Ah, borax. What once was a household name is, once again, a household name – thank you DIY slime! What you may not know about borax is that it is also used as a laundry booster, flea killer, and a “green cleaner,” and it’s been around since the late 19th century.
Like many other products in our society today, borax garners a lot of questions about its toxicity levels, making one wonder… Is borax really safe to use? And what are the possible dangers of using borax? Are we to believe the companies like 20 Mule Team Borax when they state that borax is safe and all natural?
Or is it a case of greenwashing? We set out to find out the truth on borax! Is it safe? And if borax is safe to use, then why was it banned in the U.K.?
Let’s take a look at this enduring, yet highly controversial substance and find out if borax is dangerous or toxic to you or your pets.
IN A NUTSHELL:
- Borax is a naturally-occuring mineral salt that’s used by consumers as a laundry/cleaning booster and as an ingredient in homemade slime.
- Borax can be irritating to the skin, eyes, lungs, and digestive tract if enough of it is consumed or inhaled.
- The European Union and the United Kingdom have banned borax due to concerns about reproductive toxicity. However, most of the data about reproductive effects has to do with boric acid, not borax. The two substances are similar, but not the same thing.
- There seems to be inconsistency across the board when it comes to borax regulation. For example, the E.U. does not allow consumers to buy borax as a cleaning additive, but they allow it as a caviar preservative. In the U.S. it’s the opposite: it’s allowed as a laundry/cleaning booster, but is generally banned as a food additive.
- Unfortunately, with unclear and unavailable data, consumers will have to decide for themselves if they feel comfortable using borax or not. If you want to take the “precautionary approach,” there are plenty of other non-toxic cleaning products you can use instead.
Table of Contents
- IN A NUTSHELL:
- What Is Borax?
- Where Does Borax Come From?
- What Is The Difference Between Borax And Boric Acid?
- Is Borax Natural or Synthetic?
- Why Is Borax Becoming Popular Again?
- What Is Borax Most Commonly Used For?
- Is Borax A “Green” Product?
- Is Borax Safe or Poisonous? Is it Toxic to People?
- Borax Can Be Irritating to the Eyes, Skin, Respiratory Tract, and Stomach
- Is Borax a Hormone Disruptor?
- Borax Is Not Classified As A Carcinogenic
- Why is Borax banned in the UK and EU? What Is All The Controversy?
- What is “Borax Substitute?”
- Is Borax Considered Safe To Use In The United States?
- Is Borax Banned in Canada?
- Is Borax Safe for Pets to Be Around?
- Tl;DR: Sooo… Is Borax Safe Or Not?
- How to Use Borax Safely
- Borax Alternatives
What Is Borax?
Borax is a water-soluble alkaline mineral salt. It’s white and powdery, with a baking soda like consistency. (Drop a box of this stuff and you’ll be saying some choice words!) You can find it sold in many stores in the U.S. in a box in the laundry section.
Borax is most well-known as a natural, powerful cleaning agent. People love it so much it has garnered many nicknames like “White Gold” and “The Magic Crystal.” It was incredibly popular in the late 19th century and early to mid-late 20th century.
You will also find borax used as an additive in several common household products hidden under chemical compound names; you’ll find it referred to as sodium borate, sodium tetraborate, and disodium tetraborate, which is a naturally occurring mineral.
Not to be left out, sodium tetraborate decahydrate is the name for borax under the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry (IUPAC). Because we needed a fourth name for it—thank you, chemists!
Where Does Borax Come From?
Borax is most commonly mined from ephemeral lakes, which are lake beds that are flooded for short periods of time and then dry up. It is considered an evaporite, which means it was formed through the process of concentrating and crystallizing the mineral sediment when the water evaporates.
The U.S. Borax supply mostly comes from Death Valley and has been a staple for over 145 years in the U.S. Yet, the first known deposits are credited as coming from Tibet where the substance has been used for over 4,000 years.
What Is The Difference Between Borax And Boric Acid?
These two substances are similar, but not the same thing. Both contain boron, an element found in food and the environment. Boric acid is mainly used as a pesticide.
