PFOA, PFAS, PFOS, PTFE: These are all acronyms you see a lot when looking at nonstick cookware. But what exactly are they? Are they really unsafe? And what should you do to avoid them (if anything)?
We'll look at all of these chemicals--and a few others, as well--and help you sort it all out so you can make the right decision when buying cookware.
Nonstick cookware was a revolutionary product when it first came out in 1954. But our body of knowledge has grown considerably since then, and today we know there are some chemicals that are better avoided. Many of these chemicals are in nonstick cookware.
When you buy nonstick cookware today, the marketing literature (including the Amazon writeup) is often full of acronyms. They're meant to make you feel better about buying the cookware, but what do all those acronyms really mean? And what about other dangerous chemicals like lead, cadmium, and arsenic?
We put together a list of chemicals--many of them acronyms for very long organic molecule chains--so you can learn once and for all what they really are, and feel confident you have all the information you need to buy the safest, healthiest cookware on the market.
Nonstick Cookware: A Brief Definition
You probably already know this information, but we're including this section to make sure we're all on the same page.
There are two types--and only two types--of nonstick cookware: 1) PTFE (aka Teflon), and 2) Ceramic nonstick.
Teflon cookware has been around for more than 60 years, while ceramic nonstick first appeared in around 2007--largely as a "safer, healthier" alternative to the PTFE cookware that was beginning to get a bad rap (deservedly so, in our opinion).
Ceramic nonstick cookware is perceived as the healthier choice, but some potential safety issues are coming to light about it, too: we discuss them in the section on titanium dioxide nanoparticles. All the rest of the chemicals are found in PTFE and Teflon cookware.
We share this basic info because there are hundreds of different trade names for PTFE (besides Teflon), and makers sometimes give the impression that their cookware is something new and different. They also use reinforcements as a name (e.g., titanium, diamond, granite, stone) to avoid calling their product PTFE (or worse, Teflon). But nonstick cookware can only be PTFE-based or nonstick-ceramic based.
Well-seasoned cast iron and carbon steel can perform very much like a nonstick pan (and they are a great option, especially cast iron), but they are not considered nonstick in the same sense as PTFE and nonstick ceramic.
Summary: In the context of chemistry, "organic" simply means a chemical is hydrocarbon-based. Many hydrocarbons are toxic and environmentally dangerous, particularly when combined with members of the chlorine and fluorine families; this includes PTFE and PFAS, both used in the manufacturing of Teflon/PTFE nonstick cookware.
PTFE (Also Known as Teflon®)
Also Called: Teflon®.
What It Is and Where It's Found
PTFE is an acronym for polytetrafluoroethylene. It is a man-made, long-chain organic molecule--i.e., a hydrocarbon--derived from petroleum. It was discovered by Dupont chemist Roy Plunkett in 1938 (click that link to read more about this amazing discovery). Dupont called this discovery Teflon®.
PTFE is one of the most slippery substances on earth, which makes it useful for many applications. The most commonly known of these is nonstick Teflon cookware, but it is also used in many industrial processes, in common household products like plumber's tape and dental floss, and in medical implant devices.
Besides having very low friction (i.e., slipperiness), PTFE is also a very stable, extremely inert compound. At normal temperatures, it is completely inert, which is what makes it excellent--and safe--for so many uses.
Note: We should repeat here--just to get the point across--that PTFE and Teflon are the same thing. Teflon® is Dupont's original trade name for PTFE, and many people still today refer to PTFE pans as Teflon pans, regardless of the brand of PTFE on the pan. There are hundreds of different trade names for PTFE, but "teflon pan" has come to mean a nonstick PTFE pan in general.
Potential Dangers and Safety Issues of PTFE/Teflon
At low temperatures, PTFE is a stable, inert compound. This makes it great for in medical implant devices as well as many other applications.
But apply heat, and everything changes: PTFE begins to break down around 392F, although not in amounts considered dangerous to human health. Above about 500F, it begins to give off fumes that cause flu-like symptoms in humans and are lethal to birds: if you own a pet bird, you should not own any PTFE cookware.
