As a young adult living in Carolina, I have come to associate summer with intolerable heat, delicious watermelon, and…the start of wedding season. Two friends of mine got married recently in May. A few months before, as they were making their registry, they encountered a troubling question. As they held the Bed, Bath and Beyond scanner in their hand, they wondered: should we scan the Teflon pans? The lure of easy frying and convenient cleanup wrestled with their faint anxieties about Teflon that came perhaps from a vague conversation with some environmentalist friend or that one article that popped up on a news feed a few months ago. Concerned, they brought me their question:

Is it safe to use non-stick frying pans and cookware?

Before I answer, let me give a quick overview of how us toxicologists approach these kinds of questions. When assessing safety of any chemical or component, there are two types of information that needs to be gathered: hazard characterization and exposure assessment. In other words, what is the toxic compound and what toxic effects might it cause (hazard characterization)? Then, are people exposed to the compound? If so, how does it get into the body? And how much? Is the amount people are exposed to enough to cause harmful effects (exposure assessment)? Toxicologists design experiments to generate these two types of information.

Risk Assessment

Integrating these pieces of information allows us to make our best estimate of the risk of chemicals being toxic to humans, a form of risk assessment. These are only estimates since much of this information is sometimes difficult to obtain practically (you can’t expose humans to potentially toxic compounds in a study!). Thus, we must rely on animal studies, testing individual cells, and computer models. Now, lets apply this method to non-stick pans.

Hazard Characterization

What makes pans non-stick? What is the potentially toxic component?

The most common non-stick coating used to coat pots and pans is Teflon, a chemical mixture of perfluorochemicals (chemicals with lots of fluoride atoms). Developed by DuPont chemical company in 1938, these chemicals are extremely non-polar, meaning they do a very good job repelling other chemicals. As such, Teflon is used as an additive to paints, fabrics, carpets, and clothing. It is also used to treat materials to make them resistant to oils (like the inside of microwave popcorn bags). The primary chemical in Teflon, polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE), has a high melting point (327 ºC), making it ideal for cooking applications. However, when heated to temperatures above 350 ºC (662 ºF), PTFE begins to degrade, releasing fine particles and a variety of gaseous compounds that can cause damage to the lungs when inhaled (Waritz, 1975).

How are we exposed to PTFE? What is the route of exposure?

Inhalation of the PTFE-fumes from overheating a non-stick pan is one method of exposure. Since we use these pans to cook food, we might suppose that people could be ingesting PTFE, say if some of the coating gets into the food cooked in the pan. We want to estimate risk for the worst-case scenario so we will consider both routes of exposure.

What is known about the harmful effects, or toxicities, of PTFE?

Via inhalation

Numerous case studies in the 1900s have documented flu-like symptoms after inhalation of PTFE fumes by workers in PTFE-using factories and by people overheating non-stick pans in the kitchen. This condition is called polymer fume fever, or “Teflon flu”, and presents with temporary, intense, but not serious symptoms such as fever, shivering, sore throat and coughing (Harris, 1951 & Shumizu, 2012). These cases of Teflon flu are due to acute (short-term) exposures to PTFE fumes; no studies have been done looking at the long-term effects of brief, repeated PTFE-fume exposure, as would be the case in cooking using non-stick pans for a lifetime.

Birds were found to be particularly susceptible to the PTFE fumes, based on some reports that pet birds were dying after their owners left a coated pan heating on the stove. Indeed, parakeets and Japanese quails died after exposure for 4 hours to PTFE fumes generated at 330 ºC (626 ºF) (Waritz, 1975 & Griffith, 1973). In summary, inhalation toxicity becomes a concern when PTFE is heated to high temperatures which releases toxic particles and gases that could result in polymer fume fever. These effects are more prominent, if not lethal, in birds than in humans.

Via ingestion

PTFE is inert in its solid form, meaning it won’t react with other chemicals, which is what makes it such as great non-stick coating. As such, the minimal PTFE you would ingest will likely pass through the digestive tract without harm. However, another fluorinated compound, PFOA (perfluorooctanoic acid), is commonly used in the process of making PTFE and may be residual in non-stick coating components. After repeated heating and cooling, it is possible that the PFOA could migrate into the food. Research suggests that PFOA interferes with hormonal balances as well as reproduction and fetal development (White, 2011 & Post, 2012).

