Teflon, a name that has made lives easier for countless cooks. Bringing a number of benefits into a home cook’s kitchen since its inception, many swear by it. The ability to cook without oil, among many other reasons e.g. ease of cleaning, make non-stick pieces a crowd favorite.
However, it is far from perfect. After decades of use, research has uncovered an unnerving fact: that non-stick coating, specifically the component perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), poses potential health risks to the human body. Not to worry though. As long as you know what you’re doing and use them the right way, there shouldn’t be a problem.
But what is the correct way to use them?
In this article, we discuss: are non-stick pans safe to cook with, how to use them safely, and a few alternative cookware materials if you’re looking to completely ditch Teflon.
Table of Contents
What Makes A Pan Non-Stick?
To know how pans became non-stick in the first place, we have to take a walk down memory lane. The main component of the modern non-stick coating, polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE), was invented by chemist Roy Plunkett in 1938, by accident.
Being an inert chemical, it does not easily bond with others, only with its own kind. This creates the perfect coating for the purpose of not wanting other chemicals – in this case, food – to stick to the cooking surface.
Being inert, Teflon is actually safe to be used by itself. The problem comes when we introduce PFOA into the equation.
Multiple studies suggest that PFOA may be linked to various health problems, particularly being cancerous. As the Teflon-manufacturing process involved PFOA, this became a concern for many. But it’s also important to point out that, while PFOA is linked to these health risks, it’s actually everywhere. Food containers, packaging, and even among many household items and goods that don’t actually have anything to do with food, e.g. carpet protectors or waterproof fabric. You name it.
In fact, the component is very much so present in our lives, to the point where FDA has found that 98% of the US population have PFAS (a chemical group that PFOA is one of it, among others) in their blood.
That all being said, there’s good news. Since 2013, Teflon had completely removed PFOA from their manufacturing process. That’s great!
So then, what’s the problem now?
Dangers of Overheating: Is It A Real Concern?
Going back to PTFE. The real problem is, even though it is inert, it does break down at high temperatures. Specifically, it starts to degrade from 500°F, and decomposes above around 660°F. For those who are familiar with high-heat cooking techniques such as searing, you would know that this temperature level is easily reachable in these cooking styles.
So what happens when it decomposes? Toxic fumes are released. More specifically, the set of compounds that come off when Teflon is overheated contain fluorine, which are generally toxic, according to Robert L. Wolke, a professor emeritus of chemistry at the University of Pittsburgh.
After inhaling big amounts of these fumes (around 4-10 hours of exposure), a condition known as the Teflon flu develops. Or being more technically-correct, the polymer fume fever. The condition, however, usually resolves by itself within 12-48 hours.
But how likely will figures such as 660°F and 4 hours of exposure come together, in a real-world scenario? Not very.
Kyle Steenland, environmental health professor at Emory University in Atlanta, puts it excellently. He said, “If you burn your pans for an hour at high heat, it will break down. But that will be the least of your problems because your house will be on fire.”. The American Cancer Society has also ultimately stated that there are no important risks to using Teflon-coated pans, as long as you use them the way they were intended to be used.
With all these expert opinions, the chances of you actually running into a health risk, just for using Teflon cookware, is slim. This is especially true if you know what you’re doing and take necessary precautions. So the answer to the golden question: are non-stick pans safe for health? Generally, yes. Teflon non-stick cookware is safe for health when used correctly.
Precautions to Minimize Risk of Non-Stick Coating
These pans are difficult to give up, we understand. But the good thing is, instead of having to get rid of all your Teflon pans, you can instead follow these few tips to use them safely. And the number one rule to follow is…
Do not cheap out!
The number one mistake that many people fall trap to is that they look for non-stick pans priced the lowest possible, and think that they’ve snatched a bargain. This is actually a bad idea. What you gain in the short term, actually costs you more in the long run.
Most value-friendly pieces are lightweight because of the manufacturer cutting cost. This results in pans that are less dense. When cooking, lightweight pans are more prone to overheating compared to their heavier counterparts. As the main risk of Teflon cookware comes from overheating, a lightweight piece poses the highest risk!
Avoid high-heat cooking, such as searing
Some cooking styles just require high heat. Those are the ones you would want to avoid performing on a non-stick pan. Generally, anything below 500°F can be done. This is in line with the recommended maximum temperature by DuPont, the inventor and manufacturer of Teflon.
However, it can be difficult to know at which point you’ve hit 500°F when cooking. And you definitely wouldn’t want to stand around with a thermometer in hand! In that case, here’s a tip for you. Most oils including sesame oil, olive oil, canola oil etc. smoke at around 400F. If you see that happening, you’re dangerously close to the deterioration point of Teflon!
Well then you might be asking, are non-stick pans safe in the oven? In this case, as ovens are appliances with controlled-temperature, it is perfectly fine so long as you stay roughly below the 500°F mark.
Do not heat an empty pan
Many recipes call for preheating the pan, and while this is perfectly legit and fine to do with other pans, not so much for non-stick ones.
Just because the pan heats up much faster when it’s empty, the risk of overheating becomes higher. This is especially true if your pans are thin and lightweight. To be safe, only start the heat source when there’s food inside the pan.
