What Is PFOA (and why NOT to cook with it!)

You love using your new non-stick pan for cooking. It’s ideal for frying flawless sunny side up eggs and omelets, cooking pancakes that are easy to flip, and sautéing breaded fish to perfection.

But do you know what your non-stick pans are made of and should you be concerned for your lifetime health when cooking with them? There’s been a lot of concern lately about the coatings of non-stick pans, such as Teflon pans and other non-stick brands.

What Is PFOA
safety first pfoa ceramic cookware stonefryingpans

This is because PFOA and PTFE, both man-made chemicals, are used in the manufacturing process of non-stick cookware. 

This guide will give you a better understanding of what PFOA, PFOA free, and PTFE non-stick cookware is made of and whether you should be worried about your health when using them.

Lets get started!

What is PTFE?

PTFE stands for “polytetrafluoroethylene”, a fluoropolymer plastic compound that is silicone based and contains both carbon and fluorine. 

When it comes to the chemical breakdown of PTFE, each molecule of the substance will have two carbon atoms and four fluorine atoms – this duo is what makes up that substance that is sprayed on pans to make the surface non-stick.

What is PTFE

PTFE was discovered by a scientist by the name of Roy Plunkett in 1938. Within ten years, PTFE was branded as Teflon and well known for its non-stick properties in cookware.

PTFE isn’t just used in cookware – it’s also used in industrial manufacturing for its durability and strength. You’ll find it in numerous products including electronics, automobiles, and aerospace high-tech products.

What is PFOA?

PFOA stands for “perfluorooctanoic acid”, which is a man-made synthetic compound used in the manufacturing of not only non-stick cookware but in making stain-resistant fabrics and carpets as well. It’s important to note that PFOA is also used in the process of making PTFE, but that its chemical components are different.

There are health concerns over PFOA because it stays in the human body, as well as in the environment, for significant periods of time. Many studies have been done on the safety of PFOA, with results showing that the chemical is present in very minute levels in people all around the world.

For those people living near water where the water supply has been PFOA contaminated, the levels are even higher. And the levels are even higher for people who have been exposed to PFOA in workplaces that use the chemical in the manufacturing process.

Further health studies on PFOA indicate that people who have been exposed to the chemical are more at risk for the following health concerns:

  • Thyroid disease
  • High cholesterol levels
  • Health issues in children and babies
  • Bladder, kidney, and testicular cancer
  • Liver damage and disease
  • Blood pressure concerns
  • Colitis
What is PFOA

How Are We Exposed to PFOA From Cookware?

How Are We Exposed to PFOA From Cookware?

When PFOA is using in the making of non-stick pans, the exposure to humans is low but over time can be a significant health risk. When PFOA is used in the non-stick coating of pans such as Teflon it burns off during the cooking process, becoming a toxic pollutant as we breathe in the fumes.

Manufacturers have stopped using it in non-stick cookware due to its carcinogenic properties.

What is PFOA Free?

Non-stick cookware today, including Teflon and other brands, is PFOA free. In fact, in the US and Canada all cookware that is sold since 2015 is PFOA free. What does this mean?

To put it simply, while PFOA is still used in the manufacturing of PFTE for use on non-stick pans, it’s no longer used as a major component in the production of non-stick cookware.

What is PFOA Free

How Safe is PTFE?

Unlike PFOA and PTFO, PTFE is not considered to be a health risk, but there’s still a lot of attention over its safety.

After much research, it’s been determined that PTFE isn’t toxic and that’s it’s safe for human consumption. Having said that, there are still a few concerns about PTFE cookware.

The Breakdown of PTFE

How Safe is PTFE

The first concern with PTFE is that it can break down when it gets too hot. It has a melting point of about 600F but even at lower temperatures of about 450 to 500F, it starts to break down.

When it breaks down, much the same as PFOA, the fumes it gives off may not be safe for you to breathe. It should be noted that when it comes to fumes from cooking, even oil when it reaches its smoking point shouldn’t be inhaled.

So it’s debatable whether breathing in PTFE fumes is more dangerous than breathing in any other substances.

Still the risk is there, and it’s recommended that non-stick cookware that’s made with PTFE not be heated past the 400F mark, nor should you leave an empty pan on the stove or in the oven where it can quickly heat to high temperatures.

PTFE’s Negative Association with PFOA

PTFE is still being linked to the dangers of cooking with pans that are manufactured with PFOA. While PFOA is used to manufacture PTFE, most if not all of this toxic substance is used up and not present by the time the production process for PTFE is complete, leaving only minute levels of PFOA.

What Makes a Good Quality Non-Stick Pan?

The concept of “non-stick” can be a confusing one. Cookware is determined as being non-stick by three characteristics - the quality of the coating on the pan, the number of layers of this coating, and how thick each of the layers is.

Good and affordable non-stick pans will have a minimum of 3 layers. Expensive, top quality non-stick cookware will have up to 6 and 7 layers. The top layer of these non-stick pans will always be PTFE.

Another determining factor of a good quality non-stick pan is whether the PTFE has been rolled or sprayed onto the pan. Top quality pans have a non-stick finish that has been sprayed onto the surface, making it smooth and even to the touch.

Good Quality Non-Stick Pan

Pans that have a sprayed PTFE coating are also more durable than pans that been rolled.

How Durable are PTFE Pans Without PFOA?

PFOA free non-stick cookware

There is some debate over how durable PFOA free pans are, however PFOA free pans are just as durable as they once were.

What determines how tough a non-stick pan is?

The thickness of your cookware plays a big role in how durable it is. Thicker pans are able to distribute heat more efficiently and at the same time protect the PTFE coating on the surface.

