In their simplest form, non-stick frying pans are aluminum or stainless steel skillets sprayed with a non-stick coating, which keeps food from sticking to them when cooked.
They’re ideal for preparing more delicate foods like eggs, fish, or pancakes. However, the non-stick coating eventually wears off with daily use—and you’ll have to replace them every 1-2 years.
Seen from that angle, the total cost of ownership of non-stick cookware over a lifetime can get really high. This is why cost-savvy home cooks usually opt-in for stainless steel, carbon steel, cast iron, and copper cookware instead. With the right care and attention, these types of pans and pots can be handed down for generations.
But there’s another reason why some cooks avoid non-stick cookware, and it’s related to the growing safety concerns about what cookware manufacturers put in their non-stick coatings.
In this article, I’m going to help you separate fact from fiction—so that you can make an informed decision for yourself about whether or not to use non-stick cookware.
Generally speaking, there are two types of coatings that cookware manufacturers apply on non-stick pans and pots: PTFE (commonly known as “Teflon”) and ceramic.
The first Teflon frying pans were introduced in 1946. Ceramic cookware is more recent. According to a few sources, the first ceramic pans and pots came out in 2008. However, since I couldn’t find a definite answer, I’m not going to share any links with you.
Are PTFE Frying Pans Safe to Use?
To make this type of pans, manufacturers take an aluminum or stainless steel pan and coat it with a chemical compound called polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE). The PTFE is sprayed on, like paint, or spread on by rollers.
Manufacturers typically apply three PTFE coatings: a primer, a middle, and a top. As a rule of thumb, the thicker the coating and the more advanced the technology used for applying it, the more long-lasting the frying pan.
When buying a PTFE non-stick pan, look for a well-rated model from a brand that you can trust, which comes with a heavy base and a thick coating. Metal handles make a pan more versatile since they allow you to use it in the oven. They’re also easier to clean.
PTFE is a synthetic fluoropolymer accidentally invented by Roy J. Plunkett in 1938. Plunkett was a young scientist hired by DuPont Company’s Jackson Laboratory in New Jersey to develop a new refrigerant.
After checking a frozen, compressed sample of tetrafluoroethylene, Plunkett and his associates were taken by surprise: the sample had polymerized spontaneously into a white, waxy solid to form polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE).
Waterproof, resistant to corrosive chemicals, capable of withstanding extreme heat and cold, and highly slippery, PTFE attracted the attention of the U.S. Military. It was classified and the first uses for it were for coating fueling systems and pneumatic cylinders in military aircraft.
In the 1940s, PTFE was declassified. Having discovered many potential uses for it in appliances, cookware, and textiles, DuPont branded it as Teflon and started selling it to consumer companies in 1946.
If you’re wondering about the difference between polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE) and Teflon, there isn’t one. PTFE is the scientific term for the chemical—and Teflon is the registered trademark under which The Chemours Company, a DuPont spin-off, sells it.
When a frying pan is labeled as Teflon-coated, this means that the coating is PTFE produced by The Chemours Company. When it’s labeled simply as PTFE-coated, it means that the coating was produced by another company that doesn’t own the registered trademark.
In recent years, a chemical compound made by 3M and used by DuPont in the production of Teflon coating became the subject of a class-action lawsuit and an international health scandal, raising questions about the safety of non-stick cookware.
The two are best-portrayed a 2016 article in The New York Times, called “The Lawyer Who Become DuPont’s Worst Nightmare,” and a 2019 biographical movie about Rob Bilott, the lawyer that led it, called “Dark Waters.”
In 1951, DuPont started buying perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) from 3M and adding it to Teflon. PFOA helped to keep PTFE coatings from clumping, which made it easier to apply Teflon non-coating on metal cookware.
However, exposure to high concentrations of PFOA was ultimately linked to kidney cancer, testicular cancer, thyroid disease, high cholesterol, pre-eclampsia, and ulcerative colitis. This happened thanks to one of the largest epidemiological studies in human history, which consisted of 32,254 West Virginia residents who lived near a DuPont Teflon plant.
Though 3M had sent recommendations to DuPont for how to dispose of PFOA and DuPont’s internal policies stated that it shouldn’t be flushed into surface waters or sewers, DuPont’s workers had pumped thousands of pounds of PFOA powder through the outfall pipes of the Parkersburg facility and into the Ohio River, the source of tap water for West Virginia residents.
In 2006, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) invited six of the biggest chemical companies to join the 2010/2015 PFOA Stewardship Program, aimed at eliminating the use of PFOA by the year 2015.
Since 2015, all PTFE-coated cookware is PFOA-free. Its use has been replaced with other chemicals such as GenX, but they’re also suspected to have some levels of toxicity.
Naturally, many consumers were dismayed by the news. The decade-long lack of transparency about the health hazards of PFOA has caused them to lose trust in the integrity of the safety information from the chemical industry as a whole.
The health concerns related to PTFE-coated cookware don’t end with the exclusion of PFOA from the coating’s application process.