(We say "around" 392 and "about" 500F because different sources give different temperatures. 392/500F are conservative figures.)
You may be surprised at how easy it is to heat a pan to 500F: it can take less than 5 minutes for an empty pan to reach 500F on medium-high heat (and possibly even at medium heat, depending on the stove).
When Teflon/PTFE breaks down, it forms PFAS compounds, which you can read more about below. (PTFE itself is a PFAS a stable, non-reactive type of PFAS chemical.) These are toxic compounds that are related to a number of health issues in humans, including some cancers. They are also terrible for the environment, called "forever chemicals" because of their propensity to resist breaking down.
For this reason, you should always use only low or medium heat on your nonstick pans and never allow them to heat up empty or unattended.
Using low heat will also provide the longest life span of your PTFE/ Teflon cookware, as heat has a cumulative effect that takes its toll on the nonstick coating.
How to Avoid PTFE / Teflon Exposure
Since PTFE / Teflon is found in so many products, it's hard to completely avoid exposure. The good news is that at normal temperatures, it's an inert and completely safe compound, so avoiding it is largely unnecessary--although you should definitely avoid heating it to temps above about 392F.
But if you want to avoid exposure, don't buy PTFE/ Teflon cookware or other products that contain Teflon.
Sometimes, it can be hard to determine if nonstick cookware contains PTFE. Because news of PTFE's toxicity has gone mainstream in recent years, makers aren't always forthcoming with this information.
Our article, Nonstick Cookware Brands: PTFE or Ceramic? A Comprehensive Guide, can help you find PTFE-free nonstick cookware.
Or, you could just avoid nonstick cookware altogether and go with clad stainless, copper, or cast iron--all of which are excellent choices.
PTFE is the slippery coating in many brands of nonstick cookware. PTFE is the generic name for Teflon® and hundreds of other PTFE coatings; Autograph, Eterna, Granitium, and Strtanium are all trade names for PTFE. PTFE is safe and non-toxic at low temperatures, but begins to break down into toxic PFAS chemicals around 392F, and begins to give off dangerous fumes around 500F. These fumes cause flu-like symptoms in humans and are lethal to birds. As long as PTFE cookware is used properly, it is safe, but you must be careful to not use high heat or leave a heating pan unattended.
Since it can sometimes be hard to determine if nonstick cookware contains PTFE, the easiest way to avoid it is to avoid nonstick cookware altogether. Cast iron and carbon steel are closest in performance to nonstick cookware (and as far as we know are completely safe). Clad stainless, though not nonstick, is also a healthy choice (and when used properly is not that hard to clean).
Also called: C8 (As depicted in this movie), perfluorinated compound (PFC).
What It Is and Where It's Found
PFOA is an acronym for perfluorooctanoic acid. Like PTFE, it is a long organic compound chain in the same chemical family as PTFE, but not inert like it. According to Wikipedia: "PFOA is one of many synthetic organofluorine compounds collectively known as per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS)."
PFOA was a common chemical, used throughout the world in hundreds of industrial and manufacturing processes. For many decades, it was used to make PTFE nonstick cookware. For many decades, PFOA waste was dumped into water supplies in West Virginia and other states where it was made. This happened because there were no EPA regulations for these chemicals. It wasn't until the 1990s, when sicknesses around these chemical plants began to be noticed, that PFOA began being regulated by the EPA.
PFOA acted as the adhesive that helped PTFE adhere to cookware metals. It was almost completely used up in the manufacturing process, leaving very little, if any, in the finished product. PFOA has been detected in scratched PTFE cookware, but the amounts are so minute that PTFE / Teflon pans are not considered a significant source of PFOA, as this article states.
Because of safety and environmental issues, the EPA asked American chemical companies and manufacturers to start phasing out PFOA in 2006 and quit using it completely by 2015. Today, PFOA is outlawed and no longer used in any American manufacturing.
Also, as of 2015, no PTFE cookware sold in the US contains PFOA, regardless of where it's made. This is true for many other parts of the world as well, so even nonstick cookware made in China and other countries with lax environmental policies rarely contains PFOA; there is simply not a market for it.
