Opinions on favorite cookware can be strong and usually comes down to performance, ergonomics, and ease of clean up. There's a lot to consider, but whatever type of cookware gets your vote, you'll want to make sure you know how to use it safely. Our food editors favor cast-iron pans but the many fans of nonstick cookware tout its easy-to-clean nature and its ability to handle foods like fish or eggs without leaving a clingy trail of bits and pieces behind as reasons to make the switch. Plus, clean up is a breeze. But should you be concerned about the chemical coating that gives these pots and pans their nonstick properties?
What Is the Nonstick Coating?
Polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE), better known by the brand name Teflon®, is a man-made chemical commonly used to coat many non-stick pans. However, prior to 2013, another chemical, perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), was used in the production of Teflon® and it generated health concerns in studies. In 2006, an Environmental Protection Agency Scientific Advisory Panel, advised that PFOA that had been emitted into the environment was a "likely human carcinogen." (On a larger level, PFOA chemicals have made it into a wide range of different products. In 2019 the FDA found that PFOAs used in certain types of packaging, treated fabrics, cleaning supplies, and other products have found their way into the food and water supply.)
Teflon® has been PFOA-free since 2013. In fact, many Teflon® and other nonstick cookware products note directly on the product label that they are PFOA free. Teflon® is considered safe for normal home cooking, with an emphasis on "normal." This means following recommended temperature guidelines for using Teflon®-coated cookware properly—cooking on low or medium heat with temperatures not exceeding 500°F. At high temperatures, the coating can start to break down, releasing gasses into the air that could cause temporary flu-like symptoms. According to the American Cancer Society, "Other than the possible risk of flu-like symptoms from breathing in fumes from an overheated Teflon-coated pan, there are no proven risks to humans from using cookware coated with Teflon (or other nonstick surfaces)." It's also important to use wooden spoons or silicone utensils on the pan instead of metal to prevent scratching the surface. Hand-washing nonstick cookware is recommended for the same reason.