Exposure assessment

Do non-stick pans generate these toxic PTFE-fumes when I use them in the kitchen?

Typical temperatures for frying foods range from 130 ºC for fish fillets to 280 ºC for steak (266 ºF, 536 ºF, respectively) and the maximum temperature for most household ovens is 500 ºF (Lehman, 1962). Given that PTFE degrades above 350 ºC (662 ºF), I would presume that the temperatures typically used to cook foods do not generate sufficient PTFE-fumes to cause polymer fume fever. Many of the case studies reporting polymer fume fever were results of unattended heating and of heating empty non-stick pans. Furthermore, most kitchens have reasonable ventilation that would protect the user. Altogether, non-stick pans could produce PTFE-fumes if used improperly. Typical cooking practices will probably not generate a significant amount of these fumes.

How much PFOA is there? How much PFOA comes from non-stick pans?

While PFOA is used in the production of non-stick coatings, it is thought that there is minimal PFOA in PTFE. DuPont removed PFOA from Teflon production in 2013 as a part of the 2010/2015 PFOA Stewardship Program, an initiative by eight manufacturing companies organized by EPA to reduce PFOA emissions and use in production (EPA).

PFOA is hard to degrade and it can remain in the environment and the human body for a long time. Thus, repeated exposure to small amounts of PFOA could build up over time and cause toxicity. In fact, PFOA has been detected in the blood of almost all US residents (Post, 2012). To determine how much PFOA could come from non-stick coatings, Begley and his team at the U.S. FDA designed an experiment to investigate the possibility of PFOA transfer from PTFE-coated pans to food. Using the most conservative estimates, they found that minimal amounts of PFOA transferred from PTFE cookware, even after intensive heating of the pans (Begley, 2005). Thus, it is more likely that humans are exposed to PFOA through other means than by ingestion of residual PFOA from food cooked in a non-stick pan.


All research has its limitations. We can’t measure everything, our tests aren’t perfect, and we can’t account for all the variables when designing the experiments. Thus, every risk assessment needs to identify and address the caveats. The biggest question that is not answered by research is the long-term effect of exposure to small amounts of PTFE and PFOA. This kind of exposure is more representative of how people come into contact with Teflon and its toxic components.

And the answer is…

In conclusion, to my dear newlywed friends and other interested readers, is it safe to use non-stick frying pans and cookware? Assuming you use your cookware appropriately, i.e. not heating it excessively and unattended, always heating the pan with something in it, not scratching off the Teflon and consuming it for dinner, using non-stick pans is relatively safe for humans. Risk of “Teflon flu” due to inhalation of fumes during typical kitchen use is minimal. Ingestion of PTFE is not reported to be toxic and residual PFOA in PTFE-coated pans is minimally transferred to food. However, long-term exposure studies to PTFE-fumes and PFOA have not been conducted so we can’t say that it is completely safe. Regardless, you should keep Larry the bird away from the kitchen.

If you wish to avoid the Teflon risk altogether, stainless steel and cast-iron pans are recommended alternative, albeit not necessarily non-stick, cooking options.

Teflon infographic

Other resources

Environmental Working Group. “Healthy Home tips: Tip 6- Skip the non-stick to avoid the dangers of Teflon”

EPA website on PFOA and Fluorinated Telomers (aka PFTE and Co.)

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author alone and do not necessarily reflect those of SWAC or the UNC at Chapel HIll.


Waritz, R. S. An industrial approach to evaluation of pyrolysis and combustion hazards. Environ Health Perspect. 1975; 11: 197–202.

Lehman, A. J. Quart. Bull. Assoc. Food Drug Offic. U.S. 1962; 26: 109.

Griffith, F. D., Stephens, S. S., Tayfun, F. O. Exposure of Japanese quail and parakeets to the pyrolysis products of frypans coated with Teflon and common cooking oils. Amer. Ind. Hyg. Assoc. J. 1973; 34: 176.

