July 28

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Is Nonstick Cookware Safe?

By trk

July 28, 2020

cooking safety, cookware, environmental, hazardous materials

Volumes have been written about nonstick cookware, both pro and con. But how do you know if what you're reading is accurate, up-to-date, and unbiased information? The Internet is full of articles about the safety of nonstick cookware, but the sad truth is that a lot of sites get it wrong.

It's easy to do: the information is hard to sift through and make sense of.

Not to mention that a lot of the marketing strategies make it easy to misinterpret the facts (for example, calling a PTFE coating "stone-based," which may make it sound like it contains no PTFE.) 

We here at TRK don't have a dog in the nonstick fight. Our only goal is to provide sound, reliable information to the best of our ability so people can make informed buying decisions. 

Is nonstick cookware safe? How you answer that question really depends on how you define "safe." Here, we cover as many bases as possible to provide a comprehensive answer. This way, you can decide for yourself whether nonstick cookware meets your own safety guidelines or not. 

Why Is There So Much Controversy About Nonstick Cookware?

Is Nonstick Cookware Safe?

The coatings used in nonstick cookware contain materials that can be considered hazardous to human health. While the jury is still largely out on many issues, the fact that there is a possibiity of health risks at all is controversial. 

Other controversial issues are environmental. For example, the PFAS used in making nonstick cookware are dangerous pollutants that stay in water and soil for many years without breaking down. 98% of Americans are said to have traces of PFAS in their systems due to ground contamination. (That statistic should be unnerving to everyone.)

Also, since nonstick cookware doesn't last all that long, many consider it a landfill issue. While most nonstick cookware is theoretically recyclable, very few recycling centers are set up to take it. So most old nonstick pans, sadly, end up in landfills. Since the life span of nonstick cookware is estimated to be 2-5 years, this is a serious problem. 

There's also controversy around whether nonstick cookware is even necessary. Other types of cookware, such as cast iron, provide a cooking surface that is almost as good--some people will argue as good--as nonstick, with none of the controversial chemicals. 

We'll get into more detail about all of these issues below. 

What Is Nonstick Cookware, Exactly?

Always good to start an article by defining terms. Officially, nonstick cookware is in a category called coated cookware. This means that the main body of the pan, usually aluminum or clad stainless steel, is covered with a thin coating that alters the cooking properties. Nonstick and enamel are the two most popular types of coating. (If a pan is a combination of different metals, such as copper with a tin cooking surface, or aluminum with a stainless steel cooking surface, this is considered clad, not coated.) 

There are two, and only two, types of nonstick coatings: PTFE and ceramic. Both are thin chemical coatings applied to aluminum or clad stainless pans. PTFE and ceramic have different strengths and weaknesses, but because both types of coatings are thin, they tend to be somewhat delicate, requiring special care and use to get as much use out of them as possible. 

Some people consider cast iron and carbon steel to be nonstick, and they can become nearly as slippery as nonstick with proper seasoning and use. However, by our definition of nonstick cookware, only PTFE- and ceramic-coated cookware are in the nonstick category. (For more info, check out our cast iron review.)

Thus, for purposes of this article, "nonstick cookware" refers only to PTFE- and ceramic-coated cookware. The next section describes both types of nonstick in detail. 

Why Do So Many People Love Nonstick Cookware?

Is Nonstick Cookware Safe?

Simple! Nonstick cookware means easy cleanup. No stuck-on messes to clean; the mess just wipes right off. If you've ever had a sticky mess to clean up (and haven't we all?), this idea is very appealing. 

The introduction of Teflon® to the cookware market was revolutionary, and everybody wanted it. But when news about the dangers of Teflon started to pop up, Americans turned to ceramic nonstick. When they found that the ceramic cookware had an even shorter shelf life than PTFE, they struggled to justify a return to PTFE. Manufacturers were happy to help, marketing their cookware as "non-toxic," "safe," and "PFOA-free." And while these claims are mostly true, they are incomplete.

Even with its shorter shelf life, ceramic nonstick cookware is holding its own against PTFE and the market is even growing. Both types have pros and cons, and deciding between the two (or against the two and going with something else completely) can be hard. You need a fuller picture to make an informed decision about PTFE cookware.

The Two Types of Nonstick Cookware Explained

Here are the details about the two types of nonstick cookware. 

PTFE (Teflon®) 

Is Nonstick Cookware Safe?

