If you're confused about nonstick cookware, welcome to the club. There are half-truths, blatant obfuscations, and outright lies to be found all over the nonstick cookware market.
Some review sites aren't giving honest information about the nonstick cookware they're promoting. Whether out of lack of knowledge or a desire to sell more cookware, a lot of sites are making claims about "healthy" and "safe" nonstick cookware that are just plain misleading.
Here, we address issues like "PFOA-free," "Is PTFE safe," "Is ceramic nonstick safer than PTFE," and more.
If you're going to buy nonstick cookware, we've got the latest and most accurate information to help you make the right choice. This article will help you understand the nonstick cookware market on a deeper level.
Myth #1: There Are Several Kinds of Nonstick Cookware
This is probably that biggest mistruth told in the nonstick cookware industry. Product names with terms like "titanium," "diamond," and "stone" imply that the nonstick coating on a pan does not PTFE.
However, these are primarily marketing terms that obfuscate this truth: nonstick coating can be only one of 2 things: PTFE or ceramic. It drives us crazy to see sites list off several "healthy" nonstick cookware brands without once stating that these brands contain PTFE! In fact, they go out of their way to avoid saying that the cookware is actually PTFE. They use all kinds of euphemisms, such as "nonstick material" and "nonstick element" without naming that element to be what it is: PTFE.
This is misleading!
Why is it misleading? Because people interested in "healthy" nonstick cookware are generally trying to avoid PTFE. So not stating that a nonstick coating is actually PTFE seems dishonest.
Again: there are only 2 types of nonstick cookware: 1) PTFE/Teflon™, and 2) ceramic.
PTFE (the molecule polytetrafluoroethylene) is the generic name for Teflon™, discovered accidentally in 1938 by a Dupont scientist. (The Teflon™ brand is now owned by Chemours, a division of Dupont). Up until 2007, when ceramic cookware was invented, it was the only kind of nonstick cookware on the market. Now we have both.
Nonstick coatings can be reinforced with titanium particles, diamond dust, and other substances to make them tougher and longer-lived. But these reinforcements can be added to only two nonstick options: PTFE or ceramic.
Because Teflon™ got a bad rap for being unsafe (carcinogenic, bad for the environment, lethal to birds, etc.), manufacturers changed how they marketed their nonstick cookware. Adding titanium or diamond dust to their PTFE allows them to call it something other than PTFE. But if you read the fine print, you will inevitably find that the base of the "titanium" or "granite" or "diamond" cookware is PTFE.
Also: There are other types of cookware that are sort of nonstick: a well seasoned cast iron or carbon steel pan is "almost" nonstick. And some cookware has a waffled cooking surface that's supposed to aid in food release. But neither of these are technically nonstick because they don't have a PTFE or ceramic coating.
Here's a 4 minute video on the accidental discovery of Teflon™:
If cookware is marketed as nonstick, it's either PTFE (Teflon™) or ceramic. If it doesn't explicitly state that it is PTFE-free, then it's probably PTFE.
Myth #2: PTFE and Teflon™ Are Different Substances
As we already stated, Teflon™ and PTFE are the same chemical. Teflon™ is the brand name of the PTFE product owned by Dupont.
Today there are hundreds of brands of PTFE available on the market. When Dupont's Teflon™ patent expired, several chemical manufacturers got in on the lucrative nonstick cookware market. Dupont has developed new versions of PTFE, as well.
All of these products are made from the same basic PTFE molecule. It begs the question of whether or not some PTFE products are more durable and longer lasting than others. While we're not privy to secret company information, we suspect that all food-grade PTFE is pretty much the same, or at least fits into a narrow window of definition.
What differs from brand to brand is the number of layers of PTFE. More expensive and more durable brands tend to have more layers of PTFE. Also, some additions like titanium and diamond dust might help to make the PTFE more durable--but we're not entirely sold on that concept, either.
If you're curious, you can read more about titanium nonstick cookware here.