Begley H., White K., Honigfort P., Twaroski M. L., Neches R., Walker R. A. Perfluorochemicals: Potential sources of and migration from food packaging. Food Additives & Contaminants. 2005; 22(10): 1023-1031.

Shimizu T., Hamada O., Sasaki A., Ikeda M. Polymer fume fever. BMJ Case Reports. 2012. doi:10.1136/bcr-2012-007790

Harris, D., Lond M. B. Polymer-fume fever. The Lancet. 1951; 258(6692): 1008–1011.

Post G. B., Cohn P. D., Cooper K. R. Perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), an emerging drinking water contaminant: a critical review of recent literature. Environ Res. 2012; 116: 93-117. doi: 10.1016/j.envres.2012.03.007.

White S. S., Fenton S. E., Hines E. P. Endocrine disrupting properties of perfluorooctanoic acid. J Steroid Biochem Mol Biol. 2011; 127(1-2): 16-26. doi: 10.1016/j.jsbmb.2011.03.011.


Written by: Mimi Huang

Peer edited and reviewed by Zan Isgett & Lindsay Walton

Tags: Ask A Toxicologist, Everyday Questions

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This article was co-published on the TIBBS Bioscience Blog.

20 Responses to “Ask a Toxicologist: Is it safe to use Teflon pans?”

  1. Angela

    I just want to say thank you for writing such a simple and helpful article! After reading that Teflon FUMES are dangerous and therefore it is unsafe to use for cooking, I was thinking, “But how hot would a pan need to get to release fumes; is that temperature reached when cooking; and is Teflon dangerous beyond inhalation (such as through ingestion)?” As a pharmacist, I understand the difference between likely, actual dangers to your health and theoretical, “conspiracy” risks. I knew that just because it COULD be dangerous if heated to the point of creating toxic fumes, it doesn’t mean that is is harmful in REALITY. Your article was perfect in describing the REALITY of the situation, simple, and complete. Thank you, thank you, thank you for being smart!!!!!!! Our ignorant population needs more people like you to put perspective on things:)

  2. John Denys

    Thanks for writing this article. I hope to see more in the future.

    • Mimi

      Thanks for the feedback! If you have any toxicology-related questions, feel free to let me know!

  3. GPG

    I enjoyed the article. It was very informative yet an easy read. I am one of those individuals who have left the pan overheat with nothing in it. So I worry a little about my future health. I have chosen to replace my pans with stainless steel which require a bit more work to maintain; but my future health comes first!

  4. Susan

    Yes, thanks so much for some actual data! I’m a physician (dermatology) and get so frustrated about seemingly authoritative opinions (often wrong) being put out on the internet. For example, the official-sounding Environmental Working Group goes way overboard on the hazards of topical products IMHO.

  5. Tom

    Is another alternative ceramic-coated cookware?

  6. Craig

    Most reputable companies (I know Tefal does) ensures that all the PFOA is removed from their pans, so they are very safe. Unbranded stuff is unlikely to be PFOA free though.

    I’m happy with using Tefal. They are light, durable, PFOA free, non-stick and if you don’t heat them up way too high you the PTFE won’t degrade. Some people seem to get scared when they hear about Teflon fumes, but they are really unlikely to ever be produced (if they are, then you probably have burnt your food too).

    And looking at the alternatives here: nothing really compares to good old Tefal (no affiliation, honest). Ceramic pans are very good, but because they are quite big/ heavy they still won’t replace Tefal.

  7. Linda Brown

    It’s surely a good read. I think you have nicely cleared up the confusion centring the’ non-stick’ issue. Facts are expertly separated from fictions-myths are from reality. I found this article to be the best among the ones I have recently read on the subject.I look forward to checking out your further writing on topics like this. Thank you and keep it up.

