Is Nonstick Cookware Safe?

Based on Science

Inexpensive and easy to use, nonstick cookware floods our markets, restaurants, and homes. More than half of the top 50 best selling skillets on Amazon are nonstick. One may not spend a lot of money buying a nonstick pan, but are we paying for it in other ways? 

Studies show that nonstick cookware has been linked to increased risk to human health and environment. It is usually safe to use if you don’t overheat the pan or damage the nonstick coating.

Having said that we would recommend choosing cookware without nonstick coating. These are 3 reasons why:

Manufacturing nonstick coatings pollutes the environment

Nonstick cookware is considered a health risk

Nonstick is more expensive in the long term

The Beginning of Nonstick Coatings

The first nonstick coatings were made using synthetic fluoroplastic polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE).

This coating was applied to pans using per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS). These chemicals effectively repel water, oil, and grease.

They are best known in the food industry for their role in the manufacturing of nonstick cookware.

PFAS are also used in the manufacturing of fast-food wrappers, pizza boxes, and other food packaging. PFAS have been so widely used that they are found embedded in our environment. (1)

Dangers of PFAS

PFAS can be carried through the air, move through soil or seep into groundwater. They are found in areas near to where they are used in manufacturing. They are also found in areas where products containing PFAS are used. 

Commonly known as ‘forever chemicals’, PFAS do not easily break down. They are persistent in the environment where they are found in low levels in a variety of foods.

Repeated exposure to PFAS can cause them to build up in the blood of animals and people. (2)

For many years manufacturers were aware of the health and environmental hazards of these synthetic elements. 

Unfortunately, they hid it from the public.

One environmental issue is the deep well injection plants that have been used since the 1950s to store toxic waste far below the ground. These wells have repeatedly leaked and caused contamination of ground and drinking water. (3)

The class action and lawsuits against manufacturers 3M and DuPont highlighted the environmental hazards of the production of nonstick materials. The water around the manufacturing plants is contaminated resulting in the death of livestock, sickness and birth defects in humans, and contaminated agricultural produce. (4)

In May 2015 over 200 scientists signed the Madrid Statement urging customers to avoid products containing harmful PFAS. They also urged governments to consider the harmful effects of these substances on health and the environment, and restrict their use. (5)

By 2015 the use of PFOA and PFOS was phased out in the US due to health and environmental concerns. Other countries are now reviewing PFOA and its salts under an international treaty, the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Pollutants.

This year the committee made the recommendation to ban PFOA and PFOS globally.

While it has been phased out in some countries, others are still producing huge amounts of products using these chemicals. This is the result of the contamination of drinking water in America and Australia near military bases and factories.

Contaminated food supply

PFAS have migrated into agricultural produce that has been irrigated with PFAS-contaminated water or grown in soil contaminated with PFAS.

PFAS also find their way into crops grown for food and animal feed through PFA-contaminated sewage sludge. (7)

In 2001 a study was done in six US cities to find out how PFAS were affecting the food supply.

High levels of PFOA and PFOS were found in apples, milk, green beans, and ground beef. These foods came from Georgia, Florida, Alabama, and Tennessee.

Diet is believed to be a major source of PFAS exposure for Americans, according to the EPA.

The EPA noted that livestock could ingest PFOS from grazing on fields where biosolids were applied and from eating contaminated feed. The majority of fish tested from hundreds of sites across the US contained PFOS.

A 2017 FDA study reveals that PFOS was found in the food of three mid-Atlantic cities. These ‘forever chemicals’ have contaminated water and are being found in crops and livestock. (6)

Avoid The replacement compounds. The are just as harmful

The US, Japan, and Western Europe have phased out the production of long-chain PFAS.

Short-chain perfluoroalkyl acids and other subclasses of PFAS have replaced them. These replacement compounds have already been found at high levels in soil, groundwater, and drinking water. (8)

Unfortunately, the evidence is growing that these replacements are just as harmful to the environment and human health. 

In fact, recent studies suggest that the newer chemicals may be just as toxic and harder to treat. (9, 10

pfas graph

A study on grass and leaf samples collected within 25km of a fluoropolymer manufacturing plant in the Netherlands revealed that both the new and old PFAS are distributed through the environment.

GenX and PFOA were found in drinking water and in/on grass and leaves. This suggests they could also be present in locally grown food. (11)

GenX (HFPO-DA), the replacement for the phased-out PFOA, has been found in drinking water, rainwater and even honey. It has not only contaminated air and water but also the food web. (12)

The EU Member States Committee has identified HFPO-DA as substances of very high concern. The effect of HFPO-DA on the environment and human health has been observed.

