Teflon is so well-known that a lot of people refer to all nonstick pots and pans as Teflon. The fact is, not all nonstick cookware is Teflon.
Teflon has been around a long time and so have concerns about potential health risks. One question that keeps popping up is whether Teflon can increase your risk of cancer.
The short answer is probably not. But to really examine the issue, we have to explore the history of Teflon, how the cancer question arose, and what the research says.
While there are other types of nonstick cookware, this article will look specifically at Teflon-branded cookware.
Teflon is a brand name for a synthetic chemical called polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE). Teflon is used to coat a variety of products because it’s waterproof, cuts down on friction, and creates a nonstick surface.
Teflon has been used since the 1940s and it’s found in everything from heat lamp bulbs to fabric protectors. It has industrial, automotive, and pharmaceutical applications. There’s a good chance that you have plenty of Teflon-coated products in your home right now.
The most familiar use of Teflon, though, is probably as the nonstick coating on pots and pans, which makes cooking and cleanup a lot easier.
The concern over Teflon cookware and cancer risk isn’t about Teflon itself. It has to do with perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) — a human-made chemical used in the manufacturing process of Teflon.
No proven link to cancer
PFOA was once used in the making of Teflon. Since 2013, all Teflon-branded products are PFOA-free. Though there is some research that suggests a link between PFOA and cancer, there’s no proven link between Teflon and cancer.
It may still be helpful to understand why PFOA was of concern and why it’s no longer used to make Teflon.
During production, PFOA can get into the soil, water, and air. It can stay in the environment and in your body for a long time.
Studies have generally involved very high exposures to PFOA and the results have been mixed. Some research suggests that high levels of certain polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) may lead to an increased risk of the following cancers:
It’s also possible that prolonged exposure to fumes from an overheated Teflon-coated pan can lead to flu-like symptoms such as headache, chills, and fever. This usually involves a pan heated to an extremely high temperature over many hours.
It’s considered a benign condition and symptoms tend to resolve within 12 to 48 hours of exposure. However, serious problems can occur in those with preexisting cardio-respiratory disease.
There’s some research to suggest that PFAS, which have not been used in Teflon since 2013, may be associated with:
- higher cholesterol levels
- decreased vaccine response in children
- changes in liver enzymes
- increased risk of high blood pressure or preeclampsia in those who are pregnant
- small decreases in infant birth weights
According to the American Cancer Society, there are no other proven risks to humans from using cookware coated with Teflon.
What to know about Teflon and the risks for birds
Although Teflon cookware is typically safe for humans, the same can’t be said for birds.
At 536°F (280°C), PTFE-coated surfaces begin to emit chemical byproducts that can lead to PTFE toxicosis in birds. Birds who inhale the fumes can experience breathing problems, convulsions, and death.
If you tend to cook with Telfon pots and pans over high heat, you may want to keep pet birds well away from the kitchen when you cook.
Food is the primary source of exposure to aluminum. It’s also in the air, water, soil, and a variety of consumer products. Some aluminum from pots and pans does get into food, but anodized aluminum reduces leaching of aluminum into food.
Aluminum cookware is considered safe and has not been linked to the development of cancer. The role of aluminum in the development of Alzheimer’s disease has not been determined.
When you cook with cast iron, some iron will leach into the food. Of course, you do need some iron in your diet.
A 2014 study found that high serum iron may be a risk factor for all cancers and specifically liver and breast cancer.
A 2014 meta-analysis also suggested a link between high iron levels and cancer, though more research is needed to confirm these findings. You may want to reconsider cooking with cast iron if your iron levels are too high.
Results of a 2003
Small amounts of copper are good for health, but large amounts can be toxic. Uncoated copper should not be used for cooking, but coated copper cookware can prevent copper from leaching into your food.
There don’t appear to be any health risks from cooking with stainless steel.
If you’re concerned about your Teflon pans that were manufactured before 2013, replace them if you can. Choose newer Teflon, stainless steel, aluminum, or another type of cookware.
Here are some additional tips for getting the most out of your Teflon cookware:
- Replace cookware that’s damaged or worn out.
- Preheat with low to medium heat.
- Don’t leave empty pans on a hot burner.
- Although Teflon pans can safely withstand heat up to 500°F (260°C), it’s safer to cook with low to medium heat when possible.
- When using extremely high heat, turn on exhaust fans or open windows.
- Avoid metal utensils that can scratch the pan’s surface coating.
- Don’t use abrasive cleaning materials.
Whether you use Teflon-coated pots and pans or some other type of cookware, always follow manufacturer instructions for safe use and care.
Teflon is a brand name for a synthetic chemical used to coat cookware. There are concerns that chemicals once used in the manufacturing process of Teflon could potentially increase cancer risk. Those chemicals have not been used in Teflon products since 2013.
Today’s Teflon is considered to be safe cookware. There’s no evidence that it increases the risk of developing cancer.
If you have Teflon pans that were manufactured before 2013, and you’re concerned about the chemicals they may contain, try to replace them with newer Teflon cookware, or pots and pans made with stainless steel or aluminum.