The dangers of Teflon: The truth without the hype
Have you ever wondered what exactly happens when you cook with Teflon coated pans?
Do you ever think to yourself ” how much of this information is hype? Or even who is actually telling the truth?”
A little bit scary huh?
Companies that make it are telling you that it is safe and others are telling you that it is harmful and can even kill your pets.
The truth actually lies in between these two.
We are going to help you get a better understanding of what happens with Teflon so that you can make a more informed choice on what to buy the next time you are in the market for a not stick pan
Knowledge is power! read on to understand the dangers of Teflon, what you can and can’t do with Teflon pans and what other alternatives there are if this is something that you want to avoid.
The menu below will help you navigate to the sections that interest you.
- A little bit of history on Teflon
- Acronyms associated with Teflon
- Is Teflon safe?
- Tips and tricks to keep your Teflon in good condition
- What can I cook with a Teflon pan?
- Alternative cookware for cooking at high temperatures
- Teflon: You & the environment
- So what is it that happens when Teflon is overheated
- Medical Conditions when you are exposed to Teflon Fumes
A little bit of history on Teflon
It might come as a surprise to learn that Teflon was actually discovered by accident. It was discovered by a man called Dr. Roy Plunket in 1938. He was working for a company called Dupont, and when they discovered this they saw that there was potential for this and began to research and develop this compound to see what commercial value it had.
After about three years the process and the name Teflon were patented and trademarked. In its early years, Teflon was expensive to make and was only used in some industrial applications.
It was only in 1960 that science had evolved enough to make it feasible to use this as a coating in nonstick pans.
Today there are a number of other areas that Teflon is being used, but it is the nonstick coating on cookware that we are really interested about
Acronyms associated with Teflon
PFOA – short for perfluorooctanoic acid, is a synthetic compound that has many applications. This is one of the compounds that you find in Teflon and is known to be toxic under certain conditions, these conditions are all temperature related. If you would like to find out a bit more about PFOA then chack out the Wikipedia page
PTFE – short for Polytetrafluoroethylene and is a synthetic fluoropolymer of tetrafluoroethylene. Again the dangers associated with this compound are those associated with temperature as PTFE will start to break down when heated above 500F. If you would like to find out more about this then please check out the wiki page here.
This is the million dollar question. The short answer to this – It depends on how you are using it. This is why we said that the answer lies somewhere in between these two points. There is no easy way to say this but a lot of the problems associated with Teflon can be traced back to use error. Now we are not saying that there is nothing wrong with it, but rather because of the potential dangers you really have to be on the ball and aware of what you are doing with this type of cookware. Let’s break this down a little more
- Is it safe Yes – if it used correctly, and this is the key to Teflon, using it correctly. You will need to make sure that whatever you have bought you have read and understood the instructions
- You have to be attentive when you are cooking – Here is the problem, many people are doing more than one thing at a time when they are cooking. Life and family are busy and messy, you can’t always be watching what you are cooking, and this is where you have to be careful with Teflon, If you are prone to burning foods then Teflon is most likely something you should avoid.
- You have to be careful about what you cook – If you are someone who pays attention to what they are cooking and knows what cookware is best for what dish then you are more likely going to be able to use Teflon safely. Cooking things like steak is not really a good idea, you need the right cookware, see what we mean?
- The quality of the cookware is very important – We have often said and will continue to make this point where ever we can, always by the BEST quality cookware that you can afford. We are not saying the most expensive, just the best quality – don’t be a lazy buyer, do some research check out what others are saying about their purchases of the product that you are interested in.
- When is it safe to use Teflon – Cooking at Low to medium temperatures – for example scrambled egg. Cooking foods like bacon at medium temperatures. The best way to look at this is to apply a little physics. boiling water will stick around 212 F so using Teflon to cook something that has water in it will mean low temperatures and safe.
- When you cooking something that is effectively dry like a steak this is where you can run into trouble. Cooking liquids also essentially mean that the base of the pan is covered. When a pan surface is exposed and subjected to heat it will heat up super fast and can potentially run away from you.
- We have had a look at some of the other non stick frying pans as well that this will apply to
- When Teflon is unsafe to use – The best way to think about this is that if you are cooking something and there is exposed surface you are going to potentially run into the surface breaking down if it is overheated.