The committee noted that once it is released into the water and the food chain there is no known way of removing this bioaccumulative substance. 

Studies show that short-chain PFAS chemicals like PFBS and GenX accumulate in large quantities in the edible parts of plants, like lettuce leaves and strawberries.

The previously used long-chain PFAS chemicals accumulate in the roots of the plant. While both affect the plants grown for food, the short-chain chemicals are more available for human and animal consumption.

Can you Recycle Nonstick Pans?

Knowing the effect that chemical compounds have on water and soil in the production of the pans raises concerns about how to recycle them. Before the metal can be recycled, the coating needs to be stripped off the pan. Some recycling companies are willing and able to do this. Many suburban recycling programs don’t recycle coated pans, you may need to search out a local recycling program that does. Scrapyards often accept nonstick pans and resell the metal to industrial manufacturers. The iScrap App and other similar resources help find local facilities that will recycle your nonstick pan. (13)

Another option is to keep the pan. Why throw a perfectly good pan away because the nonstick coating is chipped, flaking or deteriorated? Some companies recoat nonstick cookware and you can even purchase resurfacing sprays to touch up your pan at home. This is only a temporary solution and will need to be redone again shortly. Knowing that the chemicals used are an environmental hazard, however, makes this an unappealing option. 

If it were a steel pan it would be worth keeping. Once the nonstick coating has been completely removed you can season it yourself and turn it into a naturally nonstick pan. Steel is a strong metal and the pan should last you a long time. 

Is nonstick safe for your health?

You need to know what the nonstick coating of your pan is made of. There are some elements we know to avoid at all costs thanks to scientific research. Avoid any nonstick coating that contains heavy metals, lead, cadmium, arsenic, PTFE, PFAS, and substances are known to be a health hazard. 

Manufacturers claim that nonstick pans can withstand temperatures of between 400F and 500F depending on the coating. If you are using a nonstick pan make sure to never overheat it.

Pans coated with PTFE cannot be heated above 500F.

When heated higher than this the PTFE begins to deteriorate.

Above 662F it begins to decompose. The by-products released when it is overheated can cause polymer fume fever in humans.

Symptoms of polymer flu include fever, chills, headaches, a tight chest and a mild cough. These symptoms begin about 2-4 hours after exposure and last 3-4 days.

The PFAS we know negatively affect human health

PTFE, PFOA, and PFOS are all substances proven to be unhealthy. Overwhelming evidence from the scientific community has confirmed that exposure to PFOA has contributed to low-weight births and birth defects in newborns

Children and teens with high levels of PFOA in their blood have shown elevated total and LDL cholesterol levels and adults have battled immune disorders, kidney and liver disease, and numerous cancers. 

PFOA and PFOS were phased out of use in the US between 2006 and 2015 and replacement compounds are used for manufacturing nonstick coatings.

Already scientists have found that the phasing out of these chemicals has substantially lowered the amount of chemically linked low-birth weights in babies. (14)

The new alternative compounds are just as toxic

Promoted as more environmentally sustainable and safer, scientific studies show that the new PFAS chemicals are just as toxic and hazardous to our health.

These chemicals were found to be directly responsible for hormone disruption, cancers, kidney and liver toxicity, and abnormal fetal development.

The EPA confirmed these findings. They said animal studies showed that GenX could potentially affect the immune system, blood, kidneys, liver and developing fetuses following oral exposure. Their data was suggestive of cancer. (15)

The National Toxicology Program recently published test results demonstrating the new generation short-chain PFAS chemicals can harm the reproductive and hormonal systems in a way that is similar to the effects of long-chain PFAS.

GenX, the successor to PFOA, has been linked to cancer and other serious health problems at even the smallest doses. [] PFAS have also been linked to weight gain, especially in women. (1617)

If you are going to buy a nonstick pan, make sure that there are no PFAS in the coating. The overwhelming evidence of their negative effects on human health is convincing.

High cholesterol, weight gain in children and adults, cancer, reproductive harm, and developmental harm are directly attributed to exposure to PFAS. PFOA in the blood has been associated with high levels of uric acid, which can cause kidney stones and gout. (18)

Which nonstick pan is the healthiest choice?

Manufacturers are making an effort to stay away from known toxic chemicals like PFOA and PFOS. Unfortunately, there may be other PFAS, like GenX, one should avoid.

Many of these chemicals are used to produce goods without being tested and knowing their effect on human health. 

Investigate and know what chemicals and elements are used in the nonstick coating you choose to use. 

There are other PTFE-free alternatives on the market, like ceramic and other nonstick coatings.

