Since Teflon® cookware, the brand name for the first PTFE (“polytetrafluoroethylene”) cookware got a bad rap for being “toxic” and even “cancer-causing”, some makers of PTFE cookware have marketed their products in all sorts of ways that makes it hard to know what you’re buying. There are so many synonyms for PTFE on the market now, and so much marketing jargon to play down the actual composition of cookware, that it can be really hard to know what you’re buying.
This obfuscation, whether deliberate or not, has caused a great deal of problems for people who want to buy safe and healthy cookware. Our mission is to help people clarify the issues around nonstick cookware and understand the issues so they can buy the cookware that’s right for them.
Here are 6 common myths about nonstick cookware that can make it hard to buy well.
Myth #1: There Are Several Kinds of Nonstick Cookware
Fact: There are two kinds of nonstick cookware: PTFE and ceramic.
As already mentioned, PTFE cookware has been around since the 1960s and is popularly known as Teflon®. PTFE is a long chain hydrocarbon molecule — a type of plastic.
Hint: If the manufacturer refers to the coating as a “polymer” or “resin,” that’s a dead giveaway that it’s PTFE.
Ceramic cookware has been around since about 2008. It’s essentially made from sand, which is turned into a sol-gel, applied to cookware (usually aluminum), and baked to a hard finish.
There are several different brand names of ceramic nonstick, including the highly popular Greblon and Thermolon, but all are some type of sol-gel ceramic, and essentially the same (or very similar) molecular structure.
Both types of nonstick coatings can be reinforced with titanium particles, diamond dust, or other substances that make them somewhat tougher and longer-lived, and these can end up in the name (e.g., “titanium nonstick cookware”). But these materials are added to only two nonstick coatings: PTFE or ceramic.
Well-seasoned cast iron and carbon steel cookware comes close to being nonstick, but are not technically considered nonstick (although either can be an excellent substitute for those trying to avoid nonstick cookware).
Myth #2: PTFE and Teflon Are Different Substances
Fact: Teflon® is a brand name of a PTFE product.
This goes along with Myth #1, but it bears repeating because a lot of people are confused about it: Teflon® and PTFE are the same substance.
Manufacturers may try to distance themselves from the Teflon® label and imply that their cookware contains no PTFE, but just because their product isn’t Teflon® doesn’t mean it’s not PTFE. In fact, there are hundreds of brand names for PTFE on the market now. Autograph, Quantanium, Eterna, and even some newer types of Greblon — one of the original ceramic nonstick coatings — are all PTFE brand names.
This information can be hard to track down. We tried to do a list of PTFE brand names on our website, The Rational Kitchen, but it would have taken months to track down all that information. (Instead, we did a list of nonstick cookware brands and whether they’re PTFE or ceramic; it’s one of our most popular articles.)
So what do you need to remember? Well, if the manufacturer doesn’t clearly state what their nonstick coating is made of, you can try googling the brand name (if it’s given). Or you can just assume that if they’re not saying outright what the coating is, it’s probably PTFE. (Remember, it has to be PTFE or ceramic.)
Myth #3: “PFOA-Free” Means “PTFE-Free.”
Fact: “PFOA-Free” almost always means the cookware contains PTFE.
PFOA (perflourooctanoic acid) is an adhesive used in the manufacturing of PTFE cookware. It was outlawed in the US in 2015 and is outlawed in many other countries as well. PFOA is the most toxic substance associated with PTFE nonstick cookware.
So when a manufacturer claims their cookware is “PFOA-free,” this is somewhat meaningless, because all cookware is now PFOA-free.
The claim is often used to distance the product from PTFE, when in fact “PFOA-free” almost always means the product does contain PTFE.
It’s only when cookware is listed as “PTFE- and PFOA-free” that you know it contains no PTFE (it’s ceramic).
Since PFOA is the real danger, you may be okay with buying PTFE cookware. However, keep in mind that manufacturers have to use something to get the PTFE to adhere to the aluminum, and it’s likely a substance similar to PFOA.
So, you might want to pass on “PFOA-free” products. They may be safe and non-toxic, but the truth is we just can’t say for sure.
Myth #4: Ceramic Nonstick Cookware Is Better than PTFE.
