,” says Horvitz. And we know that unfortunately, recycling isn’t the beauty industry’s strong suit.

With all of this said, it is possible to avoid or at least lower the risk of microplastics in your beauty products, provided you know what to look for. Step one: stop buying products made with primary microplastics, like microbead exfoliants. “As far as secondary, the best thing to do is use less single-use plastic,” says Horvitz.

“To us, when you hear the term ‘free from microplastics,’ it means the product is not utilizing any plastics within both the product’s ingredients and packaging, and has an INCI list (International Nomenclature Cosmetic Ingredient) to prove it,” says Dr. Wittke. Some third-party agencies, like the Plastic Soup Foundation, have systems for reviewing and marking zero-plastic products. The “Look For the Zero” granted by the organization, is an example of this.

So, if a sustainably-packaged product is claiming to be “free from microplastics” and it checks the above boxes, you can probably trust it. Otherwise, it’s just an empty marketing claim.

If this news bums you out, we’ll offer you some solace: the beauty industry isn’t the biggest offender of microplastics. “Most of the microplastics we see entering our oceans each year are not actually from beauty products, but rather from our clothing and cars,” Horvitz says. Still, it’s always best to do your part.