“Are nonstick pans safe? They don’t make Teflon anymore…do they? But now there are ‘green’ cooking pans! What pans are actually safe to use?”
After attending a housewares trade show, I noted what seemed like close to a hundred nonstick pans. There were diamond pans. There were ceramic pans. There were “green” pans. Undoubtedly, nonstick pans are purchased time and time again by consumers. Enough to warrant features at trade shows. They’re intensely popular! When I shared them as a trend for the year, I got a ton of messages on Instagram: “What do you think about nonstick pans? Are they safe”?
I didn’t know how to respond.
Most people have at least one nonstick pan in their house. They’re undeniably handy for cooking eggs, and they require such limited clean up for those who hate washing pans. I get it. Convenience culture has made the nonstick pan a godsend (that and a fat phobia decade).
But I haven’t used nonstick pans in years, and I have never considered repurchasing them. We use cast iron skillets from my Grandma and stainless steel pans from All Clad. And yes, I use the stainless steel for eggs and yes, I clean the pan about five times a week with scrambled eggs (we’re not really eggs over easy people).
So I had my personal habits…but I didn’t have evidence or actual research why I felt I was “right.” Or even if I was right! I needed more research to justify my own habits and choices related to nonstick pans. So here we are.
Like most health topics I research, I found that the answer isn’t so simple. I went into this “knowing” Teflon was bad. But in fact, the answer is so generalized and overly simplified that one brand or chemical compound ended up demonized when it was something else entirely (I honestly had no idea). It’s such a common theme in the research I do from why hemp was illegal to why companies have “No MSG” written on their packaging. The general public’s perception is the trickled down message of lots of complicated information that isn’t always accurate.
The fact that a single action (cooking in a pan) became the public point of focus when there are so many more factors at play blew my mind. Simply so I don’t leave you confused before you dive in, I’ll say this: it’s the constant, regular exposure to compounds from MANY sources of this particular compound all over your life over decades…not so much the fact you’re cooking an egg once a week. You’ll see what I mean.
Nonstick Pans 101: Are Nonstick Pans Healthy?
What are nonstick pans?
Sometimes when the general public refers to ‘nonstick pans,’ they mean “Teflon,” which is a branded nonstick coating. Nonstick pans can also be ceramic coated and can include terms like ‘diamond coated’ or ‘green’. These are typically marketing terms used to differentiate new nonstick pans from the old “scary” nonstick pans for people. A nonstick pan typically has a coating with properties that cause friction reduction or that repel water.
Why are nonstick pans bad?
This is a loaded question, and I won’t even begin to touch on the health aspect of nonstick pans in this paragraph. From a kitchen utility standpoint, nonstick pans do not last a long time (from a few months to a few years depending on care). The coating can be scratched, chipped, and wears out meaning you’ll need to buy a new one much more quickly than a set of pans that are not coated.
You can’t use certain utensils with them. You can’t heat them to high temperatures. There are rules. But consumers can’t be trusted to use things properly and you’ll see this evidence in product reviews on websites. A quick scroll through a high end pan set on Williams Sonoma had review after review where people were upset their pans only lasted three years. THEY’RE SUPPOSED TO! Nonstick pans are not heirloom. They’re essentially disposable as soon as you don’t follow the rules, or after the maximum of several years when the coating wears off. And some people simply don’t get that.
That doesn’t necessarily make nonstick pans a no-go out of the gate. It just means you should exercise caution and not spend a ton of money on something that will be replaced relatively shortly.
What are nonstick pans made out of? What’s a PFAS?
A PFAS is a group of synthetic chemicals that have been manufactured since the 1940s and are used in many consumer products from cookware to pizza boxes and stain repellants. PFAS include PFOA and PFOS which studies show are not good for your health (this is important for later).
One crucial acronym to remember is PTFE, which is known by the brand name Teflon (trademarked to DuPont). PTFE (Teflon) used PFOA in the manufacturing process.
New nonstick pans made within the US (because PFOA coatings can still be made abroad and imported) are often made with short chain fluorochemicals and commonly “ceramic coating.”
What is Teflon? What’s a PTFE?
Teflon is branded PTFE (Polytetrafluoroethylene), which is a friction reducing synthetic polymer that’s used on some cookware (but also other things like joint replacements, the construction of igniters for rocket propellants, certain types of bullets and the roof of the Metrodome in Minnesota). Teflon is the most well known PTFE, but other companies can use similar coatings in the same chemical family.
