The chances are that you have a non-stick pan in your kitchen. But, are you jeopardizing your health every time you toss it on the burner?
To clear up any health concerns and help you use your non-stick cookware with confidence, this article will 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.
Let’s begin by discussing what happens to pans without non-stick coatings.
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 commonly referred to as Teflon.
However, Teflon is just one non-stick coating brand that’s based on a chemical known as polytetrafluoroethylene, or PTFE for short. Other PTFE-based brands include Tefal, Silverstone, Anolon, Circulon, and Calphalon, to name some of the more popular options.
As long as they’re in good condition, these non-stick surfaces 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.
How Do Non-Stick Coatings Work?
Polytetrafluoroethylene is a plastic polymer that features long strings of highly cohesive atoms (scientifically known as a long-chain perfluorinated compound). Although they like to stick together, they’re low on adhesive forces, meaning that they’re not much for the company of others.
These attributes combine to create a very low-friction surface, like a smooth metal slide that allows an omelet to whoosh onto your plate.
Now that you know how non-stick (PTFE, Teflon) coatings work, let’s discuss potential safety concerns they might present.
Is Non-Stick Cookware Like Teflon 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.
To get a grip on the safety risks of non-stick cookware, we’ll address three central questions:
1. Will Non-Stick Coatings Cause Cancer?
Cooking for Engineers report “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 as a “likely human carcinogen.” Understandably, this got a lot of people worried about their non-stick cookware.
However, the EPA clarified that the risk only applies “to PFOA that has been emitted into the environment.”
In other words, according to Robert Wolke, professor emeritus of chemistry at the University of Pittsburgh, “The link between Teflon cookware and cancer is an entirely different subject. 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 by boasting they’re “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—usually about five years, according to TheKitchn’s Stephanie Barlow. However, use the wrong utensils, and tiny particles may begin to flake off from your pan. Does this represent a health concern?
According to a different Cooking for Engineers article, 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!”
Writing for the Tibbs School of Medicine Blog, toxicologist Mimi Huang further explains it this way:
“Assuming you use your cookware appropriately, i.e., not heating it excessively and unattended, always heating the pan with something in it, not scratching off the Teflon and consuming it for dinner, using non-stick pans is relatively safe for humans.”
3. What About Reports That Using Non-Stick Pans Can Make Birds Sick and Induce Flu-Like Symptoms in Humans?
Continuing Mimi’s discussion of heat, although it can sustain meaningfully higher temperatures for short periods of time, DuPont emphasizes that “PTFE resins have a continuous service temperature of 260°C (500°F).”
According to the EWG, though, there’s some clinical evidence that “thermal degradation” can occur on PTFE non-stick coatings at temperatures as low as 396°F. Once this occurs, it can release “a litany of toxic fumes … and particulate matter” that is potentially fatal to some birds.
As far as humans, there’s some concern that the release of these chemicals can lead to a medical condition known as polymer fume fever, also informally called ‘Teflon flu.’
However, searching the National Institutes of Health’s PubMed only revealed 35 clinical studies related to the condition at the time of our research, and only a handful of these related explicitly to Teflon/PTFE.
In other words, returning to toxicologist Mimi Huang’s insight, she points out it seems the “risk of “Teflon flu” due to inhalation of fumes during typical kitchen use is minimal.”
Since the appropriate cooking temperature can be challenging 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, we’d recommend using a heat-safe thermometer to ensure that your pans don’t get too hot.
Should You Use a Non-Stick Pan? Here Are the Pros and Cons
Now that you’re familiar with the attributes that make a non-stick coating 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 according to Jessica Harlan at TheSpruce Eats, including:
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 could make it easier to whip up low-fat recipes. Just keep in mind that removing butter or oil will also likely affect the taste as well.
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 continually 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, based on recent numbers from Consumer Reports.
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 critical cons to using non-stick cookware before we proceed:
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 (tip: stay away from metal), and be considerate of the coated surface when storing.
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.
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.
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. And remember, pet bird owners might want to steer clear altogether.
» For Further Reading:
- How to Season, Use, Clean, and Store Your Non-Stick Cookware
- How to Buy the Best Non-Stick Cookware: 4 Top Non-Stick Pans
- Comparing Cookware: Cast Iron, Aluminum, Non-Stick and Carbon Steel