PTFE vs. Teflon

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As a proud “loves to cook, hates to do the dishes after” girly, I’ll be the first to admit that I’ve been tempted by the allure of non-stick cookware. Nobody, including me, looks forward to scouring pans and seasoning cast iron after a satisfying meal. But the misleading PTFE vs. Teflon verbiage and the dubious history of non-stick cookware coatings makes me buck up and scrub up. 

Personally, I’d rather not risk the health of my family for a shortcut. Even if it’s a shortcut for something I’m not super jazzed about doing.

Manufacturers claim pans with nonstick coating are safe to use. As you’ll soon learn, however,  those claims come with asterisks, outlawed materials, and a whole lot of unanswered questions. 

Read on, and I’ll spill the tea about all things Teflon.

About Teflon and PTFE Coating For Pans

I’ll start here by letting you in on a secret non-stick cookware brands don’t want you to know: PTFE and Teflon are the same thing

PTFE, short for polytetrafluoroethylene, is a synthetic polymer with a wide range of applications from raincoats to wire coatings. Since its accidental invention by Roy Plunkett in the 1930s, however, it’s become increasingly popular as a non-stick coating for pans for a few reasons.

  • High melting temperature: Relative to other plastics, PTFE is resistant to high temperatures (Key word here being relative to other plastics; we’ll touch on why this is important further down.)
  • Chemical Inertion: PTFE can be mixed with other substances and retain the same qualities. Think “diamond-coated non-stick” cookware, “non-stick granite” cookware, etc., PTFE is still the active ingredient in the non-stick coating. 
  • Water resistance: PTFE is hydrophobic, repelling water or water-containing substances. Fun fact: Because of this quality, lots of rainwear is also made with PTFE.
  • Low coefficient of friction: PTFE has virtually no frictional resistance, meaning substances slide right off its surface.

Chemical manufacturers sell PTFE under many registered names. But Teflon, the registered trademark used by DuPont Co. and its subsidiaries, is the one most people have heard of. There’s been decades of calculated marketing efforts to make Teflon a household name. Sneaky…but I guess PTFE doesn’t have the same ring to it. 

Here are a few other widely-used PTFE brand names:

  • Autograph
  • Eterna
  • Granitium
  • Greblon
  • Quantanium
  • Stratanium
A scratched teflon pan

Does Teflon Still Have PTFE? 

Think of Teflon as Honey Nut Cheerios and PTFE as Honey Nut O’s: the same thing under two different names. Yes, Teflon still has PTFE, and it always will. There would be no such thing as Teflon without PTFE. 

The notion that Teflon could be PTFE-free is a master class in the power of branding. Hats off to the Teflon marketing team for successfully distancing themselves from PTFE and gaining the public’s trust (sike…it’s pretty deceptive if you ask me).

It can also be easy to confuse PTFE, the generic name for Teflon, with PFOA, the substance used to adhere Teflon/PTFE to cookware. If you got them mixed up, no judgment- I know there are a lot of acronyms to keep straight here.

As of 2013, The US banned PFOA in cookware for its numerous negative health effects, and non-stick pans have been PFOA-free ever since.

But remember: PTFE has very low frictional resistance, so it needs a pretty strong adherent to bond to cookware surfaces. PFOA may be a thing of the past, but other bonding compounds are still very much in use.

PTFE vs. PFOA

It’s hard to compare PTFE to PFOA, simply because they serve very different purposes. However, they were both essential components of non-stick cookware until relatively recently. 

PTFE is what makes non-stick cookware…well…non-stick. Waterproof and virtually frictionless, coating a pan with this slippery polymer keeps food from adhering to its surface. It also drastically reduces the amount of oil or butter needed for sauteing or frying.

The same qualities that make PTFE popular as a non-stick coating also necessitate the use of PFOA (or, in more recent years, PFAS). Because PTFE is so stick-resistant, the only way to get it to bond to a cookware is with a strong adherent like PFOA. 

Should I Avoid PTFE?

Although many cookware companies and non-stick pan fans may disagree, I’d advise you to avoid cooking with anything with a PTFE coating. 

First of all, PTFE has very little margin for error. As we established above, it technically has a high melting temperature, but that’s relative to other plastics. It doesn’t even touch the melting point of metals used in other cookware.

