Mysteries of the Microwave

Is a microwave magical? Everyday Einstein explores the science behind microwaves. 

Lee Falin, PhD
Episode #121

What Else Should I Know About Microwaves?

Now that you know more about how microwaves work, here are some other interesting facts:

If you don’t have any food in your microwave and you leave it running, the microwaves will bounce back and forth, possibly generating a standing wave, which is an electromagnetic wave that doesn’t appear to move. As the energy of that wave builds, it can burn out the magnetron, ruining the microwave oven.

Another danger is putting metal into a microwave. Depending on the composition and shape of the metal object, microwaves can induce an electric current in the metals, which can lead to electrical arcing, and possibly a fire.

Finally, although most plastics don’t contain water and are therefore unaffected by the microwave radiation itself, as the food heats up, the high temperature of the food can cause the plastic to melt, so always make sure whatever container you’re using is considered “microwave safe.”

Is Microwaved Food Radioactive?

Despite what you might have heard, microwaved food is not radioactive. Remember that microwaves are part of the non-ionizing side of the EM Spectrum; this means that they can’t cause damage to cells like x-rays or gamma rays do.

Putting your food in the microwave is no more dangerous than setting it next to your radio antenna or TV remote control.

That being said, there is considerable evidence that microwaving foods containing oil can cause a chemical change in that oil. The same thing happens when you use any method to heat cooking oil, but microwaves seem to have a stronger effect than a conventional oven. Some studies have shown that unsaturated fats can actually be transformed into trans fats by this process.


So now you know more about microwaves, how they work, and how to avoid setting your house on fire when you use them.

If you have a question that you’d like to see answered in a future episode, send me an email at everydayeinstein@quickanddirtytips.com. If you liked today’s episode, you can become a fan of Everyday Einstein on Facebook or follow me on Twitter, where I’m @QDTeinstein.

No radiation image courtesy of Shutterstock.


About the Author

Lee Falin, PhD

Dr. Lee Falin earned a B.S. in Computer Science from the University of Illinois, then went on to obtain a Ph.D. in Genetics, Bioinformatics, and Computational Biology from Virginia Tech. 

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