Nonstick cookware is one of the most popular types available — over 206 million nonstick units were sold in 2020, a number that has continued growing since. In fact, you probably have one or two nonstick pans in your kitchen right now.
It's also one of the most controversial types of cookware on the market. A growing body of research indicates the materials used in producing nonstick pots and pans are damaging to physical and environmental health. Many home cooks wonder if the benefits are really worth the risk.
Understanding what you're cooking with is vital for living a healthy, nontoxic lifestyle. Here, we'll review all the facts about nonstick cookware, from its humble beginnings to its growing health concerns.
The History of Nonstick Cookware
Nonstick cookware history began in 1938 with DuPont chemist Roy Plunkett's accidental discovery of polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE). Although the company patented the polymer in 1941 under the brand name Teflon, nonstick cookware only appeared on the market after the war.
French engineer Marc Gregoire created the first nonstick cookware in the early 1950s by binding PTFE to aluminum pans. He and his wife established Tefal (T-Fal) Corporation in 1956, which quickly became one of the most popular nonstick brands.
Concerns over the safety of nonstick cookware began in the early 2000s with an Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) report, which stated that PFOA, a chemical used to make PTFE, is a likely human carcinogen. The EPA mandated that all nonstick cookware manufacturers remove PFOA from their factories by 2015.
Now, companies constantly develop new nonstick cookware technologies. But the evidence of the risks associated with them continues to grow, contributing to increasing concern over these materials.
What Is Nonstick Cookware Today?
What do you normally imagine when you think of nonstick cookware? Do you think of eggs sliding off a skillet? Pancakes effortlessly flipping into the air?
Now think beyond how easy it is to use nonstick cookware. What's in the pan you're using? How does its surface stay so slippery? Answering these questions can help you understand why nonstick cookware is more than it seems at first glance.
Most modern nonstick cookware contains either PTFE or a silicon-based coating called Sol-gel. Traditional designs often use aluminum as the metal base, but stainless steel and anodized aluminum have become more common.
What Makes Nonstick Cookware Nonstick?
So how does food slide off nonstick cookware so easily? These properties help create a slippery surface:
- Nonreactive: Unlike many other cookware materials, PTFE and Sol-gel don't experience chemical reactions when they come into contact with acidic foods. This means food does not form bonds with the cookware and is able to slide off.
- Frictionless: Because PTFE is nonreactive, there's very little friction between it and anything it comes into contact with. This property enables food, water and basically anything else to slide right off rather than sticking to the surface.
- Hydrophobic: Nonstick coatings repel water, so you can place a drop of water in a nonstick pan and watch it slide from one side to the other. That's why Teflon is also used in products like water-resistant fabrics and solar panels.
What Is Nonstick Cookware Made Of?
Usually, nonstick cookware is made from metal coated with a nonstick coating. Here's how the PTFE-lined pan manufacturing process usually goes:
- The manufacturer sandblasts the pan to create a rough surface for the PTFE to bind to.
- They then apply several layers of liquid PTFE to the pan.
- The pan bakes in a high-temperature oven, which locks the PTFE onto its surface.
- The coating dries, and the pan is ready for sale.
Sol-gel goes through a similar baking process. Both types may also be reinforced with diamond or titanium particles to increase their useful lifespan. You'll usually find out if this is the case from the name — for example, the label on your pan might read “titanium nonstick cookware."
Is Nonstick Cookware Safe?
Well, yes and no. While companies state that the levels of exposure with nonstick cookware are safe, there are still risks involved with using it.
The main risk of using traditional nonstick cookware is damage to the PTFE coating, which can be harmful in certain situations. But with newer nonstick cookware, the risks are a little different.
For one thing, although PTFE-based cookware must meet FDA food contact regulations, some Sol-gel cookware may not be held to the same standard.
Is Nonstick Cookware the Same as Teflon?
Yes and no. Teflon is the brand name DuPont uses for PTFE. So technically, yes, nonstick cookware does have Teflon in it, even if it comes from another brand.