- Preheating pans before you add what you are cooking – As a good rule of thumb, you should never preheat a Teflon pan, if you are cooking something that requires preheating, you should not be cooking it with a Teflon pan SIMPLE AS THAT!
- Frying meats – If you apply the rules from above then you will see that this is not a great idea, you are ok with super thin meats like bacon but all the rest it is better to use either a cast iron skillet or a stainless steel one
- If you have pets in the house – This is more of a safety measure, some birds and other pets are susceptible to Teflon Flu and can die – why take the chance?
We have found this video online. It serves as a stark reminder of just how fast your nonstick pan can go from being safe to the point where the coating is starting to break down and there are toxic fumes being given off.
While this is in a test environment, it is a scenario that is not far from what can happen at home:
- Never leave Teflon pans on the stove unattended
- Make sure you are cooking something that covers the whole base
- Never preheat Teflon, if you are cooking something that requires a preheated pan, just use something else
We love visually representing information. So we have put together an infographic that will help you get to grips with the different temperatures and what you can and can’t cook with Teflon
- Season your Teflon cookware – After you have finished cooking and have washed and dried your pan, add a little oil (any will do) in the pan and rub it around with a paper towel. Leave it like that until the next time you cook with it. This helps to keep the nonstick surface in good condition.
- Use your Teflon pans when you need to cook something on low or medium heat only (see infographic).
- Always make sure that whatever you are cooking is covering the majority of the pan. Uncovered areas will heat up super fast and potentially overheat.
- If you tend to cook on high heat for faster results or if you tend to leave things cooking on their own then we don’t recommend that you buy anything with Teflon.
- When cooking with Teflon where possible ventilate your kitchen.
- Many brands of cookware claim that there Teflon nonstick cookware is dishwasher safe – they might be but this will shorten the life of the pan. Don’t do it, really don’t. Wash them by hand they will potentially last longer. We have written an article called Is nonstick cookware really dishwasher safe?
- Good quality soft utensils are the way to go. Nothing else will do.
- Don’t keep them for too long – When your pan is showing signs of wear and the nonstick is flaking off, it is time to recycle it and get a new one.
- While buying the best quality pans are a must as far as we are concerned we would like to point out that this does not always mean the most expensive. A simple solution to this is to do your research so that you know what you are buying.
- Related to the point above, when you are doing your research it is a good idea to make sure you have a reasonably good idea about what you are going to use the Teflon cookware for.
- Teflon is not very flexible or forgiving.
You will minimize risk and prolong the life of your Teflon cookware if you understand this one concept:
Teflon works well when used for specific situations. When you are looking to buy or if you already have and are concerned about the health risks then understanding what you can and can’t do with Teflon with going a long way for both maintain health and long usage. Unlike some other types of cookware
The next section will give you some ideas about what you can and can’t cook with Teflon.
Teflon pans are best used when there you only need to cook at a low temperature. A good rule of thumb is that if there is water needed to cook ( ie a sauce ) then you should be ok. If you are cooking something that requires high heat and leaves some of the pan exposed, then Teflon is not the right cookware.
Cook things like:
- Any eggs
- Pasta sauces
Don’t cook things like:
- Pork chops
- Lamb chops
- Frying meats that require hot temperatures to sear or brown the meat
- Any food where you have to preheat an empty pan
If you understand when Teflon is useful and when it is not then you are well on your way to being in control of your safety in the kitchen. We would like to stress here that some common sense and understanding of what equipment you have in your kitchen and what you can use or not use will go a long way into helping you take your safety into your own hands.
While we expect companies that produce products we use to adhere to safety, it is ultimately down to you. Knowledge is power and you have the tools for that right in front of you … you are doing it right now.
Ask yourself this:
How well do I know and understand the equipment in my own kitchen?
If the answer is not that well … We suggest you get researching.
Well if I can’t use Teflon coated pans for some of the food that I cook then what can I use?
A well-stocked kitchen should always have a range of pots and pans that cover all occasions. You should look into getting hold of some stainless steel cookware or cast iron cookware so that you can cook food that requires browning, broiling or just high temperatures.
we have a guide here to cooking with stainless steel
There are other nonstick options, Cookware technology as advanced quite a bit recently and now you can cook with ceramic cookware which is also nonstick but can take a lot more heat and is often way more robust.
