Think Twice Before Microwaving That 'Microwave-Safe' Plastic

Ravioli in tupperware

There's a pretty good chance that at some point during your leftover-filled life, you've glanced at a plastic container to check if it's OK to pop in the microwave. After seeing the word "microwave-safe," you proceed without a second thought, and your Chinese food is better for it. 

But what makes some plastic dangerous to microwave, while others are totally fine? And are the alternatives better, or are you blindly following suspect claims with little evidence to back them? 

The problem with plastic

Most of the suspicion of plasticware in food can be traced back to bisphenol A (BPA), which has a somewhat deserved bad rap -- this pervasive chemical has a long and vibrant history in the industrial food chain, primarily in the form of plastic food and beverage containers, and it dates back decades. The issue? While this chemical is pretty good at making plastic tough and durable, it can also leach into your food and drinks. 

While there’s still a good deal of debate over the realistic risks BPA poses, it’s a known endocrine disruptor, which means it can screw with your hormones. Big deal, you went through puberty, right? Well, that’s where the debate enters the picture; BPA can potentially lead to developmental and reproductive issues, and maybe even cancer, though because there are so many environmental and genetic factors that can cause problems, it’s really difficult to pin the blame on a single chemical. Still, since heating plastic containers increases the rate of BPA leaching at a dizzying rate, you can start to see why 93% of Americans over age 6 have some BPA detectable in their bodies. 

This all falls plainly into the "do not want" category. 

Getting rid of BPA 

Soon after the potential hazards of BPA became well known -- there’s even a ban on BPA in baby bottles and infant formula packaging -- manufacturers scrambled to push out BPA-free plastic goods. 

It's a genius marketing technique, really, as the notion that a product is BPA-free makes it sound like it's totally safe. People adore stuff that seems safe! But you know what? These alternatives may not be too great either, especially if you want to reheat your cold pizza on a BPA-free dish in the microwave.

Woman putting leftovers in microwave
Monkey Business Images/Shutterstock

BPA alternatives are a lot like BPA

According the FDA, you should always make sure your container is specifically labeled safe for use in the microwave. But these recommendations are somewhat misleading, even if your high-tech nuking dish proclaims itself BPA-free. Unfortunately, as new products came along to edge BPA out of the consumer marketplace, what took its place may be no better for you, which is scary as hell.

One of the components that is frequently subbed into plastic containers is bisphenol S, or BPS. Even though it isn't BPA, don't get excited -- scientists at Harvard discovered that it may negatively impact developing fetal brains in the same way BPA does. 

"But I'm not a fetus!" you say. Well, fetuses aren't the only ones at risk, since grown-ass adults can still be affected by BPA alternatives, which scientists say work almost exactly like BPA. Basically, if these BPA-free items say they're microwave-safe, they may be lying to your face. In other words, you may be better off not nuking your food on them. 

But all of my food is in plastic! What am I supposed to do? 

If you have cabinets full of plasticware (which, face it, most of us do), there are a few ways to possibly minimize your rate of plastic ingestion. For starters, don't use the microwave to heat up food on (or in) them. Put yesterday's lasagna on a couple of paper plates or, hey, a regular plate that’s microwave safe -- but not plastic! Also, always try to hand wash plastic dishes and containers, even though it's a huge drag, and don't leave your plastic bottle of water outdoors to bake in the sun, as it can fill your drink with the bad stuff. 

If you're keen to chuck your plastic in the garbage instead, you can replace your favorite things with glass, stainless-steel, or ceramic dishes. A lot of these items can be microwave-safe; check the label before trying, and don't ever put metal of any kind in your mic unless you're trying to blow it and yourself up. And while buying a whole new kitchen full of plates, glasses, and containers isn't super fun, you can often find excellent deals at thrift stores and garage sales 

Yes, it can seem like science comes out with a new study here and a new study there that tells you that your life sucks, you're doing it all wrong, and you're going to die sooner than planned. It's easy to ignore research because it's everywhere, and really, we're all doomed anyway so who cares? But in this case, it may be wise to back off that microwaving plastic habit and be the first in your circle of friends to buy actual dishes. Your future self may thank you. 

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Monica Beyer is a health writer who threw out tons of plastic from her kitchen years ago and maybe you should too. Follow her: @monicabeyer