You may have heard someone say that you shouldn’t stand in front of a microwave, lest you be hit with a wave of radiation. You may also have stood in front of your microwave anyway, in anticipation of a hot Trader Joe’s meal, heated-up leftovers or your favorite buttered popcorn in a bag. If you’re concerned at all about the safety of your microwave, read on to see what experts have to say about it. (And remember: That frozen dinner isn’t going to heat up faster just because you’re watching. Even if you’re really, really hungry.)
Do microwaves emit radiation?
Microwaves get a bad rap partially because, unlike a stove or an oven, people believe them to work in mysterious ways. But microwaves aren’t magic — just science. Microwave ovens operate by emitting electromagnetic waves, particularly microwaves, which interact with water molecules in the food. These microwaves cause the water molecules to oscillate rapidly, generating heat through molecular friction.
Technically, microwaves do emit “electromagnetic radiation,” but according to Dr. Arya Amini, associate professor and chief of thoracic radiotherapy at the City of Hope National Medical Center, this radiation “remains confined to the microwave.” All microwaves are built to seal these waves and automatically shut off when the door is opened, preventing exposure. Plus, unlike ionized radiation — which can put people at risk for developing cancer — electromagnetic waves are non-ionizing and therefore do not cause radioactivity in food or people exposed to the waves.
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has regulated microwave ovens since 1971. The agency says: “Microwave oven manufacturers are required to certify their products and meet safety performance standards created and enforced by the FDA to protect public health. Based on current knowledge about microwave radiation, the agency believes that ovens that meet the FDA standard and are used according to the manufacturer's instructions are safe for use.”
Plus, the microwaves emitted by a traditional household Wi-Fi router antenna are almost “identical in frequency to the microwaves generated in a microwave oven,” says Christopher S. Baird, an associate professor of physics at West Texas A&M University. Yet Baird points out that unlike people's feelings about Wi-Fi routers, which we interact with on a daily basis, “many people see microwave ovens as dangerous, mysterious and unnatural.”
Are microwaves ever a risk?
The only time standing in front of a microwave may cause you harm, according to Amini, is if the microwave oven is damaged. Currently, he notes, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) website and FDA advise against standing in front of or against the microwave while it is on to prevent potential exposure, just in case there happens to be a leak or damage to the device you aren’t aware of.
“This recommendation is due in part to the rare instance that a damaged microwave oven could emit electromagnetic waves leading to skin burns,” he explains, noting that should you have a damaged microwave, it should never be operated and needs to be replaced. However, as long as your microwave is operating properly and not damaged, “there should be zero exposure even if you stand in front of it.”
“If you find yourself getting burned when standing near a microwave oven with the door open, and you're not touching anything but the floor and the air, immediately unplug the microwave oven and throw it away or have it repaired by a professional,” says Baird. “With that said, the accounts of this actually happening are exceedingly rare.”
When to be careful around microwaves
Baird says that burns are the biggest risk of owning a microwave, and it’s a risk that you take with any kind of device that heats up food. Handling your food with care as you remove it from the microwave and using potholders or other objects to protect yourself from a plate that’s too hot can help you avoid any harm.
If you’ve ever forgotten to take a metal fork out of your dish before putting it in the microwave to reheat, you know that you should only use microwave-safe material in your microwave oven in order to avoid any unwanted sparking. Metal is a no-go, and containers made of glass, ceramics and plastics typically come with a label indicating whether they are safe for microwave ovens.
Putting a non-microwave-safe material in a microwave oven can lead to chemicals leaching into your food (not good) or the melting of the container, which can lead to burns — or, at the very least, a very annoying cleanup. Nuking food in a plastic container can also lead to microplastics being release into your food, which may cause health harms.
Ultimately, however, there’s no real reason to fear your microwave. “People tend to fear the unknown,” says Baird. “However, the mundane truth is that a microwave oven is no more dangerous than other types of ovens — not even a little bit.”