Is Teflon Safe? An Expert Guide

Published on 03/03/2024 · 8 min readNavigate the safety of Teflon in our expert guide, discussing its use, potential risks, and how to cook safely with non-stick cookware for peace of mind!
Ethan Hauck, Kitchen Expert
By Kitchen Expert Ethan Hauck

Photo by Sara Dubler

TL;DR: Yes, Teflon is safe in today’s modern cookware. Before the early 2010s, Teflon used PFOAs, which were indeed harmful, and could leech harmful chemicals into food. Now, Teflon uses PTFE, which is safe for use below 500°F. However, it’s important to note that Teflon can (even once disposed of) leech these chemicals into the surrounding environment—so exercise care when disposing of old Teflon.

I’ve worked for years in kitchens as a chef, and (believe it or not) have cooked just about every day of my life at home, too. In that time, I quickly noticed two things: most home cooks have a lot of battered old Teflon sitting around, and conversely, not a single professional kitchen I’ve worked in used Teflon cookware. If Teflon products were the end-all-be-all that they’re marketed as, there would be Teflon and Hexclad pans in every professional kitchen… right? Unfortunately, it’s not quite that simple.

Today, we’re learning about Teflon: whether or not it’s safe, in what cases it’s useful, and everything else you might be wondering. Be sure to contact a Curated Kitchen Expert if you’re still feeling lost—we cook a lot (maybe too much), and are here to help!

What is Teflon?

Photo by Jonathan Macedo

Teflon is a type of chemical coating used on cookware that was developed in the 1930s as a solution for nonstick cookware. From its inception until 2013, Teflon used a chemical called perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) as a factory coating to preserve the nonstick coating beneath—and this is where the concern of toxicity is involved.

PFOAs were supposed to burn off during the manufacturing process, but rarely did. This led to a microscopic layer of potentially toxic gasses that sat atop the skillet, waiting to be released. When metal tools were used on PFOA-based pans, they would scratch the surface and release PFOA into the food.

The ingestion of PFOA can lead to numerous health conditions, including chronic kidney disease, liver disease, thyroid disorder, higher likelihood of cancer, and flu-like symptoms. Once these associations were discovered, PFOA stopped being used in the manufacturing process of Teflon. Modern Teflon now uses a chemical named polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE, for short) which functions similarly, but without the health conditions that come from ingesting PFOA.

Due to this, PFOAs were banned from use in the U.S. in 2013. Nowadays, there are extremely specific limits on what can be used to “nonstick-ify” a pan. Most manufacturers opt for either PTFE-based nonstick, ceramic, or a combination thereof.

With all that said, PTFE-based Teflon pans are entirely safe for use, assuming they’re kept below 500°F, and not scratched, scrubbed, or warped. Each of these actions can still release PTFE into your food—and while PTFE isn’t nearly as toxic as PFOA, it is still recommended to avoid. You should also avoid using your Teflon pan on gas ranges, in the oven, or on the barbeque, as these temperatures can be difficult to gauge and control.

What to Consider When Buying Teflon Pans

Photo by Uwe Conrad

Just like with any other purchase, it’s important to know the basics when shopping for Teflon pans. Teflon pans can be a great tool in your kitchen when used for the right purposes. Think of its specificity like a cast iron; you wouldn’t make a bordelaise (red wine sauce) in a cast iron, just like you shouldn’t sear or bake in your Teflon pan. So—what do we need to know?

Why Use Teflon?

Teflon is an excellent material for a surprisingly wide range of uses, including clothing (flame resistance for workwear) and personal care products (makeup and lotion). But the best part about Teflon is its nonstick properties, leading to its use in cookware.

This means that you want to use it for items that tend to stick even at low temperatures, such as eggs, pancakes, and pan sauces (though I still recommend using a stainless steel pan for sauces—think of the fond).

Is Peeling Teflon Coating Hazardous?

Yes, a peeling Teflon coating from your pan is hazardous to your health.

This is why most professionals recommend using silicone or wood utensils rather than metal on any Teflon pan. When washing Teflon, hand wash your pans and avoid scrubbing with abrasive materials, such as steel wool.

When Should You Throw Away Teflon Pans?