PTFE stands for polytetrafluoroethylene. It was accidentally discovered by Dupont scientist Roy Plunkett in 1938. Dupont's trade name for PTFE is Teflon®. Early uses included industrial lubrication and as an internal coating in the Manhattan Project's atom bomb. It came into use as a cookware coating in the 1950s. Because it is non-toxic and inert, it is also used in many implanted medical devices. 

PTFE is a hydrocarbon polymer and is actually a type of plastic. But because it is inert and non-toxic, it is considered safe for use as cookware when used properly--more on this in a minute.

Today, several companies make PTFE cookware coatings and there are hundreds of different PTFE products on the market. Popular trade names include Eterna, Eclipse, QuanTanium, HALO, Xylan, Skandia, Dura-Slide, Granite Rock, Granitium, and ILAG. Even some types of Greblon, which was originally a ceramic nonstick coating, now contain PTFE. 

If they're all PTFE, you may wonder how they differ. We don't know the answer to that. In fact, we suspect that they are all nearly identical, and it doesn't really matter which PTFE coating you buy. A coating reinforced with titanium or diamond dust may be slightly more durable, but our testing shows that PTFE cookware has an average lifespan of 2-5 years. ScanPan cookware (see our detailed ScanPan review) uses a ceramic-PTFE combination coating that some people swear is longer lasting than either PTFE or ceramic, however, some users claim it's no better than other PTFE they've used.

NOTE: Different PTFE brands can have different heating precautions, with a range of about 350F-500F. However, any pan with a heating precaution of 500F or under is sure to contain PTFE. 

Ceramic

Is Nonstick Cookware Safe?

Ceramic nonstick cookware was invented in 2007. The ceramic coating is silicon-based, meaning that it is essentially made from sand--silicon dioxide to be exact. (Not to be confused with silicone, which is a type of polymer.) Silicon dioxide is melted under high heat, then is applied to cookware--usually aluminum, sometimes clad stainless steel--using a sol-gel process. Thus, the hot ceramic is essentially sprayed onto the pan, then cooked to a hard finish. This finish is very tough, and can withstand heat up to about 700F--higher than most household stoves can reach. However, high heat takes its toll on the nonstick finish, so like PTFE, you should use ceramic nonstick pans at low or medium heat if you want to get the most out of their nonstick properties. 

The two major ceramic coatings are Greblon® and Thermolon™, but there are many iterations of each on the market now. Like PTFE, some have been reinforced with titanium or diamond dust in an attempt to make the ceramic coating more durable. This may help, but our testing shows that ceramic coatings tend to lose their nonstick properties even more quickly than PTFE, and tend to also last no longer than about 5 years (at best).

Ceramic nonstick cookware is popular for being "safer" than PTFE cookware, however, it does come with its own set of concerns. We talk more about this below.

Are the "New" Nonstick Products Safer?

A number of new nonstick products have come to market in the past few years. You will find, if you read the fine print, that they are all PTFE, ceramic, or some combination of both. They may have additional products in the coatings, such as titanium or diamond dust, or they may have some sort of durable lattice work that overlays the nonstick coating (usually stainless steel). But the bottom line is that they're PTFE or ceramic, so they will have most of the same issues as all PTFE or ceramic cookware. For example, you may be able to use a metal spatula, but you still won't be able to heat the pan above 500F without destroying the nonstick properties (and possibly releasing toxic fumes). The nonstick coating will most likely wear out in 2-5 years, as well; you can avoid scraping the nonstick coating, so it may last a little longer than average, but you can't avoid heat, so the PTFE will wear out just as it does on any other pan.

Since many of these products are spendier than a standard nonstick pan, it's important to understand their limitations before you purchase one: If the pans contain PTFE or ceramic, everything we discuss here applies. Also, though we haven't tested any of these latticed pans yet, some reviewers say that food sticks terribly to them if you don't use cooking oil. This kind of makes sense, as the surface is uneven, so food like eggs will fill up all the nooks and crannies and not want to release easily. But if you need to use cooking oil, you may have to question the point of using a nonstick pan at all.

Some of the new products called nonstick are actually carbon steel (like this one). If this is the case, the limitations of PTFE and ceramic do not apply. However, "naturally nonstick," as they call it, is a bit of an exaggeration. Carbon steel requires periodic seasoning to provide a slippery cooking surface, and even then, it will never be quite as slippery as PTFE or ceramic. But it can come very close, and is an excellent option for those trying to avoid chemicals in their cookware. 

