When you’re in the market for a nonstick pan, you may be confused by the sheer variety of cookware available, with every brand claiming to have the best nonstick coating.
You’ll be inundated with unfamiliar names and phrases, like hard anodized, Teflon, Thermolon, ceramic, PFOA and PTFE. But what do these actually mean, and how safe are they?
In this guide, we’ll help you make sense of the different types of nonstick cookware and how safe the coatings are, as well as the best way to use and care for your pans to ensure they remain non-toxic and durable.
Is Teflon dangerous? Let’s explore and find out!
About Nonstick Cookware
The first thing you should know is that when you sift through all the manufacturer’s claims, all modern nonstick cookware boils down to two basic components – a metal pan and a nonstick coating.
Most cookware is constructed primarily from aluminum because it is affordable, strong, durable, lightweight, and an excellent conductor of heat – in fact, it heats up 16 times faster than stainless steel!
Furthermore, aluminum can be “anodized” by dipping it in an acid bath under certain conditions. This creates a layer of controlled oxidation that makes the cookware stronger and more durable.
Anodizing also prevents leaching of aluminum into your food, which some consider to be a health hazard, though this is debatable as we’ve covered in our anodized cookware dangers article.
Anodized aluminum doesn’t have anything to do with how non-stick your cookware is – it just makes it a bit tougher.
The Need For Nonstick Coatings
Nonstick cookware is a common choice for many households, mainly because it is easy to cook with and maintain, whereas cast iron cookware or stainless steel may require a little more skill and upkeep.
Is aluminum cookware safe and why does aluminum need to be coated? Acidic food can react with aluminum, resulting in the metal leaching into your food, Again, not generally considered to be dangerous, but better to avoid this.
Nonstick cookware is also great for the health-conscious chef; because the surface is so slick, you need very little oil or butter.
Different nonstick coatings
Nonstick coatings may be PTFE based, like Teflon; ceramic; or silicone based The latter two are PTFE and PFOA-free. Unfortunately, ceramic nonstick coatings don’t last as well as the plastic based alternatives. See more about ceramic cookware dangers here.
Teflon is a brand name commonly used to refer to a kind of plastic called PTFE (polytetrafluoroethylene.) It’s one of the most popular types of nonstick coatings because of its proven ability to remain nonstick.
Teflon Safety: Is PTFE Safe?
PTFE (Teflon) is extraordinarily non-reactive and non-toxic at room temperature; it’s used in surgical grafts and to coat catheters in hospitals for this reason.
Eating it accidentally is unlikely to cause any health issues – it will just pass through your system.
When heated to high temperatures of 500F and above, Teflon/PTFE starts to break down and release fumes. These fumes can be highly toxic for birds, and also have an effect on humans.
SEE ALSO: Can Nonstick Pans Go In The Oven
Inhalation of these chemical fumes can lead to flu-like symptoms: fever, headache and body aches. This ‘Teflon flu,’ as it is commonly called, can kick in around 4-10 hours after exposure, and usually only lasts 12-48 hours.
Although this sounds concerning, keep in mind that anyone who has reported suffering from the Teflon flu or experienced other symptoms, was exposed to fumes from cookware that was heated to super high temperatures (around 730F) for at least four hours, so it’s highly unlikely you’re in any danger.
You won’t (or shouldn’t) be using your Teflon pans at these high temperatures. In summary, as long as you keep the temperature moderate and refrain from heating an empty pan, Teflon/PTFE is safe to use.
What is PFOA?
PFOA (Perfluorooctanoic Acid) is a chemical that was previously used in the manufacturing process for PTFE. It has been linked to tumors and developmental problems in some animals.
PFOA is said to burn off during this process, with only residual amounts remaining in the PTFE. Regardless, PFOA is now classified as a toxic substance, so all makers of cookware from 2015 onwards ensured their coatings were free off PFOA – including Teflon.
In other words, no matter what the cookware set you’re looking at says, every single pot and pan in the North American market should be free of this stuff if it was manufactured after 2015.
Even if it was manufactured before 2015, the FDA has stated that the manufacturing process “drives off the PFOA,” meaning the “risk to consumers is considered negligible.”
Thermolon is a non-stick coating that’s essentially identical to PTFE.
It’s marketed as being “safer” because it’s also manufactured without PFOA. It’s a bit harder and conducts heat better, but the aluminum in your pan has a much bigger impact on heat distribution.
Thermolon still scrapes off easily should you happen to scratch it with a metal utensil.
Ceramic coatings are an interesting option that solve the non-stick problem in a totally different way. Ceramic is slightly more durable than PTFE through normal use, but it’s sensitive to heat. You should never use high heat even with the best ceramic cookware because the coating will diminish quickly.
Ceramic non-stick coatings are very comparable to PTFE or Thermolon coatings. In the kitchen, they’re more or less identical.
In fact, how you use and clean your pans is much more likely to have a bigger impact on how long your cookware lasts than what type of coat you choose.
Since both cost about the same, the real difference is in aesthetics. Ceramic coatings are often white, unlike Red Copper cookware, while PTFE and Thermolon coats are black.
Is silicone safe for cooking? Silicone is less commonly used for cookware, and you’ll usually find it only on budget brands. It’s cheaper to use, but the nonstick coating does not tend to last very long.
You’ll more likely find silicone coatings on bakeware trays, bread and muffin tins.
Tips For Safe Use & Care
Whatever type of coating you choose for your nonstick cookware, there are a few tips and tricks you can follow to help ensure that it will last for as long as possible.
- Avoid overheating: While some coatings might be a bit more resistant to higher temperatures, that doesn’t mean that the metal inside your pans won’t start to warp. Stick to medium or low heat to prevent any issues and remember that nonstick pans heat up very quickly.
- Purchase appropriate utensils: Careless contact with metal will quickly scratch off any non-stick coat. For best results, get a set of wooden or silicone spatulas for use with your cookware.
- Avoid the dishwasher: Dishwashers use high heat and strong detergents. They can leave a film on your cookware after each use. We recommend to hand wash all your non-stick cookware with warm water, gentle detergent and a soft sponge as soon as it’s cooled to a safe temperature.
- Avoid unnecessary oils: Read the instructions that come with your pots and pans and take the manufacturer’s advice regarding oils to heart. Some coats, notably ceramic and porcelain, work best with little to no oil. Excess oil can damage the non-stick properties of your pan if they aren’t cooked or cleaned off. Other coats work best with a small amount of oil or don’t care how much you use.
- Educate people in your kitchen: Make sure that anyone who’s going to use your cookware is aware of how each piece should be used and cleaned. Using a metal spoon to taste test your cooking straight from the pan is often the biggest culprit for scratches.
- Ventilation: Regardless of the cookware you use, you should ensure that your cooking area is well ventilated, letting any nasty fumes or smoke escape easily.
- Replace damaged cookware: We recommend that you discard any nonstick cookware that is scratched, peeling or bubbled. The damage will slightly increase the chance of nasties leaching into your food, but aside from this, it will not cook as effectively and will just degrade further.
Final Thoughts – Are Non-stick Pans Safe?
Regardless of your nonstick surface, all coatings are vulnerable to being worn down through normal use and need a little bit of TLC to go the distance.
While there is a lot of talk about the dangers of nonstick cookware, particularly regarding Teflon, the reality is that these pans have only a miniscule chance of causing health issues, and only when used incorrectly.
Nonstick cookware offers a satisfying cooking experience with quick and painless clean up. With some innovative technology paving the way, you can find yourself a value for money set that suits your needs perfectly.
If you are still concerned about the possible long-term effects on your health, there are other options that can allay your fears, such as silicone or ceramic coated cookware.