I started investigating safe non-toxic cookware hoping for a definite answer. I was looking for something like: this cookware is always safe to use. Unfortunately, it turns out not to be that simple.
There isn’t a single piece of cookware you can point to and say is 100% safe in all circumstances for everyone. A pan that is safe, or even ideal, for one person may be problematic for their children.
It can depend on allergies you have, on your current iron levels, on what you are cooking, and on how you are cooking.
Some things will also be a matter of personal belief – the research doesn’t offer absolutes. That can be frustrating, but it means you might have more than one option for non-toxic cookware.
My goal here is to help you find the safest non-toxic cookware for your family. It’s worth a few minutes of your time to look through this complete non-toxic cookware guide.
How To Choose Safe Non-Toxic Cookware?
Consider the Coating & Cookware Surface
Cookware materials can be confusing. A copper pan may not have any copper. An aluminum pan may not have aluminum in contact with the food. And a nonstick pan could be just about anything.
Titanium is strong and light, stainless steel is durable, copper is great for heat transfer and aluminum is cheap. Yet, if these metals aren’t in contact with your food, how can they affect toxicity?
The starting point for food safety in cookware is the coating or lining of the pan. The cooking surface is what your food touches, so it’s the most important part when it comes to cooking safety.
For that reason, this guide focuses on the coating. Is it toxic? Does it degrade? This is important as a pan is often advertised using the base metal, not the coating. For example:
- Hard-anodized aluminum pans normally have a separate nonstick coating.
- Copper pans rarely actually expose your food to copper.
- Almost all ceramic pans have some sort of coating on top, or are combined with titanium (see my titanium cookware guide).
The flip side of this is that once the coating is scratched, you should throw the pan away. Whatever is underneath the coating may not be food grade. In any case, a damaged surface is more likely to leach toxic elements into your food.
When looking at the details of a pan’s coating, some key questions to ask are:
- Is it toxic?
- How easily does it degrade or chip?
- What is the maximum safe temperature?
- Does it have lead?
Other Materials in the Cookware
Materials in the body of the cookware can also impact health. They might emit toxic fumes when heated. Or if they are less durable, they may contribute to the pan degrading.
It’s not a direct health concern, but it’s worth considering the sustainability of the cookware. There are two ways for non-toxic cookware to be sustainable:
- Easily recyclable materials from renewable, low energy, sources, like bamboo
- Very long-lasting cookware like cast iron or carbon steel
Of course, this isn’t a tick box but a gradient, and it’s a difficult one to measure. Often it might not depend completely on the material.
My suggestion here is to also look at the manufacturer – are they committed to sustainability? Do they make an effort to offset carbon? Do they have a recycling program for old cookware?
If sustainability is important to you, I would do my research and take the time to contact the manufacturer to ask questions about the materials used and the manufacturing process. A little time upfront could save you a lot of future headaches and guilt.
When you pick non-toxic cookware, make sure that it is actually meant for cooking. It should be food-grade and approved for heating. If you try to cook food in something not meant for it, you are asking for trouble, whatever the material.
I believe that the single most important factor in the safety of non-toxic cookware is the manufacturer.
A reputable manufacturer, or importer, selling in these countries will adhere to the law. I’m not going to pretend that governments are perfect! But you can hope for good minimum standards based on scientific evidence. For example, there should never be large amounts of lead leaching from modern cookware. At least not if it is made by a reputable manufacturer, in a developed country. (Ditto for cookware imported by a big brand).
When buying cookware online, it’s important to look at the seller. It’s possible to buy a good brand from a shady seller, only to receive a used or completely different product. If you’re unsure whether the seller is trustworthy, look at the customer reviews and their other product offerings. If the customer ratings are negative or appear fake, try to find the cookware from a different online seller.
There have been cases of lead poisoning on cookware bought from abroad.
I mean here’s another way of looking at it – if you don’t trust the manufacturer – how do you know they are even telling you the truth? They could say what they like about the cookware material.
Handmade cookware is going to be the most risky. The person making it may not even know what they need to do to make it safe. They could accidentally poison you.