Note, though, that you don't need to buy a carbon steel pan marketed as nonstick. All carbon steel pans provide basically the same cooking surface--so you may be able to find a less expensive one that doesn't have as much marketing hype. This preseasoned Lodge 12-inch skillet, for example, is just a little over $30.

The Problems with Marketing Nonstick Cookware

Is Nonstick Cookware Safe?

Most manufactuers are honest, but they can use confusing terms like "stone" and "titanium" when in fact their cookware is PTFE-based. If you're not careful, you can easily end up with exactly the opposite kind of cookware than you think you're buying.

In fact, marketing is a large source of the confusion about whether or not nonstick cookware is safe. The cookware had gotten a bad reputation in recent years, so some makers have put great effort into downplaying or disguising the safety issues with their cookware and even the exact makeup of their cookware. Even if nonstick cookware is completely safe when used properly, it's gotten a bad rap in some circles, and makers want to distance themselves from it. This is justifiable, but it has created a lot of confusing jargon for buyers. Wading through all of it to make sure you get what you want can be a real headache.

This is most common for PTFE nonstick, but that doesn't mean there aren't concerns about ceramic nonstick, too. In fact, the potential danger of ceramic nonstick--carcinogenic nanoparticles--isn't even addressed yet by makers. This will probably change in the future, as people become more aware of the issue, but for now, the makers are silent.

The worst part about marketing is that all buyers want to do is find out if a cookware is safe to use, and they are bombarded with so much confusing information that it's hard to make a decision. Our article, Nonstick Cookware Brands: PTFE or Ceramic?, goes into more detail about how to sort through confusing marketing labels. 

Safety Issues with PTFE Nonstick Cookware

Here are all the safety issues associated with PTFE nonstick cookware. This includes issues with use and durability, safety and health, and the environment. 

Use and Durability Safety Issues

This section addresses the daily usage shortcomings of PTFE nonstick cookware.

Short Life Span

Probably the biggest problem with nonstick cookware, as far as basic usage, is its short life span. The nonstick coating simply doesn't keep its nonstick properties for very long. This is why, in general, we recommend that you buy on the cheap end of the market. (Though you should spend enough to get quality cookware that's a pleasure to use--fortunately there are a lot of good options at the lower end of the market.)

What constitutes a "short life"? On average, a PTFE pan can last 2-5 years, but will often start losing its nonstick surface within the first year of use. It all depends on how frequently and how carefully you use your PTFE pan. If you use it very carefully, it will last somewhere between 2 and 5 years.

How does it go "bad"? It can be flaking or scratching, which usually happens if you use metal utensils or abrasive cleaning pads. But the main issue is that the nonstick coating simply stops working. The surface may even look fine, but it won't be slippery like it was when it was new. Food starts sticking to it.

How is a short life span a safety issue? First of all, scratched, flaked, or chipped PTFE is more likely to release toxic fumes under heat (and this may be just as pertinent even though PFOA is no longer in the picture, because we don't know what it's been replaced with). Second, a worn PTFE surface that's lost is nonstick properties often shows signs of wear, most commonly discoloration or dulling of the appearance. These signs indicate that heat has begun to break down the PTFE, which means that it may have released toxic fumes, and will almost certainly continue to do so.

High Heat

Is Nonstick Cookware Safe?

High heat kills nonstick properties of PTFE faster than anything else. It can also cause the PTFE to release toxic fumes.

PTFE has a fairly high melting point of 620F/327C, which is hotter than most burners or ovens can get. However, PTFE pyrolosis (i.e., breakdown from heat) can begin as low as 392F, though dangerous fumes haven't been detected until the temperature reaches 492F (from the PTFE Wikipedia page). 

You may be surprised to learn that stovetop burners routinely reach temperatures of 400-500F, even if set no higher than medium. This won't "melt" the PTFE, but it may produce dangerous fumes, and it will take its toll.

Every time you heat your PTFE to a temperature higher than 392F, you are shortening its nonstick life. This effect seems to be cumulative, thus the short life span, even when you "do everything right." 

In fact, there is some evidence that all heating shortens the life of nonstick cookware. So even if you always use low heat, your pan is still going to age and eventually lose its nonstick properties. (Thus the average life span of 2-5 years.)

Can't Use Nonstick Cooking Spray

Is Nonstick Cookware Safe?