Once PTFE reaches a certain temperature, anywhere from 390-500F, it starts to degrade and release fumes that are hazardous to human health and toxic to birds. We’ve all made the mistake of forgetting a pan on the stove from time to time- but it’s better to keep the potential consequences of doing so to a minimum.

Add in the fact that this degradation is believed to be cumulative with regular use, and PTFE becomes a risk I just wouldn’t take if I were you.

And that’s not even considering its environmental impact, which we’ll dive into below. 

We live in a big, wide world with plenty of great options for pots and pans, so I wholeheartedly recommend you explore alternatives to PTFE. 

Is Non-stick Cookware Harmful To Health?

Some health experts say that Teflon and other non-stick cookware are safe to use, but that comes with a long list of caveats. There are so many ways you can cross the line from safe use of non-stick cookware into harmful territory.

And those are just the ways we know about.

Keep in mind: it took about 50 years to establish that PFOA has harmful effects, and another 20 to outlaw it. We still aren’t sure what health effects come with the chemicals used in recent non-stick cookware. 

All we can do is consider the information we do have. Quite frankly, it doesn’t look good. 

Detail of a scratched up old nonstick pan

Teflon and PFOA Exposure

PFOA isn’t used in Teflon/PTFE cookware anymore, but it was for decades being outlawed in 2013. 

It’s been linked to a long list of health conditions: kidney disease, testicular cancer, infertility, liver disease…I could go on.

It’s actually well-established that PFOA exposure from cooking with Teflon is minimal; a lot of the PFOA on the pan is burned off during the manufacturing process. The real risk, and the main reason for its outlawing, is a bit more complicated.

When PFOA was still being used on cookware, manufacturing facilities were allowed to dump their runoff into surrounding waters. To this day, there are areas of the US with high concentrations of PFOA in their water supply. 

Teflon and PFA

Standing in for PFOA, modern Teflon-coated cookware contains compounds from a group known as PFAS.

This group of substances hasn’t been linked to health issues…yet. Because PFAS are relatively new in cookware production, there simply haven’t been enough long-term studies to establish anything conclusive about their effects on the human body. 

What’s worth noting about PFAS is that they’re walking the same path as their predecessor. Just ask the EPA, who recently put out a statement about the high concentration of PFA in our drinking water from non-stick pan production. Sound familiar?

The safety of PFAs in cookware and other products is questionable enough to catch the attention of the US Consumer Product Safety Commission. They felt it necessary to warn consumers about the unknowns surrounding the safety of PFAs.

Polymer Fume Fever

PFOA is a hazard of the past. PFAS are the hazards of the future. But Polymer Fume Fever can occur anytime. 

As I said above, even though PTFE is heat-resistant to a point, once that point is reached, there’s no debate: it turns straight-up dangerous. 

Polymer Fume Fever, or the Teflon Flu, is the unfortunate result of inhaling the fumes of overheated PTFE. It causes flu-like symptoms: chills, fever, and aches. Prolonged exposure to overheated PTFE cookware can even cause permanent lung damage. 

The vast majority of cases result from prolonged exposure at extreme temperatures, and day-to-day use is unlikely to cause Polymer Fume Fever. Given the choice between a pan that can’t make you sick and one that can, though, I think I’d choose the former. 

A flaking teflon pan.

Teflon and Its Environmental Impact

No matter whether manufacturers use the PFOA of yesteryear or the PFAS of today, the environmental footprint of the non-stick cookware industry is tremendous. 

Non-stick cookware production was virtually unregulated for many years and continues to be in overseas factories. But even today, the largest cookware plants in the US dump PFAs into nearby rivers and lakes with few regulations and little regard for the ecosystems they’re destroying. 

In fact, over 99% of people sampled in a 2022 study had PFAs in their bloodstream. The overwhelming majority of these synthetic substances are created for non-stick cookware.

It certainly paints a grim picture of just how far-reaching the consequences of this industry and the demand for its products are. 

How To Reduce Health Risks of Teflon Cookware

If you already own Teflon/PTFE cookware that you can’t bring yourself to part with, there are a few steps you can take to reduce your chances of PTFE-related health issues.

Please, for the love of all things good in the world, don’t take any of this as an encouragement to buy PTFE-coated cookware! I just understand that not everyone has the means to run out and buy a whole new set of pans.

