Non-stick cookware has been a kitchen staple for decades. It’s on nearly every wedding registry, and every family seems to have their favorite brand, favorite type, and favorite piece. It’s the old-reliable, and it’s truly no wonder why. I mean, it’s absolutely amazing to cook with. You can cook scrambled eggs with little to no oil or grease, and they’ll slide right off the pan without a hitch.
It’s an absolute wonder, and it may also be one of the most toxic things in your home.
This post might contain affiliate links, which means I could be compensated if you decide to make a purchase. This compensation does not affect my opinion of the products, but you can read my full disclosure here.
What makes cookware toxic, and why does it matter?
Cookware has to go through a lot of processes and chemical exposure in order to get that non-stick surface to be great for cooking that perfect oil-less egg. Here are some of the chemicals that are used in these processes:
Roy Plunkett, a chemist at DuPont, accidentally discovered Polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE) in 1938. He and his assistant were testing chemical reactions in a refrigeration gas, and something went wrong with one of the tests. The gas they were testing solidified, and, out of it, PTFE was born. Once Plunkett figured out how to make it again, he patented it and named it Teflon.
Teflon didn’t find its way into the mainstream until the 1960s though. That’s when it showed up in everyone’s kitchens because who could resist that slippery, oil-like, egg-cooking surface?
Unbeknownst to us back then, however, PTFE may actually be quite toxic. Here’s what science says about it.
Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), specifically Perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and Perfluorooctanesulfonic acid (PFOS), were used to make Teflon for most of its life. Basically, scientists created PFAS in order to reduce friction, which makes them perfect for cooking. We use them in everything from food packaging to electronics manufacturing, and they’re in Teflon too.
PFOA and PFOS (C8)
For decades, Teflon was made with Perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and Perfluorooctanesulfonic acid (PFOS) (these chemicals are also known as C8). Research has linked these compounds to birth defects, heart disease, and even cancer. Studies indicate that both chemicals create tumors in animals, and they also show that they increase cholesterol levels in humans. In addition, they may also contribute to a weaker immune system.
The scariest part is that researchers have found that these chemicals are likely in the bloodstream of nearly every human being on the planet. Yes, even in under-developed countries that don’t use Teflon. Even in the blood of babies and children who were born after it was banned in the U.S. That’s because they can travel from mom to baby during pregnancy, and they can stay in the environment and in the human body for long periods of time, according to cancer.org.
These issues and more led the U.S. to ban both PFOA and PFOS. Companies were to begin phasing the chemicals out of processes in 2003, and they had to stop using them entirely by 2014. Even so, some imported products may still use PFOA and PFOS, and many people (including myself until just over a year ago) still use products that they purchased prior to those dates. (You can learn more about my journey to using non-toxic cookware here.)
No, we’re not talking about the demographic generation born after the baby boomers. Many companies introduced GenX chemicals during the phase-out of PFOA and PFOS as a “safer” alternative. Go into any major retailer, and you’ll likely see tons of non-stick cookware marked as “PFOA-free.” GenX chemicals are still a part of the PFAS family of chemicals, however, and the EPA published a draft toxicity review for GenX in 2018 that basically came to the conclusion that GenX may be just as harmful as the chemicals they replaced. The EPA has linked them to issues with the immune system, liver, kidneys, and thyroid, as well as prenatal development.
How to avoid hazardous cookware
Simply put, you should avoid anything that’s marketed “non-stick.” These products have to go through a variety of chemical reactions in order to be less sticky, and they are likely all hazardous to our health in some way.
What type of cookware should I avoid?
As mentioned before, it’s best to try to avoid all non-stick cookware, but here are some specific examples:
Teflon is that typical black non-stick surface that has been in kitchens since the 1960s. Cooking with Teflon can release chemicals, depending on how hot the temperatures are, and Teflon also tends to chip and flake off with use and can then be mixed into food and ingested. If you’re in a situation when you have to cook with Teflon, you should only use medium to low heat, or the chemicals can break down easier and be more harmful.
There are two types of ceramic cookware: ceramic-coated cookware and 100% ceramic cookware.
100% ceramic cookware is natural. However, ceramic-coated cookware is not actually ceramic. It is typically made of metal (likely aluminum or stainless steel) and then coated in an inorganic ceramic-like silicone substance. When you use ceramic cookware at high temperatures, you can release this substance into your food as you cook, and you may release dangerous chemicals (like lead and cadmium) as well. That being said, you can heat ceramic-coated cookware to much higher temperatures than Teflon, so it is likely a safer bet. Like teflon, however, it will lose its non-stick properties as it wears down. In fact, research shows that it actually wears down much faster than Teflon.
To be completely clear, researchers have not studied ceramic-coated cookware nearly as much as PTFE, so the toxicity levels are still unknown.
Enamel-Coated Cast Iron
I love cast iron cookware, as you’ll see in the sections below. Enamel-coated cast iron, however, is a bit different. It has an enamel glaze over the cookware, which helps prevent rust and negates the need for seasoning the cookware. It’s almost like marrying the benefits of teflon with the healthier benefits of cast iron. However, enamel-coated cast iron still isn’t the best option. Studies have shown that the enamel coating can release lead and cadmium into its environment, similar to ceramic coatings. Cadmium is a known carcinogen, and high lead levels can cause brain and kidney damage.
Types of non-toxic cookware
Stainless steel is not non-stick on its own, but it does carry some great properties. In fact, many professional kitchens across the world use all stainless steel cookware. A good stainless steel pan will heat up quickly, distribute heat evenly, and cooperate well with nearly any ingredient. P.S. Stainless steel can be non-stick when you add oil, grease, or butter to it properly.