Yet another issue with PTFE is that you can't ever use an aerosol cooking spray on it. The aerosol propellants react with the PTFE and cause it to degrade. We can't definitively say that it can be dangerous to your health, however, anything that causes the PTFE to break down should be avoided.

This is a minor issue, and there are plenty of other options available, but we mention it because cooking spray will murder a PTFE pan, so it's something to be aware of.

Scratches Easily

PTFE is a plastic, so it scratches fairly easily. This is why you should never use metal utensils on a PTFE pan--it's just too easy to scratch the pan, and once scratched, it's no good for nonstick purposes and may also release toxins that lie below the PTFE surface (more on this below).

Many makers of PTFE try to circumvent this issue by reinforcing their product with titanium, diamond dust, or stone and granite particles and marketing their pans as "metal-utensil safe." These particles will protrude slightly above the PTFE to protect it from scratching, as shown here:

By the way, this is also the basic principle behind the newer nonstick skillets like Black Cube, which have a sort of lattice overlaying the nonstick coating.

While reinforcements can protect the surface from scratches to some degree (not perfectly!), remember that it's still PTFE, and it's going to degrade from heat, aerosol cooking spray, dishwashers, and abrasive scrubby pads. The reinforcements pretty much only help protect against scratching by metal utensils.

So even if the makers claim your pan is safe for use with metal utensils, don't use them if you want your pan to last as long as possible. Yes: even if reinforced with titanium, diamond dust, a lattice, or some other hardening agent. Your PTFE nonstick will last a lot longer if you use silicone, wood, or bamboo utensils.

Doesn't Brown Well

Though not a safety issue, we include this because it's something everyone in the market for cookware should consider.

Partly because the surface is so slippery and partly because you can't use high heat, PTFE cookware doesn't brown food all that well. Cranking the heat can create browning, but it is the worst thing for the life of the cookware and may produce toxic fumes. Also, because of the slippery surface, it simply isn't going to work like it will in a cast iron or clad stainless cookware. 

Some users claim this isn't an issue with nonstick cookware and that they can get a great sear on their foods. However, we have tested several brands of nonstick at safe cooking temperatures, and haven't been able to re-create some of the delicious-looking browned foods you see in ads for nonstick pans. 

Since browning creates flavor, we consider this a big issue. There are cooks who don't mind food without a good sear, or even consider too much browning a health concern. If you're in this category, then this won't be a big drawback for you. Just make sure that everyone in your household understands that they shouldn't crank the heat on a PTFE pan to get a sear. 

If you do want a pan that can safely produce a good sear, we suggest looking into cast iron, which holds heat like no other type of cookware can and thus produces the best browning--and is completely safe for humans, pets, and the environment.

Can't Put it in a Dishwasher

Since nonstick pans are easy to wash, this isn't a big drawback. But for those of you who want to throw everything in the dishwasher, take note: if you want your nonstick cookware to last, always wash it by hand.

Dishwasher detergent contains harsh abrasives that are not good for a nonstick surface. So even if the makers claim the pan is safe for the dishwasher, wash it by hand anyway. Your pan will last a lot longer, and will reduce the danger of a PTFE pan breaking down and releasing dangerous fumes when heated.

Health Safety Issues

These are the potential health hazards associated with PTFE cookware; more specifically, with using PTFE cookware incorrectly. They are closely related to use and durability issues (above), but here we talk about what the dangers of misuse result in.

PTFE and "The Teflon Flu"

Is Nonstick Cookware Safe?

PTFE is an inert, nonstoxic substance at room temperature and up to about 400F. You could swallow a spoonful of it and it would pass through your body unchanged.

However, PTFE begins to degrade at temperatures as low as 392F, and begins to release toxic fumes at around 492F. These temps are well below the melting point of 620F. 

These numbers may vary according to the brand of PTFE, but not by much. For the sake of health and safety, you can pretty much trust that PTFE is safe up to about 400F, and will begin to break down at temps higher than that, with 500F being way too hot for safe use.

This is why every PTFE pan on the market restricts oven temperatures to no more than 500F. 

The toxic fumes aren't lethal to humans, but can produce flu-like symptoms. When you get away from the fumes, the symptoms will go away.

PTFE fumes are, however, lethal to birds, so if you own a bird, you probably shouldn't own any PTFE cookware to be on the safe side.

Here's the important bit: You may think that it's hard to reach 492F on the stovetop, but you're probably mistaken about that. We left an empty skillet on a medium gas flame for 5 minutes, then tested it with an infrared thermometer. We were astonished that the temp was 505F!

