There are lots of reasons you may want to use paper towels in the microwave. Maybe it's to stop food from splashing over the microwave walls, or to keep food from drying out or maybe even to soak up fats and oils.
But can you microwave paper towels? Is it safe to do so? Will they potentially catch or fire and are there any health risks we need to be thinking about when you put paper towels in the microwave?
I'll often use paper towels in the microwave on top of food to stop it splattering everywhere in the microwave and I'll sometimes even heat up something like pizza so I don't have to dirty a plate.
I wanted to see if this was safe to do so I did some pretty extreme experiments with paper towels in the microwave and I also researched into the health risks and was shocked with what I found:
You can microwave paper towels and if they are lying flat they are highly unlikely to catch on fire. Scrunched up paper towels can catch on fire in the microwave. Paper towels also contain harmful dioxin chemicals which occur during the bleaching process, so there is an unknown health risk when reheating food with paper towels.
I find the fact that you can set paper towels on fire in the microwave pretty fascinating and also the fact that something as basic as a paper towel may contain harmful chemicals that increase our chances of getting cancer seemed like it was worth looking into in more detail.
In this article I'll outline my discoveries. How I managed to set my paper towel on fire in the microwave, what the studies say about the dangerous chemicals in paper towels and if I'll be personally using them in the microwave moving forward.
Can You Microwave Paper Towels? What Happens When You Do?
I wanted to see what exactly would happen when you microwave paper towels and what would it take for the paper towel to actually become dangerous and potentially catch on fire.
So I did a bunch of experiments.
I tried a paper towel over food, a paper towel by itself and then I did a scrunched up paper towel and I was actually able to set it on fire!
You can see my experiments in the video below:
When you put paper towels in the microwave they will warm up but be fine if placed flat under or on top of food. However, if scrunched up they can actually smoulder and catch on fire.
This was a bit of a shock to me as I didn't realise it was possible to set paper towels on fire in the microwave.
Is It Safe To Microwave Paper Towels? Can They Set On Fire?
While it's possible to set paper towels on fire in the microwave it's pretty unlikely.
When laid down flat on top of food or underneath food the paper towel might heat up a bit but it won't catch on fire.
In order for your paper towel to pose a real fire hazard it needs to be scrunched up into a ball and placed into the microwave for a couple of minutes.
From the experiments I did it seems that scrunching up the paper towel allows it to become hot enough where it will start smouldering and smoking and it will eventually catch on fire.
However, this was when I microwaved the paper towel by itself for a couple of minutes as there was no other food or drink in the microwave to absorb any of the energy the paper towel heated up quite quickly.
When I put the paper towel in the microwave flat, either by itself or with food, it didn't smoulder at all and it didn't catch on fire.
So yeh, it's technically possible to set paper towels on fire in the microwave. However, it's rare and unlikely to happen to a flat piece of paper towel.
How Comes Paper Towels Don't Usually Burn In The Microwave?
Since paper is flammable I would expect it to easily catch on fire in the microwave. But how come paper towels are so hard to set on fire in a microwave but metal seems to spark really easily?
Microwaves are really good at exciting water molecules which heats them up. Paper towels don't contain huge amounts of water and thus don't heat up excessively in the microwave, especially when paired with food or drink that absorbs a lot of the microwave energy.
The microwave DOES heat up the paper towel, but when laid down flat it doesn't heat it up enough for the paper towel to catch fire.
However, if you scrunch up the paper towel into a ball you can focus the energy and focus the heat and set the paper towel on fire.
It heats up more where it is folded in on itself and this is enough to cause it to smoulder and eventually combust and burst into flames.
So if you're desperate for fire and all you have is a paper towel and a microwave it's certainly possible to set them on fire, but the way normal people use paper towels in the microwave it's extremely rare for them to burn.
Are There Any Harmful Chemicals In Paper Towels?
These days you can't just assume that because something sounds natural it is. A “paper towel” sounds like it is just made of paper, but looking deeper you actually find out that a bunch of different chemicals are used to make paper towels soft and durable.
So are there harmful chemicals in paper towels and could this make them unsafe to use in the microwave?
Could paper towels potentially be leaching harmful chemicals into our food just like plastics can do?
Turns out the answer is probably.
It seems likely that paper towels contain traces of toxic chemicals like BPS, formaldehyde and especially toxic dioxins. While no formal studies of paper towels leaching chemicals has been done they may leach harmful chemicals into your food in the microwave.
While there have been no formal studies on leaching of chemicals from paper towels into food, especially in the microwave. There have been some studies on harmful chemicals found in paper towels.
This study looked at BPA (similar to the chemical BPA) in paper products.
Toxic Dioxins In Paper Products
According to the World Health Organization (WHO) dioxins are highly toxic and can cause reproductive and developmental problems, damage the immune system, interfere with hormones and also cause cancer.
This study tested for dioxins in pulp and paper mills in India and DETECTED DIOXINS IN FINISHED PAPER PRODUCTS.
This article also states that:
A series of studies by the EPA and paper industry revealed over the past five years that dioxins are a byproduct of the paper bleaching process and that some amounts of dioxins are transferred to paper products.
This means that your paper towels (as well as your toilet paper) could contain toxic dioxins that are harmful to you.
Add to this the fact that formaldehyde is commonly used in the production of paper products and can be found in paper.
Formaldehyde is classified by the EPA as a “probable human carcinogen” which means it is likely that it causes cancer.
Can I not use anything these days without it exposing me to toxic chemicals and increasing my chances of getting cancer?
It seems like I'll have to have to stop using paper towels, not just in the microwave but in everyday life.
While I can't avoid using paper completely it doesn't feel smart to me to be heating up my food on paper towels or using paper towels in the microwave with my food.
Will I Personally Be Microwaving Paper Towels?
These articles are as much about sharing information with you as they are about me learning more about common household items and what I should and shouldn't be using.
After having run my experiments and done my research would I personal microwave paper towels or reheat food on paper towels in the microwave moving forward?
I wouldn't personally recommend microwaving paper towels. They are unlikely to catch fire but the health risks associated with the chemicals used in paper towels is completely unknown, so for me it makes sense to avoid using them wherever possible.
I may use a paper towel to heat up a piece of pizza or something if I get desperate and have no other option, but where possible I'll just use glass or ceramic plates, bowls and cups moving forward.