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Most people never really consider changing or replacing kitchen items unless they become utterly useless. And when it comes to expensive cookware, they delay the replacement process as far as they can. However some items – such as non-stick pots and pans – are rumoured to be potentially toxic. Therefore the question often comes up when to throw away non-stick pans. Well, here we try to provide a simple approach.
Due to the chemicals in the non-stick coating, those pans believed to cause health-related issues when damaged or when their lifespan is over. That is why it is quite essential to know when to discard non-stick cookware, no matter how expensive they are.
Approximately 70% of fry pans available in the market have a non-stick coating. Easy cleaning, no food sticking on the bottom, and less oil-cooked meals are a few of the major reasons why non-stick pans are so popular. Non-stick pans usually also heat evenly ensuring thorough frying.
Most of us worry about the toxic chemical ingredients used in non-stick pans. Many studies have been conducted to reveal the facts about toxic chemicals used in non-stick pans. There were some insightful findings and certain materials have already been prohibited.
Some studies concluded that it is safe to cook in non-stick pans as long as they are not overheated, when the coating may disintegrate and release toxic fumes. The overheating is not always visible, but internally the coating is breaking down. Most non-stick pans are coated with Teflon. Overheating will break the chemical compounds in the tough synthetic layer of the non-stick pan. This may release toxic chemicals, that can cause several health related issues.
Other opinions say that similar toxic materials are released when a non-stick pan is damaged or scratched.
What Makes a Non-Stick Pan Potentially Dangerous?
Non-stick pans are not really dangerous as long as they are properly taken care of. Rough use like overheating, cleaning with tough materials, and scratching with knives and spoons will damage the non-stick pan and may result in the release of toxins.
Let’s go through the key points that describe how and when it is dangerous to use a non-stick pan:
The coating of a non-stick pan is very often made of Teflon. It is damaging the Teflon layer that results in dangerous outcomes. Extra care should be given when we cook and clean the non-stick pan, otherwise, it may become toxic.
One of the dangers is overheating. Studies show that in high heat over 570°F/300°C the teflon coating may release toxic polymer fumes. These fumes are the result of thermal degradation of a material called PTFE, the inhalation of which is dangerous.
Breathing in the fumes of PTFE may result in flu-like symptoms and even lung damage. 
PFOA Inclusion in Teflon
Perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) is a chemical that was used to make non-stick pans before 2013. As per the current standards, pan manufacturers are not allowed to use PFOA.
While today’s non-stick cookware are advertised as PFOA free, several companies used to add PFOA to produce Teflon until 2013. When PFOA is burnt at a very high temperature during non-stick pan manufacturing, some parts remain with the product.
According to experts PFOA is associated with several diseases like kidney and liver diseases, thyroid imbalance and even cancer.  It is therefore super-essential to check whether a non-stick pan is PFOA free or not before investing in it. Or if you have one that was manufactured before 2013, probably it’s best to simply get a new one, better not risk having toxic compounds near your food.
Empty Non-Stick Pan
A lot of people place the non-stick pan on the stove and begin their cooking later. This is a dangerous practice. There is nothing that absorbs the heat from the pan, so it overheats easily. This way the non-stick pan starts releasing toxic fumes as already mentioned above. If an empty pan is heated for 1-2 minutes, Teflon can already start to disintegrate.
Using Metal Utensils on a Non-Stick Pan
Metal items can scratch the non-stick surfaces. It is better to avoid them. Wooden utensils are best for non-stick pans. Heat resistant plastic is also an option, but still wooden items are less likely to include toxic materials. Cooking in scratched cookware may mean that some Teflon particles land in the food of your family.
Using Steel Pads for Cleaning Non-Stick Pan
The non-stick pan should be gently cleaned. Some people use steel pads to clean the Teflon layer of a non-stick pan. Such cleaning brings scratches that will result in damaging the Teflon coating.
Using a Lightweight Non-Stick Pan
Lightweight pans are cheaper and easier to damage, they can be warped easily even by hand. These lightweight pans usually have a thinner layer of Teflon that melts quickly at high temperatures and the base material itself overheats faster. Extra care should be taken if you are using such a pan.
When Do You Need to Throw Away Your Pan?
