Are Microwaves Bad for You? Here’s What Expert Doctors Say

Updated: Jun. 10, 2024

For anyone who's wondered whether you should step away from microwave, here a trained family doctor compiles research on the health effects of microwave cooking.

There are the foods you definitely shouldn’t heat in the microwave, but then there’s…everything else. It was between the 1960s and 1980s when microwave ovens grew into ubiquity for their speed, convenience, and ease of use—and Whirlpool cites data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics that suggests by 1997, 90% of American homes reported having a microwave.

As popular as they are, microwaves have been held in mild suspicion in recent years due to consumer uncertainty about their safety and impacts on health and nutrition. It’s safe to say this hasn’t caused most of us to do away with them, but if you have questions, we have answers—about the radiation microwaves emit, whether they zap the nutrients from our food, and the possible “leeching” of chemicals from packaging and containers directly into what we ingest.

We hit the “Start” button into microwave safety research from leading health institutions and researchers. Keep reading to learn the surprising findings—including that in some cases, microwaving can actually help preserve nutrients in your food.

A few experts with an eye on microwave safety and compliance

Since 1971, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has overseen the manufacture of microwave ovens, ensuring that manufacturers adhere to strict safety performance standards to protect public health. It’s assuring to note that the FDA seems to take a close scientific perspective on this uniquely technological appliance. The administration determines whether microwave ovens comply with their standards and are used according to manufacturer instructions. If so, they are deemed safe for use.

Meanwhile, research into microwave safety is still cooking. A 2022 peer-reviewed literature review by Polish commercial food technology researchers, published in Trends in Food Science and Technology, asserted that “microwaved food is a viable and healthy alternative for heating food products.”

Here’s how microwaves work

Microwave ovens cook food using electromagnetic radiation. This type of energy is similar to the energy used for radio waves but at a higher frequency, which allows it to interact with the food. Microwaves are a type of non-ionizing radiation, which means they don’t pose the same risks as ionizing radiation like X-rays or gamma rays, which can alter chemical structures and DNA.

A microwave oven contains an electron tube called a magnetron that generates microwaves. These waves are reflected by the oven’s metal interior, allowing them to penetrate the food. Foods with high water content, like vegetables, heat up quickly because they absorb microwaves more efficiently.

If you’re concerned about radiation “baking” into your food during microwaving, the FDA clarifies that the microwave energy is converted to heat as it’s absorbed by the food, so it is not “radioactive” or “contaminated.”

Are microwaves bad for you?

The verdict on radiation exposure

One of the primary concerns is that microwaves might leak radiation, potentially harming human health. This might even inspire you to quickly jump away when you hit the “Start” button. Rest assured, microwave ovens are designed with multiple safety features that prevent any such leakage. The FDA assures us that as long as a microwave is well-maintained and operated according to the manufacturer’s instructions, it will not emit any harmful radiation.

However, there is a potential risk for microwave energy leakage if your microwave shows any signs of damage, such as:

Signs Your Microwave May Be Emitting Toxins
Issues with door hinges
Damaged latches
Damaged seals
A door that does not open or close properly

In these cases you should contact the manufacturer for repairs. Exposure to high levels of microwaves has been shown to cause serious health issues like skin burns or cataracts. The effects of exposure to low levels of microwaves are less clear, but caution is always advised.

Additionally, as a safety precaution, experts recommend against standing directly against the microwave, particularly for long durations while it is in use, and ensure that children maintain a safe distance as well.

Microwaves and nutrient loss

Another common concern is that microwaving food might result in greater nutrient loss compared to other cooking methods. Contrary to this, experts have said microwave cooking may actually preserve more vitamins and minerals. This is primarily because microwaves can cook food quickly and without the need for water, which can leach nutrients during traditional cooking processes.

Harvard Health highlights research indicating that microwave cooking is particularly effective at preserving the vitamin C content in vegetables—often performing better than boiling.

Formation of harmful compounds

Research has demonstrated that microwaving food in plastic containers can lead to the release of harmful chemicals such as bisphenol-A (BPA) and phthalates. These substances are of concern due to their potential links to hormonal disruptions and serious health issues, including heart disease, diabetes, and impacts on human reproduction and development. To reduce this risk, use containers specifically labeled as “microwave-safe.”

Despite the availability of products in supermarkets that are labeled as microwave safe, there remains conflicting information regarding their actual safety from various regulatory bodies. In response to this uncertainty, Joseph Alpert, MD, and Qin Mary Chen, PhD, in a commentary published in the American Journal of Medicine, recommend an extra measure of caution: transferring food from plastic packages to glass or terracotta bowls before microwaving. They admit this may seem overly cautious but affirm that the minimal effort involved is a worthwhile precaution for health safety.

This cautious approach is further supported by recent research findings. A study conducted in July 2023 by researchers at Nebraska University found that microwaving plastic baby food containers could release enormous quantities of plastic particles—specifically, up to two billion nanoplastics and four million microplastics per square centimeter of the container.

Uneven cooking

Microwaves can sometimes cook food unevenly, which can lead to “cold spots” where harmful bacteria can survive. This issue can be addressed by following proper stirring and standing time guidelines, which allow heat to distribute more evenly throughout the food.

How to use your microwave safely

  • Always follow the instructions and safety guidelines provided in the user manual specific to your microwave model.

  • Only use cookware that is specifically designed for microwave use.

  • Do not use the microwave if the door is damaged, does not close properly, or seems bent or warped.

  • Immediately discontinue use of the microwave if it operates with the door open.

  • Avoid heating water or liquids beyond the time limit recommended in the manufacturer’s guidelines.

  • Consult the user manual to determine if your microwave should not be run while empty.

  • Clean the interior cavity, the edges, and the door of your microwave regularly using water and mild detergent. There is no need for special microwave cleaning products, and abrasive materials like scouring pads or steel wool should be avoided.

The takeaway

Microwaves are not inherently bad for you. Like any cooking method, they have their pros and cons. The key is to use the microwave correctly—by maintaining the oven in good working order, using microwave-safe cookware, and following the recommended cooking times and procedures.

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