The Teflon chemical PTFE is often touted as a safe cousin of toxic PFAS. But is it really?


As regulators and growing public awareness have put the screws on some of the more well-known PFAS chemicals, other variants are marketed as safe and are rarely scrutinised. One such chemical is PTFE – an unregulated chemical in the PFAS family – which is used in a plethora of consumer products, giving materials that desired non-stick function.

The question is – is PTFE really as safe as manufacturers claim?

When you drive your car, hurl yourself down a ski slope or cook your dinner you have most likely come into contact with the chemical PTFE. You can find it in such diverse products as non-stick cookware, ski wax, car interiors and dental floss.

PTFE, or polytetrafluoroethylene (promise you don’t need to remember that), belongs to a subgroup of PFAS called fluorinated polymers, and PTFE is by far the most popular one in the group; it makes up approximately half the market.

One of the most familiar uses is in Teflon, but that’s just one of its applications. PTFE is a chemical substance that has unique properties that make it very popular in a wide range of products. It has excellent heat resistance, electrical insulation properties and is extremely water repellent. Its non-stick properties make it ideal for coatings on items such as baking trays and other kitchen utensils. You can also find it in membranes in outdoor jackets and other textiles.

As awareness around the problematic effects of PFAS chemicals has started to grow, the notion of PTFE as safe to use has persisted among its proponents, even though there is not much evidence for anything, really. There are still many unknowns when it comes to the effects of PTFE, as is often the case with chemicals.

“There are no regulations in place that require chemical producers to disclose PTFE production”

Unfortunately you can’t just consider the finished product – the frying pan in your hand. You have to look beyond this “use phase”, before the PTFE was applied to the product. The thing is that a chemical has two more such phases in its life: the production and the waste phase. When you bring these additional phases, and the available science, into the analysis, well, then PTFE, you’re not looking so great there, buddy.

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Chemsec, 10 February 2022