Non-stick pans are useful kitchen items. Our Senior Food and Beverage Editor Claire Lower won’t cook an egg too easy 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 skillet properly.
The worrying coating is the one you may know as Teflon (a non-stick brand). Chemically, it is polytetrafluoroethylene, or PTFE. This substance is not hazardous to health in himself. It’s inert, which means it won’t chemically react with your body or anything else. But there are a few related chemicals that may be less safe.
What are the health concerns related to the chemicals used in non-stick pans?
The chemical that people usually worry about when talking about nonstick pans is PFOA, or perfluorooctanoic acid. This was used in the manufacture of Teflon coatings in the early 2000ss and beforeand was completely phased out in 2013. This chemical can cause something called “polymer fever” if you breathe in a large amount of said fumes. It is not easy to catch smoke fever; case reports include industrial workers and a man who burned almost the entire coating of a teflon pan during the nap. Smoke fever has flu-like symptoms, but people tend to recover from it in a few hours.
PFOA is part of the group of chemicals known as PFAS, or perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances. These are known as “eternal chemicals” because they do not break down in the environment. PFAS have been used in all kinds of industrial manufacturing—not just pans—and they are everywhereincluding in our drink water. Studies have found them in the blood of, to quote the CDC, “almost all people tested”. This is clearly a bad situation, ecologically. (A small bright spot: blood levels significantly decreased after chemicals were phased out about a decade ago.)
But are we putting ourselves in danger by using non-stick pans, More precisely? Probably not. The American Cancer Society reports that “nonstick cooking utensils are not a significant source of PFOA exposure,” and notes that neither the Environmental Protection Agency nor the World Health Organization have been able to determine whether PFOA poses a cancer risk to humans.
How to use a safe non-stick pan
The bottom line here is that a chemical that is Related chemicals used in non-stick pans may harmful to human health, but so far we are not aware of any danger posed by use them in ordinary kitchen. That said, it’s a good idea to make sure you don’t overheat your nonstick pan.
Although PFOA is no longer used in cookware manufacturing, it can still be produced when a PTFE coating breaks down, and tThis can happen if you heat a pan way above its normal cooking temperature. Take a look at the label the next time you buy a nonstick pan, and it’ll probably give you a maximum temperature—usually around 500 degrees Fahrenheit.
This means that you should not preheat an empty pan and walk away, and you should take care of your pans and avoid scratch the coating (which could make it more likely to release chemicals when heated). It’s also a good idea not to cook on high heat with a PTFE coated pan. IIf you want to sear something over high heat, a cast iron or stainless steel skillet is a better choice.