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What is the Safest Material for Dinnerware & How to Tell if Dishes Have Lead or Cadmium

Let's take a moment to consider safe dishware materials; something many of us don't even think about. Otherwise, you may risk the health and safety of your friends and family during mealtimes.

In this article, we’ll break down concerns such as how to tell if dishes have lead and other harmful substances, the best dishes in terms of performance and longevity, and more. But first, let’s start with safe dinnerware materials.

Is Porcelain Toxic?

Porcelain and ceramic dinnerware are actually one of the most popular and safe choices for healthy dinnerware due to their aesthetic appeal, durability, and natural composition.

Porcelain is generally made from mineral clay, sand, and other natural materials that are fired at very high temperatures to achieve a solid and hard form.

Properly glazed ceramic dinnerware is also nonporous, making it resistant to bacteria and easy to clean. That said, not all ceramic dinnerware is the best in terms of safety.

You may have heard or asked yourself the question, is it safe to eat off vintage dishes, even if they are ceramic or porcelain? That’s because traditional ceramicware made years ago may have used lead based glazes, which pose a significant health risk - a good reason to think twice before using grandma's fine china. Since then, regulations have been implemented in many countries to restrict the use of lead in glazes, but it’s still crucial to ensure that the ceramic dinnerware you choose is lead free and meets modern safety standards.

Is Stoneware Toxic?

Stoneware is another popular type of dinnerware, known for its durability and resistance to chipping. As such, you may have wondered, does stoneware contain lead or other harmful substances?

Good news! Stoneware is made from safe and natural materials with no harmful toxins, so long as it's considered food-safe. Stoneware dishes are made from a type of ceramic material that is also fired at high temperatures, making it durable and suitable for various uses, including dinnerware and baking dishes.

The safety of stoneware depends on the materials used during its production. Some cheaper stoneware may not be made from food grade materials and could contain harmful substances such as lead, cadmium, or other toxic elements. These toxins can leach into food when the surface is chipped or cracked, which can be hazardous to your health if ingested. It's important to look for information on product listings to make sure your stoneware dishes are made with food safe materials.

The Difference Between Porcelain vs Ceramic

You may be wondering what the difference is between stoneware dishes, porcelain dishware and ceramic, when it comes to safe dinnerware?

making ceramic dishes

When it comes to porcelain, ceramic and stoneware, all three are made out of similar organic materials such as kaolin clay, minerals, silica and sand. Simply put, porcelain is molded and then fired at the highest temperature around 2400 degrees F, making it the most durable and non porous dishware material out of the three.

Ceramic is fired at 2200 degrees F, making it strong but not completely waterproof. A glass glaze is then applied to the surface to make ceramic dishes nonporous.

Stoneware has extra glass material added into the raw material and is fired at around 2300 degrees F, making it impervious to moisture and more chip resistant, similar to Porcelain.

In fact, natural stone dishes that are honed to create a matte, naturally smooth surface are also a fabulous and nontoxic addition to the kitchen lineup, too. (We recommend using natural stone dishes for appetizers or foods without lots of sauce or heavy oils to avoid stains.)

In the grand scheme of things, we love stoneware, stone, ceramic and porcelain. They are a worthwhile investment for a healthier home kitchen -- being dishwasher safe and easy to clean. But what about glass?

Does Clear Pyrex Contain Lead?

Modern day glass dinnerware and bakeware is typically one of the safest options when looking for lead free dishes.

Clear glass, sometimes sold under the brand name Pyrex, is made from a combination of natural silica, soda ash, and lime, resulting in a nonporous, hard and inert material. Clear glass dishes and bakeware do not usually contain harmful heavy metals such as lead or cadmium, making it a safe choice for cooking as well as food and drink consumption.

One of the unexpected advantages of glass dinnerware and drinkware is its transparency, which allows for easy monitoring of not only food during the cooking process but also the cleanliness and integrity of the dish. It's also resistant to staining, easy to clean and does not retain odors, making 'glass' a yes on our list of the safest, lead free dinnerware options.

For a unique spin, recycled bubbled glass is a very cool decorative feature with many tiny air bubbles 'trapped' inside the glass, which is achieved when artisans mouth blow their glass using handmade techniques.

It's important to know that some glassware may be decorated with paints that can contain potentially harmful substances. Also, it can be hard to tell lead free glass from leaded crystal glasses. The ringing rim test is an easy way to tell if there's lead in the glass. Put some water in the glass and rub a wet finger along the rim. If it rings, then there's lead.

Choosing reputable brands that use food-safe materials and avoiding glass dishes with painted detailing are important considerations for non toxic dishware. Painted glass accents can be felt by lightly rubbing your fingers across the glass surface.