Handmade stuff is nice to look at, but maybe not so great with food. I’m sure they are exceptions here, but I would be extra careful. Beautiful handmade pieces are great for decoration, but I wouldn’t use them for any actual cooking. When it comes to non-toxic cookware, you don’t want to take any chances.
Convenience & Ease of Use
It’s not only the health aspects that count; it’s no good buying a pan you won’t use because it doesn’t work for you.
These are the things I look at:
- Is it dishwasher safe? How easy is it to clean?
- Can I use metal utensils?
- Is it oven safe?
- Are the handles cool to touch when I pick it up?
- How long does it last?
- How much work is it to look after it?
- What’s the cost?
- Will it work on my stove?
I don’t need a yes to every question – these simply help me form a picture, and perhaps plug a gap in my cookware.
Is Old Cookware Safe?
Unless it is stainless steel (and not enameled) or cast iron cookware, I would be very careful with old cookware. It’s easiest to explain separately for each material.
Old Copper Cookware
Copper is an essential element but too much is bad for you. Any old copper cookware is likely to be pure copper, and even if not, it may have an exposed copper surface.
It’s difficult to say for sure how much old copper cookware will affect your copper intake. I don’t take this risk with my family.
Old Nonstick Cookware
You should avoid old Teflon, or similar nonstick at all costs. Teflon used to be made using Perfluorooctanoic Acid (PFOA) a toxic substance. This hasn’t been the case for years now, so it doesn’t apply to new nonstick pans.
What’s more, nonstick gets damaged. It chips, and exposes the layer underneath. This vastly increases the risks.
Nonstick pans should get a good few years of use and then be thrown away. But clearly, this isn’t great for the environment.
Old Aluminum Cookware
Aluminum has been linked to Alzheimer’s. Most modern aluminum cookware will have a coating, so it should be fine. In the case of older cookware, this coating may be damaged, or may not have existed. It’s just too risky for me, so I would pass on it. Read more about safe cooking with aluminum.
Old Ceramic / Enamel / Glass Cookware
With older ceramic, glass, and enamel cookware, I’m wary about the lead content.
Probably anything in the last couple of decades is OK, but it’s a good idea to check what it’s supposed to be coated with.
If you have a beloved piece of old ceramic cookware, why not test it for lead? Search for “lead kit” and you will find plenty of inexpensive tests. If it has lead in it, you’ll know not to cook with it.
Old Cookware that’s OK
Cast iron and carbon steel pans should be fine, whatever their age. They might need cleaning and seasoning, but you can rehab the pan back to life with a little patience and elbow grease.
Watch out for enameled cast iron though – does the enamel have lead?
What Modern Cookware is Safe and Non-Toxic?
Cast Iron and Carbon Steel Pans
Cast Iron and carbon steel have some differences in their heating properties. However, for toxicity purposes, they are basically the same metal.
Carbon steel and cast iron cookware are, for many people, the safest cookware to use.
They don’t emit toxic fumes, nor leach nasty chemicals and don’t really have a maximum safe temperature. (At least for normal cooking purposes).
The biggest potential controversy, healthwise, can also be an advantage. According to a study from the 1980s, published in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association, cast iron cookware will leach iron into your food. The amount increases if the food is acidic, like tomatoes.
But if you are iron deficient – great! You get more iron!
So if you have Hemochromatosis avoid cast iron cookware. If you have a young family, perhaps use it sparingly. If you have anemia – use it often!
You need to be especially careful when cooking tomatoes or other acidic food with cast iron. It increases the amount of iron leached into your food and can damage the pan.
The other consideration with cast iron is that it is more work than other non-toxic cookware. Do you have the time to care for cast iron pans? Are you going to clean then immediately after every use, dry and oil them? Every. Single. Time.
Since I have children, I don’t have as much time for cast iron cookware.
Unless you have hemochromatosis, I would recommend at least one cast-iron skillet. They are useful and versatile, plus they can last lifetimes.
If you’re interested, check out my carbon steel skillet guide.