Boric acid is made by dissolving borax into boiling water and adding an acid, such as hydrochloric acid, then allowing it to cool. Once the solution cools, boric acid crystals form.
Borax is highly alkaline and contains sodium, which is what lends itself to softening water and helping to remove acidic based stains like mustard.
Is Borax Natural or Synthetic?
Borax rock/crystal is mined directly from the earth. The compound can then be processed into boric acid among a myriad of borates for other products.
Borax deposits are more abundant than naturally occurring boric acid. Though not common, boron within the borax can react with naturally occurring sulfur in the ground, especially near volcanic deposits, and form into boric acid.
Although it can be produced synthetically using boron compounds, this is not the standard operating procedure and it’s unnecessary because of it’s renewability rate. So all that to say, borax is considered “natural” (but that doesn’t necessarily make it “green,” according to its detractors).
Why Is Borax Becoming Popular Again?
When homemade slime became all the rage, a box of borax was sure to be in every home that had slime-making munchkins.
Many families were left with partially used boxes of borax and wondering what to do with it. Also, the green cleaning movement started picking up momentum; the use of borax as a laundry detergent booster as well as a mainstay for homemade cleaning products started to catch on again.
What Is Borax Most Commonly Used For?
Borax seems to be a cleaning “catch-all,” right up there with the non-contested “green” cleaners such as vinegar, lemon, and baking soda. It is also very good at buffering pH levels and preventing or slowing bacterial or fungal growth, among many other things.
Some of the most common household uses for borax include:
- Laundry Additive/Stain Remover
- Dealing with Mold On Drywall
- Garbage Disposal Cleaner
- Kills Ants and Dehydrates Fleas
Some uncommonly common uses for borax:
- Creating A Green Burning Flame
- Mattress Freshener/Deodorizer
- Athlete’s Foot/Fungus Killer
- Kill Weeds On Driveways And Sidewalks
- Kids Crafts: Slime, Snowflake Crystals, Balls
Some common but uncommonly known uses for borax:
- Chinese Rice Noodles And Rice Dumplings
- Putting Out Grease Fires
- Used In Denture Adhesives
- Cosmetics (to Inhibit Bacterial Growth) and Bath Salts
- Lotion And Bath Products
Did Borax Become Unpopular Because It Is Dangerous?
Did borax become less popular because it’s harmful? Not necessarily. The main reason for the decline in borax’s popularity seems to have come mainly from changes in the way laundry detergents were formulated.
Borax was considered a laundry staple for 50+ years. Back in the day, laundry powders were made up of soap (not surfactants like they largely are now), which tended to leave a soapy film on clothing, especially in hard water. The alkalinity and hydrogen action of borax helped to remove stains, odors, and soften the water in order to rinse away soap film and leave clothes cleaner and fresher.
By the 1980s, with the continued improvements and new formulations, as well as the introduction of liquid detergents, the use of borax started to decline quite a bit. By the 1990s, borax had outlived its heyday as the up-and-coming generation seemed to have skipped adding it to their laundry altogether.
Is Borax A “Green” Product?
The answer is not exactly clear!
Usually, borax is labeled as a “green” product because it doesn’t contain chlorine or phosphates. However, the Environmental Working Group (EWG) says it may not be as “green” as some think. This EWG article, however, seems to create more questions than answers (with some of the supporting links being defunct).
The Green Built Alliance offers a pretty well-rounded checklist that you can refer to that may help you to determine if a product is truly “green.” And yet, this resource also doesn’t give us a clear answer on borax.
On the plus side, borax is considered sustainable/renewable even though millions of tons of it is mined each year. Twicethat amount is redistributed by condensation, rain, volcanic, and other atmospheric activities.
Is Borax Safe or Poisonous? Is it Toxic to People?