Teflon and PTFE are the same chemical. Today there are hundreds of brand names of PTFE on the market.
Myth #3: Expensive PTFE Cookware Lasts Longer than Cheap PTFE Cookware
If all PTFE is the same, then it follows that expensive PTFE cookware probably isn't going to last any longer than inexpensive PTFE cookware.
This is mostly, but perhaps not entirely, true. Here's why. An expensive nonstick skillet may have a thicker layer of nonstick coating, or it may have multiple layers of nonstick coating, either of which could possibly increase a pan's durability and longevity.
But the real story is told in the user reviews, which is that these more expensive pans seem to last about as long as less expensive nonstick pans.
It's not a total waste of money to buy a high-end nonstick pan: what you're paying for is better heating properties, which are always the most important aspect of any piece of cookware (in our opinion). A pan with a thick layer of heat-spreading aluminum (or copper) is always going to perform better than a pan stamped out of a thin sheet of aluminum.
This doesn't mean you can't get good quality nonstick cookware for a low price. It just means that you probably shouldn't pay clad stainless prices for nonstick pans unless you have a lot of disposable income.
For more information, see our article The Best Nonstick Skillets: Everything You Need to Know Before You Buy.
Expensive nonstick cookware probably isn't going to last appreciably longer than inexpensive nonstick cookware.
Myth #4: PTFE/Teflon™ Is Completely Safe to Human Health.
Many websites will tell you that PTFE is safe for humans, and that there is no evidence that PTFE nonstick cookware is unsafe when used correctly.
"When used correctly" is the key phrase here, because PTFE cookware actually is completely safe when not heated above 390F--but after that, it begins to break down, and at temps over 450F, it gives off toxic fumes that cause flu-like symptoms in humans and are lethal to birds.
If you and everyone in your family will always use PTFE pans properly--not overheat, no metal utensils, always hand wash, etc.--then your nonstick pan probably is safe to use.
But this is incredibly hard to do. Even at medium heat, an empty pan can reach temps of 500F in just a few minutes. To use PTFE cookware safely, you have to be incredibly vigilant.
And we think the even bigger issue is the PTFE cookware industry itself. They've been using PFOA, PTFE, and now GenX for decades with no regulations, and makers have been dumping these forever chemicals into landfills and the water supply. Thanks largely to the nonstick cookware industry, there is no known water supply on Earth today that does not have traces of PFOA or other PFAS chemicals. And still there are no regulations, so these companies--including American companies on American soil--continue to dump them freely. More than 90% of Americans have PFOA in their bodies.
So even if you use your nonstick pan carefully and safely, you are contributing to environmental catastrophe simply by buying the product.
For more information check out our article What Is PFOA? A Guide to Nonstick Cookware Chemicals.
PTFE/Teflon™ is an inert substance and non-toxic at temps below 390F--but the PTFE cookware industry has done huge damage to the environment, and continues to do so (even though no longer using PFOA).
Myth #5: "PFOA-Free" Means PTFE (Teflon) Free.
Another popular misinformation tactic is to call the cookware "PFOA-free."
PFOA, or perfluorooctanoic acid, was used for several decades to manufacture PTFE cookware. It helped the slippery PTFE to adhere to the metal pan surface. PFOA was used up almost completely in the process, leaving extremely small trace amounts, if any, in the finished product.
However, PFOA became known as a very nasty chemical. It is a probable carcinogen, toxic to the liver, to the immune system, may cause developmental issues for fetuses, and more. Just as bad, PFOA is terrible for the environment because it doesn't break down by natural processes. Sadly, PFOA contamination is now found on every continent, and in trace amounts in most animals, including humans.
It's unlikely that human levels of PFOA can be attributed to PTFE cookware. PFOA is (or was) used in an astounding number of products, including waxed paper and microwave popcorn; we have a much higher probability of getting PFOA in our systems from these than from nonstick cookware.
However, the PTFE cookware industry is a major contributor to the planet's PFOA contamination (and continues to pollute with similar chemicals now that they no longer use PFOA).
