Are Nonstick Pans Safe?

Nonstick pans allow you to cook with less oil and clean-up is a breeze. But are they safe?

Monica Reinagel, MS, LD/N, CNS
4-minute read
Episode #458

the surface of a nonstick pan

Nonstick pans are extremely popularand it’s not hard to see why. Clean-up is a breeze, thanks to a special coating that keeps food from bonding to the surface of the pan. The nonstick surface also allows you to cook with less (or even no) oil or butter. But are they safe?

Most nonstick pans are coated with polytetrafluoroethylene, also known as Teflon. And there are a lot of rumors out there that Teflon might be toxic and that these pans may not be safe to use.

One concern is that the nonstick coating can flake off and be ingested. This is more likely to happen with cheaper or poor-quality pans, or those that just haven’t been well taken care off. Using metal implements, for example, can scratch even a high-quality nonstick surface and make it more likely to flake. The good news is that ingesting small flakes of nonstick coating is not dangerous. The material will most likely just pass through the body. But it definitely reduces the nonstickiness of the pan.

Fortunately, most manufacturers of nonstick pans have phased out the use of perfluorooctanoic acid or PFOA, which is a suspected carcinogen. Nonstick pans never were our biggest source of exposure to this chemical, but it’s one less thing to worry about.

The Biggest Danger with Nonstick Cookware

However, even without PFOA, overheating these pans can still create problems. When the pans get too hot, compounds in the coating can be released as fumes. These fumes can cause flu-like symptoms in humans and can actually be lethal to birds. (Many bird owners choose not to even keep nonstick cookware in the house, just to prevent accidents.) Overheating the pans can also make the coating less effective.

Polytetrafluoroethylene starts to dissociate at about 300 degrees Celsius or about 600 degrees Fahrenheit, releasing toxic fumes into the air. An empty pan can reach 500 degrees F in less than 2 minutes. Cooking foods over a high burner can also put you in the danger zone.

Although you probably wouldn’t overheat the pan on purpose, stuff happens. The phone rings or someone comes to the door and a pan gets left on the burner by accident.

What Does the Nutrition Diva Cook With?

Personally, I get along just fine without any nonstick cookware.

I have a set of heavy stainless steel pans that I use for things like cooking rice and pasta, scrambling eggs, steaming or sauteeing vegetables, and making soup. I have a set of cast-iron skillets that I use to sear meat, roast vegetables, and other higher heat preparations. I also have an enameled cast-iron Dutch oven that comes in handy for braising or other things that start on the stove top and finish in the oven. I’ve had most of these pans for decades.

I'll be honest: Every once in a while, I do have to scrub a pan. But most sticking can be avoided simply by cooking things for the right amount of time, with the right amount of heat, along with a bit of oil or liquid, if needed.  

But if you prefer nonstick pans, I think it's perfectly OK to use them. Here are some tips on staying safe and getting the best results.


About the Author

Monica Reinagel, MS, LD/N, CNS

Monica Reinagel is a board-certified licensed nutritionist, author, and the creator of one of iTunes' most highly ranked health and fitness podcasts. Her advice is regularly featured on the TODAY show, Dr. Oz, NPR, and in the nation's leading newspapers, magazines, and websites. Do you have a nutrition question? Call the Nutrition Diva listener line at 443-961-6206. Your question could be featured on the show.