If you're careful about not overheating your PTFE pan, toxic fumes will never be a concern. Just know that it's surprisingly easy to let the temp get away from you. 

PFOA/PFAS

While PTFE itself is not a health hazard unless you heat the cookware above 400F, PFOA and its PFAS relatives are a valid concern.

PFOA, or perfluorooctanoic acid, is an adhesive agent once used to help PTFE adhere to cookware. It belongs to the larger chemical family of PFAS ("polyfluoroalkyl substances"). These chemicals are all serious environmental hazards, staying in ground water and soil for many years. They have been associated with some cancers and other illnesses. Sadly, because PFAS have been used in hundreds of industrial manufacturing processes, there is a lot of contamination in US soil and water. As we already mentioned, something like 98% of Americans are said to have PFAS in their bodies. 

The truth is that nonstick cookware has never been a significant source of PFOA, because the chemical is all but used up in the reaction. (Your tap water probably has more PFAS in it than your nonstick pan.) Even so, the US government banned the use of PFOA in cookware in 2015, so all cookware made and sold in the US is now PFOA-free. 

(Unfortunately, PFOA is still found in hundreds of everyday objects including clothing, cosmetics, household cleaners, and food packaging containers. More legislation--or better yet, a conscience on the part of the manufacturers--is needed.) 

But wait, there's more...

When shopping for nonstick cookware, you may see a label that says "PFOA- and PFAS-free." This might be good, because it means that the makers haven't replaced the PFOA with another chemical in the same family. However, if they don't say what they did replace it with (and we have yet to see a maker that does), it isn't possible to know with certainty that they didn't use an equally toxic chemical. 

Such uncertainty is the root of all the safety concerns regarding nonstick cookware. When you can't know for sure how the cookware is made, you simply can't say for sure that the cookware is "safe," regardless of how you define that term. So even though PFOA and PFAS are probably not a major issue in your cookware, we just don't know enough to say for sure. 

Environmental Safety Issues

This section looks at the environmental safety hazards of PTFE cookware. Note that there are many overlaps with the safety and health issues discussed above. 

PFOA/PFAS Hazards 

These are toxic substances (discussed above) that are used commonly in hundreds of manufacturing processes, and have caused serious water and soil contamination. Nonstick cookware manufacturing is a drop in a very, very large bucket--but it's good that PFOA was outlawed in cookware in 2015. Unfortunately, makers have not been transparent about what they've replaced it with. Since it is an integral part of PTFE cookware manufacturing, it had to have been replaced with something. 

See the section above for a more detailed discussion about PFOA/PFAS. 

Landfill and Recycling Issues

Is Nonstick Cookware Safe?

Since PTFE cookware has an average life span of 2-5 years, with many people replacing it every year, landfills are kind of a major issue.

While both types of nonstick cookware are recyclable, few local recycling centers are equipped to take it; the coating has to be stripped off the pan before anything else can be done with, and only a handful of places in the country actually do this. This means that most people have to go to great lengths to recycle their old nonstick cookware. Since this can be a real hassle, a lot of it ends up in landfills. 

This article from Earth911 has some good information on recycling nonstick cookware. If you're someone who loves nonstick cookware and doesn't mind replacing it every few years, you should definitely look into how to recycle it. You'll be doing the planet a huge favor. 🙂 

Safety Issues with Ceramic Nonstick Cookware

Here are all the problems associated with ceramic nonstick cookware. This includes issues with use and durability, safety and health, and the environment. 

Use and Durability Safety Issues

Even though ceramic nonstick cookware is considered more durable and safer than PTFE nonstick cookware, there are actually several issues associated with it.

Short Life Span

It's a little ironic, because ceramic  nonstick can withstand more abuse in general than PTFE cookware. Yet ceramic nonstick tends to have a shorter life span than PTFE cookware. That is: it begins to lose its nonstick properties, sooner, on average, than PTFE cookware does.

Some user reviews claim that the ceramic coating lost its nonstick properties after just a month or two; some even claim it started after just a few uses. 

The upshot is that, even when used and cared for properly, ceramic nonstick cookware probably isn't going to last as long as PTFE nonstick. 

The good news here is that this doesn't make ceramic nonstick cookware unsafe, and it won't break down and release any toxic fumes like PTFE cookware even if scratched or chipped. It just simply tends to not last as long as PTFE cookware. 