As of 2015, manufacturers stopped using PFOA in their nonstick cookware, and all PTFE cookware sold in the US today is PFOA-free.
Which is great, except sellers are now using the term "PFOA-free" to imply that their product does not contain PTFE, either. When in fact, if the claim "PFOA-free" is made, the cookware almost certainly contains PTFE. If it's ceramic, then of course it's PFOA-free, but the seller will tell you right up front that it is "ceramic nonstick" and also "PTFE-free" and "PFOA-free."
PFOA-free does not automatically mean PTFE-free. In fact, it usually means the opposite. And since PFOA is now banned in the US, the term is largely meaningless, anyway.
If the seller doesn't explicitly state that their "PFOA-free" cookware is ceramic--or "PTFE-free"--then it probably contains PTFE.
Myth #6: "PFOA-Free" Means Cookware Is Safe to Use
"PFOA-free" does not mean cookware is safe or healthy to use.
In most cases, makers have replaced PFOA with a similar PFAS called GenX. They've been using GenX for less than a decade, and there are are already lawsuits against Chemours, the makers of GenX, for contaminating water supplies--people who live downstream of the plant are finding GenX in their blood.
GenX isn't much better than PFOA. Thus, "PFOA-free" nonstick cookware probably isn't safe to use.
Furthermore, even if the GenX is used up in the manufacturing process (as PFOA was), the industry itself is still a major pollutant. It may be hard to believe there are no regulations about dumping these highly toxic chemicals, but there aren't. Some municipalities are beginning to test for and clean the water supplies of PFOA and other PFA substances, but this is the exception rather than the rule.
"PFOA-Free" does not mean nonstick cookware is safe. And even if safe when used correctly, it's terrible for the environment.
PFOA has been replaced by a chemical just as bad. Even if the cookware is safe when used correctly, the making of nonstick cookware causes major pollution.
Myth #7: Nonstick Cookware Made Overseas Is Always Unsafe
Some people feel that nonstick cookware made overseas, particularly in China, may not be as safe as cookware made in the US or Western Europe. But the problem is, it's very hard to find nonstick cookware made in the US. Nearly all of the popular nonstick brands, from All-Clad to T-fal to Calphalon, are made overseas now.
It's true: it's hard to avoid Chinese-made nonstick cookware. So here's the thing to remember: it's not so much where the cookware is made, but who the manufacturer is. If you buy a reputable brand, from All-Clad to Green Pan, you're going to get a product that's manufactured under strict guidelines and no less safe than a brand made in the US.
However, keep in mind that all the same issues apply, no matter where the cookware is made. That is to say, PTFE pans should be used carefully, and "PFOA-free" doesn't mean the pans don't contain dangerous chemicals.
Most brands of nonstick cookware sold in the US are made in China. Thus, most brands are safe when used correctly, but they all have the same issues regardless of where they're made.
Myth #8: Ceramic Nonstick Cookware Is Always Healthier than PTFE Nonstick Cookware
People buy ceramic cookware because they're concerned about the potential health issues surrounding PTFE. After all, ceramic cookware is made from sand or clay, and what could be safer than that?
When manufactured under proper conditions, it seems true (to the best of our research) that ceramic nonstick is a safe, inert substance. However, be aware that some ceramic manufacturing processes can involve the use of cadmium, a known carcinogen. Some may also contain lead, particularly in the glaze (so mainly on the exterior and not the cooking surface). So it's possible that ceramic nonstick cookware may contain traces of cadmium or lead.
Also, there is some evidence that the sol-gel process used to make the ceramic adhere to the pan uses possibly carcinogenic nanoparticles. There isn't a lot of research on this but it's something to be aware of.
These are lesser known problems than the potential dangers of overheating PTFE and the carcinogenic properties of PFOA. But yes: ceramic nonstick might also be unsafe.