Ceramic cookware is a good option as it can take a lot more heat than Teflon
Ceramic Titanium cookware – this is a type of ceramic cookware, very robust and long lasting, will not break down very easily and Titanium is biocompatible with humans
Cast iron cookware – Takes a little more maintenance but loves high temperatures and will likely still be cooking steaks long after you can still eat steak:)
For all of the types of cookware that you come across please do your research to make sure you are choosing something that is actually suitable for what you need and cooking style.
For more on what types of healthy cookware to be using
What happens when Teflon is heated above its recommended temp?
Teflon is a chemical compound and is subject to the laws of physics and chemistry. What this means is that when heated to certain temperatures chemical compounds can become unstable and begin to break down.
With Teflon, this means that at around 500F it breaks down and gives off a gas. It is this gas that is toxic and not actually Teflon itself. Below this temperature is it inert. It is important to put this into perspective. If you look at the diagram below you will see that this is not something that will happen if you are cooking within the normal range of temperatures you use for cooking.
What Chemicals are released when Teflon is Overheated
Here is a list of some of the chemical compounds that escape as gasses when Teflon is overheated:
- TFE (tetrafluoroethylene)
- HFP (hexafluoropropylene)
- OFCB (octafluorocyclobutane)
- PFIB (perfluorobutane)
- CF4 (carbon tetrafluoride)
- TFA (trifluoroacetic acid)
We won’t bore you with an endless list of all of the chemicals that come off. But if you are interested in haveing a look at this then have a look at this article
What Temperature does Teflon become unstable
The short answer this is that this occurs around 500F(260C). It is important to understand that this is not an exact mark and that there will be some variance in the temperature. Just don’t be cooking anything that comes close to that more temperature.
Is Teflon dangerous to my pets?
Some animals have respiration systems that are far more susceptible to complications then ours. This is one of the reasons that they took birds down in the coal mines in the past. If you have pets they should not be in the kitchen when you are cooking. To be fair this is not a likely scenario it is just a possibility. Erring on the side of caution is sometimes the most sensible thing to do.
Is the Teflon that flakes off dangerous to me?
No – Remember Teflon itself is inert and these flakes are likely to pass through you noticed if you eat them. In the unlikely event that you spontaneously this might give off fumes … but then you would have far more pressing issues to deal with.
Although, on a more serious note, if you have a pan that is starting to lose its coating you really should be replacing it.
|Temperature||What is happening|
|212F||Boiling pooint of water, Teflon is inert at this temp|
|325F-375F||Temp range for deep fryers – Teflon is inert.|
|500F||Teflon will start to break down and gassed released|
|Above 500F|| Chemicals released|
|Above 500F||You may experience flu like symptoms and also endangering your pets espeically birds|
Polymer fume fever
This is also known as Teflon Flu and occurs when PTFE ( also known as Teflon) is heated above 500F. Below are some of the symptoms that you might get from this if you were exposed to enough fumes. This is according to some of the research that we have come accross. Please remember that we are not medically trained and you may expereince something a little different. If you think you may have been exposed to these fumes then it might be a good idea to seek medical advice.
We would also like to point out that Teflon flu is not very common.
Here are some of the possible symptoms:
- Fever between 100 & 104 degrees
- Chest Tightness
- Shortness of Breath
- Sore Throat
For more on this
There are a few things that we need to think about as we finish off this article. You, the reader, are at the core of this answer. How you cook in your kitchen and your lifestyle is going to have a direct impact on the final conclusion to this discussion.
Once you have read this we suggest you look at your situation and decide based on some of the things that we have written about here.
Yes, you can use Teflon if you are an attentive cook who has the time to do so and you know that you will be using the cookware to cook the right meals .
No, you should maybe look for alternatives if you are worried about pets and you are a busy person you does most of the cooking on autopilot.
We suspect that the answer may lie in between – It is good to have one of these in your kitchen for certain tasks like making an omelet.
We live in a world of choice, you just need to look and see what else is out there to make sure that you always get the best fit for what you are looking to do