Let’s recap: PFAs are a group of chemicals that include PFOA and PFOS that are not good for your body in large amounts. PTFE (aka Teflon) uses PFOA in the manufacturing process.
Why are Teflon and other PFOA/PFOS dangerous? Is it just cookware that is the problem?
While this article is discussing only nonstick pans, remember, there are PFOA in multiple household items and beyond. This is crucial because while nonstick pans received the most publicity for utilizing a nonstick coating that used PFOA in the manufacturing process, there are TONS of other products that also did the same. Here’s why Teflon caught the flack:
In 2004, DuPont, the parent company, settled a huge lawsuit that alleged PFOA (used in the production of Teflon) had contaminated the drinking water located near the production plant.
In 2007 Johns Hopkins found an association between PFOA exposure and small decreases in head circumference and body weight in infants.
Headlines like these finally forced agencies to take a stand on PFOA. The EPA created an agreement with several major companies to phase out PFOA. This was called the PFOA Stewardship Program. The goal was to achieve a 95% reduction in facility emissions of all PFOA, precursor chemicals that break down to PFOA, and product content levels of these compounds. The secondary goal was to work toward eliminating these chemicals from both emissions and products by 2015.
As of 2012, DuPont no longer uses PFOA to manufacture nonstick coatings. By the end of 2014, DuPont no longer makes fluoropolymers and has changed to short chain products that are “fluorotelomer-based.”
It’s not that Teflon coating itself was dangerous, it’s that the PFOA in the manufacturing process was a big, big problem and while it’s not currently used in nonstick cookware, it IS used in imported items and in some other products.
Do nonstick pans cause cancer and other illnesses? Are nonstick pans safe?
Studies indicate that specific PFAS chemicals PFOA and PFOS, which were used in the production of Teflon and similar nonstick coatings, lead to adverse health outcomes in humans, including “reproductive, developmental, liver and kidney and immunological effects in animals. Both chemicals have caused tumors in animals…”
BUT research has shown that nonstick pans themselves are safe as long as the coating is intact and high heat is NOT used (above 500 degrees F). If the surface gets closer to 600 degrees, compounds become airborne and can be inhaled, causing what’s known as “Teflon flu” or polymer fume fever. The American Cancer Society says that even though fumes will cause these symptoms it’s unlikely or unknown that it causes any additional issues. Overheating these pans will, however, kill pet birds.
Even if some of the coating were to be ingested, all research points to the fact it would pass through your body without causing issues. If you regularly used a pan, damaged it and continued to heat and cool the pan, toxicologists indicate it is possible the PFOA could migrate into the food. This goes back to saying if you continue to cook on a nonstick pan that isn’t overheated and not scratched…it may be the least health worrisome thing you’re doing in the grand scheme of things.
In fact, from a scientific research point of view, using a nonstick pan correctly isn’t really the problem. It’s all leads back to PFOA in manufacturing being the problem.
The International Agency for Research on Cancer says PFOAs are ‘’possibly carcinogenic to humans’. EPA issued health advisory about PFOA. Continuously emerging research indicates that PFOA might cause significant problems for humans.
The build-up of these chemicals in your body from MULTIPLE sources, not just pans, is problematic. This is called bioaccumulation. The compound is now found in soil, seafood and beyond. Recent findings from the FDA note that PFAS is found in about 98% of the US population’s blood.
It’s SO just not about the pans you’re using. It’s about the food wrappers and many other sources of this chemical. It’s repeated exposure over a lifetime to all these little sources, and they add up. The pans just got the brunt of the drama.
So is it the nonstick pan that’s bad?
It’s unlikely that the pan itself that contained the Teflon (PTFE) is the problem. The American Cancer society says Teflon is not known to cause cancer
What is a ceramic pan? Is it better than a Teflon/PTFE pan?
Ceramic nonstick pans are not actual ceramic like you think they are. They’re standard metal pans, but the finish is a silicon finish made from sand that ends up looking like a ceramic finish. Many companies use the branded finish Thermalon.
Ceramic pans use a silica-based coating instead of a coating like Teflon. While ceramic pans tend to be advertised as ‘green’ or ‘healthy,’ that’s mostly just a marketing ploy. The downside to a ceramic pan is mainly that the nonstick properties do not last as long as other nonstick pans. Some people even find they’re just not as good at making a nonstick coating.