Fact: Both types of cookware have pros and cons, including health and safety issues.
When people google for safe nonstick cookware, they’re generally looking for non-PTFE cookware, which means ceramic nonstick cookware.
But ceramic nonstick cookware may have its own set of toxicity issues.
According to this article from Wellness Mama, the sol-gel substance used in this cookware may contain titanium dioxide nanoparticles, which have been associated with pre-cancerous lesions. The evidence is still sketchy, but it’s something people should be aware of when shopping for cookware.
Ceramic nonstick cookware may also be made with a process that uses lead and/or cadmium, both of which are toxic to humans. This shouldn’t be a concern with established brands, but we recommend avoiding no-name brands because of this possibility.
Furthermore, ceramic nonstick cookware doesn’t last as long as PTFE cookware. The ceramic can lose its nonstick properties within just a few months of purchase. The irony is that it can withstand much more abuse — high heat and metal utensils, for example — but even so, the nonstick properties tend to fade faster than with PTFE.
On the other hand, PTFE cookware is safe when used properly, and can last for several years. What’s “proper use”? Don’t use high heat, don’t use metal utensils, don’t use aerosol cooking spray, and always hand wash without abrasive scrubby pads.
Myth #5: Modern Nonstick Cookware Is More Durable than Older Nonstick Cookware.
Fact: All nonstick cookware is fragile and its nonstick properties are short-lived.
There are hundreds of brands of PTFE on the market now, all claiming to be more durable than older versions. Metal utensils? No problem! Dishwasher? Go for it! Abrasive sponges? Absolutely!
Additions to the nonstick coating such as titanium and diamond dust also promise added durability; this is true for both PTFE and ceramic nonstick.
The truth is, PTFE is PTFE, and it’s got a finite life span — usually 2–5 years under ideal conditions. And if you want your PTFE cookware to last as long as possible, you will never, ever put it in the dishwasher, use high heat, use metal utensils, or use abrasive sponges to clean it. Yes; even if the manufacturer claims you can.
Ditto ceramic nonstick, which, while tougher, is going to lose its nonstick coating no matter how you treat it. Baby it to get the longest life possible out of it, but don’t expect more than a year or two.
Myth #6: Expensive Nonstick Cookware Is More Durable than Inexpensive Nonstick Cookware
Fact: All nonstick cookware has about the same longevity.
There may be a slight improvement in modern iterations of both PTFE and ceramic, meaning the coatings might be able to take more abuse and retain their nonstick properties slightly longer. Reinforcements like titanium and diamond dust might also make a small difference in longevity.
However, the real difference usually amounts to more expensive brands having more layers of nonstick coating.
Whether more layers add to a pan’s longevity is questionable. What really makes a nonstick pan last is caring for and using it properly.
The point here, though, is to not spend a lot on nonstick cookware. You won’t get your money’s worth out of it, and you’ll be annoyed when you have to throw out a pan that you paid too much for.
So Where Does that Leave Things? How Do I Buy Nonstick Cookware?
People have valid concerns about toxins in their cookware, especially nonstick cookware. Despite prevailing evidence that both PTFE and ceramic nonstick cookware are safe when used properly, you never know for sure. In many ways, the jury is still out on both types of nonstick coatings.
Here are our recommendations:
- If you have concerns about toxins, avoid both PTFE and ceramic nonstick cookware. Instead, go with seasoned cast iron. You can find pre-seasoned cast iron, making it an even easier choice. No, it’s not totally nonstick, but it comes really, really close — and you won’t be throwing pans in a landfill every few years (instead you’ll be passing them down to your grandchildren).
- If everyone in your household will use a PTFE pan properly, it’s your best bet for the longest-lasting nonstick surface. You can get an excellent quality 10-inch skillet for about $30 — don’t pay more than this.
- If people in your household won’t use a pan properly, go with ceramic nonstick. It will lose its nonstick properties faster, but it’s currently considered the safer choice, nanoparticles notwithstanding. As long as you buy a reputable brand, you should be fine. As with PTFE, don’t spend more than about $30 for a 10-inch skillet.
For more information you can check out our article on how to buy a nonstick pan.
Thanks for reading!