Nonstick pans are useful kitchen items. Our senior food and beverage editor Claire Lower won’t cook an over-easy egg or a thin pancake without one. But do you need to worry about the coating being bad for your health? Not exactly, but it’s important to know how to handle a nonstick pan properly.
The coating of concern is the one you might know as Teflon (one nonstick brand name). Chemically, it’s polytetrafluoroethylene, or PTFE. This substance isn’t a health hazard in itself. It’s inert, meaning it won’t react chemically with your body or anything else. But there are a few related chemicals that may be less safe.
What are the health concerns with the chemicals used in nonstick pans?
The chemical that people are usually concerned with when they talk about nonstick pans is PFOA, or perfluorooctanoic acid. This was used in the manufacturing of Teflon coatings in the early 2000s and earlier, and was fully phased out by 2013. This chemical can cause something called “polymer fume fever” if you breathe in a large amount of said fumes. It’s not easy to get fume fever; case reports include industrial workers and a man who burned off nearly the entire coating of a Teflon pan while taking a nap. Fume fever has flu-like symptoms, but people tend to recover from it within a few hours.
PFOA is part of the group of chemicals known as PFAS, or perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances. These are known as “forever chemicals” because they don’t break down in the environment. PFAS have been used in all kinds of industrial manufacturing—not just pans—and they’re everywhere, including in our drinking water. Studies have found them in the blood of, to quote the CDC, “nearly all of the people tested.” This is clearly a bad situation, environmentally. (One small bright spot: blood levels noticeably declined after the chemicals were phased out around a decade ago.)
But are we endangering ourselves by using nonstick pans, specifically? Probably not. The American Cancer Society reports that “nonstick cookware is not a significant source of PFOA exposure,” and notes that neither the Environmental Protection Agency nor the World Health Organization has been able to determine whether PFOAs pose a cancer risk to humans.
How to use a nonstick pan safely
The bottom line here is that a chemical that is related to the chemicals used in nonstick pans may be harmful to human health, but so far we’re not aware of any dangers posed by using them in ordinary cooking. That said, it’s a good idea to make sure you don’t overheat your nonstick pan.
While PFOA isn’t used in the manufacture of the pans anymore, it can still be produced when a PTFE coating breaks down, and that can happen if you heat a pan well over its normal cooking temperature. Take a look at the label next time you buy a nonstick pan, and it will probably give a maximum temperature—usually around 500 degrees Fahrenheit.
This means you shouldn’t preheat an empty pan and walk away, and you should take care of your pans and avoid scratching up the coating (which could make it more likely to release chemicals when it’s heated). It’s also a good idea not to cook at high temperatures with a PTFE-coated pan. If you want to sear something over high heat, a cast iron or stainless steel pan is a better choice.