Non-Stick Cookware 101: Is Teflon Safe?

Do you have a non-stick pan in your kitchen?

Chances are that you do – these easy-peasy cookware items allow the clumsiest chef to whip up certain dishes with ease. Plus, they promise minimal cleanup.

Despite non-stick’s promise of perfectly cooked eggs and more, consumers are left with questions about how and when to use coated cookware, and whether or not it’s safe.

To clear up any health concerns and help you use your non-stick cookware with confidence, we’ve created this three-part buying guide.

In this article, we’ll explore what gives non-stick it’s slippery texture, the advantages of using non-stick pots and pans, as well as address your safety concerns. In the next two articles, we’ll share how-to tips, including cooking, cleaning, and storage before comparing top non-stick brands.

To understand the appeal of non-stick cookware, first we’ve got to ask...

Why Does Food Stick to My Pan?

Textured sponges, dishwashing brushes, and scouring pads make cleaning your cookware easier. However, these scrubby-buddies also make minute scratches in your metal pans each and every time that you wash.

Like a rock climber leveraging ledges and crevices, it’s all those tiny scuff marks, scratches, and pits that make it easier for your egg to determinedly cling to a pan.

What Is Non-Stick Cookware?

Non-stick cookware is essentially a thin metal pot, pan, or cooking sheet that’s been coated with a low-friction material that’s commonly called Teflon.

Teflon’s official name is PTFE — “Teflon” is a version of the coating that’s branded by DuPont. Other branded names of non-stick coating include Tefal, Silverstone, Anolon, Circulon, Calphalon, and the Red Copper line.

As long as it’s in good condition, a non-stick surface can prevent even the trickiest ingredients from clumping to your pan.

For example, if you’re awful at cooking eggs, a PTFE coating can mean the difference between a fresh, piping-hot omelet and the frazzled remains of a burnt egg that refuses to detach from your pan.

See Also: Comparing Cookware Materials

How Do Non-Stick Coatings Work?

“Non-stick” might be the PTFE sales pitch, but it’s really a low-friction coating. How does PTFE get to be so smooth?

PTFE’s full name is polytetrafluoroethylene. It’s a plastic polymer, which means its molecules are made from an incredibly long string of atoms bonded together.

The atoms in PTFE (non-stick) are highly cohesive – they like to stick together. But, they’re low on adhesive forces, meaning that they’re not much for the company of others.

These attributes combine to create a surface that is very low friction, like a smooth metal slide that allows an omelet to whoosh onto your plate.

Now that you know how non-stick (PTFE, Teflon) works, keep in mind the importance of its unblemished surface area when it comes to how to care for your coated cookware.

If fact, maintaining a non-stick coating’s unblemished surface is so important, you’ll hear us repeat it several times specifically because it relates to your safety.

Speaking of safety...

Is Non-Stick Cookware Harmful to Your Health?

Consumer belief that non-stick coatings cause cancer is so prevalent that it’s even listed several times as a “disadvantage” to using coated cookware on Quora.

The worry concerns emissions – the gases non-stick cookware is feared to release when heated. And multiple, conflicting studies have created even more confusion around this high-stakes question than necessary.

To get a grip on the safety risks of non-stick cookware, we’ll address the two main questions:

1. Will My Non-Stick Cookware Emit Cancer-Causing Gases?

PFOA (Perfluorooctanoic Acid) is a chemical that is used in the process of making PTFE (your non-stick coating).

In 2006, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) scientific advisory panel classified PFOA is a “likely human carcinogen.” Understandably, this got a lot of people worried about their non-stick cookware.

However, that risk only applies to PFOA that has been emitted into the environment.

“The link between Teflon cookware and cancer is an entirely different subject,” says Robert Wolke, professor emeritus of chemistry at the University of Pittsburgh and author of the two-part book series What Einstein Told His Cook.

According to Robert Wolke, “There is no PFOA in the final Teflon product, so there is no risk that it will cause cancer in those who use Teflon cookware.”

That hasn’t stopped the makers of non-stick coatings from scrambling to assure consumers of their product’s safety. Now, most non-stick cookware for sale boasts labels that state the coating is “PFOA-free.”