Enameled Cast Iron Cookware
If the pan, or pot, is completely covered in enamel, then this can be a great idea. The cast iron heats evenly, and retains its heat. The enamel protects the cast iron and eliminates the need for seasoning.
Obviously, you need to make sure the enamel surface is safe.
Unfortunately, what some manufacturers do is leave part of the cast iron exposed. This isn’t great since you do need to look after that part of the cast iron. I kind of don’t see the point of this, but it’s pretty common.
Even so, enameled cast iron is still non-toxic cookware if the enamel surface is safe.
Stainless Steel Cookware
Stainless steel cookware is one of the safest cookware materials. When I think of non-toxic cookware, stainless steel immediately comes to mind. Most people will use stainless steel without a problem, though there are some exceptions that I will cover.
In terms of temperature, the limits are ridiculously high – you don’t need to worry about them when using stainless steel cookware. (Of course, be careful not to burn yourself on the handle!)
It’s particularly convenient when making soup or pasta and using lots of water. Nothing sticks to the side of the pan when there is a lot of liquid. Stainless steel is also non-reactive, so it doesn’t matter what liquid you’re using. For instance, I wouldn’t simmer tomato sauce in a cast iron pan. The iron could potentially react with the acidity of the tomatoes. But I would absolutely simmer marinara sauce in a stainless steel pan.
If you are using stainless steel for frying, be prepared to scrub and to scrub hard. It’s easy for food to get stuck, and often appears as a “stain” that takes a lot of effort to get out. It’s still non-toxic cookware, but it is higher maintenance in that case.
Stainless steel does leach nickel and chromium. For most people, this isn’t a big problem, but it does mean I wouldn’t recommend using it all the time.
If you have a nickel allergy, you need to be especially careful with stainless steel cookware. One option is to get nickel-free stainless steel pans. Any stainless steel grade in the format “XX/0” won’t have any nickel, as that last 0 means 0% nickel. For example, stainless steel grades “21/0” or “18/0” have no nickel. Most stainless steel is 18/10 – i.e. 10% nickel.
Stainless steel cookware with a damaged surface is most likely to leach nickel, chromium, or even iron. This can happen if you use metal utensils or scour with steel wool. When your stainless steel cookware is damaged, it’s time to replace it.
The good news? It’s pretty tough to damage stainless steel cookware if you avoid using metal utensils or steel wool. Your chances of leaching other metals is very small with proper use and care.
Stainless steel is one of my top choices for non-toxic cookware, but it’s important to consider the caveats.
I’ve come across many a “copper” pan that didn’t have any copper in it at all! Those that do have copper often have a ceramic cooking surface. This is perhaps the most confusing label when it comes to non-toxic cookware.
Copper is a great material for heating and is often included as an interior layer in pans. Some pans are “copper-bottomed” to help spread the heat (though I’ve noticed the copper will wear away over time).
So the first question to ask is – is it really copper cookware? Is the cooking surface made of copper?
If the answer is yes, you may have a problem.
As with many materials, copper will leach into food. Copper is an essential mineral, so you may think this isn’t so bad. But, we probably get enough copper in our diet as it is, and overexposure to copper is harmful.
So I would avoid pure copper cookware. If it is copper-bottomed, or copper with a lining – look at what the cooking surface is made of.
Teflon and PTFE Nonstick Cookware
The active ingredient of modern Teflon is Polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE). “PTFE nonstick” means Teflon or similar nonstick.
There’s a lot of misinformation about Teflon and PTFE nonstick cookware. Anyone talking to you about Perfluorooctanoic Acid (PFOA) is behind the times. PFOA has been completely banned since 2015.
There are also a lot of complaints about the gases that PTFE releases at high temperatures. Yet a lot of these studies involve heating an empty pan on high heat for a long time. Not something you should do with any cookware and not realistic.
Still, there are examples of pet birds being killed by overheating nonstick pans. I don’t think this happens with normal use. Also, birds are not people. Dogs can be killed by chocolate, for example, but that isn’t cited as a reason not to eat it.
I think PTFE is one of those things that people want to find problems with, and so they do.
But that doesn’t mean it is safe!