Safety doesn’t always mean nasty chemicals, though. Glassware is more prone to breakage than some other materials, so you should handle this dinnerware with caution to avoid injuries. But another awesome advantage of glass is that it can be endlessly melted down and recycled, meaning it’s good for the environment, too!

Is Stainless Steel Safe Dinnerware?

Stainless steel is heat safe and free from harmful substances, the most common being lead, cadmium and added PFAS (also known as non stick Teflon) found on a lot of cookware these days.

Stainless steel cookware and dinnerware is generally considered safe, as it is extremely heat tolerant and does not typically react with acidic foods (although we do recommend something other than stainless for highly acidic foods like tomato-based cooking).

Is stainless steel safe dinnerware

Recently, stainless steel dinnerware and cookware has gained popularity due to its durability, resistance to rust, and nonreactive nature. It is made from a combination of iron, nickel, and other metals. The chromium content in stainless steel forms a protective layer that prevents corrosion and leaching of metals into food.

However, there are concerns regarding the presence of nickel in stainless steel. Some individuals have a nickel allergy, which can cause adverse reactions.

How to tell if stainless steel has nickel

How to tell if your stainless steel kitchenware has nickel:

  • Use a magnet! If a magnet sticks to your stainless-steel pot, then it is nickel free.

  • The ratios of stainless steel also indicate the amount of nickel and other metals present in your kitchenware.

  • Dinnerware marked with an 18/8 means 18% chromium and 8% nickel are added to the stainless steel. A ratio of 18/0 stainless steel means it's nickel free.

  • And just to throw another variable into the mix, an 18/10 means there's 2% molybdenum for added durability.

Why is nickel added to pots and pans?

Nickel is added to stainless steel for heat resistance and durability, which means the majority of cookware, such as pots and pans, will have some nickel. If you have a known nickel allergy, opt for stainless steel dinnerware and cookware with a lower nickel content or choose alternative materials like ceramic coated pots and pans.

Is Bamboo Dinnerware Safe?

Bamboo dinnerware has gained popularity as an eco friendly and sustainable alternative to traditional materials.

Reputable brands are made from bamboo fibers, which are compressed and bonded together using nontoxic resins to form a composite. Bamboo dinnerware is lightweight, durable, and made from sustainable bamboo. And it's great to use for kids' dishes.

Bamboo is also a naturally antimicrobial material, which means it resists bacteria and fungi growth, and it is nonporous, making it easy to clean. However, it is important to note that some low-quality bamboo products may contain synthetic additives or binders that can compromise safety. It is essential to choose composite bamboo dinnerware that is made from bamboo grown to organic standards and verified free from formaldehyde glues.

What About Earthenware Dishes and Plant Based Plastics?

Earthenware pottery and plant-based plastics are ecofriendly and sustainable options for your kitchen.

Beautiful earthenware pieces are best only to be used decoratively or outdoors. Being clay-fired at a lower temperature makes this dishware more brittle and porous than common alternatives, which means it’s unsuitable for holding liquids in the kitchen, but great for indoor decor and outdoor garden pots.

When it comes to the new generation of plant-based plastics, these can be a wonderful eco-friendly and nontoxic alternative to plastic dishes for kids. They are typically made from sugarcane and/or corn. Keep in mind some brands are not suitable for dishwashers or any liquids, while others cannot withstand hot or acidic foods.

How to Tell if Dishes Have Lead, Cadmium or Other Toxins

Detecting lead in dinnerware as well as cadmium or other toxic heavy metals can be essential for your health and safety. Here's how you can tell.

How to Tell if Dishes Have Lead or Cadmium

  • First, check for labels. Many modern dishes, especially those intended for food use, will display markings that indicate whether they are lead or cadmium free. You should also inspect the glaze.

  • Bright colors like yellows or reds can be a sign of toxic heavy metals, especially if the dishes are older or vintage. (ie. Fiestaware)

  • If the dishes are glazed, examine the surface for any cracks, chips, or uneven areas. Lead and cadmium may be present in the glaze (or the actual ceramic), and if it is damaged, these toxins can leach into your food during cooking or at mealtime. Keep in mind that sometimes if a dish is dropped or hits something hard, the cracks may be too small to see at first.

  • If you already own suspicious dishes, order a home lead or cadmium test kit online or buy one from a hardware store. These swab kits come with instructions on how to test dishes for the presence of lead... Tip: For more accurate test results, swab the testing area with lemon juice or vinegar first. The acidity can help to release toxic substances if they are present in your dishes.

Of course, if you suspect that your dishes contain lead, cadmium, or other toxins, it's crucial to stop using them for food.

Is Lead in Dishes Dangerous?