However, PFOA is still found in other consumer goods made overseas, including carpeting, upholstery, apparel, floor wax, textiles, fire fighting foam, sealants, food packaging containers, and more.
Thus, it's difficult to avoid completely.
And, if you're wondering what manufacturers are using instead of PFOA, in cookware or any other products, you're thinking about the right stuff. We'll get to that in a minute.
Potential Dangers and Safety Issues of PFOA
PFOA is an environmental hazard and is linked to a litany of human illnesses including:
- testicular cancer
- thyroid disorders
- kidney disease
- liver disease, infertility
- low birth weight.
- possibly associated with birth defects.
PFOA is a nasty, toxic chemical that is best avoided as much as possible.
Though PFOA is banned--or voluntarily not used--in many countries, the damage was unfortunately done, largely by the nonstick cookware industry--still a multi-billion dollar industry and growing.
Today, traces of PFOA can be found in most water supplies throughout the world and in most human bodies: according to a 2016 EPA study, PFOA can be found in trace amounts (usually parts per billion) in an estimated 99% of Americans' blood streams. (Yes: 99%. That is a staggering number. It means PFOA is pretty much everywhere.)
The good news is that the levels of PFOA found in Americans have been decreasing steadily since companies phased out PFOA.
How to Avoid PFOA Exposure
Since PFOA (as well as other PFAS chemicals, discussed below) is now found in the soil and water of every continent, it's nearly impossible to completely avoid exposure. According to Wikipedia, the most common sources of human exposure are food, drinking water, outdoor air, indoor air, dust, and food packaging.
People exposed from their drinking water tend to have the highest levels of PFOA in their systems.
Food packaging rarely contains actual PFOA, but much packaging contains fluorotelomer coatings, used because they repel oil. The problem is that these coatings can break down into PFOA and other dangerous perfluorinated compounds (PFCs)--particularly when containing hot food.
Such packaging includes candy wrappers, fast food wrappers, pizza box linings, microwave popcorn, and more. According to this article, as much as 20% of the PFOA in a person's system can be attributed to eating microwave popcorn.
Food packagers in the US stopped using PFOA in 2011, but continued using other PFCs until 2016. Today, all the food packaged in the US is free of PFCs. Unfortunately, there is little known about what has replaced them, so it's hard to say how safe the new packaging really is.
As for nonstick cookware, PFOA is almost completely used up in the manufacturing process. Traces of it have been detected in cookware made prior to 2015, but even older nonstick cookware is not considered a significant source of PFOA. You are likely to get higher exposure levels from your drinking water than from any nonstick cookware.
The most common way for nonstick cookware to expose you to PFOA or similar chemicals is through scratches. If the scratch goes below the PTFE pan surface, it may release small amounts of PFOA-like chemicals. Any scratched Teflon cookware should be considered unsafe to use.
See our article on the Best Reverse Osmosis Filters for Your Home for more information.
You may also want to avoid packaged microwave popcorn (though that may not be as much of a concern as it was prior to 2016).
PFOA is a toxic chemical that persists in the environment and is found in 99% of Americans' blood. It has been completely phased out of use in the US and is no longer used in cookware made anywhere in the world as far as we know (though cookware has never been a significant source of PFOA). However, PFOA is still found in many products made overseas and in most of the world's water supply. The best way to limit your exposure, is to install a filtration system for your drinking water and avoid foreign products that may contain PFOA or other compounds--such as fluorotelomers in food packaging--that can break down into PFOA or similar substances (i.e., PFAS).
Also called perfluorinated compounds (PFCs); PFOA is also called C8.
What They Are and Where They're Found
PFAS is an acronym for per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, also known as perfluorinated compounds (PFCs). This is a chemical family containing many different compounds, including PFOA (discussed above) and PFOS and GenX (discussed below). PTFE (Teflon) is a stable PFAS.
PFAS chemicals are found in food packaging (as discussed above), stain repellants, firefighting foams, and many other products. They are found in nonstick cookware most commonly as PFOA (prior to 2015) and GenX (since 2015). However, some nonstick cookware is now labeled "PFAS-free."