The material of the pan over which the PTFE is sprayed will also determine the durability of the cookware. 

As a rule, aluminium pans that have a PFOA free coating on them will last longer and be more durable than enamel or stainless steel pans that have the same PTFE coating.

Precautions When Cooking With PTFE Non-Stick Pans

Although we’ve determined that PFOA free non-stick cookware is safe to use, there are still some precautions to take when cooking with PTFE pans:

  • As mentioned previously, never overheat cookware. PTFE will start to break down when it reaches about 450F or higher. The fumes that are released at these high temperature may be harmful. Get into the habit of cooking over low to medium heat. These temperatures are recommended for all PFTE cookware for the stovetop as well as for PFTE bakeware for the oven.
  • Never leave an empty pan on the stove or in the oven. Pans heat up much more quickly when they’re empty of any food to absorb and distribute the heat. This can cause the polymer fumes to be released without you even noticing. Always make sure that you have food or liquid in your pans and pots before placing them over heat.
  • When cooking with PFOA free cookware, always ventilate the kitchen. This means opening up windows or turning on the exhaust fan to release heat and fumes.
  • Check your non-stick pans regularly for any damage. When PTFE pans start to deteriorate, they become unsafe to use. Replace any cookware where the surface is flaking, chipping, or peeling. Also check for deep scratches. While minor scratches are okay, deeper gouges into the surface of the pan may eventually become unsafe.
  • Use utensils that won’t damage the PTFE surface of your non-stick cookware. Metal utensils will easily scratch and scuff the PTFE coating which means you’ll need to replace your cookware a lot sooner than you planned. The best utensils to use with non-stick pans are plastic, silicone, or wooden utensils.
  • When washing cookware be gentle, avoiding the use of hard scouring pads or steel wool scrapers. Use warm, soapy water to clean. If there is any stuck on food let the pan soak in soapy water for a few hours. Or fill the pan with water and bring to a boil over medium heat to cook off food.
  • Don’t use self-cleaning ovens to clean your PTFE cookware. These ovens clean using very high temperatures that will release fumes from the pan.
  • Store your PFOA free pans and bakeware correctly to avoid scratches. Pans shouldn’t be stacked together. If you don’t have kitchen space and can’t avoid stacking, store pans with a layer or two of paper towels between to protect the surface.

Cooking With Non-Stick PTFE Cookware

Non-stick pans can make your life in the kitchen much easier, while at the same time helping you cook tasty foods and meals. You can get PFOA cookware and bakeware in all shapes and sizes. Many chefs find that medium to small skillets are the most useful sizes, letting you make everything from eggs to fish to crepes.

One of the benefits of cooking with non-stick cookware is that you use very little to no fat. Foods don’t stick to the surface of the pan as they do in pans that aren’t coated with PTFE. And cleanup is much easier as well when food doesn’t stick to the surface of the pan.

PTFE is used to coat a variety of different pans such as copper, aluminium, and stainless steel. Aluminium is one of the most common metals not only for non-stick pans, but for cookware in general. Anodized aluminium is lightweight and is good at conducting and dispersing heat throughout the surface of the pan. It’s also rust-resistant and affordable.

Non-Stick PTFE Cookware

Alternatives to PTFE

Even though PTFE is still the most popular and common non-stick cookware on the market, there are some alternatives available. One of these is ceramic cookware which is now affordable enough for the average consumer to purchase. Many companies that manufacture non-stick products using PTFE are also creating a line of ceramic cookware. 

Ceramic ccokware

As with Teflon and other non-stick pans, care needs to be taken when cooking with ceramic.

These pans are easily scratched, and once scratched lose their non-stick quality.

Always use cooking utensils that won’t scratch the surface, including non-scratch cleaning tools.

Carbon steel and cast iron pans are also good alternatives to PTFE cookware. The thing to remember when cooking with either of these pans is that they need to be seasoned properly not only before using them but also every few weeks.

Otherwise, foods will stick to the surface of the pan. For this reason, many people still prefer the ease and convenience of cooking with PTFE coated pans to ensure that they’re 100% non-stick.

Cooking with cast iron

Be careful when buying pans that claim they’re PTFE coated. Many manufacturers say that their pans are PFOA free which may really mean that they’re also not coated with PTFE. Look for pans that are marketed as both PFOA free AND PTFE to ensure that it’s the non-stick pan you’re looking for.

Non-stick Teflon Frying Pan Safety

The following are some tips to cook with Teflon non-stick frying pans to reduce the non-stick frying pan health risks:

  • Do not preheat the non-stick frying pan at high heat without any food on them. Empty frying pans can reach high temperatures fast. Heat at lower temperatures to cook your food safely.

  • Do not heat the non-stick frying pan in an oven greater than 500 degrees

  • Utilize an exhaust fan over the stove

  • Keep pet birds away from the stove where you cook your food. The fumes coming out from an overheated frying pan can cause a bird to die in seconds.

  • Avoid the self-cleaning operation with your oven. The oven cleans by heating to an extremely high temperature, which can release toxic fumes from non-stick frying pan interior oven parts

  • Cook with alternative cookware such as Stone Frying Pans.

The Simplicity of PFOA Free Cookware

Now that you know all about PFOA and that it’s no longer a safety concern in non-stick pans, you can go out and buy your next PTFE pan. More and more chefs and home cooks are using non-stick cookware in their kitchens to cook food with less fat and without the annoyance of food sticking to the surface of the pan.

About the author 

Nate Lau

Nate is an aspiring chef, and father of two. He is always on the lookout to try new healthy recipes and kitchen gadgets. He has a passion for cooking delicious miso black cod and enjoys a nice sip of pinot on occasion.

Popular From Cookware Guides