What to Know About Microwave Ovens and Your Health

Medically Reviewed by Christine Mikstas, RD, LD on February 25, 2024
4 min read

Microwave ovens have been staples in households for many years, but fear of microwave radiation has persisted throughout that time. Microwaves are used to heat up your food and make quick meals. 

While there is radiation from microwave ovens, it is not hazardous to your food or health. 

Microwave ovens are different from conventional ovens and toaster ovens because of their rapid heating ability. Within the oven, microwave radiation heats the outside layer of food, and the inside is cooked from the conduction of heat from the outside. Microwave ovens are more common than toaster ovens in households because of their speed and affordability. 

Microwave ovens heat the food directly. They're pretty easy to use. You put your food in the device, press how long you want it to cook, and make sure your food is completely heated. There are many microwave oven uses. They’re a rapid cook device used for frozen meals, leftovers, and more. They cook food faster than conventional ovens and heat the food only instead of the whole oven compartment. 

Microwave ovens have an electron tube called a magnetron that produces microwaves inside. The microwaves are reflected in the metal inside of the oven and are absorbed by the food. Microwaves make water molecules in your food vibrate, which produces the heat that cooks the food. That’s why foods with high water content like vegetables can be cooked quickly. 

Though your food absorbs microwave energy, it doesn’t make it “radioactive” or “contaminated”. Microwaves use non-ionizing radiation, which moves atoms in a molecule but doesn’t remove electrons. Microwave radiation can’t alter the chemical makeup of your food. This means there’s no harm in using your microwave and eating food cooked by it. The variety of microwave oven uses are helpful when making quick meals. 

Microwaves are a type of “electromagnetic” radiation. That means the waves of electrical and magnetic energy are moving through space together. Microwaves are different from radio waves and X-rays. X-rays are ionizing radiation, which means they can alter atoms and molecules and damage cells. Ionizing radiation is harmful to your body. But the non-ionizing radiation used by microwaves isn’t harmful.

Microwave oven radiation doesn’t cause cancer, and there has been no conclusive evidence linking the two. Microwave radiation doesn’t make your food radioactive either. It’s just heating your food. 

The non-ionizing radiation from microwaves is only produced when the microwave is on and cooking. All the microwaves are made inside your oven and absorbed by the food. Microwaves are built so that electromagnetic radiation doesn’t escape the oven. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) does recommend inspecting your microwave in case it’s broken or altered. They also don’t recommend standing directly in front of or up against your microwave oven while it’s turned on. 

The FDA has a Center for Devices and Radiological Health (CDRH) that enforces performance standards for electronic products to ensure radiation emissions aren’t a hazard to the public. A federal standard for all microwave ovens limits the amount of safe leaked microwaves during their lifetime. This is way below any amount that could cause harm to you. 

Plus, the further away you are from the source of radiation, the less the microwave energy has an effect. All ovens are also built with a standard interlock system that stops the microwave oven when the door is opened. 

The FDA tests microwave ovens in their own lab to evaluate the manufacturer’s radiation testing and does quality control. 

While microwave oven radiation doesn’t cause cancer, it can cause painful burns if you’re exposed to them. Microwave radiation can heat body tissue the same way it heats your food. However, these burns are only caused when you’re exposed to high levels of microwave radiation. 

Microwaves, in addition to radio waves and visible light, are all non-ionizing radiation. The only non-ionizing radiation that causes cancer is UV light. So overall, microwave ovens are safe to use and will not cause cancer or any other adverse health conditions. 

If you’re worried about your microwave leaking radiation or being too old, you can replace it with a newer one. Microwave ovens typically last about ten years, so if you’ve had yours longer, it might be time to upgrade. If you have an older microwave you want to hold on to, it might be best not to remain in the same room while it’s cooking. This is just to protect you from any potential radiation leakage.