"PFAS-free" sounds good, right? Because if nonstick cookware is labeled "PFAS-free," this means that it contains no chemicals at all from this family of organic compounds: no PFOA and no GenX (the most common replacement for PFOA). All true.
This is probably good. However, without knowing what a manufacturer is using instead (they have to be using something), we can't say for sure that PFAS-free is an improvement.
Potential Dangers and Safety Issues of PFAS
As far as we can tell, all the potential dangers of PFOA discussed above apply to other PFAS as well. That is, they are long-lasting environmental contaminants that are now found in most water supplies throughout the world, as well as being the suspected cause of several medical issues, including some types of cancer.
While not all PFAS behave exactly the same way, we can say that all PFAS are likely sources of environmental contamination as well the cause of several health concerns in humans.
PFAS are best avoided whenever possible.
How to Avoid PFAS Exposure
Because of all the PFAS present in the environment, you can't completely eliminate exposure, but you can decrease exposure by taking some precautions.
Probably the most important one is (again) to use a filtration system on your drinking water.
As for modern food packaging, it's hard to say. Changes have been made, but there are too many unknowns about what PFAS have been replaced with to say that they're completely safe.
Nonstick PTFE / Teflon cookware was never a significant source of PFAS, so we think it's probably safe when used correctly (that is, never at heat above medium, and it's a good idea to avoid using scratched or degraded Teflon pans).
PFAS is the family of polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFCs) that contains PFOA, PFOS, GenX, PTFE, and other compounds that are toxic environmental hazards. Even though some PFAS have been banned, like PFOA, many are still found in several products, even those made in the US (or for American companies). PFOA is still found in some products made overseas.
Some nonstick cookware made today is labeled PFAS-free, which is probably good, but if we don't know what the PFAS compound has been replaced with, it's hard to say for sure that it's non-toxic OR safer for the environment.
What It Is and Where It's Found
PFOS stands for perfluorooctanesulfonic acid. It is in the PFAS family and closely related to PFOA (both discussed above).
PFOS was the main ingredient in 3M's Scotchgard stain repellent. Scotchgard has replaced the PFOS with perfluorobutane sulfonate (PFBS), which is less toxic to humans and considered an environmental hazard.
We don't know if PFOS was ever used in making PTFE cookware, but we include it here because some brands of nonstick cookware are labeled "PFOS-free." It it was, it's as toxic and hazardous to the environment as PFOA.
PFOS has largely been phased out of production in the US, but may still be found in products made overseas, including stain repellents, firefighting foam, food packaging materials, and possibly other products.
Potential Dangers and Safety Issues
PFOS is considered a "global pollutant" and, like PFOA and other PFAS, is found on every continent and in most water supplies around the world.
Therefore, you can assume that PFOS is likely to have most or all of the same dangers as PFOA and other chemicals in the PFAS family.
How to Avoid PFOS Exposure
This will also be the same as for PFOA and PFAS above: water, food packaging, and consumer products from overseas. The biggest of these is (again) your drinking water, so you should consider installing an RO filtration system, which the EPA says does a great job of filtering out all PFAS.
We don't think nonstick cookware is a source of PFOS.
PFOS is another member of the PFAS family. Like PFOA, it is an environmental hazard and dangerous to humans. Though some nonstick cookware is labeled PFOS-free, we're not sure PFOS was ever used to manufacture PTFE cookware--but if it was, it no longer is. The biggest source of exposure to PFOS is drinking water, so if you're concerned about it, install a filtration system on your tap water.
GenX: The New PFOA
What They Are and Where They're Found
GenX refers is a family of shorter chain compounds in the PFAS family. Dupont began using GenX compounds in 2009 as a replacement for PFOA in many of their products, including nonstick cookware coatings.
Being part of the PFAS family and used in similar products for similar purposes, you can assume that GenX chemicals are going to be found in most of the same places as other PFAS, including cookware (made after 2015) and water supplies.