To be honest, it’s quite difficult to find a definitive answer as to whether or not borax is totally safe. Let’s look at some of the proposed health risks associated with borax:
Borax Can Be Irritating to the Eyes, Skin, Respiratory Tract, and Stomach
The general consensus is that consumption of borax in certain quantities can cause acute reactions such as:
- skin rash
- eye irritation
- nausea and vomiting
- respiratory problems
In the Library of National Medicine, a comparative study that goes as far back as 1998 showed that the toxicity levels of borates, boric acid, and borax, through intact human skin is low and “the use of gloves to prevent systemic uptake is unnecessary.”
According to this review, however, it can be an irritant for the eyes and should not be inhaled. Use of borax is indeed worthy of caution (just as with almost any cleaning substance).
This warning about ingestion seems to be generally accepted across sources. No matter where you look, there seems to be a common disclaimer that borax is non-toxic “unless it is ingested.”
This is especially important for people with toddlers, young children, and even pets, as they can be at special risk from hand-to-mouth (or paw to mouth?) ingestion of borax dust used on carpets or along walls for pest control, cleaning, or other reasons.
Is Borax a Hormone Disruptor?
In addition to irritation, the EWG (along with Healthline and WebMD) also state concerns about borax as a hormone disruptor, stating a few different animal studies that showed a negative effect on male reproductive organs and damage to fetal development.
The only problem is… We couldn’t actually find any of these studies they’ve referenced! There seems to be more evidence of boric acid as a hormone disruptor, but it’s unclear whether or not borax may have the same effect.
In other words, it seems that the verdict is still out on whether or not borax is an endocrine disruptor or not.
Borax Is Not Classified As A Carcinogenic
In general, borax is not classifiable as a human carcinogen. So far the only exception to this has come from the Indonesian Directorate of Consumer Protection, which has warned of the risk of liver cancer with high consumption of borax over a 5-10 year period.
Why is Borax banned in the UK and EU? What Is All The Controversy?
In December of 2010, the E.U. reclassified the ‘Borate’ group of chemicals that borax belongs to as a Substance Of Very High Concern (SVHC) due to its potential to be hazardous to reproductive health. The decision to classify the Borate group as an SVHC came after a series of studies were conducted on rats and mice who were force-fed obscene amounts of boric acid. As mentioned above, these studies indicated that boric acid, not borax, was reprotoxic.
(The Material Safety Data Sheet also noted that the exposure conditions of the animals were in doses many times in excess of conditions that could occur through inhalation of dust in a work environment or product use.)
After this decision substances or compounds imported into the E.U. and the U.K. (even after Brexit) that contain borax or borates are now required to be labeled with warnings regarding fertility and the possibility of harming unborn children. Borax as a cleaning and laundry product is no longer available to purchase in stores in the E.U., you can only buy “Borax Substitute”.
Is the UK/EU Taking the “Precautionary Approach”?
It’s unclear as to the “real” reasons why borax has been banned in some countries. One theory is that the E.U., U.K. (and kind of Canada) are taking a careful precautionary approach.
In the U.S., the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) takes an “innocent until proven guilty” approach where chemicals are assumed safe (and allowed to enter the marketplace) until they are proven otherwise.
A different approach would be that substances should be proven safe before they are allowed into the marketplace. Could this be the approach some countries are taking when it comes to borax and other borates? Perhaps since there is some evidence that boric acid may cause reproductive harm, they are playing it on the safe side by banning it…?
(There are also some other more conspiracy-leaning theories out there about why borax was really banned, but we won’t go down that rabbit hole right now…)
What is “Borax Substitute?”
In the E.U., since the ban on borax, either you try to find it online or you use the borax substitute known as Sodium Sesquicarbonate, which is sodium carbonate plus sodium bicarbonate.
(Note that although sodium sesquicarbonate is generally considered safe, it also has its own potential risks if too much is ingested.)
Is Borax Considered Safe To Use In The United States?
For a long time now, sodium borate and boric acid have been used as antiseptics, irrigants, buffers, dressings, and preservatives in medicine. Both compounds were reviewed by several FDA over-the-counter (OTC) drug panels. These compounds have even been deemed safe and effective for preservatives in vaginal products.
So as of right now, borax is still considered safe to use in the U.S. in certain pharmaceuticals, personal care products, and is still available in stores as a laundry booster and cleaning additive.