  8. R. W. W.

    I wish I’d seen this article sooner, as It is straight-forward and unsensationalized. While I can’t dwell on the fact that I scraped off all the Teflon from the pans I used in the ’70s, I’ve noticed that no one has ever clarified the term “over-heating.” While an oven indicates temperature, a stovetop does not–should we never use “high”?
    My bigger concern is PFOA in carpets. I carpeted my new apt. last year and learned not long after that PFOA was in (or on?) it and would be banned shortly! I love the carpeting and don’t want to rip it out for hard, cold wood floors–which are not my style, despite their beauty and popularity (and I was told they have their own set of warnings). Is there a way to remove the chemical or coat the carpet with something that would lessen the effects (which I’ve heard are from breathing it or touching it)? I’ve been living in limbo until I know what to do.

  9. Chuck Finley

    Some physicians suggest that ingestion of PTFE can improve healthy by serving as a calorie-free food ingredient. See this publication in the Journal of Diabetes Science and Technology:

  10. Rob D

    We often make this mistake. Someone, a professional, says this or that is “safe”. Let’s understand science, we make an observation, from that observation we draw an hypothesis, a guess. As more information is gathered we refine our guess but we never reach an absolute because science is not capable of absolutes. Science is not capable of giving long term ‘it’s safe’ answers.

    “Due to inhalation of fumes during typical kitchen use.” Did you ever burn food in a pot? More than once? I did and I’m a seasoned cook. So really don’t we want to know what happens then?

    “Given that PTFE degrades above 350 ºC (662 ºF), I would presume that the temperatures typically used to cook foods do not generate sufficient PTFE-fumes to cause polymer fume fever. Many of the case studies reporting polymer fume fever were results of unattended heating and of heating empty non-stick pans. Furthermore, most kitchens have reasonable ventilation that would protect the user. Altogether, non-stick pans could produce PTFE-fumes if used improperly. Typical cooking practices will probably not generate a significant amount of these fumes.”

    “Most kitchens have reasonable ventilation”. You can’t say that, it’s not science. A small apartment kitchen in mid winter with the windows shut with a cook who forgets a pan on the stove. That’s a common occurrence. Most kitchens have reasonable ventilation is biasing data. “Typical cooking practices probably”. But we don’t do things typically and “probably will”. What does that mean, they might not?

    And clearly something is happening before the Teflon degrades:
    “The lowest temperature at which nonstick coatings have been reported to kill birds in a peer-reviewed study is 396°F (202°C) [3]. In May 1998, poultry researchers at the University of Missouri recorded 52 percent mortality in 2400 chicks within three days of the birds being placed into floor pens with new PTFE-coated heat lamp bulbs. After ruling out bacterial infections like E. Coli and Salmonella, or toxic gases such as sulfur dioxide, carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide, the scientists finally linked the chick deaths to offgas products from the PTFE-coated bulbs. All of the chicks examined after death had lung lesions and moderate to severe pulmonary edema consistent with “PTFE toxicosis.”

    Do you want your infant in the room when a pot burns or reaches high heat? So is Teflon “relatively” safe? Before the EPA stepped in using PTOA everyone using Teflon cookware was safe, so what now they’re safer? What does “relatively” safe mean? That it can be unsafe if you make a mistake and forget a pot on the stove? Then it’s really not safe at all!

    What’s the option, you have to scrub a stainless steel or cast iron pot? Gee, that’s a hard one. I stopped using Teflon in 2008 when my Teflon pot started flaking. Was I safe still using Teflon? Probably but I took the manufacturers ‘safe’ out of the equation. Let’s not forget companies are in business to make money, not to ensure individual longevity.

    You biased your assessment in favor of Teflon.