Potential Dangers and Safety Issues
You'd think that because GenX chemicals replaced nasty PFAS like PFOA that they are a safer and less toxic chemical. However, that doesn't appear to be the case.
According to Wikipedia: "GenX chemicals are used as replacements for PFOA for manufacturing fluoropolymers such as Teflon, since PFOA and related compounds have been found to be toxic and carcinogenic. However, in lab tests on rats, GenX has been shown to cause many of the same health problems as PFOA."
This article from EWG also states that GenX chemicals are nearly as toxic as those they've replaced.
Thus, the dangers discussed above for PFOA, PFAS, and PFOS apply to GenX compounds, as well.
And because GenX chemicals are used specifically for manufacturing PTFE/ Teflon cookware, they are particularly pertinent to readers looking for safe cookware.
How to Avoid GenX Exposure
Being in the same chemical family and being used for many of the same products as PFOA, it is hard to completely avoid exposure to GenX chemicals. They have already been found in water supplies around factories that manufacture them, so they're getting into the environment, just as their predecessors did. (EPA regulation of PFAS chemicals is still sorely lacking.)
As with other PFAS, you probably can't avoid GenX chemicals completely, but you can limit your exposure by avoiding food packaging and installing an RO filtration system on your drinking water. PTFE nonstick cookware made after 2015 is made using GenX chemicals, but as with PFOA, the GenX chemical is almost completely used up in the manufacturing process, so nonstick cookware is not a significant source of these chemicals.
However, since the cookware industry is the largest contributor to GenX and other PFAS toxins in the world's water supplies, nonstick Teflon and PTFE cookware should probably be considered the greatest source of GenX in the world today.
To summarize: "PFOA-free" probably means cookware is made with a GenX chemical. "PFAS-free" might be better, but until we know what they're using instead of PFAS, it is impossible to say for sure that the cookware is not made with any toxic or environmentally hazardous chemicals.
What we do know for certain is that the nonstick cookware industry is almost singlehandedly responsible for contamination of the world's water supplies with these toxic, carcinogenic "forever chemicals."
GenX is a family of shorter-chain PFAS compounds. Dupont (under their spinoff company Chemours) replaced PFOA in nonstick cookware coatings with GenX chemicals starting in 2009. Unfortunately the GenX chemicals have many of the same properties as other PFAS, meaning they are bad for the environment and toxic to humans.
These chemicals are used up in the process of making PTFE cookware, so--as with PFOA--cookware is not considered a significant source of GenX chemicals. However, the cookware industry itself is largely responsible for contamination of the world's water supplies with PFAS chemicals.
What They Are and Where They're Found
APEO stands for alkylphenol ethoxylates and are, like PFAS above, a family of long chain organic molecules. They have a different chemical structure than PFAS and have different risk profiles, but they are a rather nasty industrial chemical that you should avoid when possible.
According to the BASF website: "They’re in packaging, food products, furniture, spot cleaners and paint. They’re in the dust in our homes, and even our blood and urine. Concentrations of APEOs have been measured worldwide in surface waters, sediments and sewage."
Are APEOs found in cookware? The only cookware brand we've seen reference APEOs is Ozeri. But just because they're not mentioned by other makers doesn't mean they're not present in the manufacturing process. They may or may not be; we weren't able to find definitive information on APEOs in cookware.
One of the biggest areas of concern seems to be textiles, as this study shows.
Potential Dangers and Safety Issues
Also from the BASF website: "Slow to biodegrade, APEOs are toxic to aquatic organisms and an endocrine-disruptor to higher animals, and therefore pose a significant risk to humans."
As an endocrine disrupter, APEOs may be closer in structure to BPA--the chemical found in many plastics--than to PFAS.
Whatever the case, you do not want to expose yourself to these chemicals.
How to Avoid APEO Exposure
We don't have much information for you on avoiding APEO exposure.
We couldn't find good information about APEOs as they relate to cookware, so we're not sure what the dangers are. Internet searches for "APEO in cookware" returned mostly Ozeri products, and little else. And Ozeri isn't going into any detail about it.
