The Sherwin-Williams Company and PPG Architectural Finishes Inc. reached a settlement with the FTC over charges that the companies misled consumers about the presence of harmful chemicals in their paint.

Volatile organic compounds, or VOCs, can be harmful to human health and the environment, the agency explained, and interior paint historically contained significant levels of the chemicals.

Sherwin-Williams’ Dutch Boy Refresh line and PPG’s Pure Performance line both marketed themselves as having “zero” VOCs in point-of-purchase marketing, product labels, on the Internet, and in brochures. Uncolored “base” paints may not have any VOCs, the FTC said, but tinted paint does contain the chemicals. Both companies violated the FTC Act by making false and unsubstantiated claims that their paints contain “zero VOCs” after tinting. Consumers would reasonably understand the “zero VOC” claims as applying to the final product, i.e., tinted paint, which in fact contained more than trace levels of VOCs after the base paint was tinted with color.

The proposed settlement would prohibit the companies from claiming that their paints contain “zero VOCs” unless, after tinting, they have a VOC level of zero grams per liter or competent and reliable scientific evidence demonstrates the paint contains no more than trace levels of VOCs. The agency turned to the newly updated Green Guides for the definition of “trace.”

The recently revised Green Guides allow “free of” claims for chemicals, the FTC acknowledged, but to make such a claim the product may not contain the ingredient at issue or would have only a trace amount. The agency’s test for “trace amount” is threefold: (1) the level of the ingredient is less than that which would be found as an acknowledged trace contaminator or background level; (2) the ingredient’s presence does not cause material harm that consumers typically associate with it; (3) and the ingredient has not been added intentionally.

The companies could make “zero VOC” claims if they clearly and prominently disclose that the claim is limited only to base paint and that depending on the color choice, the VOC level will rise with tinted paint. If the VOC level rose to 50 grams per liter or more after tinting, the proposed settlement would require the companies to disclose that the VOC level may increase “significantly” or “up to [the highest possible VOC level after tinting].”

General environmental marketing restrictions would also be placed on the companies, including a ban on making any environmental claims unless they are true and not misleading and have competent scientific evidence backing them up. Both companies must also contact retailers and require them to remove all “zero VOC” ads for the relevant paint lines. Paint cans still on the shelves would get corrective stickers over the claims.

To read the complaints and the proposed consent orders, click here.

Why it matters: The FTC used the settlement to remind marketers about the agency’s recently released update to its Green Guides. “Environmental claims, like the VOC-free claims in this case, are very difficult, if not impossible, for consumers to confirm,” David Vladeck, Director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection, said in a statement about the deal. “That’s why it’s so important for the FTC to give clear guidance to marketers, like the Commission’s recently revised Green Guides, and to police the market to ensure that consumers actually get what they pay for.”