However, not all nonstick cookware uses Teflon. Sol-gel, which is a mixture of inorganic chemicals and silica, is a newer nonstick coating that's become popular in the past few years as an alternative to Teflon.
It's also important to mention that more traditional types of cookware, such as cast iron and carbon steel, become “naturally nonstick” when you season them properly. These materials are completely PTFE- and silicon-free, though, so food will stick to them without the seasoning layer.
Nonstick Cookware and PFOA
One of the biggest concerns around nonstick cookware is its association with PFOA. This chemical has been linked to serious health conditions like chronic kidney disease, cancer and thyroid disorders.
But what is PFOA? Perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) is a human-made chemical used in PTFE production until 2002 when companies began phasing it out. It's one of thousands of per- and polyfluoroalkyl (PFA) substances, which are bioaccumulative synthetic chemicals
These human-made chemicals don't break down like natural substances, which has earned them the nickname “forever chemicals.” They're found in all sorts of products aside from cookware, including food packaging, cleaning products and even nail polish.
Over time, PFAs accumulate in our bodies and the environment. It's still unclear exactly what the effects of long-term exposure to low levels of PFAs could be, but growing evidence suggests it's not good.
Bottom line — be extremely careful if you decide to purchase cookware containing PFAs.
Toxins in Nonstick Cookware
PFAs are the main concern in traditional nonstick cookware. Although all nonstick cookware produced after 2013 must be PFOA-free, older pieces are not. If you have old nonstick pans in your kitchen, the safest option is to replace them as soon as possible.
There are other toxins you need to be aware of, too. If the nonstick coating gets chipped or cracked, metal from the pan's base can leach into your food and cause:
- An unpleasant metallic flavor
- Allergic reactions
- Gray-tinged food
Additionally, some brands may use a glaze to set the Sol-gel coating. Cheap or low-quality cookware glazes can contain heavy metals like lead, which is why it's so important to make sure your cookware comes from a reputable company.
If you use nonstick cookware, you must be very careful to avoid damaging the coating. Use wood, silicone or plastic utensils so you don't scratch the surface, and always wash it by hand, even if it's labeled dishwasher safe. You'll also want to use a soft sponge and gentle dish soap — abrasive cleaning materials can cause tiny scratches and pitting.
The Danger of Overheating Nonstick Cookware
Although PTFE-coated cookware is generally safe for use at low to moderate temperatures, cooking at high heat can cause the coating to degrade faster. Not only does this reduce your pan's shelf life, but it can also be detrimental to your health.
Particles from your cookware can enter your food and body, potentially contributing to chronic health conditions.
But what happens at higher temperatures? PTFE begins breaking down at 500 degrees Fahrenheit (260 degrees Celsius), which releases toxic fumes into the air. The most common scenario is leaving a dry pot or pan on high heat for too long.
Inhaling these fumes can lead to polymer fume fever, fittingly nicknamed the “Teflon Flu.” Symptoms begin about four to 10 hours after exposure and can include:
- Body aches
In extreme cases, inhaling PTFE fumes can lead to more serious conditions, such as lung damage.
Overheating nonstick cookware can also be lethal to pets. Birds are especially vulnerable to PTFE toxicity, which occurs quickly and is usually fatal. Nonstick cookware users should be exceptionally careful if they have animals in the house.
Is the Convenience Worth the Potential Risks?
The answer to this question depends on your personal preferences. Nonstick cookware lets you cook a meal and clean it up quickly, which is why it's such a popular choice for busy families.
That said, many find that the risks outweigh the advantages. Some feel uncomfortable potentially exposing their loved ones to harmful compounds, while others prefer more durable alternatives.
Investing in healthy, nontoxic alternatives like pure ceramic is a much safer option for most households.
How Long Does Nonstick Cookware Last?
Most nonstick cookware is short-lived — the average pan will last about one to five years, and that's only if you take excellent care of it. Its life span also depends on which type of nonstick cookware you use.
