Do Microwaves Give off Radiation?

Adam Hill

The microwave oven has certainly been the most controversial of all kitchen-related inventions. Much of the concern surrounding the safety of microwaves regards the amount of radiation given off by one. The word "radiation" is charged with all sorts of connotations for us, living as we do in an age of nuclear energy. A microwave oven does produce radiation when in operation, but it is important to define what radiation is, and what dangers it poses to humans, if any.

Microwave ovens contain nearly all of the radiation they produce inside.
Microwave ovens contain nearly all of the radiation they produce inside.

Scientifically speaking, radiation consists of any waves that form part of the electromagnetic spectrum. Visible light, radio and television signals, and the infrared beams used by remote controls are all forms of radiation. We are constantly surrounded by every type of radiation to some degree. As most people know, some forms of radiation, such as x-rays, can be dangerous or even fatal in large enough amounts. The radiation used by microwave ovens has a very long wavelength, so that it is not visible to our eyes. It is, however, at just the right wavelength to excite water molecules, thereby heating them, and this in turn heats whatever food is in the microwave.

Microwaves excite water molecules to heat food.
Microwaves excite water molecules to heat food.

The vast majority of microwave radiation produced by microwave ovens is contained within the oven itself while it is in operation. A small amount may escape, and this is normal and not a cause for concern. Any of the effects or hazards presented by microwave ovens are quite mild compared to more dangerous types of energy such as gamma rays and x-rays. The main result of the exposure of an object to microwaves is that it will be heated. Therefore, burns are the main hazard presented by microwaves, as is the case with anything else that uses heat to cook food.

Cell phones give off more radiation than microwaves.
Cell phones give off more radiation than microwaves.

It was the case at one time that small amounts of microwave leakage could interfere with heart pacemakers if someone with a pacemaker stood too close to a microwave for too long. Those who design pacemakers and the batteries they use have since corrected most of these problems, although there is no guarantee that a malfunctioning microwave could not pose some form of danger. Even though most microwaves are completely safe to use, more research will need to be done in order to determine what constitutes a safe level of microwave radiation. This may take some time, as it is difficult to study what the effects are of very low levels of radiation over a person's lifetime.

Radiation from microwaves is quite mild compared to radiation experienced during an X-ray.
Radiation from microwaves is quite mild compared to radiation experienced during an X-ray.

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Discussion Comments


How many microsieverts does a microwave produce every 5 minutes?


If there is one thing I hate, it is when people speak about things they obviously know nothing about. Yes, microwaves leak: new, old, outdated – all of them! The older ones can leak more, but all microwaves leak, and that includes new, new, new or not. And radiation from a microwave can leak and emit up to 11-12 meters away from where it is placed!


@ Parmnparsley- For the most part microwaves only leak when they are old or outdated. The FDA regulates how much microwave radiation is allowed to leak out of a new microwave oven in its lifetime, and this amount is far less than what can cause harm to humans.

Microwave radiation also falls off significantly after two inches from the oven. This means that your mother was right when she said not to stand too close to the microwave. Standing twenty inches from a microwave will only expose a person to one one-hundredth the radiation that s/he would receive if s/he were standing 2 inches away. The FDA measures microwave radiation exposure at two inches from the oven.

Honestly, most cell phones, televisions, and speed radar use microwave radiation. A person is more likely to be bombarded with microwaves from watching television and talking on the phone than putting popcorn in the microwave and walking away.


Microwaves emit microwave radiation, which is a form of non-ionizing radiation. Non-ionizing types of radiation are not very harmful to people in small doses, and they do not cause radiation sickness or cell damage like ionizing forms of radiation.

Physicists consider microwaves, and the other non-ionizing forms of radiation, to be low energy electromagnetic radiation. These types of electromagnetic radiation only cause burns from high doses of exposure.

There is a consensus that most forms of non-ionizing radiation can still cause some forms of cancer after a lifetime of exposure. Everyone knows the sun’s ultraviolet rays cause skin cancer in large doses, and scientists theorize that microwaves, radio waves, and extra low frequency waves also pose a cancer risk. Examples of these types of waves are leaking microwave ovens, cell phone radiation, and the radiation given off by power lines respectively.

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