What Is Teflon?

Teflon is the apple iPhone of cookware. It’s a dominant non-stick brand that’s popular for its ease of use and convenience.

In 2020, the global PTFE market was valued at 2.7 billion U.S. dollars. And by 2026, this is expected to reach 3.8 billion dollars.

But despite its glowing popularity, recently, consumers have become concerned over the material’s safety. 

What is Teflon, and how is it made? Why could it be dangerous for you? Continue reading to find out.

What Is Teflon?

Teflon is a brand name for a non-stick coating called Polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE). 

PTFE is a long-chain carbon polymer surrounded by fluoride atoms. These fluoride atoms fully surround the carbon atoms, so they can’t react with other molecules. This is what makes PTFE one of the most slippery substances in the world.

Teflon is used in various ways; you encounter the material more often than you think. It’s heat resistant and hydrophobic, meaning it repels water. This is why it’s such a popular material for our cookware items.

You can also find it in water-repelling fabrics, cars, and specific interior paints. It’s even been used for the construction of the international space station. [1

PTFE was discovered by accident in 1938 by Roy J. Plunkett when he was working on new refrigerator gas for DuPont. Plunkett noticed the gas stopped flowing before it had registered as empty. So he decided to cut it open and discovered a white, waxy coating inside. 

Plunkett eventually patented the substance as PTFE. Its first use was in the linings and gaskets of the world’s first atomic bomb in World War II.

It took until 1954 for Teflon to be used on domestic items. A French engineer, Marc Grégoire, learned of Teflon and developed a way to use it on his fishing tackle.

His wife urged him to try using the same material on her cooking pans. Grégoire later established the world’s first PTFE-coated brand of cookware, Tefal.

And in 1961, PTFE-coated pans finally landed in the US when Marion A. Trozzolo marketed “The Happy Pan.” [2]

How Is Teflon Made?

PTFE

The manufacturing process for Teflon is done in four steps:

1. Synthesize TFE

TetraFluoroEthylene (TFE) is made with hydrofluoric, fluorspar, and chloroform.

These chemicals are combined in a chemical reaction chamber that is then heated at a high temperature. This produces a cool, distilled gas that removes contaminants, and the final material is turned into a liquid.

2. Polymerization

The reaction chamber is filled with purified water to cool, and the liquid TFE is added. This is followed by Iron, which acts as a reaction initiator and begins to polymerize the material into Teflon.

During this process, the PTFE forms solid granules that will float to the water’s surface.

Eventually, Teflon dries into a dry powder, similar to wheat flour. This material is then sent to a mill for grinding and sieved to prevent large lumps and air pockets.

3. Agglomeration 

Agglomeration allows manufacturers to convert the fine powder into large granules.

Firstly, they’ll blend a solvent like acetone with the PTFE powder. This mixture is put into a rotating drum where it mixes and sticks together. 

Small pellets form that is then added to an oven to dry. These pellets are then molded in a variety of ways. Generally, manufacturers will usually turn Teflon into billets for easy transportation.

4. Compression & Transportation

Once it reaches this stage, the PTFE is placed in stainless steel molds and then compressed by a hydraulic press.

The material is heated at a high temperature for several hours, turning it into a gel-like substance that can be cooled into steel molds.

The finished product is packaged and delivered to manufacturers, who will then cut it up into smaller pieces for processing.

So How Do They Get Teflon to Stick To Pans?

You’ve probably gathered that PTFE is a highly resistant, slippery material. And this can make it hard for them to apply it to specific objects or items. Generic methods simply do not work.

Manufacturers use two unique methods to make Teflon stick to a pan.

Sandblasting

This method involves creating an uneven surface that encourages adherence. 

Think of this like how ice cubes stick in a tray or how velcro binds together.

A primer layer of Teflon is sprayed on, then baked at a high heat that helps the PTFE get a secure grip. The initial spraying is followed by one or two more spraying rounds before finally being considered finished.

Sintering  

Sintering involves barraging the item with ions in a high vacuum under an electric field. 

This causes the bonds holding the fluorine atoms to break and allows the carbon to bind to other materials, such as oxygen. And this inevitably enables the material to stick to the pan.

Another way manufacturers use this method is by subjecting one side of the Teflon to a reducing agent.

This reducing agent breaks the strong bonds between the fluorine and carbons. The fluorine bonds together and leave the carbon atoms free. These “free” atoms form unsaturated hydrocarbons and make them sticky enough to stick the PTFE sheet to the pan.

Is Teflon Dangerous?

Teflon itself is safe.

But, when it exceeds temperatures of 500°F (260°C), Teflon starts to break down and release toxic fumes. [3]

Inhaling these toxic fumes can cause you to suffer from Teflon Flu (also known as polymer fume fever). This fever causes flu-like symptoms such as body aches, headaches, chills, and fever. These symptoms will usually pass within 12-48 hours.

In extreme (and rare) cases, some case studies have shown severe symptoms such as lung damage when exposed to overheated Teflon. [4]

That being said, these individuals were exposed for up to 4 hours to Teflon cookware exceeding 730°F (390°C).

Teflon and PFOA

Perfluorooctanoic Acid (PFOA), or C8, is a man-made chemical used to make many household items, including Teflon. The chemical helped prevent clumping.

It is part of a large family of 4,500 chemicals known as PFAS (Per- and Polyfluoroalkyl substances). These chemicals are also referred to as “forever” chemicals.

