What You Should Keep In Mind Before Microwaving Paper Towels

When it's time for lunch, and you've only got a short window to work with, the microwave is a quick way to a hot meal. But this isn't your first rodeo. You know, left uncovered, that tantalizing lunch will spatter all over the inside of the microwave. And you're not worried — you've got a go-to solution to keep the microwave clean that you've been using for years. You pop in your lunch covered with your trusty paper towel, assured you can walk away and return to a delicious meal in minutes. There's nothing wrong with this ... unless you leave that paper towel in the microwave too long.


Microwaves can cause paper towels to catch fire if left cooking for an extended period. Just like metal objects will start to spark inside the microwave, nuking a paper towel can cause the dry fibers to combust. Paper towels should only be heated in the microwave in short intervals for safety purposes. A good rule of thumb to follow is the two-minute rule. If you microwave it any longer than that, you risk ruining your meal, and maybe even your microwave. 

Microwave mistakes with paper towels

On top of the two-minute rule, there are other things to watch out for when microwaving paper towels. One action to avoid is folding the paper towel. Though it may seem like a great way to give it an extra layer of defense against splatters, folding it will increase the chance of a spark occurring because the electromagnetic waves build heat in more dense areas. With nowhere to go, those waves can create a spark and catch your food cover on fire.


The materials within the paper towel will also influence its fire risk. Certain paper towels with rich designs on them contain dyes or metals that could spark. Also, reusable paper towels, while perhaps good for the environment, are not something you should put in the microwave. They often contain poly-fibers or cellulose (some even abrasive plastic and metal materials) that increases the danger of catching fire. The plastic in these towels could also leach into the food you're warming up.

Other options for covering food in the microwave

Microwaving a plain, white paper towel for no more than two minutes should be perfectly safe, but there are some other options for covering your food that are safer. Parchment paper is a good option because of its silicone coating. It can be heated up to 420 degrees Fahrenheit safely, and the electromagnetic waves from the microwave pass right through it. Wax paper, though not something you want to put in the oven because it will melt, is also usually safe for short stints in the microwave. As a bonus, both of these will also offer better protection for the walls of your microwave than a paper towel.


Microwave-safe lids are the best option for covering your microwavable meal if you're willing to make the investment. They aren't terribly expensive, but they cost more than paper towels. However, they can last for years if cared for properly, and they can usually be microwaved for as long as necessary without worry. It's another safe option to cover your lunch, but if you've been using paper towels as far back as you can remember to keep your microwave mess-free, there's no reason to stop. Using the two-minute rule, you can walk away while giving your food a quick nuke, sure that you'll return to a clean microwave with a yummy hot meal inside.