The microwave is a staple in most kitchens; it heats up leftovers quickly, makes popcorn in minutes, and can even cook entire meals with just the press of a button.
But when it comes to heating up paper towels in the microwave, things get a little trickier.
Should You Put Paper Towels in the Microwave?
Putting paper towels in the microwave is generally not recommended. Paper towels are designed to be absorbent and durable when wet, but they can easily catch fire and cause damage when exposed to the high heat inside a microwave.
Here’s an overview of the risks and why it’s best to avoid microwaving paper towels:
- Fire hazard: Paper towels can easily ignite when microwaved due to their absorbency and fiber content. The fibers heat up rapidly and can scorch, ignite, and burn quite quickly and dangerously.
- Potential for damage: A paper towel fire can produce smoke, heat, and flames that can damage the interior of your microwave, rendering it unsafe for food preparation. The fire could even damage surrounding cabinets or contaminate food with toxic fumes.
- Sparking and arcing: Metal fibers or staples in some paper towels can cause sparking and arcing in the microwave. This can damage the magnetron tube (which generates the microwave energy waves) or other interior components.
- Sanitation issues: Any scorched paper towel remnants left behind can transfer an unpleasant smell and taste to food cooked afterward. Burnt spots are difficult to clean.
- Ineffective heating method: Paper towels don’t absorb microwaves efficiently. They often dry out unevenly, leaving parts that are still damp.
So in summary, the consensus among manufacturers, food safety experts, and microwave engineers is that you should never put paper towels in the microwave to heat or dry them. It’s simply not worth the risks.
Are There Any Safe Alternatives?
The good news is that there are plenty of safe, effective options for quickly heating and drying damp items without resorting to paper towels in the microwave:
- Use clean paper plates or parchment paper, which don’t have the multi-ply thickness of paper towels. Avoid plates with metallic patterns or designs.
- Switch to paper napkins, which are thinner and less prone to scorching. Opt for basic, dye-free white napkins without prints.
- Set items on a glass, ceramic, or Corningware plate to absorb moisture during microwaving. The heat spreads evenly, drying better than paper.
- Lay a paper coffee filter on a microwavable dish. These are designed to hold hot liquids, so they won’t ignite as fast as paper towels.
- Use the microwave’s “defrost” setting at lower power if trying to dry slightly damp items. This distributes warmth without generating hot spots.
- Allow items to air dry rather than microwaving. It may take longer, but it is chemical and fire-risk-free.
- Switch to reusable, microwavable silicone drying mats instead of paper products. They withstand heat well and are easy to clean.
The key is choosing microwave-safe materials that are unlikely to scorch. Avoid porous papers that are prone to trapping steam and igniting. With some clever alternatives, you can dry items without resorting to risky paper towels.
Why Are Paper Towels a Fire Hazard in Microwaves?
To understand why putting paper towels in the microwave is so dangerous, it helps to know how microwave ovens actually work.
- Microwave ovens produce electromagnetic waves that cause water molecules in food to vibrate rapidly, creating internal heat through molecular friction.
- Materials with lots of moisture (like fresh foods) absorb these waves efficiently. Drier items (like paper) absorb less, so heat builds up unevenly.
- The cellulose fibers in paper towels are poor conductors of microwaves. The heat concentrates in the fibers rather than spreading out.
- As the fibers rapidly get hotter, they can scorch, ignite, and burn. The layers of paper provide fuel for the fire to keep growing.
- Multi-ply paper towels, in particular, allow air pockets that trap heat. These hot spots readily surpass the paper’s ignition temperature of 451°F.
- Most paper towels also use binders and glues during manufacturing. These adhesives help the paper absorb more moisture but also make it more flammable.
- Metal staples or decorative metallic (like “metallic holiday”) prints concentrate microwaves even more intensely, increasing fire risks.
So in essence, the combination of dry fibers that don’t absorb microwaves efficiently, trapped moisture, and adhesives makes paper towels susceptible to overheating and ignition. It’s a perfect storm for fire.
Tips for Safe Microwave Usage
Since paper towels and microwaves don’t mix, here are some general usage tips for keeping your microwave as safe as possible:
- Read appliance manuals and follow all instructions carefully. Don’t try “hacks” that override safety features.
- Keep the interior clean. Food splatters or built-up grease can catch fire, as can any burned paper remnants.
- Never leave the microwave empty. The energy waves need something to absorb them. Without food or liquid, they can reflect back and damage the magnetron.
- Use microwave-safe cookware only. Metal, aluminum foil, wood, paper plates with metallic paints, etc. are hazards.
- Don’t use sealed containers. They trap steam that can burst out dangerously when heated. Pierce plastic wrap or open containers before microwaving.
- Monitor cooking progress closely. Prolonged heating can ignite foods or cause explosions with items like eggs or sealed packaging.
- Ensure good ventilation. Don’t block air vents or operate around flammable materials like curtains.
- Unplug and inspect older microwaves periodically. Components like door mesh screens can deteriorate over time and cause arcing or power issues.
Taking basic precautions helps prevent accidents. Be especially vigilant about keeping paper products out for safer microwaving.
Frequently Asked Questions
Can you put paper towels in the microwave to dry them?
No, you should never put paper towels in the microwave. The fibers can ignite quickly due to uneven heating, causing a fire hazard.
What happens if you microwave a paper towel?
The paper will likely ignite, scorch, and burn rapidly. The fire can damage the microwave interior, release toxic fumes, and possibly spread if the burning towels catch other items on fire.
Can you put a damp paper towel in the microwave?
No. Even damp paper towels can ignite in the microwave as the moisture trapped in the fibers heats up and creates steam. A drier towel may take longer to burn, but it will still pose serious risks.
Is it safe to cover food with paper towels and microwave it?
It’s generally unsafe, but a single paper towel layer used to cover food for very short cooking times may be okay if monitored closely. Multi-ply towels or prolonged heating are hazardous.
Can you put Viva or Bounty paper towels in the microwave?
No major brand of paper towel is considered microwave-safe. The multiple layers and added absorbency in most premium paper towels make them more likely to burn.
What can you use instead of paper towels to microwave safely?
Microwave-safe alternatives include ceramic plates, glass dishes, parchment paper, paper plates without metal, silicone mats, and paper coffee filters placed on a dish.
How do you dry a paper towel in the microwave safely?
There is no completely safe way. Your very best option is to lay a single-ply towel flat on a ceramic plate for no more than 10–15 seconds while watching closely. Risks still exist. Air drying is the safest.
Can microwaving paper towels cause cancer?
While not definitively proven, the toxic fumes released from burned paper likely contain carcinogens that may potentially increase cancer risk if inhaled. Avoid burning paper towels in the microwave.
In summary, paper towels and microwaves are a bad combination. The fire risks outweigh any benefits.
With so many safer microwave-friendly options available, don’t take chances by microwaving paper towels, dry or damp!
Hi, I’m Julie, the passionate foodie and founder of Juliesfamilykitchen.com. I created this blog out of a drive to prove someone wrong, and then I realized how much I truly enjoy cooking and trying new recipes. In my free time, when I’m not running around after my kids or spending quality time with my partner, you can usually find me in the kitchen experimenting with new dishes.