Are Nonstick Pans Bad for You?
From skillets to bakeware, here’s what the science shows about the risks of chemically treated cookware.
Nonstick pans may quell our apprehension about getting that fried egg out of the skillet and onto a plate. But for many, that same slick coating—commonly made from a group of synthetic chemicals called PFAS (perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances)— does raise concerns about its potential impact on their health and the environment.
Flame-retardant and water-resistant, PFAS have become ubiquitous in manufacturing since they were introduced in 1946. There are now more than 600 unique types of these chemicals currently used in the U.S. to manufacture everything from water-resistant clothing and wood varnishes to cookware and convenience-food packaging.
PFAS are "forever chemicals" that can travel through air and water and build up in the environment or human body for years. In 2002, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency started discouraging the use of one major PFAS— PFOS—and later expanded that to include another type, named PFOA, based on evidence suggesting they may be toxic to humans. And over the past two decades, research has linked exposure to PFOS and PFOA, specifically, with low birth weight, fertility issues, lower vaccine effectiveness and some cancers, among other health concerns like high cholesterol.
In response, companies developed next-generation PFAS that are purportedly safer than their predecessors. However, those who study them like Tamara Tal, Ph.D., a toxicology researcher at the Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research–UFZ in Germany, say that they may still be harmful to human health.
The good news is that you're unlikely to get toxic levels of exposure through nonstick cook- ware, says Suzanne Fenton, Ph.D., a reproductive endocrinologist at the National Toxicology Program. That said, the vast majority of PFAS are not well studied, and there are limited regulations governing how these chemicals are incorporated into consumer goods. Case in point: a 2020 report from the environmental nonprofit the Ecology Center found PFAS in the coatings of 11 of 14 popular brands of pans they tested. And those with claims like "PFOA-free" weren't free of all types of PFAS.
How to Choose Safer Pans
While the majority of the research on PFAS and human health focuses on polluted drinking water from manufacturing, anything you can do to lower your exposure isn't a bad thing. To avoid these chemicals in your cookware and bakeware, stick to cast iron, ceramic, stainless steel and glass, says Tal, who uses these in her own kitchen. Plus, a well-seasoned cast iron skillet is virtually nonstick.
That said, there may be times when you want to fry that egg in a nonstick pan—as Fentondoes. The key, she says, is to opt for U.S.- or E.U.- made products (since regulations on PFAS vary widely around the world) and heed the manufacturer's care instructions. The most likely exposure to PFAS from nonstick pans, Fenton adds, is from residue on a new skillet or when the coating becomes scratched, worn or heated at a higher-than-recommended temperature. Wash the pan as soon as you bring it home and avoid cooking in it above medium-high heat.
Use wooden or silicone utensils. PFCs can be dislodged if the nonstick coating is scratched. That's why it's important to only use wooden or silicone utensils in your nonstick cookware.
Hand-wash nonstick pans. Dishwashers get hot! And that will release more of those PFCs than if you wash pans by hand (with a nonabrasive cloth or sponge).
If the pan gets scratched or becomes sticky, it's time for it to retire. Sure, it can feel like a waste to toss and replace cookware, but taking good care of your pans will ensure they last for as long as possible.
This article first appeared in EatingWell, June 2021