How Safe Is the Radiation from Your Microwave?
A safety expert weighs in and debunks some microwave myths
If you worry that staring at your rotating cup of coffee in the microwave oven will burn your eyeballs or give you cancer, you can stop. From a radiation standpoint, microwaves are safe.
“Microwave ovens have been around for many years, and I’ve never heard of anyone being hurt by the radiation from a microwave,” says John Drengenberg, consumer safety director at UL, which conducts safety testing on microwave ovens among thousand of other products. “Even if you use a microwave every day, multiple times a day, it’s not going to affect you.”
Microwave oven radiation has been regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) since 1971. The ovens work by creating electromagnetic radiation, which makes water molecules in the food or liquid vibrate, causing friction that heats the item.
To test microwaves, UL uses a device that measures the amount of radiation coming out of the microwave on all sides, including the vents and the door gasket opening, Drengenberg says. The testing verifies that the amount of radiation emitted is below FDA and UL standards — a very small amount. “It’s almost immeasurable,” Drengenberg says.
“It’s well known that radiation can affect humans,” Drengenberg says. But that radiation stays sealed safely inside a microwave oven.
The FDA notes its emission limits are “well below the threshold for risk to public health.”
What about your eyes, your reproductive parts or your pacemaker?
Of all the parts of the body, your eyes are most sensitive to radiation, Drengenberg says. Still, it’s perfectly safe to peer into a microwave to check the bowl of soup you’re heating up, he says. “They put the window on the door so you can look in there and see if your soup is boiling over.”
However, if your mom told you not to put your nose up against the microwave the whole time your food is cooking, that’s not bad advice, Drengenberg says. Though there should be almost no radiation leaking out of your microwave, if there were any, standing on the other side of the kitchen while those veggies defrost would reduce your exposure to nil, he says.
After the eyes, the reproductive organs are the parts of the body most sensitive to radiation, Drengenberg says. But the tiny amount of exposure from a microwave oven won’t affect your ability to have a baby, he says.
Another common but unfounded concern is that microwave ovens cause pacemakers or other medical devices to malfunction. But, says Drengenberg, “Many people have heart pacemakers, and microwave ovens don’t bother them.”
Even if you sometimes get impatient and open the microwave door before hitting the “stop” button, you don’t need to worry because the radiation will shut down before any escapes, Drengenberg says.
“It’s best to push the stop button before opening door, but people don’t always do that. They whip the door open to stir whatever they’re cooking, so we take that into account when testing,” Drengenberg says.
Related: The Case Against Microwave Popcorn
How to avoid microwave radiation
Even though microwave ovens are safe, you can take steps to reduce your chances of radiation exposure. Here are five safety tips:
1. Don’t lean against microwaves. Just to be on the safe side, it’s best for you and your kids to avoid leaning up against a microwave for long periods while food is cooking, according to the FDA.
2. Clean up messes. Wipe any spills and splatters, especially on the microwave door, Drengenberg says. Crusted-on bits of food could keep the door gasket from sealing properly and possibly let small amounts of radiation escape.
3. Make sure the door shuts properly. Microwaves have interlock switches that prevent them from working unless the door is properly closed, Drengenberg says. However, never run a microwave if the door is “bent, warped or otherwise damaged,” the FDA warns. Also don’t use a microwave if you know it would operate with the door not fully shut.
4. Repair or replace faulty microwaves. While microwaves don’t really have an expiration date, don’t use a microwave that isn’t working properly. If you want to get your microwave fixed, call the manufacturer to find an authorized repair technician. Or buy a new one, which will probably be cheaper.
Related: When Will Your Appliances Break?
5. Buy a microwave with the UL mark. When you shop for a new microwave, look for one with the UL symbol, Drengenberg recommends. Then you know it meets all electrical, fire and radiation safety standards. “Testing has been done and it does not leak radiation,” Drengenberg says.
In case you were tempted to test your microwave with a radiation testing device, know this: The gadgets sold to consumers to test radiation coming out of microwaves are unreliable and inaccurate, according to the FDA.
“The best thing you can do is use your microwave as intended. Don’t misuse it and it will give you years of good service,” Drengenberg says.
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