Nearly every human has trace amounts of PFOA or similar chemicals in their blood. A report by the CDC’s National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey showed PFAS chemicals in the blood of 97% of Americans. [5]

You’ll encounter PFAS chemicals on a daily basis. You can find it in:

  • Packaging (Popcorn bags, pizza boxes, takeaway containers)
  • Textiles (Waterproof clothing, carpets, mattresses)
  • Electronics (Smartphones)
  • Kitchen items (Non-stick cookware)
  • Personal care products (Shampoo, hair conditioner, sunscreen)
  • Drinking Water

In 2016, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) issued an indefinite health advisory for PFOA. Several studies conducted on lab animals and large groups of people have shown that this chemical is harmful. [6]

The European Union refers to PFOA as a “Substance of Very High Concern.” At the same time, the World Health Organisation classifies the chemical as “possibly carcinogenic to humans.” [7]

High levels of exposure to PFOA can lead to:

  • Abnormal blood pressure (incl. pregnancy)
  • Changes in cholesterol levels
  • Liver damage
  • Kidney & Testicular cancer
  • Thyroid disease
  • Ulcerative colitis

PFOA is also harmful to breastfed babies, children, and fetuses. It has also been linked to causing problems with immune systems, early puberty, and low birth weight.

Is PFOA Still Used?

PFOA is no longer used or made in the US. All Teflon products, including non-stick cookware, have been PFOA-free since 2013.

In 2006, the EPA invited eight major manufacturers to participate in the PFOA Stewardship Program. The participants included:

  • 3M
  • DuPont
  • Arkema
  • Asahi
  • BASF Corporation
  • Clariant
  • Daikin
  • Solvay Solexis

Each participant committed to the gradual elimination of PFOA in its business operations (both global and domestic) by 2015. All of the companies met these requirements by 2013. [8]

However, companies in other countries continue to use PFAS chemicals, such as the UK.

In 2020, a Scottish non-profit organization, Fidra, showed PFAS chemicals in 95% of food packaging samples. The study used major grocery companies, takeaway chains, and restaurants. It took samples of greaseproof paper, pizza boxes, bakery bags, and compostable takeaway boxes. [9,10]

PFAS and the Environment

There is no natural source of PFAS chemicals; they are entirely man-made.

PFAS chemicals can be found in marine life, birds, mammals, reptiles, and predators. They’ve even been found in penguins in the South and polar bears in the North. [11

In fact, in 2012, the Society of Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry showed how polar bears in East Greenland were being affected by PFAS chemicals. [12]

And because of their widespread use, these harmful chemicals have now made their way into our environment.

During the manufacturing of certain goods, PFAS chemicals are lost in our environment. They can be lost in the atmosphere or in groundwater and waterways.

Below is an example of how we release PFAS chemicals into our environment.

All PFASs are highly resistant and mobile in the environment. They have been shown to last longer than any other man-made chemical or substance.

And these chemicals can accumulate as dust or be washed out in the rain, which inevitably leads to our oceans.

Steps to Lower Teflon Risks When Cooking

Cooking with Teflon-coated cookware can be perfectly safe and convenient.

To manage any risks associated with Teflon, you can do the following:

  • Don’t cook at high temperatures: Most cooking techniques need medium to low temperatures. But you should avoid broiling. Teflon recommends keeping temperatures below 500°F (260°C) to prevent the material from breaking down.
  • Use wooden, plastic, or silicone utensils: It might be safe to use metal utensils, but it’s best to air on the side of caution. This helps prolong the life of your cookware and prevents scratches and scuffs.
  • Never preheat your empty pan: Pans can reach high temperatures quicker if they’re empty, potentially releasing polymer fumes. Always ensure you have food in your cookware before preheating.
  • Ventilate when you can: Whenever possible, it’s best to try and ventilate your kitchen when cooking. Try opening a window or using your exhaust fan to get rid of any lingering fumes.
  • Change any old cookware: You can easily see when Teflon is deteriorating. If you notice any peeling, flaking, or chipping, it’s time to treat yourself to new cookware!
  • Always hand wash: Cookware generally responds better to a gentle wash with warm, soapy water. Avoid putting your Teflon items in the dishwasher as it’ll quickly deteriorate your pots and pans.

And remember, always follow the manufacturer’s instructions for safety and care. 

How To Tell The Temperature of Your Pan

Don’t have the luxury of a digital thermometer to test the temperature of your pan? 

There are a few simple things you can look out for as a rough guideline.

Alternatives to Nonstick PTFE Cookware

Non-stick cookware is perfectly safe to use. In fact, according to the American Cancer Society, PFOA-free cookware poses no risks to humans. [13]

But if you are concerned about using PTFE cookware, there are some alternatives you can try. 

  • Cast Iron. We highly recommend cast iron cookware for its durability and quality. And if you season it correctly, it can be non-stick too. Cast iron is designed to withstand high temperatures, making it suitable for all cooking methods.
  • Ceramic. Only recently has ceramic material been used for cookware. This material has excellent non-stick properties, and many consider it much safer than traditional non-stick materials. However, ceramic can easily be scratched.
  • Stainless Steel. Stainless steel is an excellent material for browning and sautéing food. For busy families, it’s an ideal material because of its durability, scratch resistance, and convenience.
  • Stoneware. Stoneware is an ideal material for even heat distribution. It’s suitable for all cooking methods and can withstand high temperatures. 

Always ensure you follow the manufacturer’s instructions for care and safety.

Summing Up

PTFE is found in many people’s kitchens. It’s a popular material for its durability and convenience.

Teflon has faced controversies in the past, especially its use of PFOA.

Several health agencies aired their concerns about this harmful chemical. But since 2013, Teflon has been PFOA-free.

Today’s Teflon-coated cookware is perfectly safe for you to use, provided it doesn’t exceed 500°F (260°C).

If you’re worried about using non-stick and want to learn more about the different materials, try our article on safe cookware materials.

Written by
James Fuller

Hey I'm James, the one who started Purely Cookware. All my life, I've been lucky enough to bond with family around the dinner table. And I will be using this website to teach you how you can do the same.