So in the name of harm reduction, here’s my guidance on how to stay as safe as possible when cooking with PTFE cookware as you move towards a more low-tox lifestyle.. 

  • If it’s chipped, ditch it. Once the Teflon coating starts to chip away, it doesn’t stop. If you continue to use it, you’ll be eating Teflon omelets for breakfast and Teflon stir fry for dinner. 
  • Teflon + metal utensils = flakey non-stick coating If you’re cooking with Teflon pans, make sure your utensils are wood, silicone, or plastic. Teflon is prone to scratches. Once it’s scratched, there’s no turning back.
  • Get a breeze going. Make sure your kitchen is well-ventilated when you’re using Teflon cookware.
  • Take it low and slow. Cooking over low to medium heat doesn’t just keep your meat tender…it also keeps your pan from overheating and releasing noxious fumes.
  • Empty pans are the devil’s workshop. Don’t preheat empty Teflon cookware. Pans heat up quickest when there’s nothing in them, quickly pushing them into the temperature danger zone.
  • Use nothing but your own elbow grease. When it’s time to wash up, skip the steel wool or scrub daddy. Abrasive scrubbing can damage the Teflon coating. Use a nonabrasive sponge or dishcloth to gently hand wash teflon pans.

What Is The Lifespan of PTFE Pans?

The lifespan of PTFE pans is anywhere from 1-5 years and varies depending on a few factors:

  • The habits of the cook: If you frequently use metal utensils with a PTFE pan or scrub harshly, the lifespan of your cookware is going to lean toward the low end of that range.
  • The quality of the coating: High-end non-stick cookware usually has a coating that’s reinforced with another substance. They last a little bit longer than their lower-end counterparts. 

At a minimum, non-stick pans need to be replaced every 5 years. In reality, they should be replaced much more frequently than that. 

To give you some perspective, here: I’ve met people who use cast iron that belonged to their grandmother. The short lifespan of PTFE cookware is just another reason why I’ll never recommend it to anyone.

Detail of the damaged nonstick coating on a teflon skillet.

Teflon Products to Avoid And Alternatives

I can’t really pinpoint any specific Teflon products to avoid, since I recommend you avoid all of them.

You could find cookware with a coating that’s only part PTFE. Or you could be a very careful cook and never let pans overheat. You might not even be convinced of the risks to your health – that’s totally your choice. But the fact remains: by purchasing PTFE cookware, you’re supporting an industry that freely contaminates the water supply and takes away everyone else’s ability to make that choice for themselves. 

If you must have non-stick cookware, consider ceramic non-stick cookware.

I won’t lie and say ceramic-coated cookware is perfect. It chips pretty easily and once it does, you can no longer use it because the coating will continue to chip off into your food.

A lot of supposed “ceramic” cookware contains PTFE too, so do your homework and go for a reputable brand. It’ll be a bit more expensive, but it also won’t be contributing to an ongoing environmental crisis. So, ya know…do with that what you will.

What Is The Safest Cookware For Your Health?

My ultimate recommendation is good, old-fashioned stainless steel and cast iron cookware. Whether you’re looking for safety or simple reliability, you can’t beat stainless steel or cast iron.

Yes, they’re harder to clean, but you know what they say: better the devil you know. Plus, there are methods to cut that time down. No “supporting a shady industry and rolling the dice on the health of the people you cook for” necessary!

If you must have something non-stick, ceramic cookware is a step up, but it has its own set of challenges.

Detail of a scratched nonstick skillet.

PTFE vs. Teflon: My Final Thoughts

No matter how convenient PTFE cookware is or how many companies that make it claim their products are safe, I urge others to reconsider their use of non-stick cookware.  

There are simply too many unknown (and well-known) dangers of PTFE cookware and too many readily available alternatives to justify the continued support of such a toxic industry. 

About Author

TiaGoodnight

Hey! I'm Tia, and I started this site to bring you the best information on all things kitchen so you can enjoy and elevate your everyday life.

I love trying new techniques and tools, living for the thrill of pulling off a new skill. On weekends you'll find me at the local farmer's markets or hosting friends and family for an evening of yard or card games and delicious food.

If you're looking for honest, real-world advice on all things kitchen and cooking, you're in the right place!

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