It's possible that there are no APEOs in cookware (and Ozeri goes a little overboard on their acronym use for marketing purposes), but it's also possible that other makers aren't talking about it simply because it isn't yet part of the public's awareness.
We don't know.
We recommend that if you're concerned about APEOs, you do more research on your own. Since they don't come up in any cookware searches as an issue, we didn't investigate further.
APEOs are a different family of organic compounds used in several manufacturing processes. They are bad for the environment and are an endocrine disruptor to humans and other mammals. We are not certain they are used in making nonstick cookware, as we know of only one company--Ozeri--that mentions them. Internet searches for APEO in cookware returned very few results. From what we found, APEOs are mosts likely to be found in textiles (so you may want to do more research in that area).
NMP and NEP
What They Are
NMP stands for N-Methyl-2-pyrrolidone. It is a solvent used in a range of products and manufacturing processes.
NEP stands for (we think) N-Ethylpentedrone. It is mostly used as a designer drug and is illegal in several countries.
As with APEO, Ozeri is the only maker we've seen that lists their cookware as free of NMP and NEP.
(We're not sure why Ozeri lists their products as free of NEP if it is in fact a designer drug; we may have the wrong chemical, but this was the only NEP we found in our research. If you have any more info about it, please let us know.)
Where They're Found
According to Wikipedia, NMP is "used as a solvent for surface treatment of textiles, resins, and metal coated plastics or as a paint stripper." It is most commonly seen in textile manufacturing.
We couldn't find uses of NEP except as a designer drug.
Since Ozeri is the only cookware maker we've seen that mentions NMP and NEP, and because neither of them appear to be very toxic or environmentally dangerous, we didn't do a lot more research. We list them here because they were mentioned by one cookware maker, just in case anyone wants to do more research on them. (Our Google searches returned several Ozeri links and not a lot more.)
NEM and NEP are mentioned only by Ozeri as not being in their cookware. We're not sure what this means, but our searches largely returned Ozeri links and not a lot more. What we did find out didn't seem too scary, so we left it at that: if these chemicals are used in the making of other brands of nonstick cookware, they are probably not a major concern (but please let us know if you know more about them).
PTFO, PTHE, and PTGE
We have seen these acronyms in nonstick cookware articles and Amazon writeups, but can't find any sources for what they are. They are probably typos, or may be a deliberate attempt to make people think the product is PTFE-free.
If you find more info on any of these acronyms--or find other acronyms related to nonstick cookware we haven't covered here--please let us know.
PTFO, PTHE, and PTGE are all acronyms we've seen in cookware writeups and articles about nonstick cookware, but we weren't able to find any more information about. We suspect they are typos, or perhaps a deliberate attempt to sound as if the product is PTFE-free to people who aren't reading all that closely.
Titanium Dioxide Nanoparticles (A Ceramic Nonstick Issue)
What They Are
Titanium dioxide nanoparticles are extremely tiny particles that are used in many different industrial processes.
Where They're Found
Titanium dioxide (and silicon) nanoparticles are found in ceramic nonstick cookware. Nanoparticles are used in the sol-gel process used to apply the ceramic coatings to the pans. Nanoparticles are also used in numerous other products and manufacturing processes.
As far as we know, all ceramic nonstick coatings are applied to pans with the sol-gel process. This means that all nonstick ceramic pans are likely to contain these nanoparticles.
Nanoparticles are a complex topic and hard to break down into simple language. This article has done a great job of doing so if you want to read more about them.
Potential Dangers and Safety Issues
Titanium dioxide nanoparticles--and to a somewhat lesser extent, silicon nanoparticles, also found in ceramic nonstick cookware and possibly in other types of ceramic cookware too--have been associated with immune disorders and precancerous lesions, according to this article.
This article goes into more detail about both PFAS and nanoparticles in cookware; it's well worth reading, and does a great job breaking down complex ideas, making them easy to understand.
Having said all of that, there is not a lot of research out there about nanoparticles and ceramic nonstick cookware, so we don't fully understand all the issues involved. (The lack of research may be why ceramic nonstick is perceived as the safer choice--simply because we don't yet know otherwise, as with the first 50 years of PTFE cookware.)
