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Borax: Friend or Foe?

BoraxBorax is used frequently in homemade laundry soap, dishwashing powders, and personal care products. The question often arises: Is borax safe to use?

Borax, also known as sodium borate, sodium tetraborate, or disodium tetraborate, is a naturally occurring mineral composed of sodium, boron, oxygen, and water. (The scientific name for borax is sodium tetraborate decahydrate.) It is a white powder consisting of soft, colorless crystals that dissolve quickly in water.

Borax can be found in most grocery stores under the label 20 Mule Team (pictured here). Mountain Rose Herbs offers a version without the surfactants and detergents commonly found in commercial products.

According to 20 Mule Team Borax’s Material Safety Data Sheet, borax is a potential health hazard and should not be ingested:

Sodium borate and boric acid interfere with sperm production, damage the testes and interfere with male fertility when given to animals by mouth at high doses. Boric acid produces developmental effects, including reduced body weight, malformations and death, in the offspring of pregnant animals given boric acid by mouth.

The above mentioned animal studies were conducted under exposure conditions leading to doses many times in excess of those that could occur through product use or inhalation of dust in occupational settings. Moreover, a human study of occupational exposure to sodium borate and boric acid dusts showed no adverse effect on fertility.

Borax was added to the Substances of Very High Concern list by the European Chemicals Agency (ECHA) in December 2010, based on studies showing toxicity for reproduction.

Reassessment of boric acid/borax by the EPA's Office of Pesticide Programs found potential developmental toxicity.

Borax is classified by the EPA as a pesticide and is toxic to ants, cockroaches, termites, and other insects. In its chemicalWATCH Factsheet, the organization Beyond Pesticides says this about boric acid and its related compounds:

Boric acid is a low-toxicity, non-volatile mineral with insecticidal, fungicidal, and herbicidal properties. It has long been embraced as a safer alternative to highly volatile, synthetic chemical pesticides.

For information on using borax for weed control in lawns, see this article.

Clearly there are health risks associated with the use of borax. Therefore, it should be used with caution. It is important to note, however, that even table salt can be hazardous if ingested at high levels.

Given the small amount of borax used in homemade laundry powder and automatic dishwashing powder, the benefits may outweigh the risks. Since 1-2 tablespoons of the mixture is all that is needed per load, the amount of borax used is minimal. Compare this with the high amounts of petroleum-based chemicals present in conventional products. The exception would be for those using a greywater system (water from washing machines, sinks, etc. used for yard irrigation). Borax is best avoided for these systems. For more information, see the Greywater Action website.

Borax is a safe and effective cleaning agent for toilets. Allowed to set overnight, it will help eliminate iron rings and stains, with no harmful vapors.

The use of borax in personal care products is perhaps more questionable. Our skin and scalp easily absorb chemicals, both naturally occurring and synthetic. With all of the other natural alternatives available, it may be best to avoid borax in shampoos, lotions, and soaps.

As with any substance, knowledge and awareness are key. Used sparingly and with caution, borax may be utilized safely in the natural home.


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– Jennifer

"My symptoms persisted and eventually turned into lethargy and depression. At the age of 26, I required a nap every evening after work."

– Jennifer

"In my moldy home if I left the wet clothes in the washer they would get musty very quickly and I'd have to re-wash... Sometimes I'd run a load, go to work, and they'd be musty when I returned that evening."

– Anonymous

" age 35 or 36 I started to become allergic to everything, and I got asthma at age 36... I went to doctor after doctor after doctor and was desperate for help, but nobody could help me."

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"The entire time we lived in our (mold-infested) house the kitchen sponge would get musty smelling within 3-4 days. It was so strange. I had to buy a pack of sponges nearly every week."

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"Both of my sons went downhill quickly and coughed for months... They both lost their ability to read, had profound vision disturbances, and had phenomenal gastric issues."

– Lee

"We had some water leaks in our home... we never thought we needed to clean out and remove the floor, the ceiling, or the drywall... my two small children and I have remained constantly sick for years in this home."

– Mia

"We were having a lot of health problems and had been to the doctor countless times... we had large circles of slimy greenish-black mold on the bathroom ceiling, where it had caved in a few months before."

– C.

"I had been struggling with headaches, head fog, breathing difficulties (unable to get a full breath), constant scalp tingling, migraines, nausea, feeling spacey/detached, and severe itchy skin."

– Anonymous

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"I have been sick for almost 6 months now and doctors were not able to figure out why. I finally put it all together after going away for vacation for a week and suddenly my symptoms were going away."

– Anonymous

"I knew it was mold, but doctors kept telling me I had anxiety. I was sitting in my office and could not remember who I was talking to, or what we were talking about."

– Brenda

"I've been living in a mold-infested home for 13 months... I was going CRAZY! Finally figured it out... Just a few days of recovering in a mold-free home and I feel AMAZING!!!"

– Lauren

"My daughter has had many blood samples taken to test for everything imaginable and her doctor just seems puzzled. Everything comes back normal."

– Anonymous

"I'm new at this, but today I cleaned my bathroom with baking soda and vinegar. It's much better not having those strong chemical smells afterwards."

– Anonymous

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– Anonymous

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