Is “ceramic coating” better? Is it healthier? It’s a grey area. We just don’t have the studies. The main argument is that some ceramic cookware contains “nanoparticles,” which can enter cells. They’re smaller than you can possibly imagine.
There has been limited assessment and research to understand the potential adverse effects that their rapid use across many products can cause. There are no long term studies on how nanoparticles within ceramic coatings behave with humans.
Can you heat it hotter than the old pans? Are they nonstick-ish? Yep. So if that’s what you’re looking for, there you go.
Those new short-chain nonstick coatings on the market that replaced “the bad ones”…are they okay?
The new nonstick coatings are potentially risky. Here’s why.
In 2014, several scientists issued the Helsingør Statement, which outlines concerns related to the transition of these short-chain alternatives. In 2015 the Madrid Statement was created which was signed by more than 200 scientists. This updated document informed policymakers and the public about the potential risks and details alternatives. The short story is, they argued more information was needed on the safety of these alternatives and desired more information from chemical companies who they suggest were supplying vague, incomplete data.
That’s not to say the new alternatives are in fact “bad”… or that they’re “good.” It’s just to point out there are scientific concerns, and a degree of skepticism is warranted. The general argument is the new compounds will cause similar problems to the old compounds in that they will appear in many places within the environment (“environmentally persistent compounds” or things that bioaccumulate), causing high levels of exposure. With that said, the new shorter-chain compounds don’t seem to accumulate as much as the old compounds, which is why they are claimed to be “safer.”
It’s clearly not a solution, but seemingly an improvement.
I have nonstick pans..should I throw them out?
If your pan is flaking, sticking, and has a ton of scratches, you need to replace it and discard it immediately. As mentioned above, if you accidentally eat a flake, it’s not so much an issue, but why risk it? It’s no longer serving its job as a nonstick pan anyway!
What nonstick pan should I buy?
If you’re looking for a nonstick pan recommendation…I won’t give you one at this time. It’s a grey area.
We don’t have all the information on “ceramic” coating and other new nonstick surfaces. If you’re set on buying a nonstick pan, look for third-party evaluations and reports on the cookware that show testing.
Follow the rules: don’t put it in the dishwasher, don’t scratch it, and throw it out when it stops sticking. I’ll also mention that I personally find this replacement culture unsettling. What happens to your pan when you throw it out? Consider the waste you’re producing, and as long as you are okay with that…have at it.
To provide a specific answer researched, the Environmental Work Group recommends cast iron and stainless steel as well as glass as alternatives.
What are you (Carlene) personally going to do?
I don’t see myself buying a nonstick pan when I’ve successfully used alternatives for years. I’d rather play it safe since I don’t currently need one for my style of cooking. But if you MUST have eggs over easy, maybe it is worth it to you to get a nonstick pan.
When used safely (at low to medium temperatures, without scratching), nonstick pans seem to be safe, but we don’t have longterm studies even on the new ceramic coatings especially related to nanoparticles.
As I mentioned, in our house we use heirloom cast iron pans and stainless steel pans.
Cast iron is excellent because when seasoned, it creates a natural nonstick coating. It heats evenly and can get really hot. It lasts basically forever.
Stainless steel pans can also be non-stick-ish (but not the same slide off as a nonstick pan). Buy thick, quality stainless steel pans with a flat surface (in general tri-ply seems to be the recommendation). I have a set of All Clad I love. When you’re cooking meat, pat it dry, heat the pan, add oil, and add what you’re hoping to make nonstick. When I make eggs in the morning I get my pan nice and hot with a fat, add the eggs and then after I’m done I’ll add water to the empty pan. I use a Lodge scraper to loosen the layer and that’s it! One minute of active cleaning time.
What’s the bottom line?
PFOA are bad. New nonstick coatings and nanoparticles don’t have enough research behind them.
But it’s not specifically the pan that’s the issue. It’s the fact that specific compounds are just in everything from fabrics and carpets to food wrappers and beyond.
Be conscious in the choices you make in ALL aspects of your life, not just this one pan. Buy products made of natural materials (metal, wood, glass, natural fibers). Use natural cleaning solutions. Try to limit food packaging.
Life is about more than one pan.
Dietitian Nutritionist and cookbook author sharing flavor-forward recipes and simplified science-driven wellness.