Until we know enough about all the components used and their effect on human health, it may be best to consider healthier cookware alternatives that don’t make use of nonstick coatings.

Nonstick is expensive in the long-term

Have you been keeping track of what you spend on nonstick cookware? 

Let’s focus on nonstick pans for a minute. Let’s be honest about how long the nonstick coating lasts.

Customers often comment that the pans work well for the first few weeks or months. Soon though, food begins to stick to the pan and becomes difficult to clean off. The coating has begun to deteriorate and lose its effectiveness.

Manufacturers are continually trying to produce durable nonstick coatings. The lab tests on coatings are rigorous

Real-life circumstances are recreated to test the strength and resilience of the coatings. This leads some manufacturers to claim that the nonstick coatings last 3 to 5 years.

Customers who use them beg to differ. Most one-star reviews are from customers who are dissatisfied with the coatings. They find that most nonstick coatings only last between 3 and 10 months with regular use

Based on this customer feedback, let’s say the average nonstick coating lasts roughly 6 months. With regular use, exposure to high heat, and exposure to detergents, the nonstick coating wears off.

Is there a more economical alternative? 

Choose stainless steel instead of a nonstick pan

A simple cost comparison shows that purchasing a quality stainless steel pan would be more economical in the long run.

One of the most popular non-stick pans is T-fal’s 10.25-Inch Fry Pan.

At the time of analysis, it’s price was $28. 

If the nonstick coating lasts roughly 6 months on average, you will need to buy a new pan twice a year. That will cost you $56 a year. (2 x $28). 

Over 5 years you would buy 10 pans, and that would cost you about $560.

The All-Clad D3 10-Inch Pan usually retails at $100. It is a stainless steel pan and has a lifespan of at least 10 years. 

Within 2 years the stainless steel pan would have covered the cost of nonstick pans. The initial outlay will pay off with many years of use. 

Stainless steel pans have many advantages over nonstick pans:

  • Stainless steel pans look beautiful.
  • The hot pan browns food far better than nonstick pans.
  • Stainless steel is stronger than aluminum which generally used to make nonstick pans. It is more resilient to damage and unharmed by metal utensils.
  • It can be washed in a dishwasher and is not damaged by burnt food.
  • Stainless steel also offers a healthier, non-toxic cooking experience.

An even more economical alternative to nonstick cookware is cast iron.

  • It is cheaper than stainless steel and very durable.
  • Cast iron cookware needs to be seasoned, but this creates a natural nonstick effect.
  • It is heavier than nonstick cookware.
  • Cast iron must be kept dry and oiled to prevent oxidization.
  • It requires a bit more care than a nonstick pan but you will only ever need to buy one.

There are more economical options to choose from. Consider how much you are spending on regular replacement of your nonstick pans and buy a longer-lasting alternative. You will be saving in the long run.

Use a nonstick pan only for fish and eggs

If you use a nonstick pan, try to only use it for cooking fish and eggs. The nonstick coating ensures that these delicate foods don’t break up while cooking and turning. All other foods can be cooked in pans without a nonstick coating.

Remember to use the pan on medium temperatures only and do not allow it to heat beyond 500F.

Protect the nonstick layer by avoiding utensils that scratch the coating.

Rather wash the pan by hand with warm water and a very mild detergent than in a dishwasher.

Taking good care of your nonstick coating will make it last longer and protect you from any unhealthy fumes and toxins.

If I don’t use a nonstick pan how do I stop my food from sticking to the pan?

Stainless steel is one possible alternative to a nonstick pan. To stop your food from sticking, warm up the pan and then add the oil.

When the oil is hot add your ingredients. You can test if the oil is hot enough by flicking a drop of water into the pan. If it vaporizes immediately it is ready to use.

The ingredients should be dry and at room temperature. Wet, cold food will stick to your pan.

Do not move the food until it is cooked, as it will naturally release from the hot pan. Try not to overfill the pan and give the food enough space to cook.

Stainless steel, cast iron, and blue steel can all be seasoned.

This creates a natural nonstick layer that can be replaced if necessary. 

To season the pan, heat it in an oven at 400F. While it is hot, coat the inside and outside of the pan with flax or grapeseed oil using a cloth or paper towel. Leave the pan upside down in your oven for an hour after this on a baking sheet.

Allow it to cool completely when you take it out of the oven.

You will not need to add any oil or butter when cooking in your seasoned pan unless you choose to.

Heat it on medium heat and when it is warm, add your ingredients.

Using an alternative pan may take a little experimentation and require a little more effort to clean than regular nonstick pans.

Considering that they are so much better for the environment and human health, those small inconveniences will pay off handsomely in the long run.