Nowadays, most non-stick cookware come with a warranty. If your pan is damaged within the warranty period, you can apply for a replacement. However, we should also know when to throw away non-stick pans without a second thought and when a non-stick pan becomes toxic.
Given below are the few scenarios where throwing away a non-stick pan is necessary:
- If your pan is warped after falling on the floor or your utensils damage it, then better to throw away the pan.
- You may have observed discoloration of the non-stick pan after using it for few months. These colors may come from the cooked food. If you find a dark color on the pan surface, then you should rather change the pan. The dark color is a sign of Teflon damage.
- Your non-stick pan is full of scratches. What to do? Replace it, don’t bring any other thought in your mind. Scratches make Teflon flake off and land in your food, they do not cause any major harm, but better not risk eating it.
Question and Answers About the Safety of Non-Stick Pans
Q1: Is it OK to use scratched non-stick pans?
Are scratched Teflon pans dangerous? It means you are likely eating Teflon with your food. Small particles mix with the food, and you swallow them. According to latest studies it’s not particularly toxic.  However, you’d rather avoid it still.
Q2: My pan base has different colors? Why?
Generally, those colors come from the food you cook. You should not worry until you get a dark discoloration on the cooking surface. In this case it is likely that the Teflon layer is damaged, so it’s time to replace your pan.
Q3: When to throw away nonstick pans?
Scratches, warped, overheated pan, discoloration of the Teflon layer are the few conditions when the pan should be thrown away.
Q4: Is a burnt non-stick pan toxic?
Overheating may cause damage to the pan and may result in the inhalation of toxic fumes. If you see that the pan is obviously damaged and the color of the cooking surface has changed, better get rid of it.
Q5: How to clean a non-stick pan?
Clean it gently with soft items. Don’t use any metallic items on the cooking surface of the pan. You can use water and regular dishwasher detergents. We of course recommend that you use a natural detergent.
Q6: How to clean a burnt non-stick pan?
If it is overheated, damaged and discolored, you throw it away. If there is only some food burnt on it you may add some baking soda with water and leave it dissolve the burnt food for a few hours then scrub it with some gentle scouring pad. Never use any metallic stuff to scrub it.
Q7: How to choose the right non-stick pan?
Heavyweight, PFOA free (a chemical called perfluorooctanoic acid that is proven to be dangerous), long warranty time, and of course, the reputation of the manufacturer are a few of the primary criteria to choose a good non-stick pan.
Q8: How long do non-stick pans last?
Non-stick pans can last five years, but it depends very much on the quality of the pan and how carefully it is used. With proper care a high quality pan with multi-layered non-stick coating can last even longer.
Q9: Are old non-stick pans safe?
PFOA was widely used in these cookware before 2013, so if they are older then that it’s better to replace them. Otherwise if the pan is old, but there is absolutely no sign of damage, you can safely use it.
If you are interested in finding out about other toxins in your kitchen, here’s an article about how to tell if old dishes have any lead.
Q10: Are there any pans that do not have potentially toxic coating?
Yes, Teflon is not the only solution. Most ceramic pans do not have any potentially toxic compounds on them or even any coating at all and still they are not sticky. Some cast iron pans are also advertised as non-sticky, but those are just rather not as sticky as a low quality cast iron pan.
Q11: Are non-stick pans dishwasher safe?
If the manufacturer does not state it clearly better avoid dishwasher as it may reduce the lifetime of the pan.
Q12: Can non-stick pans go in the oven?
Most of them can’t, as they have some plastic or other not heat resistant material on the handle. On the other hand, Teflon can overheat in the oven easily and that is dangerous. There are oven safe pans, where the handle is heat resistant, but this is clearly stated by the manufacturer.
Q13: How to dispose of non-stick pans?
Some manufacturers offer recycling programs, you can check this on their websites or contact them via e-mail. Otherwise you can treat them as regular scrap metal.
If we want do define simply when to throw away non-stick pans: if there are obvious signs of damage, scratches, deformation or discoloration of the non-stick surface, you should throw away your pan. A well maintained pan may survive five years or even more.
The risks: the biggest risk is a carcinogen chemical called PFOA, but it’s banned since 2013, the second biggest is overheating which may result in toxic fumes, and the last one is Teflon getting into your food, which is not proven to be harmful, but better to avoid.