Avoid damaging the surface
If you were wondering about the dangers of ingesting pieces of non-stick coating flakes – it’s not actually a big issue. Ingesting small amounts is not a problem, and usually passes through the human body without any effects whatsoever.
That being said, it doesn’t mean you should be reckless with your non-stick cookware. Avoid metal utensils as much as possible. Instead, opt to use wooden, bamboo, or plastic utensils, to squeeze more life out of your pan, keeping the coating from flaking.
You should also avoid using abrasive cleaning tools, like steel wools or scouring pads. On top of that, avoid throwing them into the dishwasher as much as possible. While doing this does not directly ruin the coating, it does make it wear off much quicker.
If your pan is graded for metal utensils from the manufacturer though, they should be able to withstand the occasional use.
Inspect your existing pans
If you have a few Teflon cookware pieces lying around in your kitchen, it’s also time to inspect them to check for any excessive scratches or chipping. If so, it may be time to replace them.
This is because once that happens, the pan is prone to flaking bigger pieces of Teflon, something like a snowball effect. Not to mention the care that needs to be taken to prevent rust, now that the underlying metal has been exposed. So our advice is, if the pan has already been heavily scratched, to get rid of it in exchange for a new one.
Pay attention to ventilation
As the main risk of using Teflon is the possibility of it releasing toxic fumes, keeping your cooking space ventilated is important to keeping you safe. When cooking with Teflon cookware, be sure to make use of any exhaust fan you might have in the kitchen. If you have windows too, open them up to increase the circulation of air.
Alternative, Safer Cookware Materials To Teflon
Even with the list of tips, some people might, understandably, still feel uncomfortable to continue using Teflon pans, given all the negative sentiment surrounding it. If you’re instead looking to get away from Teflon completely, here are some of the other cookware materials you could consider.
Often being touted as the next big thing to replace Teflon pans, many are instead opting for ceramic-coated pans nowadays. This is because the material has some non-stick properties in and of itself. However, they’re not here to completely replace Teflon.
For one, ceramic coating isn’t as non-stick as Teflon, so one shouldn’t expect the same performance from a ceramic-coated pan. Some ceramic-coated options are also less durable than their Teflon counterparts, so there’s definitely some drawbacks here as well.
One thing to keep in mind is that ceramic has also been subject to some claims about bringing health risks into the kitchen. In that case, are ceramic non-stick pans safe to use? The short answer is, yes, in the same way that Teflon pans are.
First and foremost, a little disclaimer: cast iron isn’t for everyone! Cast iron purists swear by them, but some would find it difficult to use and maintain, especially if you don’t have the patience for it.
The need to regularly season it, wipe it dry after every wash, dishwasher restriction etc. make it a difficult choice to stay on for many people. On the flip side, cast iron cookware is often relatively cheap.
If you decide to go with cast iron though, do note that this category of cookware tends to leach small amounts of iron into foods. Although harmless (sometimes even taken advantage of by those who are iron-deficient), some people might not like the idea – and taste – of it.
Enameled cast iron
All the flaws of pure cast iron that we mentioned, they don’t exist in the enameled versions!
There is no need to season the piece, no need to wipe it dry, and it does not leach iron. There must be some catch, right? Well, mainly two. Enameled cast iron pieces are more expensive than bare cast iron, and do not have the durability of cast iron that many people seek for in the first place.
Stainless steel, or carbon steel
When it comes to steel cookware, more and more quality options are appearing on the market, especially carbon steel which has been climbing in popularity. The material is now being used in pans, pots, and even starting to appear in the form of carbon steel woks.
It offers more natural non-stick properties than cast iron, yet without the need to season regularly. They are also quite durable, especially carbon steel, or high-grade stainless steel.
Although they are very poor heat conductors (even more so than cast iron!), there’s no need to worry. Manufacturers know this and often include a core of some other types of metal, e.g. aluminum or copper, between two layers of stainless steel. This is what is known as tri-ply stainless steel.
Among all the options out there, steel cookware pieces are generally on the higher side in terms of price tag.
While having superior heat conductivity and an irresistible appearance, copper cookware is expensive! And when we say expensive, we mean really expensive.
Because of their heat conductivity, hot spots are pretty much non-existent. They are also lined, usually with tin or stainless steel, as bare copper is highly reactive and will produce unwanted chemical reactions with foods. This, along with the tendency to corrode, puts copper pieces near cast iron in terms of maintenance and care efforts.
So to sum up, are non-stick pans safe to use?
The main takeaway is: if you’re using Teflon pans the right way – that is, only for low-to-medium heat cooking – they are absolutely safe to use. There is no need to worry about PFOA, as that has been eliminated from Teflon since 2013. The only risk that comes with Teflon nowadays, is extreme overheating, which is not a problem for a large percentage of home cooks.
To further minimize your risk of using a Teflon pan, remember to get one as high quality as possible, and look for heavier ones if you can handle them. When cooking, do not preheat an empty pan, avoid high-heat cooking styles such as searing, and avoid metal utensils.