The current consensus seems to be that ceramic nonstick cookware is safe, as long as it's not scratched and as long as you aren't using extreme heat with it; scratched and heated cookware is more likely to release the nanoparticles.
There's more to learn about it, but this is what we know today.
How to Avoid Titanium (and Silicon) Nanoparticle Exposure
As far as cookware is concerned, don't use ceramic nonstick cookware; since all brands seem to use the sol-gel process to apply the nonstick coating, this applies to all brands of ceramic nonstick cookware.
)Note: If you're not sure what ceramic nonstick cookware is or how to tell is cookware is ceramic, read our article Nonstick Cookware Brands: PTFE or Ceramic? A Comprehensive Guide.)
There are still a lot of unknowns, but this is the best information we currently have.
(There are probably other sources of exposure, since nanoparticles are used in a great deal of modern manufacturing. We just looked at cookware.)
Titanium dioxide nanoparticles (as well as silicon nanoparticles) are found in ceramic nonstick cookware and possibly in other cookware with a glaze applied to it. These nanoparticles have been associated with immune disorders and precancerous lesions. While the consensus is largely that ceramic nonstick cookware is safe when used properly, there is not a lot of research yet to guide us. If you are concerned and want to avoid exposure to these nanoparticles, don't use ceramic nonstick cookware.
What About Lead, Arsenic and Cadmium?
These chemicals--all of them toxic to humans--have traditionally been found in paints and glazes. However, no reputable cookware company would allow the use of these toxins in their products today. If found in cookware, they are typically found in trace amounts, and typically found on the outside and not the cooking surface of the cookware.
We know that some websites have scarier news about these toxins, particularly about enameled cookware (like Le Creuset), but the truth is that none of them can be found in any reputable brand of cookware.
You are also much more likely to be exposed to these chemicals through your water and/or food supply. (So once again: install a filtration system on your tap water.)
Arsenic, lead and cadmium should not be a concern in any reputable brand of cookware.
So What's the Upshot? Is Nonstick Cookware Safe or Not?
Here's the upshot:
PTFE, also called Teflon, is safe and stable at temperatures below about 400F. At temps above this, it breaks down into toxic PFAS chemicals.
PFOA, PFOS, and GenX are all from the same PFAS chemical family. They are serious environmental contaminants and are suspected to cause several serious health issues in humans, including some cancers. They are found in most water supplies, and PFAS are present in 99% of Americans. PFOA is no longer used in making PTFE cookware, but it has likely been substituted with a similar chemical such as GenX. Even a cookware brand labeled "PFAS-free" could contain a similar chemical. Without knowing what the exact manufacturing process is, it's impossible to declare any nonstick cookware as completely free of harmful chemicals. However, you can say that about any product that's mass produced, so you need to decide for yourself what level of risk you're willing to assume for you and your family.
GenX is the replacement for PFOA and PFOS. It is a shorter chain PFAS molecule--yes, still in the PFAS family--and studies have shown it causes many of the same health problems. Only in use since 2009, it has already contaminated some water supplies. If a cookware claims to be "PFOA-free," it probably uses a GenX chemical instead.
APEO is an unrelated chemical that may or may not be found in nonstick cookware and is also an environmental contaminant and a known endocrine disruptor in humans. Only one maker, Ozeri, lists their product as free of APEO. This could mean other makers use it, or that it's not a concern; we don't know which is the case.
NMP and NEP are lesser known cookware chemicals, also mentioned only by Ozeri. We weren't able to find more information on them as to how they're related to cookware. We aren't saying they're not of concern; we're saying we don't know.
Titanium Dioxide Nanoparticles are found in ceramic nonstick cookware and possibly in other cookware with a glazed finish. These particles have been associated with immune disorders and precancerous lesions. Ceramic nonstick cookware is probably safe when used properly (avoid high heat and scratched cookware), but there is not a lot of research out there yet, so we can't say for sure.
Arsenic, Lead, and Cadmium should not be of concern in any cookware made by a reputable manufacturer.
