Is Teflon Bad For You? Non-Stick Coated Cookware

Teflon is found in every household. The advantages of Teflon-coated cookware are obvious: They are usually cheap to make and much easier to clean than uncoated cookware. But these non-stick coatings can also have negative sides if not used properly. So, when is Teflon bad for you?

What is Teflon?

Teflon is actually a brand name owned by Chemours/DuPont,  its chemical name is  Polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE). It is used as a non-stick coating for cookware. But the list of applications seems sheer endless. It is found in many electrical, industrial, and medical applications, even in waterproof/breathable outdoor clothing.

Teflon is actually all around us and we get in contact with it every day. There is still an ongoing debate about whether Teflon is bad for us or not when it enters our bodies. This could happen in two ways:

  • Ingestion – cookware such as pans and bowls wear out over time, non-stick coatings get damaged and scratched and small Teflon particles end up in food and find their way into our bodies.
  • Inhalation  –  if non-stick-coated pans are heated to very high temperatures, the PTFE may out-gas. Then various toxic substances can be produced which when inhaled may cause symptoms.

Is Teflon bad for you when swallowed?

Even it can be scratched quite easily, Teflon or PTFE is really tough at normal temperatures and will not react chemically with other substances.   Even the most aggressive acids, Aqua regia, concentrated hydrochloric acid or nitric acid will not affect it. So the 1% hydrochloric acid of our gastric acid leaves the PTFE completely unaffected.

So because PTFE is chemically “inert“, it does not react at the human body temperature of around 98–99°F (37 ° C). Small parts of Teflon accidentally swallowed will not do any damage to the body. Instead, the swallowed particles leave the body a natural way.

Scratched Teflon cookware poses no health hazard. You do not have to dispose of a pan with a few scratches and can continue to use it.

Is Teflon bad for you when inhaled?

Inhalation of PTFE vapor is a whole different topic. There are several studies that deal with the toxic effect of vapor released when Teflon is overheated. The inhalation of these vapors could cause the so-called Teflon Flu. Flu-like symptoms, such as fever, chills, a dry throat, cough, and shortness of breath may be the result. There are no studies on the long-term effects of repeated inhalation of PTFE vapors.

However, Teflon vapors are much more dangerous to birds: there are several reports from birdkeepers whose animals died after coated pans were left on the stove.

At what temperature do Teflon pans start to develop gases?

PTFE is inert and non-toxic at low temperatures. However, at temperatures of over 500 degrees F ( 260 °C), the material begins to deteriorate and it melts at over 620  degrees F ( 327 °C).

At those high temperatures, the released vapor with its by-products can be hazardous to birds and may cause symptoms in humans. But as there are no studies on the effects of Teflon vapor in humans been done, it is not really clear from what temperature Teflon can be dangerous to humans.

Old Non-stick pan

How high is the temperature in frying in pans when frying?

Most foods are fried at temperatures between 330  to 440 °F. Cooking oils have a smoke point and even refined cooking oils, like Canola oil, start to smoke at temperatures over 440 °F ( 230 °C ).  As a good cook, you try to avoid that anyway.

Even though these temperatures are quite close to the manufacturer’s recommended maximum temperature for Teflon, they are rarely exceeded as long as the pan is not empty. Food and cooking oils will buffer the temperature and normally prevent overheating.

But an empty pan on a stovetop gets really hot and will quickly exceed the safe “Teflon temperatures”.  Do not leave empty pans on the heated stove!

What temperature does a slow cooker cook at?

This is where a slow cooker differs from most other kitchen appliances. Food is only heated to a temperature of about 175 to 200 degrees Fahrenheit (75 to 95 °C) in a slow cooker. This is not even half the temperature at which the non-stick coating begins to out-gas.

So is Teflon bad for you?

So non-stick coatings do have their pros and cons. If the environment is really important to you, you should avoid using Teflon. The manufacturing process is troublesome as it produces hazardous by-products, also disposing of old PTFE products is problematic as it can only be recycled to a minor extent.

How is Polytetrafluoroethylene made?

Polytetrafluoroethylene is made by combining its two base chemicals, tetrafluoroethylene (TFE) and hydrogen fluoride (HF), and heating them in a reaction vessel at a high temperature. The heat causes the two chemicals to form long chains of molecules which then join together to make the PTFE polymer.

What does Polytetrafluoroethylene look like before its application on cookware?

Prior to its application on cookware, polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE) usually appears as a white powder or paste-like substance. It is then melted and molded into the desired shape.

How is Cookware cookware coated with it?

Cookware can be coated with PTFE by applying a thin layer of the polymer to the surface. This can be done by spraying, brushing, or dipping the cookware in a solution of PTFE. The cookware is then heated in an oven to a high temperature (260–400°C), which causes the PTFE to melt and form a thin, non-stick coating on the surface.

Non-stick coated pot

Is the making of Non-stick cookware bad for the environment?

The manufacture of PTFE is bad for the environment because it releases toxic and carcinogenic chemicals into the air, soil, and water. These chemicals, such as perfluorooctanoic acid, can be harmful to both humans and animals. The manufacturing process also releases greenhouse gases, which contribute to global warming.

Alternatives to non-Stick Coatings

Alternatives to Teflon include ceramic, stainless steel, cast iron, and enameled cookware. Ceramic and stainless steel cookware are non-toxic and are better for cooking at high temperatures. Cast iron and enameled cookware are also non-toxic, but they can be difficult to clean and require more effort to maintain. Other non-stick alternatives include ceramic-coated cookware and silicone bakeware.

Good uncoated cookware made of iron, copper or stainless steel or ceramics can last a lifetime with good care. There are many slow cooker models available that use stoneware or steel pots.

Although these materials do not have a non-stick effect and it may take more time to clean, you are definitely leaving a smaller footprint on the environment.

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4 thoughts on “Is Teflon Bad For You? Non-Stick Coated Cookware”

  1. I want to prepare bone broth and I am afraid of the teflon coating and boil the bones for 36 hours as recommended. Please advise.

    • As long as there are enough broth and liquid in the pot, the temperature should stay well within what Teflon can tolerate. It gets risky only when all liquid has evaporated. So add water when necessary.

  2. I love that quote near the end saying that if the environment is important to you, you should avoid Teflon. That’s like saying if a safe house and air and water and soul is important to you, you shouldn’t poison it.

    • Bullseye. Everyone knows by now about the status of the planet, like global warming, ocean acidification, rainforests burning, chlorpyrifos and glyphosate in food, … but too few change their consumer behavior.

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