There are some concerns that some of the newer materials used in the manufacture of PTFE nonstick are unsafe. Studies are still ongoing, but the main chemical, something known as GenX, is likely safer than PFOA.
In any case, the concerns that do arise are about environmental factors. So it might not be a good idea to live near a non-stick factory, but cooking with nonstick doesn’t seem to be unsafe if done correctly. That’s why I still consider PTFE cookware to be non-toxic cookware, at least based on the research thus far.
And that’s the key; if you are cooking with PTFE nonstick, do it properly. In summary:
- Keep it below 260 °C (500 °F) (fine for most cooking), or manufacturer’s recommendation
- Don’t use metal utensils
- Only put in the dishwasher if in line with manufacturer’s recommendations. Don’t let anything touch the cooking surface while in the dishwasher.
- Throw it away once the inside is chipped or scratched.
- Don’t keep pet birds in the kitchen when using PTFE nonstick
- Always oil and preheat the pan
Titanium is used in dental implants, so it’s hard to imagine it could be unsafe to cook with. What’s more, it’s light, and durable, so surely it’s ideal for non-toxic cookware?
In fact, apart from it being expensive, there are a couple of issues with titanium.
First, it doesn’t heat efficiently, or spread the heat well. It’s just not a great cookware material.
Second, it may release harmful titanium dioxide nanoparticles. However since it normally only releases them at very high temperatures (around 500 ℃ (932℉) – pans shouldn’t reach this when cooking normally. A damaged surface could also be more likely to release these nanoparticles. If you’re careful, this shouldn’t be a problem.
I’d be happy with pure Titanium cookware in terms of safety, but not in terms of performance. Titanium is ideal for backpacking or where you need light, strong cookware. Anywhere else, it is trying to solve the wrong problem.
On the other hand a lot of “titanium” cookware incorporates other materials as the cooking surface, and/or the base. Titanium might be the body, or might be mixed in with ceramic to achieve a nonstick lining. These are probably fine, but as ever, the details are key. Exactly what is being included in the cooking surface? Some titanium ceramic surfaces include PTFE, for example.
The bottom line? Titanium makes for non-toxic cookware, but it doesn’t make for very effective cookware.
The main use of plastic as cookware is in the microwave. It’s critical to check the plastic is microwave-safe. The packaging should state recommended usage and safety. Unsafe plastic may release harmful chemicals like phthalates and bisphenol.
Clay itself may contain lead. This applies even to “natural” clay – lead is present “naturally” in the earth! If it’s glazed, this may stop the lead in the clay leaching out – but what’s in the glaze? I would not consider clay pots to be automatically non-toxic cookware. Definitely do your research on the materials and manufacturing process used.
Don’t be fooled into thinking clay is some sort of natural, healthy cookware – it likely isn’t. There may be special cases, but I would suggest avoiding clay unless you know what you are getting into.
“Ceramic cookware” covers a lot of different cookware. There’s very little pure ceramic cookware on the market. Xtrema cookware is one such cookware brand. In general, ceramic cookware refers to aluminum cookware (or another material) with a ceramic non-stick coating.
Pure ceramic in itself should be fine if it comes from a reputable manufacturer. However, pure ceramic cookware runs the risk of shattering if dropped or exposed to a sudden temperature change. It’s quite fragile.
If it breaks into lots of small pieces this is a safety issue, but even a few large pieces aren’t ideal.
The maximum safe temperatures for ceramic cookware vary by manufacturer.
Anything other than pure ceramic – you need to look at what’s been mixed in or coated on.
Ceramica is a great example of this done well. It’s a non-stick surface on Cuisinart Green Gourmet cookware, and it’s PTFE-free, safe, and environmentally friendly. I would consider this to be an example of non-toxic cookware.
Thermalon is another great cooking surface, it’s used on Green Pan cookware, which offers quite a wide range of safe, non-stick, ceramic products and non-toxic cookware.
Thermalon is a new type of nonstick material incorporating ceramic components. It doesn’t use PTFE and, according to the manufacturer, is “made from natural materials.”
