Teflon™ Coating: Is It Safe To Use?
Teflon™ coating is widely found on nonstick surfaces in cookware such as frying pans and pots. Teflon’s useful properties were discovered in 1938, and it was quickly commercialized. In the early 1950s, research began to suggest that while Teflon itself was inert and safe when used as intended, a compound called perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOS) used in its manufacture, could be released from the final cookware during use, or generated when it was overheated. After 2014, manufacturers phased out the use of PFOA in Teflon production. The current version of Teflon is widely considered by healthcare professionals and manufacturers to be safe to use.
This article will discuss what Teflon coating is and whether it is considered safe to use.
Teflon is the brand name for a chemical called polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE). Teflon is applied to cookware to produce a nonstick surface, primarily on many commonly used cookware items including but not limited to frying pans, cooking pots, waffle irons, muffin tins, and utensils. Less well-known applications are heat shielding for the nose of NASA reentry vehicles and UV protection for fiberglass space suits. A PTFE coating produces a surface finish which, in addition to being nonstick, is also waterproof and nonreactive.
To learn more, see our full guide on Teflon.
Teflon is considered toxic because of the chemicals it is made with. Teflon, until 2014, was made with perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA). PFOAs are considered to be toxic to humans and were previously used in the production of Teflon™ coatings. Manufacturers claimed that they thought that the PFOA was “burnt off” during the manufacturing process, but it has been found that this is not the case. PFOA has been linked to thyroid disorders, liver disease, testicular cancer, and chronic kidney disease.
Teflon, or polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE) is made from the elements carbon (C) and fluorine (F). These elements are arranged in chains of carbon (C) atoms single-bonded to each other to fill two of the four bonding sites on each carbon atom, with the other two bonding locations each filled by a fluorine (F) atom. Figure 1 shows the structure of the fluorocarbon chain that makes up Teflon:
Molecular structure of Teflon.
Image Credit: Shutterstock.com/StudioMolekuul
Teflon is made by first synthesizing the building blocks of the polymer chain, and then linking them together. The individual “links” in the Teflon polymer chain, called monomers, each consist of two carbon atoms double-bonded to each other, plus four fluorine atoms. These monomer molecules are a compound called tetrafluoroethylene (TFE, with the formula C2F4).
TFE can be made by reacting sulfuric acid (H2SO4) with the mineral fluorspar (CaF2) to form hydrofluoric acid (HF) at a high temperature. The hydrofluoric acid serves as a source of fluorine atoms for a reaction in which the chlorine (Cl) atoms are stripped from chloroform (trichloromethane, or CHCl3) atoms, and replaced with fluorine atoms, to yield tetrafluoroethylene (TFE), monomer for Teflon.
TFE is an explosive gas, so it is normally processed as soon as possible into the final PTFE polymer by radical polymerization. Radical polymerization is a process in which a small amount of a so-called “radical initiator,” e.g. ammonium persulfate, (NH4)2S2O8, acts as a catalyst to kick off the polymerization process. The exact procedure is usually guarded by manufacturers as a trade secret. The processes used can yield PTFE in the form of grains that are processed into molded pellets, or a milky paste that is processed into a fine powder.
Teflon is most well known for its use on nonstick cookware. However, it is also used on space suits and spacecraft, in piping systems, in chemical manufacturing, in semiconductors, and in the aerospace, automotive, and mechanical engineering industries.
There is a long list of products that use Teflon coatings. The list below gives examples of products that use Teflon from a range of industries:
- Photochemical Reactors
- Chemical Storage Tanks
- Electrical Wire Insulation
- Brake Pads
- Fuel Lines
- Printed Circuit Boards
- PTFE Tape for Pipe Connections
No. Modern (post-2014) pans coated with Teflon, used as directed, are not considered toxic. Before 2014, a chemical used in the manufacture of Teflon, PFOA (perfluorooctanoic acid), was found to present several potential human health risks. It was replaced by alternative compounds in the PFAS (per- and polyfluorinated substances) family which are considered to be safer during Teflon production. As of 2014, Teflon pans no longer use PFOA compounds. The nonstick Teflon pans produced today are widely accepted to be safe for everyday cooking, with the condition that they are not used at temperatures over 500 °F.