Most Teflon pans have a roughly five-year lifespan—however, this is more of a guideline than a hard-and-fast rule. Treat your Teflon pans as you would any other pan in your toolkit. Inspect it regularly for damage (warping, scratches, discoloration) and, if you notice any of those issues, discard it.

Once again, this goes to show why hand washing your Teflon and using the proper utensils is vital—it can easily double the lifespan of your pans.

Why Do Chefs Not Use Teflon?

We don’t use Teflon in professional kitchens for two reasons: First and foremost, chefs are always on the move. This means our pans are often tossed into the dish pit, dropped, or generally abused—none of which are a good idea with Teflon pans.

In addition, most professional kitchens tend to use a gas range, meaning that pans can quite quickly heat to incredible temperatures. As mentioned before, we don’t want to heat Teflon anywhere near as hot as cast iron or stainless steel.

As a side note, the benefits of nonstick properties aren’t unique to Teflon. If a chef needs a nonstick pan, they’ll often use a properly seasoned wok, cast iron, or carbon steel pan.

Features to Look Out for When Buying Teflon Pans

Teflon pans are, by their nature, relatively simple beasts. This means that you don’t need to worry too much when shopping for them, though there are some very important things to know before you do.

First and foremost, when buying Teflon cookware, you need to look at when it was made. In this case, the more modern the pan, the better. We’re looking for pans that were made post-2013, preferably in the past three to four years, to ensure we can avoid any and all trace amounts of PFOAs.

Beyond its age, look for the following to ensure you’re getting a top-tier pan:

Durability

Check recent reviews of the pan to see how well it holds up to daily use. If it scratches, warps, or dents easily, we don’t want it.

Warranty

Teflon generally has a lifespan of five years (give or take). As such, it’s prudent to find a brand that offers either a lifetime warranty (preferable), or a limited warranty that extends between two and three years.

Heat Distribution

Heat distribution will affect how evenly everything the pan touches will cook—so take your time here. The more layers in the pan, generally, the better it will be for heat distribution.

PFOA-Free

As a rule, look for pans that are clearly labeled as PFOA-free, rather than a generic “nonstick.” If, however, they’re ceramic nonstick, you’re in the clear—ceramic cookware is an excellent nonstick material with next to no downsides.

How to Choose the Right Teflon Pan

Photo by Cooker King

Depending on how you personally tend to cook, you’ll want to look for different pans than, say, Jimmy who lives down the street would. So, we’re going to break this down into two categories: people who want one pan to rule them all, and those who want specialized gear for specialized tasks.

One Pan, No Problems

If you’re like any of the home cooks I know, chances are that you’re playing a fine balancing act between the two to three pans in your home.

This can get frustrating quickly (especially when trying to make a new recipe), but Teflon is an excellent solution for several uses. When cooking things like eggs, pancakes, gravies, and sauces, Teflon can be the perfect middle ground between a standard carbon steel pan and your trusty cast iron.

Some of the best PFOA-free nonstick pans on the market are made by Tramontina. By using a combination of PTFE and PFA, they create a nonstick that’s largely safe for use in ovens—though you should not machine wash them, as this will cause warping over time due to their aluminum make.

Specialized Home Cooks

If, alternatively, you tend to experiment with new recipes and techniques, you’ll likely want more specialized nonstick pans. I tend to use nonstick for smaller batches of sauces and syrups, as they never reach above 300°F.

This makes pans like the Zwilling Madura Plus an excellent choice, as, while it still uses Teflon (PTFE), it also uses Zwilling’s proprietary Duraslide Granite nonstick coating and plasma primer to prevent scratching. Ultimately, this means that you’ll have a better time with higher temperatures, metal utensils, and general daily use than many (cheaper) nonstick Teflon pans.

Find the Best Teflon Pan for You

No matter which pan you opt for, it’s important to know that what you’re using is safe. After all, we hope to get countless meals for ourselves and our loved ones out of each pan we buy, so knowing how to pick a safe Teflon pan (and how to use it properly) is utterly crucial. But as long as you follow the two golden rules of keeping your Teflon at relatively low heat and hand washing it, you’ll get years of use out of whichever pan you opt for.

Should you still need a bit of guidance, or you’re curious about our non-Teflon nonstick pans, such as the awesome GreenPan and Le Creuset Toughened lines, reach out to a Curated Kitchen Expert for free, personalized advice. We’ve learned everything we can about these pans just for you!

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