Can't Use High Heat 

Also ironic: even though ceramic cookware can withstand way more heat than PTFE cookware without it being unsafe in any way, high heat will absolutely destroy its nonstick properties. 

It's kind of a bummer. Here's a nonstick pan that can take some serious heat without becoming a health hazard in any way. But if you use serious heat, you ruin the nonstick properties. 

Again, this probably isn't a health hazard, but should be noted by anyone in the market for nonstick cookware.

Chips Easily 

Ceramic doesn't scratch easily like PTFE, but it's brittle, so it's prone to chipping. This is why you shouldn't use metal utensils.

Most ceramic nonstick cookware makers suggest that you use bamboo or silicone utensils rather than metal ones (even those that don't usually have such a caution in the fine print somewhere on their website). 

If your ceramic pan chips, it may or may not be a health hazard. Not a lot is known about the potential health hazards of ceramic nonstick, but we discuss them below in the Safety and Health Issues section.

If your ceramic nonstick pan develops chips, you should err on the side of caution and not use it.

Can't Put it in a Dishwasher 

The good news is that these pans clean up easily. The bad news is that if you do happen to get a burnt-on mess, you shouldn't put the pan in the dishwasher. Just as with PTFE, this is because of the abrasive nature of dishwashing detergent, which will take its toll on the nonstick surface. If your pan is aluminum, it will also dull the aluminum (whether plain or anodized). 

If you put a ceramic nonstick pan in the dishwasher it probably won't produce any unsafe results. But the honest truth is that we really don't know for sure--so you should err on the side of caution, and not do it.

Safety and Health Issues

These are the potential health hazards associated with ceramic nonstick cookware.

Hazardous Titanium Nanoparticles

Is Nonstick Cookware Safe?

This is the biggest potential safey issue with ceramic nonstick cookware. Titanium nanoparticles are produced during the sol-gel coating process, and there's some evidence that these particles are associated with certain types of cancer. More research is needed, but the few studies that have been done give reason to be concerned.

This article discusses studies of nanoparticles in ceramic nonstick cookware. The upshot is that while a great deal of heat appears to be needed to release these potentially dangerous particles--more than can be produced in your kitchen--chips and scratches may be a significant source. 

Since every ceramic nonstick pan is made using the sol-gel coating process--as far as we know--this concern theoretically applies to all brands of ceramic nonstick cookware. 

YES: This information goes against ceramic nonstick's reputation for being safer and healthier than PTFE cookware. And you won't find any reference to it in writeups for any ceramic nonstick cookware brands. But that doesn't mean the danger isn't there. The truth is that we don't understand enough about it to say for sure whether or not it's truly unsafe. And manufacturers haven't addressed it simply because they haven't had to yet; it's a fairly new and unknown potential safety hazard. 

Once again, it's the uncertainty that causes us to recommend caution about the use of ceramic nonstick cookware. We just don't know enough to say for sure whether it's safe or unsafe, and therein lies the greatest potential danger.

Lead and Cadmium Contamination

Is Nonstick Cookware Safe?

Lead, cadmium, and other toxic substances (such as arsenic), were at one time standard in the production of ceramic products. (This is why many antique dishes aren't safe to use for serving food.) Today, it's extremely rare to find any of these chemicals in significant amounts in any products used in food preparation or consumption. 

The biggest potential concern is likely from cheap, off-brand products made overseas. This is yet another reason to buy-cheap-but-not-too-cheap nonstick cookware. Buying from a reputable maker like Green Pan should ensure that lead, cadmium, and other toxins won't be an issue. (But remember that titanium nanoparticles probably are as issue.)

Environmental Safety Issues

Here we discuss the potential environmental hazards of ceramic nonstick cookware.

Landfills and Recycling

Is Nonstick Cookware Safe?

Ceramic nonstick cookware has the same issues as PTFE cookware discussed above: though recyclable, they aren't easy to recycle, and very few local recycling centers will take them. Because it can be a hassle to recycle them, many of them end up in landfills. When a pan is being replaced every couple of years, this is a serious landfill concern.

Many people may not even be aware that ceramic nonstick cookware is recyclable. Well, it is. If you have a pan to dispose of, do your homework and find out where to get it recycled rather than tossing it in a landfill. Your local recycling center is a good place to start.