When heated above 570°F (300°C), the PTFE coating of non-stick frying pans breaks down, releasing toxic fumes into the air. Inhaled by domestic pets, they can cause life-threatening conditions. Inhaled by humans, they may lead to polymer fume fever.
Since an empty pan or pot can reach high temperatures quickly, some manufacturers advise against preheating PTFE pans in the first place. Others will go as far as recommending that you don’t use non-stick cookware in a kitchen where you keep birds, mice, or hamsters as pets.
Safety rules for using PTFE pans:
- Never preheat an empty PTFE pan. You can easily heat it above 570°F (300°C), at which point it will start releasing toxic fumes into the air in your kitchen.
- Never put a PTFE pan in the dishwasher. Other cookware and metal eatware can come into contact with it and scratch its surface, exposing toxic metals underneath.
- Before putting a PTFE pan in the oven, check in the user’s guide (1) if it’s oven safe and (2) what the maximum temperature you can bake with it is. Never exceed the maximum temperature.
- If the PTFE coating of your frying pan starts peeling, discard any food in the pan and throw it away immediately. Get a replacement pan and start cooking anew.
As you can imagine, the above has caused many people to look for alternatives to PTFE cookware.
In the last decade, a whole new category of non-stick frying pans emerged that claims to be it.
But is it really?
Are Ceramic Pans Safe to Use?
Contrary to popular belief, ceramic cookware isn’t really made of ceramic. Clay, ground, and stones are ground and mixed into a powder, turned into ceramic in a sol-gel process, sprayed on a piece of metal cookware, and baked onto it in a high-heat furnace.
Look for ceramic cookware online, and chances are you’ll end up more confused than when you started. So here are a couple of things you should know to better understand the product descriptions of ceramic pans and pots.
Though marketers use all kinds of fancy names and terms for their brands’ coatings, frying pans labeled as having a “stone-derived,” “natural stone,” “granite,” or even “diamond” coating are, in their essence, ceramic cookware with extra additives.
Since a pan or pot can either be coated with PTFE or ceramic, ceramic-coated cookware is naturally PTFE-free.
Ceramic isn’t naturally non-stick, so manufacturers go the extra mile and spray the cooking surface of ceramic pans and pots with silicone oil. Tiny amounts of silicone oil get released as you cook, which keeps the food from sticking to them.
Eventually, the silicone oil coating will wear off. Depending on the quality of the cookware, this typically happens at the 75th to 125th use. From that moment on, you can keep using your ceramic pan, but you’ll have to cook with oil or fat as it will no longer be non-stick.
The jury’s out when it comes to the safety of ceramic pans. The ceramic coating is, without doubt, made only of natural materials.
However, the silicone oil non-stick coating is still a matter of debate. This type of pans is so new, there’s no research with conclusive evidence to back most marketers’ claims that they are the “healthier” alternative to other types of cookware.
Some consumers are put off by the fact that the non-stick coating of ceramic cookware is silicone oil, which is also used as lubricants and added to hydraulic fluids in the inner workings of heavy machinery.
The most factual conclusion anyone can draw for the time being is that information is scarce and—to the best of our knowledge—silicone oil is generally a safe non-stick coating for cooking.
“I tried to find some information on the health effects of silicone rubber, but it was not listed in any of the toxic chemical databases I use,” consumer advocate Debra Lyn Dadd says to Scientific American magazine.
“All descriptions I read of silicone rubber describe it as chemically inert and stable, so it is unlikely to react with or leach into food, nor outgas vapors.”
Safety rules for using ceramic pans:
- Clean them mostly by hand and don’t put them in the dishwasher too often. Edgy cookware and metal eatware can end up scratching the surface and revealing the aluminum core underneath.
- Use only silicone or wooden spatulas when cooking with the pan. Metal forks and utensils can tear through the ceramic surface and expose toxic metals that will start leaching aluminum or lead into your food.
- Ceramic cookware is heat-resistant up to 842°F (450°C). Never preheat your ceramic pan on high heat to avoid accidentally bringing it up to a temperature close to this.
The Bottom Line
The more you get into cookware, the more you see that there’s no one true answer to this question. Pans and pots are made of different kinds of metal.
When your cookware has a bare-metal cooking surface, as is the case for stainless steel, carbon steel, cast iron, and copper, it tends to leach a tiny amount of it into your food every time you cook with it. Over time, that tiny amount can build up in your body and cause trouble.
Non-stick surfaces made of man-made chemicals like PTFE or silicone oil tend to be less reactive with food than nature-found surfaces like metal, but these surfaces wear off quickly and, in the cases when they’re scratched or start to peel off, can leach toxic chemical compounds into your food.
In our household, we use two types of cookware: stainless steel pans and pots for 90% of our cooking, and cast iron for searing meats on the stove and broiling them in the oven. Since I got into cookware and started educating myself, I’m intentionally staying away from PTFE and, for the time being, ceramic.