Yes, there are nonstick alternatives to Teflon coatings. However, their performance does vary. One example of a nonstick pan without Teflon is ceramic coated pans, which can reach up to 800 degrees Fahrenheit and has a coating made up of sand that has a glossy, slick surface to finish. Other alternatives include silicone-coated, sol-gel-coated, or silicone-free pans.
While Teflon products haven't used PFOA since 2014 and can now be considered safe, you can avoid using products produced in or before 2014 to reduce any risk of using Teflon-coated products that contain small amounts of PFOA. However, items that do contain PFOA’s should still be safe to use if not overheated or damaged.
Teflon coatings offer many advantages, including:
- Protects the surface from damage caused by high temperatures.
- Decreases the reactivity of the surface which increases the lifespan of the product.
- Teflon coating forms a barrier and is resistant to moisture intrusion.
- Reduces the tendency for materials to adhere to the surface, commonly to prevent food from sticking to the pan surface.
- By increasing the chemical inertness the service life of the product can be increased.
Yes, Teflon pans are now considered safe to use by American and European regulators including the EPA and EEA. Teflon pans have not incorporated the toxic chemical PFOA in their production process since 2014. Manufacturers have stopped the use of PFOA in their products under the guidance of the PFOA stewardship program which is an initiative set up to reduce the presence of PFOA in the environment over concerns about their effects on human health and the environment. The chemical now used in the manufacture of Teflon, GenX, is widely considered to be safer.
PFOAs have now been removed from nearly all Teflon products through the PFOA Stewardship Program over health concerns. Post-2014 Teflon uses chemicals from the PFAS (per and polyfluorinated substances) line of chemicals. These chemicals are considered much safer than PFOA and are not deemed to pose a health risk. Pre-2014 however, PFOA (perfluorooctanoic acid) was used in the production of Teflon, and exposure to it was found to have some potential health effects, including:
- Low birth weights of infants.
- Increased blood pressure.
- Increased risk of certain cancers.
- Heightened cholesterol.
- Decrease in response to vaccines.
The WHO’s International Agency for Research on Cancer deems PFOA to be “possibly carcinogenic to humans,” a hypothesis that is supported by multiple studies.
There are several ways in which the potential risks posed by Teflon-coated cookware can be minimized. Nearly all of them relate to taking care not to damage the coating. Below are 6 ways to reduce the possible risks of Teflon coatings on cookware:
Heating an empty pan results in the pan itself getting very hot, much hotter than if the heat were transferred into food being cooked. This is important because the hotter the coating gets, the more likely it is to give off toxic gas fumes. When heated over 660 degrees Fahrenheit, the coating has the potential to deteriorate. However, by heating the pan only when the food to be cooked is already in it, this risk is reduced.
By law, all stovetop areas should be installed with proper ventilation consisting of a hood to trap fumes and a ventilation fan to route them outdoors or to filter and recirculate the air. The exhaust fan is intended to direct smoke, grease, and moisture out of the kitchen, but it can also eliminate any chemical fumes that might be given off by overheated Teflon-coated cookware.
When pots and pans have reached roughly 300 baking cycles, the coating on them will start to break down. It is currently understood that the small pieces of coating that chip off of old pots and pans are safe to consume. However, it is good practice to replace old pots and pans, as it wasn’t realized that PFOA in pots and pans had the potential to be toxic until they had been used for decades.
Using wooden, silicone, or plastic utensils is safer than using metal utensils since they will not scratch or flake off the Teflon coating on your cookware. Wood, plastic, and silicone are all softer than the Teflon coating which means that the coating is more likely to wear away the utensils than vice versa. This reduces the potential risk of any of the coating contaminating the food.
Since Teflon is known to begin to decompose and give off fumes above a temperature of 260 °C, it is best to use Teflon-coated cookware at low and medium heat settings. For example, it should not be used for broiling.