If you're lucky, you live in one of the few districts equipped for recycling nonstick cookware. If you don't live in such an area, the recyclers will probably be able to point you in the right direction. And if they can't, then googling is your next best bet. This article from Earth911, already mentioned in the PTFE section above, may be helpful with recycling your ceramic nonstick cookware, as well.

How Are These Problems Different From Problems with Other Types of Cookware?

Is Nonstick Cookware Safe?

Without going into detail about every type of cookware (we have several articles about other types of cookware in our Cookware archives), we'll just say that no other type of cookware contains the potentially dangerous chemicals that nonstick cookware contains. 

It's true that other cookware may leach some substances that aren't ideal, such as nickel in clad stainless steel cookware and iron from cast iron. However, only nonstick cookware contains unknown chemicals and potential carcinogens. None of the substances that leach from stainless or cast iron are potentially deadly. They will only cause problems for people with existing nickel or iron issues.

Enameled cast iron cookware may contain minute amounts of lead and cadmium. However, these have only been detected in the external enamel, and not on the cooking surface. Thus, the potential for danger here is very, very low (though it is something you may want to be aware of).

Also, the landfill issue is almost nonexistent for clad stainless, cast iron, carbon steel, and copper cookware, all of which last for decades and are also recyclable.

The landfill issue is relevant for glass-based cookware such as Pyrex and Corningware because they can't be recycled at all. However, glass-based cookware can last for decades, so landfill concerns aren't as significant as they are for nonstick cookware.

The upshot: Both PTFE and ceramic nonstick cookware have the most potential health hazards and environmental issues of all types of cookware.

So, PTFE Vs. Ceramic: Which Is Safer?

Is Nonstick Cookware Safe?

After much research, we've concluded that both PTFE and ceramic nonstick cookware have potential health and environmental hazards.

PTFE: With PTFE cookware, there are two main issues: 1) the breakdown of PTFE into toxic fumes, and 2) the unknown PFOA, PFAS, and related substances: Though mostly used up in the manufacturing process, trace amounts of these substances may remain, and are the most potentially dangerous on a scratched or chipped pan. 

Ceramic: With ceramic nonstick cookware, the main issue is the potentially carcinogenic titanium dioxide nanoparticles used in the sol-gel coating process. A secondary issue, probably a concern only with very inexpensive brands made overseas, is the possibility of toxins such as lead, cadmium, and arsenic.

With the nanoparticle issue largely an unknown at this point, our conclusion is that PTFE nonstick is probably the safer choice when used correctly. Yes: this goes against the general consensus today that ceramic nonstick cookware is the safer, "healthier" choice. But the the nanoparticle issue should give serious pause to anyone in the market for safe cookware. 

In all honesty, we suspect that the risks with both types of nonstick cookware are low, and you would probably benefit more from focusing on risks in your drinking water and food supply (for example). This is especially true if you use a nonstick pan only occasionally, such as a few times a week for eggs.

Once again, though, it's not so much what we know as what we don't know that causes the most concern. The honest truth is that there are a lot of unknown factors surrounding both types of nonstick cookware.

Our Recommendation

If you're concerned about the safety of nonstick cookware, forego both PTFE and ceramic nonstick and go with cast iron or carbon steel. This is the only way to avoid all potential issues.

If you want a nonstick pan only for occasional use, and you will use the pan safely and correctly, you probably don't need to worry about it too much.

The Great Irony About Nonstick Cookware

Is Nonstick Cookware Safe?

It's somewhat amusing how much time and research people will invest in finding "safe" nonstick cookware because underlying it all is a great irony, and that is:

All cookware is nonstick when used properly.

Yes, that's right: when you use proper cooking techniques, food rarely sticks to any kind of cookware. So the whole search for the best nonstick cookware is a bit of a boondoggle. Instead, you could be perfecting your cooking techniques in such a way that all of your cookware is un-sticky and easy to clean. 

From using the correct level of heat to using enough cooking fat when necessary, you can make any surface almost nonstick. And that thing that happens when you pop meat into a pan and it glues itself to the cooking surface? When the meat is sufficiently browned, it releases from the pan--any pan--naturally. In other words, the food itself tells you when it's ready to be flipped over.

Sure, you may get stuck-on food from time to time. If you're distracted and leave food to overcook or accidentally set the heat too high, you might have a mess on your hands. That problem will never be as bad if it happens with nonstick cookware. However, it's amazing what a little bit of soaking can accomplish, or a little bit of Barkeeper's Friend and a scrubby pad.

If you dread the prospect of scrubbing pans after a meal, you may want to rethink your cooking methods.