    • Mimi

      Hi Rob,
      I appreciate your comments. I agree that we can never say that something is 100% safe, given the nature of science. Even normal things like sugar, in excess, can be toxic. Dose makes the poison! My generalization of “typical kitchen use” was used to attempt to provide a quick answer to the question, as I’d imagine that is what busy people are looking for instead of having to read the whole article. Perhaps we should be encouraging people to not just look for the easy answer to these safety questions but to really consider that the answers are more nuanced and really depend on multiple variables. This concept can also be applied to topics in nutrition and health (for example, are eggs bad for me?).
      My goal for my articles are to provide the facts obtained through scientific research in a digestible form that allows us to make our own assessment of what is “safe” and enables us to make informed decisions about what risks we are willing to take. Reducing exposures and being more conservative is always a good way to go. In this case, using other types of pans is a simple way to reduce exposures if one has the means/desire to.
      Also, birds are not humans. They have a different respiratory system/physiology. Studies in birds are good starting points for toxicity but need validation in other animal models that better represent human lung function. Here is a study done in 1983 using rats that I failed to include in the post, apologies ( They found that ~50% of the animals exposed to 30-min of PTFE combustion fumes developed a condition of overactive blood clotting, dangerous as it can cause spontaneous blockages of blood vessels. Half of the doses they tested were at levels higher than the LC50 (the dose where half of the study animals die), the effects did not increase with increasing dose (as would be expected), and the number of animals used in the study was small. I’m not trying to discount the study, but pointing out the scientific limitations. I didn’t come across any other studies about inhalation toxicity of PTFE fumes since then. However, recent studies seem to be getting more interested in the effect of ultra-fine particles release in combustion, so interest in that may rekindle investigations into PTFE fume toxicity (pardon the pun).


      • Rob

        Thanks for the follow up on my statement.
        Because science is my field too I sometimes fail to see how the non scientific mind equates to information. Yes, we constantly look for simple answers, GMO’s are safe for example. Well, we know science is not capable of making that statement but the troubling thing is that the media runs with these types of statements and the masses take them as carte blanche. Eating blueberries will cancel out the seven gallons of soft drinks they drank this week, for example. So I try to inform people of the limitations of science and that, while it’s a great tool, it is not absolute.

  11. Sam

    So keep birds away from the kitchen and all is well? A dead bird is a good sign your pushing your luck. Not worth it. There are better alternatives. Better safe than sorry, etc..

  12. mncountryzoo

    First off, thank you for this information. 2nd I’d like to inform you all from first handed experance. I rase all kinds of animals and I will never have one of those pan in my home again. I lost my own child and my pet parokeets and baby cockatiels to those dam pans back in 1980’s. All it takes is running out off water in a pan or burning it one time to reliese the toxines. The pan companies will never tell the truth because all the care about is making the all mighty dollar. this may not make it to the site, but I hope it dose.
    NOw my concerns are that NEW copper pan….?????? what’s in it that there not telling you. my prayers go to those that the DOC’s lied to about there loses.

  13. Sebastian Beaton

    Thanks for the wonderful article, I run my own website about this and agree with you that there has to be some responsibility when using Teflon pans. I think that the problem is not one of danger from the pan but rather a lack of education in how to use them. Far too many people pay little attention to what is around them in their homes and to the potential dangers.

    The other issue is that people will buy the cheapest pans and so they are exposing themselves to inferior products they should always be buying the absolute best quality that they can afford and this will go a long way
    I wrote this article on healthy cookware that i think is appropriate in this situation

  14. Jared Hamlin

    I personally think it is a great idea to coat your cookware in poison, what could go wrong? i feel the risk benefit analysis lacked comparing the supposed convenience of coated cookware compared to the “inconvenience” of other types of cookware ie. cast iron. In my experience properly seasoned cast iron cookware is just as convenient, if not more so due to its versatility.

  15. Jerald

    Allow time for that, and make sure somebody
    goes to be in command of preserving them recent.

  16. Salman @cookwarelist

    It’s most likely a decent perused. I think you have pleasantly cleared up the disarray centering the’ non-stick’ issue. Actualities are expertly isolated from fictions-myths are from reality. I observed this article to be the best among the ones I have as of late perused on the subject.I anticipate looking at your further written work on themes this way. Much obliged to you and keep it up.

  17. Kathleen Pietras

    In all the articles I have read, no one discusses using the pan, which looks perfectly fine, after I have overheated it or burned food in it, and after I have washed it. The pan looks perfectly fine. I have very good ventilation, so I am not worried about the fumes. I burned the food several months ago, and I am fine– I just worry about using the pan again.


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