Teflon cookware usually lasts longer than newer silicon-based cookware because silicon simply wears out faster. Regardless of the type you use, it is best to replace your cookware as soon as cracks or scratches appear on the nonstick surface.
Other factors can affect a piece's life span, like how well you maintain it and how often you use it. Either way, a more traditional material like pure ceramic or cast iron is a much better investment.
3 Benefits of Nonstick Cookware
There are reasons why nonstick cookware is so popular. Here are some of the biggest advantages of using nonstick cookware:
- Cheap: Most nonstick pans have an aluminum base, so they're fairly inexpensive compared to other pan materials.
- Easy to use: The nonstick surface and lightweight base makes cooking cleanup easy, even with delicate foods like fish and eggs.
- Low-calorie: Many nonstick companies claim their products are “healthier” because you don't need to use as much cooking fat to cook your food, though this may depend on various factors, such as the pan's age and quality.
Like with anything else, though, nonstick cookware has its downsides. It's important to consider both to make a truly informed decision when making home investments.
5 Drawbacks to Nonstick Cookware
While there are definite benefits to cooking with nonstick equipment, it's important to consider the risks involved.
Here are the top five drawbacks to using nonstick cookware:
- Degrades quickly: It's easy to damage nonstick cookware by using the wrong sponge or cooking utensils, which both reduces its shelf life and makes it unsafe for continued use.
- Contains harmful chemicals: While minimal exposure to PFAs is technically safe, it's best to be cautious when cooking with man-made chemicals. If you must cook with a nonstick pan, make sure your kitchen is well-ventilated and you're careful about the heat you use.
- Limited uses: Cooking with nonstick cookware is really only safe at low to medium heat, even when it's oven safe. Baking or cooking at high temperatures causes the PTFE to degrade, which damages your cookware and increases your risk.
- Expensive: While nonstick pans are usually cheaper upfront than alternatives like cast iron and pure ceramic, you must replace them more often. As a result, you'll spend more money in the long term than you would if you invest in pieces that will last you decades.
- Not environmentally friendly: Replacing your nonstick pans every one to five years means more cookware ends up in landfills, leading to forever chemicals leaching into the earth.
Given all these problems, investing in an alternative to nonstick is clearly a safer, healthier choice.
An Alternative to Nonstick — Pure Ceramic Cookware
Convenient or not, nonstick cookware doesn't compare to its 100% ceramic counterparts. It's an increasingly popular choice for a non-toxic alternative to Teflon and Sol-gel.
All-ceramic cookware is:
- Long-lasting: Unlike standard nonstick cookware, pure ceramic can last generations. You can keep waste out of landfills, save money and give your cookware to your children as a family heirloom.
- Safe and nontoxic: All-ceramic cookware is ceramic through and through, eliminating the risk of exposing your household to harmful chemicals.
- Sustainable: Long-lived ceramic cookware stays in your kitchen much longer than nonstick, reducing waste and minimizing environmental risk. Plus, it's made with materials that come from the earth.
- Durable: Handcrafted ceramic cookware is highly scratch-proof and chip-resistant, making it a reliable alternative to traditional nonstick.
- Versatile: Nonstick cookware is unsafe for more than basic cooking. You can safely use pure ceramic cookware on the stove, in the oven, over the grill and more.
Is Pure Ceramic Cookware Nonstick?
Pure ceramic cookware is not naturally nonstick. However, cooking with healthy fats like avocado oil, ghee, olive oil, grass-fed butter or tallow can help create a slick surface in the pan so food doesn't stick as easily.
Whether ceramic is nonstick or not, it's much safer for your family. Choosing all-ceramic cookware from a reputable company like Xtrema is an excellent step toward limiting your risk of food contamination.
Shop Pure Ceramic Cookware From Xtrema
Are you looking for a healthy, safe alternative to nonstick pans? Pure ceramic cookware from Xtrema is free of harmful chemicals like PFAs and heavy metals, so you can rely on it to help you nourish your household over and over again.
Explore our products online to find the perfect all-ceramic cookware for your kitchen.