Is Nonstick Cookware Safe to Use? We Asked an Expert to Separate Fact from Fiction
Here are some simple steps for how to be smarter with your nonstick pots and pans.
Safe nonstick cookware is something every home can use, whether you fancy yourself a master home chef or you only know how to cook eggs. Why? Because nonstick pots and pans have made cooking foods that are prone to sticking—omelets, pancakes, seafood, sticky rice—ungodly easy. Their coating lets you stir fry, sear, or sauté without worry that you’ll be unable to dislodge a scallop or scrambled egg from the surface if you didn’t use enough oil. The best nonstick pans can actually cook foods without using any butter or oil at all.
That being said, we're often asked about the coating on nonstick cookware and its potential toxicity. The original Teflon pans were made with PFOA (perfluorooctanoic acid) and polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE). PFOA has been linked to various cancers, so it was removed from Teflon products in 2013. However, Teflon cookware still contains PTFE. PTFE is considered safe, but the problem is that it starts to break down around 450-500 degrees, releasing potentially toxic fumes.
The key is to not overheat your nonstick pans. "There's a whole chemistry set of compounds that will come off when Teflon is heated high enough to decompose," says Robert L. Wolke, Ph.D., a professor emeritus of chemistry at the University of Pittsburgh and author of What Einstein Told His Cook: Kitchen Science Explained. "Many of these are fluorine-containing compounds, which as a class are generally toxic."
So what's the temperature limit to ensure your nonstick skillet isn't releasing any toxic fumes? "At temperatures above 500ºF, the breakdown begins and smaller chemical fragments are released," explains Kurunthachalam Kannan, Ph.D., an environmental toxicologist at the New York State Department of Health's Wadsworth Center. DuPont, inventor and manufacturer of Teflon, agrees that 500°F is the recommended maximum for cooking.
It's worth mentioning that sources of PFOA are everywhere, not just in old nonstick pans: it's in microwave-safe product packaging, fast-food containers, canned goods, carpeting, and even clothing. In fact, the FDA just released an investigation that found that PFAS (a group of about 5,000 potentially hazardous synthetic compounds, one of which is PFOA), are present in the blood of 98 percent of the U.S. population. The Environmental Protection Agency concluded that for the general population, “the dominant source of human exposure to PFAs is expected to be from the diet.” These chemicals have been widely used in paper, food packaging, cleaning products, and yes, nonstick cookware. They've leached into food, water, livestock, and fertilizer. This could be an issue, as these “forever chemicals” have been linked to cancer, liver damage, thyroid disease, infertility, high cholesterol, and several other health conditions.
The good news is that many PFAs have been banned from further production. However, the FDA still has yet to make the results of their investigation public. Until we have more conclusive information, when it comes to nonstick cookware, you have to make the decision you find best for yourself and your family. There are endless cookware options on the market that don't contain any PTFE or PFAs, like cast iron, stainless steel, and ceramic (which is nonstick, too!). But in the meantime, if you choose to use nonstick, here are the safety tips to follow:
Don't cook on high heat. Most nonstick manufacturers now advise consumers not to go above medium. Whether or not overheating Teflon poses health risks, this guideline is meant to lengthen the life of your product. But to play it safe, set your knob to medium or low and don't place your nonstick cookware over so-called power burners (anything above 12,000 BTUs on a gas stove or 2,400 watts on an electric range), because those burners are intended for heat-heavy tasks like boiling a large pot of water quickly.
Keep indoor air quality top of mind. When cooking, turn on the exhaust fan to help clear away any fumes and keep your kitchen well-ventilated.
Never preheat an empty nonstick pan. This is a surefire way to overheat your cookware, especially if your pans are lightweight and flimsy.
Don't broil or sear in nonstick. Those techniques require temperatures above what nonstick can typically handle.
Choose a sturdy nonstick pan. Lightweight pans tend to heat up faster, so invest in heavier-weight cookware. Anodized aluminum is a smart option.
Avoid chipping or damaging the pan. Scratching and flaking may increase the potential toxicity of your cookware. To prevent it, avoid metal spoons and spatulas, and never stack your pans without a paper towel between them. “Wood cooking utensils are always preferable to plastic ones, and they can last for years,” says Gay Browne, environmental health advisor and author of Living With a Green Heart. “They’re also good to use on the nonstick pans you can’t yet let go of, as they will not scratch the surface." Also, avoid cleaning nonstick pans with anything abrasive, like scouring pads or steel wool. Maier Nonstick Pan Cleaning Brush ($4.50; williams-sonoma.com) is a useful tool for cleaning pans. And if your pan shows any sign of damage, replace it immediately.