So if you want to go the ceramic route, we suggest that you buy a reputable brand. Avoid extremely cheap brands and brands that you've never heard of and/or have a hard time finding information about. We recommend Green Pan Lima, Zwilling Spirit, and Healthy Legend. (But know that ceramic nonstick is unlikely to last even as long as PTFE.)
Know also that even good quality brands use titanium nanoparticles--which may be carcinogenic, and which don't have a lot of research to say for sure one way or the other.
Cheap ceramic nonstick cookware may contain small amounts of cadmium or lead, and the titanium dioxide nanoparticles used in manufacturing may also be carcinogenic.
Myth #9: You Can Use Metal Utensils and Cooking Spray on Modern Nonstick Cookware
This isn't a myth so much as bad guidelines from companies that want to sell nonstick cookware.
Many of the new generation PTFE nonstick as well as the ceramics claim that you can use metal utensils on the pans, use high heat, use aerosol cooking spray, toss them in the oven, use abrasive scrubbing pads to clean them, and wash them in the dishwasher.
If you want your pans to last as long as possible, you won't do any of these things. If you do, you'll be buying new pans every 6 months, if not sooner. Because these are all lethal enemies of nonstick coatings.
Why do they claim you can do these things, then? Because they want to sell you cookware. Remember, PTFE is the same molecule no matter which type of pan you buy. And while ceramic surfaces are tougher, these abuses still take their toll.
Related to this issue is the warranty: many nonstick pans also claim lifetime warranties. However, if you read user reviews on Amazon and elsewhere, you will see that very, very few makers--even reputable makers like All-Clad--include the nonstick coating in the "lifetime" warranty.
Don't use metal utensils or abrasive scrubbing pads on nonstick cookware even if the manufacturer says you can. Don't use high heat with nonstick pans, put them in the oven, or put them in the dishwasher, even if the manufacturer says it's okay to do so.
The "lifetime" warranty on nonstick cookware rarely, if ever, applies to the nonstick coating.
Myth #10: Nonstick Is Just as Good at Browning Food as Other Cookware
There are so many reasons to not have nonstick cookware be your go-to cookware. It's fragile. It wears out really fast. But probably most importantly, it doesn't brown food very well.
Because browning is where the flavor is.
Perhaps the biggest drawback of nonstick cookware: You can't use high heat, so it's hard to get nice crust on a steak or brown other foods. It simply won't produce that good Maillard reaction that adds so much flavor to your food.
And because you're going to have a tough time getting anything nicely browned, you're not going to have many crispy bits of flavor left to make a pan sauce.
Even if you ignore safety instructions and use high heat (which will kill your nonstick cookware faster than almost anything else, except maybe using metal utensils), you're still going to have a heck of a time getting a nice sear. Nonstick cookware just isn't made for that. Its inherent slipperiness is the natural enemy of browning.
Instead, you need clad stainless or cast iron, or, really, just about any other kind of cookware. In short, you need cookware you can crank up the heat on without worries, and also cookware that has a little stickiness to it--that's where those lovely brown bits come from.
Maybe you're trying to save a few calories by using nonstick cookware because you want to avoid adding fat to a pan. But the body needs fats to absorb certain nutrients--and good fats are actually a necessity for good health. So nutritionally speaking, you're better off using a few teaspoons of olive oil or avocado oil in a stainless pan and cutting those calories elsewhere. The payoff for a few extra calories is better nutrition--really!--and much better taste.
Nonstick isn't good for browning food or getting a nice crust on, well, anything. The nonstick surface isn't conducive to browning, and neither is medium heat (the highest setting that's safe with PTFE cookware).
Final Thoughts Nonstick Cookware Myths
We hope we've cleared up some of the most persistent myths about nonstick cookware and shed some light on how to buy wisely and get the safety and healthiness you're looking for. When you're shopping, go deeper than the marketing jargon because it may not tell you what you really want to know.
And if you really want a pan that lasts, consider avoiding nonstick cookware altogether. It will last only 1-5 years, while clad stainless and cast iron will last for a lifetime.
Thanks for reading!
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