While nonstick cookware is probably safe when used properly, it's difficult to give it--either PTFE or ceramic nonstick--a completely clean bill of health. Nasty chemicals have mostly been replaced with other nasty chemicals; research is still lacking in many areas. Without a comprehensive study of the manufacturing processes, it is impossible to say if nonstick cookware is entirely safe to use, or whether makers have truly cleaned up their act when it comes to the environment.
However, since many of these cookware chemicals are ubiquitous throughout the world now--as well as in our bodies--the truth is that cookware is unlikely to pose a serious danger when compared to other potential sources of exposure like our food and our water.
However, this fact--that these toxins are found throughout the world today--is due largely to the nonstick cookware industry, which operated unregulated for decades and dumped these toxins into water supplies. This is still going on in the US, in China, and probably elsewhere in the world as well.
If, like us, you believe that this is an immoral practice--particularly when the technology exists to filter toxins out of waste water--then you should avoid buying PTFE nonstick cookware as a matter of principle: even if you use it properly and do not expose yourself or your family to toxins, the mere existence of this cookware means that toxins were used in making it.
How to Make Nonstick Cookware Last as Long as Possible
Nonstick cookware has a lifespan of 1-5 years. Some people get more out of it, but this is what you can expect from both types of nonstick (although PTFE/ Teflon nonstick tends to keep its nonstick properties longer than ceramic nonstick).
The most important things you can do to take care of nonstick cookware and make sure it lasts as long as possible are:
- Use only low-medium heat
- Never heat an empty pan or leave a heating pan unattended
- Use only bamboo, plastic, or silicone utensils (never metal)
- Always wash by hand (never use the dishwasher)
- Don't use aerosol cooking spray (like PAM), especially true for PTFE cookware. It contains chemicals that degrade the PTFE coating.
Other Cookware Options
If you want to avoid the whole nonstick issue, you can get along perfectly fine without nonstick cookware in your kitchen. Our site is full of articles and reviews of other types of cookware, including stainless steel, copper, and cast iron. These are all perfectly good options--and even if you do have a nonstick pan, you should use it only for certain things, such as eggs, which can stick badly to other pans.
Cast iron and carbon steel. If you want something close to nonstick, go with cast iron or carbon steel. They both have a few drawbacks but are overall versatile and affordable cookware.
Clad stainless. Our personal favorite cookware is clad stainless steel. It's more expensive than other types, but it's durable and extremely versatile: if you learn how to use it, clad stainless is the most versatile type of pan you can have. And when used properly, they are not sticky. With a thin coat of oil, they release food beautifully when it's developed a crust. You just have to follow a few simple rules.
Enameled cast iron. Enameled cast iron is fabulous in a Dutch oven; we think everyone needs an enameled cast iron Dutch oven. It isn't as necessary in skillets and other cookware, but it's a good choice if it appeals to you. The best brands are expensive, but you can find lower priced brands, too.
Copper. Copper cookware is also a viable option, as long as it's cooking surface is stainless steel or tin. Copper is the most efficient metal for cookware, but is also the most expensive. You will love it if you get it and learn how to use it.
There are other options, but these four offer the best heating performance (and we also think are the prettiest).
When you buy mass-produced products, whether cookware or something else, it's difficult to know exactly what the products contain, and even harder to know what the by-products of manufacturing are. Unless you know exactly what the manufacturing process is--and how can we, unless we work in the factory?--you can never say for sure exactly what chemicals are involved.
We think that most cookware, including nonstick, is safe when used correctly. But when you learn about how this industry has been dumping toxins into the world's water supplies for decades--and continue to do so with the not-much-safer GenX chemicals, it's hard to say that this cookware is safe for human use; its very existence seems to be the cause of terrible environmental contamination and the source of several serious health issues in humans.
If you care about the environment, you should avoid using nonstick cookware--PTFE / Teflon nonstick cookware in particular.
Thanks for reading!
Food Packaging Forum: https://www.foodpackagingforum.org/news/nanoparticles-released-by-quasi-ceramic-pans
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