I like that it is stable up to 450 ℃ (840℉). This is more than enough and gives plenty of margin for error. I don’t know how safe it is. It’s new and unknown. It looks promising, though.
Not every manufacturer will do this well though!
For more products and ceramic coatings, check out my ceramic cookware reviews.
Tempered Glass Cookware
Glass is quite rare as far as cookware goes. Yet modern glass cookware is non-toxic and easy to look after.
It’s also durable and scratch resistant.
Drop it and it will smash, though. Likewise, sudden temperature changes are not a good idea. It could cause thermal shock, even in tempered glass pans. Cool and heat slowly.
Most people would count shards of broken glass as a safety issue!
You can use some glass cookware on the stovetop, generally though, glass works well in the oven. I like to use glass bakeware for casseroles and other one-dish oven meals.
Bamboo is just wood, so it should be fine. Be careful to check what, if anything, it has been treated with.
It won’t last very long and has limited uses, but as a steamer it works great.
Even better, since bamboo is a type of grass, it is as sustainable as it gets.
Silicone is used in bakeware and utensils. It’s durable, nonstick, and flexible. It’s difficult to find much hard evidence about silicone. It’s probably safe, but I would like to see some definitive research. I personally only use silicone as a donut and muffin pan. It cools quickly and allows me to remove the baked goods without burning my fingers.
You don’t want to be exposed to aluminum. It is associated with diseases, including Alzheimer’s.
That said with most aluminum cookware you aren’t exposed to the metal itself. There’s two reasons for this.
First, modern cookware is usually anodized aluminum. This means it has a hard aluminum oxide layer around the outside which seals the aluminum in. This aluminum oxide layer is tough and safe.
More importantly, there is normally another surface layer, usually nonstick of some sort. So it’s the surface layer that counts.
It’s also not clear that the exposure you get from using aluminium cookware, or soft drink cans, is actually dangerous.
To be safe, I would recommend only buying anodized aluminum cookware with a coating you trust. When the coating starts to scratch / get damaged – bin the pan.
Stone cookware looks cool and sounds healthy, but in my experience it is mainly a marketing gimmick. Stone cookware is normally just nonstick cookware made to look more attractive.
That doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with it, and sometimes it’s even PTFE-free. If you like the look and are thinking of buying nonstick cookware check out my Stone Cookware Guide.
Keeping Cookware Safe
One of the biggest risks with non-toxic cookware isn’t the material at all, but how you use it. Safe material can turn dangerous if misused.
Using a Microwave
I’m all for convenience, but I haven’t had a microwave for years. I don’t particularly need one; I use the oven instead. It takes a bit more time, but I don’t take up valuable counter space and don’t risk “heat spots”. Honestly – the oven is easier!
If you are using a microwave, it isn’t unhealthy in itself, but you do need to be careful what you use.
Never put anything metallic in the microwave. Metal + Microwave = Fire.
Microwaves heat up water, so I’d avoid putting bamboo in the microwave – you’d cook the bamboo!
Plastics and ceramics might be OK if they are labeled as microwave-safe. Plastics that aren’t microwave-safe may release chemicals when heated, and ceramics may contain metal. I would use them with extreme caution.
To be on the safe side, stick to microwave-safe glass, plastic, and ceramics. Or you could just use the oven or an air fryer for reheating food.
Storing isn’t the same as cooking; you are leaving food in a pot or pan for longer. This increases the chance of something leaching out. It’s best to use glass, ceramic or Tupperware for storage. Make sure they are designed to store food.
Whatever happens, don’t store:
- Acidic foods in metallic containers
- Anything in Teflon, Aluminum or Copper
Metal will probably scratch your cookware. It’s great if cookware is advertised as metal utensil safe as it means it is more durable. But … if you use metal all the time, it’s likely to scratch, even if “metal utensil safe”. With some cookware, like cast iron, you can repair the scratch through seasoning. Most of the time, however, it just ruins the pan.
I use wood or silicone utensils almost exclusively. For those rare times when I use metal, I’m extra careful not to scrape the utensil against the pan. Honestly, I try to avoid any contact with the pan. I mostly save metal utensils for the BBQ or grill.
