Are Nonstick Pans Bad for You?

From skillets to bakeware, here’s what the science shows about the risks of chemically treated cookware.

- By Donavyn Coffey

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 nextgenera­tion 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 cookware, 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.

That said, there may be times when you want to fry that egg in a nonstick pan—as Fenton does. 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.

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.

If you’re using a nonstick skillet, choose utensils made of silicone and plastic to avoid damaging the pan’s coating.
NOT A SCRATCH If you’re using a nonstick skillet, choose utensils made of silicone and plastic to avoid damaging the pan’s coating.

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