We don't want to discourage anyone from buying nonstick cookware if that's what you truly want. But we do want to put all the facts out there so everyone can make a fully informed decision. If you have any reservations at all about nonstick cookware, there are other options out there that you can be just as happy with.

Are Some Nonstick Brands Safer than Others?

No, probably not.

All PTFE and all ceramic nonstick cookware carry the same potential issues. Marketers may want you to believe otherwise, but with enough research, you will find that all brands do carry the same potential safety risks.

For example, all PTFE begins to break down around 400F and give off fumes around 500F. All ceramic nonstick is made with the sol-gel process so has the titanium nanoparticle issue.

No amount of titanium, diamond dust, granite, or other reinforcements alter the fundamental properties of PTFE or ceramic. 

Skillets, Not Sets: A Quick Lesson on How to Buy Nonstick Cookware

Is Nonstick Cookware Safe?

If you've decided you want a nonstick pan and are willing to accept the possible safety issues, then here are a few bits of advice:

Buy Skillets, Not Sets

Since nonstick pans have a much more finite life span than other types of cookware, you should only buy it where you need it, and that is your skillet. You don't want it in any pans that you'll routinely want to use on high heat, such as for boiling pasta water in a sauce pan, stock pot, or Dutch oven. 

Buy Cheap, But Not Too Cheap

Again because of the finite life span of nonstick cookware, we recommend that you buy cheap--but not too cheap. If you go too cheap, you'll get a thin pan with terrible heating properties and a propensity to warp. Cast aluminum is the best option because it's inexpensive, yet thick enough to be durable and have excellent heating properties. There are several high quality brands that you can buy for under $50. Check out our article The Best Nonstick Frying Pan: Everything You Need to Know Before You Buy for more information. Or, see our Ultimate Green Pan Review for a review of this popular ceramic brand. 

Also note that more expensive brand of nonstick cookware may last slightly longer, but probably not a lot longer. If you want to invest in a nice nonstick pan (such as ScanPan) for the quality of it, go ahead--but you probably won't get a much longer life out of it.

Though we are big fans of clad stainless, we do not recommend buying nonstick in clad stainless. The cooking surface will wear out decades before the rest of the pan, and you'll kick yourself for spending too much. 

Learn the Marketing Language So You Know What You're Buying

Understanding the marketing of nonstick cookware is probably the hardest part about buying. Once agian, we suggest reading our article Nonstick Cookware Brands: PTFE or Ceramic? for the best discussion about wading through the all the marketing claims.

Is Nonstick Cookware Safe?

And If You Have Any Doubts...

Finally, if you have any doubts about the safety of nonstick cookware--any doubts at all!--but you really want a nonstick pan, consider going with cast iron or carbon steel. When well-seasoned, they are almost as good, and have none of the safety concerns of nonstick. For more info, check out our article The Best Cast Iron Skillet: How Much Should You Spend?

Final Thoughts

Is Nonstick Cookware Safe?

People love nonstick cookware because of its easy upkeep. However, both kinds of nonstick coating--PTFE/Teflon and ceramic--tend to have short life spans, losing their nonstick properties disappointingly fast. More importantly, both have potential health hazards associated with them. PTFE emits toxic fumes starting around 490F, and ceramic is made by a process that uses titanium nanoparticles, which have been associated with cancer. The research on this is incomplete, but the potential for danger is certainly a possibility.

Nonstick cookware is also a landfill issue, partly because most recycling centers aren't equipped to handle it (though some are, and there are always ways to recycle it if you try hard enough), and partly because of the short life span: do you really want cookware you'll probably have to replace every few years? Cookware that will likely end up in a landfill?

For these reasons, our overall recommendation for a nonstick skillet is to go with cast iron or carbon steel instead. They're not quite as slippery as PTFE or ceramic, but when used properly it works very well, and both types of pan will last for decades (maybe even centuries), making them practically a non-issue for landfills.

If you're still set on having a nonstick pan, then PTFE is the safer choice--but you must make sure that everyone in your household will use it correctly

Alternatively, you could go with clad stainless: when used properly, food rarely sticks to the stainless cooking surface, it will last for decades, it's lightweight, it won't rust, and is just great all-around cookware. 

This is the great irony about nonstick cookware: you don't need a special surface for food not to stick. You just need to use the proper cooking technique.

Thanks for reading!

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Is Nonstick Cookware Safe?

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