Cooking with Oil
Whatever surface you cook with, you should always lubricate it with oil. Yes, that even includes nonstick cookware. I prefer olive oil, but you can use any type of cooking oil or fat.
Also, preheat the pan before adding food. It helps make it less sticky. The pan is warm enough when the oil becomes less viscous (more runny). This is absolutely essential if you don’t want food to stick to stainless steel pans.
The one exception to this is nonstick cookware. I wouldn’t preheat an empty Teflon pan to avoid overheating the nonstick surface.
One of the biggest mistakes people make is overheating their cookware. Respect manufacturer temperature limits. Make sure that you are using the right temperature scale (Celsius or Fahrenheit).
Most decent pans should be able to cope with a medium heat. They can perhaps cope with a high heat for a short time with food in the pan (to get started).
Never heat an empty non-stick pan.
If you have concerns about overheating your cookware, I would recommend stainless steel. It can handle the full range of normal cooking temperatures without breaking down. The worst thing that will happen if you use too high a heat is that your food will stick to the pan.
Cleaning Your Cookware
It’s a bad idea to leave things to soak for a long time – cast iron will rust, but other pans could get damaged. Clean it straight away.
Dishwashers are normally fine, but check the manufacturer’s instructions. Some recommend against the dishwasher.
You should wash carbon steel and cast iron cookware by hand. In fact you should take particular care when cleaning cast iron or carbon steel.
When cleaning, for all cookware, be careful with abrasive materials. Ideally avoid them altogether. They can damage lining or trigger release of harmful chemicals when next cooking.
Maintenance & Care
Keep an eye on the surface of the pan. If it starts to become damaged, you may need to throw away the pan or re-season it. Be sure to follow the manufacturer’s instructions when it comes to seasoning your pan.
In general, carbon steel and cast iron pans require seasoning. You can also season non-stick stainless steel pans, although it’s not usually required to use the pan. The basic idea behind seasoning is to create a barrier between the pan and the food that adds flavor and resists sticking.
After washing, drying, and seasoning pans, it’s best to store them in a single layer. If you don’t have the space to store pans in a single layer, it’s best to get cookware specifically designed for stacking. It’s easy to scratch and chip cookware when it comes into frequent contact with other pans.
Safest Non-Toxic Cookware: The Final Verdict
Perhaps the safest materials to cook with are cast iron or carbon steel. Unless you have hemochromatosis, or young children. Or you don’t have the time to look after it!
Stainless steel cookware is also super safe, unless you have a nickel allergy. Or you are frying food and don’t have the time to clean up.
Like I said, at the beginning, there’s no single answer. But if you need a basic idea of which pieces to have in your cookware arsenal, I do have some guidance for you.
Here’s what I use:
- I fry and sauté with a nonstick pan. I keep it on no more than medium-high heat. I also use a nonstick saucepan for things like porridge and oatmeal, which are notoriously sticky. I hand wash these pans and store them in a single layer.
- For pasta, soup, steaming, rice, or anything with lots of liquid, I use a stainless steel pot. This pot is used on a daily basis, and it should last for years to come.
- I sometimes bring out my cast iron skillet, especially if I’m searing steak or I want to put it in the oven. I avoid cooking acidic food with it. I season it periodically and wash it by hand without soap. I use salt to gently scrub away food, when needed.
- For the oven, I use glass and ceramic casserole dishes. I’m extra careful not to drop them when cleaning. The dishwasher is fine after they have cooled down. I can store leftovers in these, as well.
I’m also prepared to toss my nonstick pan if the surface gets damaged – I’ve done it plenty of times, in fact. Some brands last longer but in the end, none last more than a few years. They’re inexpensive, so I’m not wasting a lot of money on something that won’t last. I spend more on stainless steel, enameled cast iron, or lifetime pieces.
I follow the manufacturer’s instructions, and especially never heat an empty nonstick pan.
Keep to the instructions, take care of your cookware, and mix it up. Use different cookware to reduce the risk. Wishing you safe cooking!
Please include attribution to Clan Kitchen with this graphic.