Hand washing cookware can minimize damage to the Teflon coating to a certain extent as using a dishwasher or abrasive pads has the potential to scratch the Teflon coating, which is then more likely to chip and contaminate food when cooking. However, Teflon nonstick plans are designed to have a coating that is guaranteed for the life of the pan. The engineering of the nonstick coating is designed to resist peeling, chipping, and flaking, therefore it is not essential to hand wash your cookware as it can withstand the high temperatures of the dishwasher and will not be eroded.
Yes, ceramic coatings can be considered to be a safer option than Teflon. Even though PFOA-free Teflon is generally considered safe, it can still raise some concerns, particularly for its use at higher temperatures. It can be argued that these safety concerns are somewhat unfounded. However, they do contribute to the ceramic coating being positioned as the safer option when compared to Teflon due to the lack of chemicals used in the manufacturing process.
Disposal and decomposition of Teflon nonstick coatings and the chemicals used to make the coatings can potentially present both short-term and long-term hazards.
In the short term, the primary environmental hazard of Teflon is triggered by overheating the coating, which can release some gaseous breakdown products, including: perfluoro isobutylene, fluoroethylene, hexafluoroethane, octafluorocyclobutane, and hexafluoropropylene, and at even higher temperatures, hydrogen fluoride, and carbonyl fluoride. Manufacturers caution against overheating Teflon-coated pans in the presence of pet birds, which are particularly susceptible to the fumes that can be created.
Possible detrimental long-term environmental risks of Teflon include:
- Teflon products, like all fluorocarbons, only start degrading above 260 degrees Celsius and therefore take a long time (possibly centuries) to decompose in a landfill environment. This could expose entire populations to the unplanned build-up of PTFE decomposition products in the future.
- Before 2014, Teflon was manufactured using the surfactant perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), which is now believed to cause potential human health problems. The fabrication method for Teflon now avoids PFOA, but this chemical, along with others in the PFAS class (per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances) is so persistent that it is now widespread in water resources and human and animal tissue, and a subject of recent study, regulation, and remediation.
- If Teflon is incinerated with other trash, it decomposes and releases known hazardous substances such as trifluoroacetic acid (TFA), which may then be released into the atmosphere and deposited into the environment.
- Increases in trifluoroacetic acid (TFA) in the environment through the thermal breakdown of hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) can lead to their presence in rainwater. High concentrations of TFA are known to be mildly toxic to plants, though more research on the magnitude of the potential risk to vegetation is still needed.
- Teflon (PTFE) is very difficult to recycle. Because it is so hard to disrupt the bonds between PTFE’s fluorine and carbon molecules, reclaiming and reusing it is energy-intensive and not very cost-effective. The methods available, such as exposure to ionizing radiation and physical pulverizing, result in a more limited range of subsequent uses than for virgin PTFE material.
Teflon is the brand name for a carbon-fluorine polymer called polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE). This compound is commonly used to produce nonstick surfaces, both for consumer goods, such as cookware, and for low-friction mating surfaces in a variety of industrial applications.
Silicone is also a polymer, but instead of being built on a carbon-based chain, the fundamental repeating units (monomers) are silicon and oxygen atoms. Silicone is available in multiple forms. Like Teflon, it can be used to reduce food adhesion in cookware.
Teflon is much more durable than silicone. It will last for 3000+ heating cycles, compared to silicone’s 250-300 coating life. Teflon can also be safely used at a slightly higher temperature than silicone (500 °F for Teflon compared to 428 °F for silicone). In addition to differences in their longevity, there is a difference in non-stick performance: silicone-coated cookware often still requires a small amount of lubrication such as oil to be applied to a pan, whereas Teflon does not. Finally, Teflon can be made in a wider array of bright colors than silicone, enhancing its appeal to nonstick cookware customers.
This article presented whether or not Teflon coating is safe to use, explained it, and discussed what the coating is used for and factors to consider when using it. To learn more about Teflon coating, contact a Xometry representative.
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- Teflon™ is a registered trademark of THE CHEMOURS COMPANY FC, LLC
- Gore-TexTM is a trademark of W. L. Gore & Associates, Inc.
- GenX is a The Chemours Company trademark
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