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The Borax Debate: Is It Safe? Is It Green?

Posted by on Jan 27, 2013 in For Beginners, Green Clean, Skin & Hair Care | 8 comments

The Borax Debate: Is It Safe? Is It Green?

From conversations we’ve had online and offline, Kim and I know many of you are wondering about borax and what role, if any, it should play in your green routine.

If you search the web you will find people who believe borax is the perfectly safe, eco-friendly answer to a myriad of cleaning problems and you will find others who see it as a toxic and dangerous substance.

As with most debates, the truth about borax probably lies somewhere in the middle of the two extremes, so let’s dig a little deeper.

What is borax?

Borax is a naturally occurring mineral. The soft borax crystals usually range from colorless to white.

Borax also goes by the names sodium borate, sodium biborate, sodium tetraborate, natrum boricum, natrii boras and tétraborate de sodium.

Boric acid is not the same thing as borax, though both contain the boron compound and are similar in appearance and toxicity.

Where does borax come from?

Borax is mined from the earth and then refined for use. The popular brand, 20 Mule Team, has been mining borax in Death Valley since the 19th century. On a recent trip to Death Valley I stopped at one of the old borax mines. Below you see a picture of the area and a wagon used to bring borax to the city and water to the workers.

Old borax mine in Death Valley

What is borax used for?

Borax has many industrial and household uses but we’ll focus on the latter of the two.

Since borax dissolves easily in water, bleaches, deodorizes and kills fungus it is commonly found in cleaning products and laundry detergents. You may also see it on the label of cosmetic products where it acts as a preservative and on teeth whitening strips where it acts as a bleaching agent. It may be used as an insecticide or pesticide as well.

Is it safe for you?

It is not safe to ingest borax according to the FDA which has banned it as a food additive. This raises concerns about its use in teeth whitening strips where it can easily be swallowed.

It is not safe to inhale borax because it will irritate your lungs. This is important to note because many DIY cleaning and detergent products include borax but fail to mention that you should wear a mask when handling the powder and mixing your product.

Borax is a strong base so it may irritate skin. If you have cuts, open wounds or sensitive skin you will want to wear gloves when you are handling the powder.

According the Environmental Working Group borax is not a carcinogen but there is concern about exposure to the mineral  since it may damage reproductive organs. EPA studies on borax and boric acid show they may disrupt hormones and harm the reproductive system, especially in men. This was determined through studies on mice, rats and dogs who ingested the substance and by studying men who worked in boric acid-producing factories. These studies did not assess the risk general consumers face through exposures from cleaning supplies, cosmetics and other products found in the home.

Is it safe for the environment?

Borax is mined from the earth and generally that is a very damaging activity, however, it’s worth noting that the Rio Tinto mine where 20 Mule Team borax comes from is known as a sustainable and socially responsible mine.

Once borax re-enters the ecosystem after use, usually by being washed down the drain or washed away in rain water, you may have cause for concern since borax is an insecticide and pesticide and can claim unintended victims such as the algae in you local ponds.

What’s the verdict?

Several years ago there was a leak in my basement and I was afraid mold would grow where the beams had gotten wet. I was first introduced to borax as the powder I could use to make a solution to spray on the beams and prevent mold.

When I tried to figure out what to do with the left over borax I discovered its other popular use as a laundry detergent but I never felt right using is as a laundry detergent because I knew it would kill algae as well.

When I started making my own personal products I discovered borax could be used as a preservative. Since then, however, Kim and I have decided to find replacements for the borax in our personal products and we are updating the recipes on this blog as we find suitable substitutes.

When it comes to borax and my own green routine I will avoid it in personal products, cleaning products and laundry detergents. I will not use borax in uncontrolled environments, for example, if I needed to kill ants outside by the foundation of my house. I will, however, use borax in controlled environments where children and pets will not be exposed to it and where it can’t be washed away by rain water. Of course, I use the proper safety equipment when I handle it too.

If you want to read some other bloggers’ opinions on borax, I recommend these three articles:

Did this article change your mind about borax or reinforce your current views? Leave us a comment to let us know where borax fits into your routine and if you see that changing in the future.

Nicole knows making small changes for the greener add up over time and hopes you’re inspired to make some changes of your own after reading her articles. She focuses on easy, green, homemade personal products and green living tips for city dwellers. Nicole lives in Pittsburgh, PA and you can find her on twitter at @_nlg_.

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8 Comments

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  1. Mom of ten

    I used to make my own laundry detergent, because it was cheaper, and I thought it was better for the environment. I started to have doubts, though, when I noticed a pattern in getting headaches every time I mixed together the ingredients for the detergent. I never knew why, but after reading this I suspect it was the borax. Thanks for the info.

  2. Sydney

    Do you use the laundry detergent recipe that you posted above in an HE washer?

  3. Julia

    I use it for removing persistent stains………soak item in your usual detergent, then remove and add borax directly onto the stain while the item is still wet. Leave for about half an hour then wash as you usually would. It nearly always removes the stain.

    It’s also brilliant at removing build up of of hair products…….just mix some with your shampoo and wash as usual…….hair literally feels squeaky clean.

    According to the packaging of the brand I used to buy (no longer available) Borax will not harm anything that will not be damaged by water.

    Herne Hill Carpet Cleaners Ltd.

  4. Gaya

    Very helpful thank you. I am experimenting with an oil and water solution not cream and seeing if I can add a non-toxic emulsifier. Will check you recipes and lecithin is next on my list.

  5. Marianne Rivera

    Very interesting information. I thought that borax is absolutely safe. It is true that sometimes irritates skin but I don`t pay too much attention. Thank you for sharing this article. Greets!

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