That Old Nonstick Skillet May Be Unsafe. Here's How to Tell
Depending on the age of your Teflon pots and pans, they may contain harmful PFOAs. This helpful guide to nonstick cookware has all the answers you need.
David WatskySenior Editor / Home and Kitchen
David lives in Brooklyn where he's spent more than a decade covering all things edible, including meal kit services, food subscriptions, kitchen tools and cooking tips. Since earning a BA in English from Northeastern in Boston, he's toiled in nearly every aspect of the food business, including as a line cook in Rhode Island where he once made a steak sandwich for Lamar Odom. Right now, he's likely somewhere stress-testing a blender or researching the best way to make bacon. Anything with sesame is his all-time favorite food this week.
ExpertiseKitchen tools, appliances, food science, subscriptions and meal kits.
Nonstick cookware is affordable to buy, convenient to use and a cinch to clean, but many still wonder if Teflon and other nonstick cooking materials are safe to use. The answer is yes. Well, mostly. Teflon is one cookware material with a good deal of drama surrounding it. Certain types of nonstick cookware were once found to be toxic and if the pots and pans you use are more than 10 years old, they may still be and you're long overdue to chuck them and start over. But worry not, nonstick cookware is budget-friendly (more on that in a bit) and easy to care for.
Nonstick or Teflon is a popular choice for home cooks. The big draw is that food won't stick to pots and pans coated with Teflon the way it does to other metal materials, so it's easy to flip a pancake or remove a cooked egg. Nonstick is also very easy to clean, generally taking no more than a few seconds to wash by hand.
But when it comes to whether or not nonstick cookware is safe or not, there's some key information and we've got it all here. Here's what you should know about nonstick, Teflon cookware and how to tell if your nonstick pots and pans are safe for use.
Teflon is a brand name for a synthetic chemical called polytetrafluoroethylene that's used in many household products from wire coatings to fabric protectors and kitchen cookware, too. The knock on Teflon is that it's unsafe if consumed or absorbed into the body and can increase the chances of cancer and other diseases. While studies have shown some connections (more on that below), Teflon still exists and is used to make cookware, but the safety concerns around Teflon are mostly a thing of the past.
And I stress mostly. Here's why…
While the brand Teflon may be associated with a risk of cancer, it's actually a chemical formerly used in the making of Teflon called PFOA that's to blame. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, perfluorooctanoic acid is a manufactured perfluorochemical developed in the 1930s and used to make fluoropolymer coatings and products that resist heat, oil, stains, grease and water.
What are the negative effects of PFOA?
In some studies, PFOA has been linked to cancer, immune deficiency and a host of other medical problems. It has also been shown to affect growth and development and injure the liver in laboratory animals.
As recently as 2017, chemical giant Dupont settled a lawsuit for more than $670 million for its role in contaminating drinking water with PFOA (also referred to as C-8) in the mid-Ohio Valley. A previous class-action suit from 2004 in the same area led to a study that found PFOA was linked to cancer and compromised immune function, even in small doses.
Teflon cookware made before 2013 may be toxic
All that was enough for most manufacturers to halt the production of nonstick coatings using PFOA around 2002. But Teflon using PFOA wasn't officially banned in the United States until 2014. Europe banned it in 2008. That means if you own Teflon nonstick cookware from 2013 or earlier, there's a chance it contains PFOA. Nine years is typically longer than the average lifespan of a nonstick pan, but if you're not sure, it's probably best to replace any Teflon-coated pots or pans.
Look for PFOA-free cookware
Because of the ban, all nonstick cookware made in the US should be PFOA-free, but you'd be wise to make sure. Be extra cautious about buying cheap or off-brand cookware, especially if it's not produced in a country with an active PFOA ban. PFOA is still produced elsewhere, largely in China, and used to make consumer products.
If you're ready to ditch Teflon and chemical-based nonstick pots and pans altogether, there are plenty of more natural nonstick alternatives.
The most nonstick of the bunch is ceramic cookware, which has seen a boom in popularity since concerns about Teflon first surfaced. A few popular ceramic cookware options include The Always Pan (read my full review here), Caraway and Greenpan.
Cast iron is another cookware material that develops a natural nonstick coating over time, especially if you season it well and care for it properly. It won't likely ever become as nonstick as Teflon, but cast iron has loads of other culinary benefits that are worthy of a few extra seconds of scrubbing in the sink after use. Lodge is a tried-and-true cast-iron cookware producer: You can scoop up a 10-inch skillet for as little as $24.
Carbon steel is yet another option and functions similarly to cast-iron cookware, although it's not quite as heavy, slightly more sensitive to corrosion, and typically more expensive. Carbon steel hasn't really popped off here in the US but is a favorite of professional chefs, as well as yours truly. Cookware startup Made In produces an excellent blue carbon steel skillet for around $80, but there are cheaper options out there.