Cast iron cookware can act just like Teflon. When seasoned properly and well taken care of, cast iron will begin to have a glossy, non-stick surface that needs little-to-no oil added to it before cooking. It retains heat well, and it heats evenly. It’s safe to use at high temperatures, and it’s oven-safe. You can even get a non-toxic waffle maker that is made out of cast iron. That being said, cast iron does absorb flavors. That means the vegetable stir-fry that you make one night may have a slight taste of the seafood that you made the night before.
100% ceramic cookware is made of clay and then heated using a kiln. It does not leach chemicals, and, unlike cast iron, it will not absorb the flavors of your food. It is safe to use at high temperatures, and since it’s 100% ceramic, there is no risk of the coating flaking off into your food.
Glass is non-porous and completely chemical-free, but it can shatter. Though it is oven-safe, be sure to use caution when baking with glass. Most importantly, you should never transfer glass bakeware quickly from the refrigerator to the oven, or vice versa. Doing so can cause it to break down and eventually (if not immediately) shatter.
How to care for your non-toxic cookware
Stainless Steel cookware is potentially the easiest to care for. It’s typically dishwasher safe, and you can use nearly any type of utensil on it (though it’s always better to use wood or silicone).
100% ceramic cookware
You can wash ceramic cookware in plain old soap and water, just like you wash many of your other dishes. It is more durable than other types of cookware, but you should still use wood or silicone utensils — metal utensils may damage the coating. Like glass, ceramic cookware you should always allow ceramic cookware to cool before immersing in water. Though it can withstand broad ranges of heat and cold, an abrupt change in temperature can still damage it.
Cast iron cookware
Many people think cast iron is difficult to care for, but it’s really quite simple once you get the hang of it. In fact, it doesn’t need much cleaning. You can usually rinse it (while still warm) and be done. You can clean more difficult areas with salt and oil or use a cast-iron scrubber. (My favorite low-cost cast iron scrubber is this one from Amazon.) After washing it, you need to make sure it’s completely dry, which will keep it from rusting. I like to put mine back on the heated stove until I don’t see the water droplets anymore. After that, you need to season the cast iron. Basically, you should wipe a bit of oil all over it. This prevents rust and gives it a non-stick surface that’s perfect for cooking.
As mentioned previously, you should avoid abrupt changes in temperature when dealing with glass. This means you should not run water on hot glass (so don’t pull it out of the oven, transfer food to another dish, and then immediately try to wash the glass), and you should not add liquids to an already hot dish.
My Top Picks for the Best Non-Toxic Cookware
Now that we’ve learned a lot more about what makes cookware toxic, here is the list you’ve been waiting for. These are the best non-toxic cookware, according to publicly-posted reviews (and my own experience).
Best Stainless Steel Cookware
Overview – This set includes a 1.5qt Saucepan with cover, 2.5qt Saucepan with cover, 3qt Sauté Pan with helper handle and cover, 6qt Stockpot with cover, 8” Skillet, and 10” Skillet. It features a triple-ply construction, which is supposed to help eliminate hot-spots make for more even cooking.
Pros – Suitable for all stove types (including induction), dishwasher safe, has measurement markers in cups and liters, food cooks evenly
Cons – not non-stick, some reviews mention that the pans warp with use (though I have not personally had this issue)
Overview – The set includes a 1.5 qt saucepan, 1.5, 2, and 3 qt saucepots, 5.5 qt stockpot, and a 10-inch saute fry pan, each with tempered glass lids
Pros – Oven-safe, suitable for all stove types (including induction), dishwasher safe
Cons – handles get hot very quickly, many reviews have mentioned some warping after multiple uses, some have had issues with the handle popping off after many uses
Best Ceramic Cookware
Overview The set includes a 1.5-Quart Versa Pot, 2.5-Quart Versa Pot, 3.5-Quart Versa Pot, 10-Inch Traditions Skillet, Skillet/Wok Silicone Handle Pot Holder, and 2-Piece Red Pot Holders
Pros dishwasher-safe, non-toxic, better for the environment than metal cookware, oven-safe, heats evenly
Cons price, handles get hot, heavy, breakable, takes longer to heat up
Best Cast Iron Cookware
Lodge Seasoned Cast Iron 2 Skillet Bundle. 12 inches and 10.25 inches Set of 2 Cast Iron Frying Pans
Overview – Includes two cast iron skillets, one 12-inch skillet and one 10.25-inch skillet
Pros – pre-seasoned, retains heat, made in the U.S., oven-safe
Cons – learning curve to care for (true for any cast iron), handles get hot (I use this silicone cover for my cast iron handles), heavy
Overview – Includes one 12-inch skillet
Pros – heats quickly and evenly, retains heat,
Cons – learning curve to care for (true for any cast iron), handles get hot (I use a silicone cover for my handles, which are $__ on Amazon), heavy, some reviews have mentioned warping (but I have not had this issue, and I have had mine for over two years)
Best Glass Cookware
Overview – Taken directly from the OXO website, “this line of Bakeware is made of borosilicate glass, a durable type of glass that can withstand extreme temperature changes without breaking or shattering. This means the dishes can go from the directly from the freezer or refrigerator to the oven without breaking.”
Pros – freezer-safe, oven-safe, large handles, includes lids for easy storage, dishwasher-safe
Cons – Though the description says they are made to withstand extreme temperatures, these are glass, and they can still break, lids are plastic (though they are bpa-free)
The set includes one 9×13 baking dish, one 8×8 baking dish, and two 1-cup glass storage containers, each with their own lids
Pros – dishwasher-safe, oven-safe, freezer-safe, lids included for easy storage, large handles
Cons – potential to shatter, lids are plastic
I hope you found this guide of the best non-toxic cookware useful! Let me know if you’ve tried any of these options, or if you have others that you love!
If you’re interested in non-toxic living, be sure to check out my other posts as well!