Note that worries about PFOA emissions are separate from those regarding PTFE, which we’ll address shortly.

2. Will Ingesting Tiny Particles on Non-Stick Coating Give Me Cancer?

Properly cared for non-stick coating has a moderate shelf life. However, use the wrong utensils and tiny particles may begin to flake off from your pan. Is this a health concern?

According to Cooking for Engineers, the answer is no.

“Under normal circumstances, PTFE is an inert substance,” explains their cookware advisor. “Even if you ingest a piece that flaked off from your pan, it will simply pass through your body.”

Meaning that tiny particles of PTFE as much of a concern as a wayward swallowed sunflower seed or piece of gum.

To prove their point, the article continues to explain that, because of its non-reactive nature, PTFE is even used as a medical material.

“It’s found in arterial grafts, catheters, sutures, joint replacements and reconstructive and cosmetic facial surgery!”

3. What About Reports That Using Non-Stick Pans Can Make Birds Sick and Induce Flu-Like Symptoms in Humans?

Heating non-stick cookware to 500°F will cause the coating to start decomposing, which will release fluorine-containing compounds into the air. This can result in smoke and gases that can cause flu-like symptoms in humans and can kill pet birds.

Understand that these very fluoropolymers are the compounds that make non-stick coatings slippery – so you’re not going to find non-stick coated cookware that’s free of this risk.

If you own a pet bird, we suggest checking out this community of parrot owners for tips on pet-safe alternatives.

For the rest of us, the good news is that avoiding fluoride emissions simply means cooking no higher than 500°F when using your non-stick pan.

Since that can be harder to guesstimate when using your stovetop, we’ve shared some average cooking times depending on pan weight in part two of this series. However, if in doubt, use a heat-safe thermometer to ensure that your pans don’t get too hot.

Here’s the deal: Just like a kitchen knife, microwave, or gas stovetop, non-stick coatings are safe when used properly. However, using anything improperly comes with risks.

Should You Use a Non-Stick Pan? Here Are the Pros and Cons

Now that you’re familiar with the attributes of a non-stick coating that make it so slippery, it’s easier to understand that this isn’t a completely fuss-free material. That being said, there are still plenty of upsides.

Or, at least, a few significant upsides to using non-stick coated pans, including:

  1. You can make healthier meals. Thanks to non-stick’s smooth surface, there’s no need to line your skillet with butter or oil before cooking, which makes it easier to whip up low-fat recipes.
  2. They’re remarkably easy to cook with and clean. An unblemished non-stick surface can be wiped clean with a sponge.

While it’s not a long list, for anyone who’s constantly bungling their eggs or struggling to get the fish smell out of their cast irons, they’re important perks. Those reasons are likely the reason why non-stick cookware accounts for about 70 percent of all such sales in the United States.

But, for as many consumers who enjoy using non-stick cookware, it turns out many of us are using them wrong, significantly shortening their shelf life.

With that in mind, it’s important to remember a few important cons to using non-stick cookware before we proceed:

  1. You’ll need to use it with care. Cooking with non-stick means more than keeping an eye on the temperature. You’ll also have to carefully select your tools (more in part two), and be considerate of the coated surface when storing.
  2. They don’t last forever. Because non-stick is only as good as it is smooth, once erosion occurs, you’ll have to replace the pan.
  3. You can’t use it to cook everything. Getting a good sear on your steak requires temps of up to 600°F – well past non-stick’s safe temperature range.

Think Non-Stick Cookware Could Complement Your Kitchen Arsenal?

Still interested in non-stick? We don’t blame you. In the great cookware debate, it’s a pretty easy material to get behind, just be sure to keep those temps low, or you might suffer flu-like symptoms. (And remember, pet bird owners should steer clear altogether.)

To help inform your non-stick cookware usage, follow along to the second guide in this series where we’ll explore a whole range of tips, from selecting cooking tools to cleaning and care of your non-stick cookware.


Autumn Yates

Autumn draws from a reporting background and years of experience working remotely, while living abroad, to focus on topics in travel, beauty, and online safety.


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