Borax Banned As A Food Additive In The U.S.
As early as the 1870s, people were adding boric acid and borax to food. This was to help preserve food and to inhibit mold and bacteria and was often used as a glaze to keep flies off of meats. (Sounds delish, right?)
However, with a few exceptions, borax is now banned as a food additive in the U.S., as well as in other countries such as Australia, China, and Thailand.
It’s is still used in other countries (not all legally) in noodles, meatballs, rice dumplings, fried fritters, and other foods to improve shelf-life, increase elasticity in noodles, and crispness of fried foods.
Most countries stopped using borates due to their purported toxicities and in some cases, abuse.
Interestingly, while the E.U. won’t let you clean with borax anymore, they don’t mind want their preserving their caviar with it. Just three years after they banned it, the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) was still approving borax and boric acid for sturgeons eggs. If you want to check it out, at least five “European acronyms” are in the report citing eight different tests/reviews that as an additive, it was approved over the course of the past 33 years.
It’s no wonder consumers are confused about whether or not borax is toxic or safe…
Is Borax Banned in Canada?
Canada doesn’t take a black-or-white approach to borax and boric acid either. They have banned borax and its sister substances in some uses and allowed them in others.
In general, the approach to boric acid by the Canadian government is that since citizens are already exposed to a certain amount through things like food and water, they recommend that consumers try to avoid it from other sources (like cleaning products, cosmetics, and arts & crafts) in order to minimize their overall exposure.
Is Borax Safe for Pets to Be Around?
Can borax hurt your pet? You probably don’t want your pet rolling around in borax or eating the stuff. It is very alkaline and can therefore can cause heightened irritation (especially if they are scratching and biting at fleas since the skin is likely abraded or broken).
If you decide to use boric acid (not borax) as a pesticide, keep in mind this particularly common sense quote regarding boric acid from Alicia Leytem, a pesticide specialist at Oregon State University’s National Pesticide Information Center: “Because it’s a pesticide, it’s intended to kill something. All pesticides have some level of toxicity.”
If you choose a DIY remedy, be sure to know and understand the usage. According to PetMD, most people use more than is needed which can result in overexposure to you and your pet. Following the directions from EPA-registered boric acid products are the way to ensure you don’t hurt your pet.
Tl;DR: Sooo… Is Borax Safe Or Not?
Borax has been around for ages and has significant historical uses in medicine, agriculture, ceramic glaze, food preservation, and precious metal workings. It’s said that the Babylonians got it from the Himalayas for jewelry, that the Egyptians used it for mummification, and Marco Polo is credited for transporting it to Europe in the 13th century.
It’s technically a “natural” substance since it comes from the Earth, but as we know, not all “natural” substances are safe (i.e. lead, asbestos, etc.).
As with almost any substance, improper usage and excessive exposure can create adverse symptoms for a human or an animal. If you do use borax, be sure to follow directions, don’t use to much, and be careful not to ingest it through inhalation, open cuts, or hand-to-eye / hand-to-mouth transfer.
The word is still out on whether or not borax is a hormone disruptor. Some sources state that it “may cause reproductive toxicity,” but a lot of this data has to do with boric acid, not borax.
If you’re in the U.S. where borax is available for purchase as a laundry and cleaning additive, you’ll have to make up your own mind based on what you feel is right for you and your family.
How to Use Borax Safely
If you do decide to use borax powder in your home, here are some pointers on how to use it safely:
- Keep the borax out of reach of children and pets so they are not able to ingest large amounts of it.
- Avoid ingestion by wearing gloves and a mask over your mouth when using it. Avoid borax contact with broken or damaged skin.
- Fully rinse surfaces and/or clothing after using it as a cleaning agent.
- Wash your hands after use.
If you don’t want to use borax, there are comparable substances you can use as a laundry booster or cleaning additive instead:
- Baking soda
- Washing soda
- Oxygen boost powder (like that from Branch Basics)
- sodium tetraborate (which is what the E.U.’s “borax substitute” is made out of)