Lead poisoning can result from the ingestion of lead-containing substances, including dishes with lead-based glazes or painted decorations, but the symptoms of lead poisoning vary depending on your level of exposure and your age and health status.

What are the symptoms of lead poisoning from dishes?

In some cases, lead poisoning may not cause noticeable symptoms, making it even more dangerous and difficult to detect. However, when symptoms do appear, they can affect various systems in the body.

is lead in dishes dangerous
Vintage dishes may contain lead.

Lead can affect each of us differently. Common symptoms include abdominal pain, nausea, vomiting, and loss of appetite. It's also a potent neurotoxin and can also affect the nervous system, leading to neurological symptoms such as irritability, mood swings, difficulty concentrating, memory problems, headaches, and fatigue, plus developmental delays and behavioral changes in children.

Lead can also cause anemia, kidney damage, reproductive issues, and more.

If you suspect you may have been exposed to lead in dishes or developed lead poisoning, it's important to address your concerns with your doctor. Seek medical advice and have your blood tested for lead levels. Additionally, discontinue use of any suspect dishes for food preparation and consider using lead-free alternatives.

How to Select Safe Dishware

The first step is to always buy healthy dishware and nontoxic bakeware from reputable brands.

Whether you’re choosing stoneware, porcelain, ceramic or glass, buying from well-known and trusted manufacturers that adhere to safety standards can make a huge difference in the quality and safety of the product.

Moreover, reputable companies often provide information about the safety of their products, including whether they are free of substances like lead and heavy metals. That means step two is to check for labeling on the specific product; look for information that indicates whether it is food-safe and free from harmful substances.

Next, inspect dishes for cracks or chips.

Cracks or chips can indicate a problem. Damage to the dish and/or the glaze can increase the risk of moisture and bacteria seeping into the tiny cracks, which becomes unsanitary. No one wants a side of bacteria with their meals. Plus, tiny sharp pieces may continue to chip off into your food.

Nontoxic bakeware
Glacier Bakeware Collection // ceramic stoneware

What about the safety of the glass glaze on ceramic dishes?

If you're buying new dishes from a reputable and quality brand, the glazing should be food safe, which means there's no lead or heavy metals present in the glazing.

If you are uncertain about the safety of the product, contact the manufacturer or check their website for information about the glaze composition. A safe glaze should be nontoxic, lead free, and food-safe. Keep in mind that porcelain and stoneware don't require a glaze.

When buying dishware, here's why it's not safe to eat off vintage dishes.

We recommend avoiding used dishware or vintage dishes. Vintage dishware may have been produced before stricter safety regulations were in place, so it's best to avoid using such items for food purposes. Fiestaware is just one of many vintage dishware brands that were found to have alarmingly high levels of heavy metals.

While XRF guns are the gold standard for testing materials for heavy metals, they are extremely expensive. As mentioned before, you can use lead and cadmium test kits if you’re uncertain. However, we like to say when in doubt, just throw it out.

What does “not for food purpose for decorative use only” mean?

The phrase "not for food purpose for decorative use only" is a label commonly found on decorative objects, that are not meant to be used as dishes.

This label is typically seen on decorative dishes, bowls, natural pottery or garden pots that are beautiful additions to the home but are not designed to meet the rigors of food prep, washing or food storage.

Softer mineral clay-based materials like terracotta and earthenware are beautiful and sturdy for everyday decorative purposes. However, using them for food purposes could lead to breakage or damage.

If you come across pottery, such as decorative centerpieces, labeled "not for food purposes for decorative use only," think about using these objects to display large glass balls, soy-based candles, or a chunky decorative clay chain draped over the side of the bowl.

What is the Safest Material for Dinnerware?

We avoid plastic dinnerware and melamine dish sets.

While these options are more economical, they can leach harmful chemicals into food. When it comes to selecting the safest material for dinnerware in a healthy home, higher quality options like ceramic, glass, and stainless steel stand out for their overall safety profiles, plus other benefits specific to the material.

Here's our recommendations for the healthiest and safest dishes.

Our vote goes to ceramics (porcelain, ceramic and stoneware) for the label of safest material for dinnerware. Ceramic, stoneware and porcelain dishes, when lead-free and properly glazed, are amazing and functional additions to any kitchen. Plus, the options for colors, textures and shapes are limitless.

From square plates to round baking dishes to ribbed drink pitchers, the sky's the limit for ceramic dish designs and styles. We love pairing dark plates with lighter colored salad plates and bowls from the same dishware collection, to make a tablescape really pop!

The Healthier Kitchens eBook is also a great resource for safe cookware, dishware and bakeware information. And for your own healthier home, check out our curated tabletop collections of lead free and healthy dishes, dinnerware and bakeware. Our goal is to help you shop confidently for your home :)