It may be natural, but is borax safe? This is a question I’ve tackled before but is worth another look as it is in the news more than ever.
No longer just a cleaner our grandmothers used, borax is enjoying new popularity as a wonder ingredient for natural cleaning. It’s found in many recipes for homemade cleaners, or for preserving homemade beauty products. It is also a primary ingredient in my popular all-purpose cleaner and laundry detergent. What’s more, it’s a common ingredient in the many of the homemade slime recipes so many of our kids love.
Since I continue to get lots of questions about the safety of borax, let’s take a fresh look at the controversy and see how it stacks up.
What Is Borax?
Borax, of the mule team variety, is sodium tetraborate or sodium borate (to get all official for a second) and NOT boric acid (hydrogen borate).
Sodium tetraborate (hereafter referred to as borax) is a salt of boric acid but it is not chemically the same. This is a common misconception on the Internet, apparently, and if you’ve read an article claiming it is dangerous that goes on about the dangers of boric acid or says they are the same thing, I would not consider that article credible.
Of special concern is whether or not borax is safe to use around children, since many times young children are crawling on (or, let’s face it, licking) surfaces that may have been cleaned with borax.
Another reason borax has been in the news lately is its use as a main ingredient in homemade slime recipes. Natural or not, borax isn’t meant to be eaten at any time and there is always a chance of harm (even with careful supervision) when kids are using household chemicals. Caution is definitely warranted and this is one reason we use a borax-free slime recipe just in case.
Borax vs. Boric Acid vs. Sodium Borate
All of these are used as natural pesticides, which is probably the reason for the misconception that they are the same. However, boric acid carries a risk for toxicity at a much lower dose than borax does if ingested.
Borax is used in the process of making boric acid, but there is a tremendous chemical difference between the two. Borax is a naturally occurring mineral, though of course, that doesn’t make it inert or safe either. (Arsenic is a naturally occurring metalloid but it isn’t safe for human use. Natural doesn’t always mean safe.)
Why does this matter? It matters because the studies used to back up the safety (or danger) of borax often use boric acid, or are often ambiguous about which was used.
The product safety data also combines borax and boric acid, making it is unclear which substance the various warnings pertain to. These cautions read like:
This product is white, odorless, crystalline powder. Direct contact with eyes may cause severe irritation with redness, pain, blurred vision, and possibly corneal injury. Repeated or prolonged excessive exposure with skin can result in irritation.
No chronic health effects are expected from the intended use of these products or from foreseeable handling of them in the workplace. Nonetheless, the following effects have been reported for a component, sodium borate, and boric acid. Sodium borate upon entry into the body becomes boric acid. 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.
Note that these menacing-sounding warnings relate mainly to skin contact, eye contact, or when it was “given ..by mouth at high doses” in animal studies.
You know what else can irritate the eyes and skin and even cause digestive problems at high doses? Vinegar or oregano essential oil (caused a cornea burn in my mother in law), and probably cayenne pepper too. That doesn’t mean that those things aren’t safe but just that that we must use them safely.
Borax Safety Hazards & Precautions
Borax is extremely alkaline, which makes it irritating when used undiluted. It makes sense not to use any form — borax, sodium borate, or boric acid — as an eyewash or skin scrub. You should also never drink or ingest it in any way.
However, this still doesn’t answer the question about if occasional indirect contact (in things like cleaning products) is safe.
Here’s the full material data safety sheet if you want some light reading.
That data sheet does give it a safety rating of “1” which is the same as baking soda and salt. (I wouldn’t recommend putting those in your eye or rubbing large amounts on the skin constantly or ingesting large amounts daily either.)
The Environmental Working Group lists borax as a safety rating of 5-6, though again, the studies used contained both borax and boric acid and the warnings referred to ingestion, eye contact, or long-term undiluted use.
What About Boron?
As with so many things in the health world, there is a flip side to the concerns. Boron is a trace element (atomic number 5) and a fascinating character (because I am a dork and easily fascinated by chemistry). It turns out, there is a biological need for boron in small amounts. Studies show boron plays a key role in healthy cell membrane functions and is especially important for bone health.
Side note: The boron family may be considered non-toxic to humans in lower amounts, but these products are more dangerous to insects (thus their use as a pesticide):
In biology, borates have low toxicity in mammals (similar to table salt), but are more toxic to arthropods and are used as insecticides. Boric acid is mildly antimicrobial, and a natural boron-containing organic antibiotic is known. Boron is essential to life. Small amounts of boron compounds play a strengthening role in the cell walls of all plants, making boron necessary in soils. Experiments indicate a role for boron as an ultratrace element in animals, but its role in animal physiology is unknown.
But Is Borax Toxic or Not?
There are a lot of confounding factors based on the source. And lots of differing opinions too. The main points I found in researching were:
- Actual warnings relate to eye irritation, undiluted skin contact, and ingestion.
- The FDA and the ECA (European Chemicals Agency) banned borax as a substance of high concern but didn’t provide any documentation other than soil level dangers.
- The European Union and Canada have banned the use of borax not just in food but in body care products made for children under the age of 3, according to this EWG article. This may be reasonable since being applied directly the skin (not the case in cleaning products or laundry detergent residue).
- I was unable to find any studies that proved a danger to borax in natural cleaning products in diluted amounts as long as it didn’t get into the eyes or wasn’t ingested.
- The EWG Skin Base Database classified borax as a moderate hazard, but most of the studies and listings related to its use in food.
In the event of accidental ingestion, certainly contact your local emergency service or the American Association of Poison Control Centers immediately at 1-800-222-1222.
The Bottom Line on Borax Safety?
I could not find any data that was compelling enough for me to avoid natural borax powder completely. Obviously, I would not ingest it or feel comfortable using it in cosmetic or food preparations.
At the same time, most products I use borax in aren’t coming in direct, undiluted contact with my skin, I’m not ingesting them and I’m not getting them in or near my eyes, so most of the concerns and warnings are not valid.
Also, I’m using homemade products with borax to replace things like regular laundry detergent or cleaners that rate “D” or “F” on the EWG Database.
Borax is an effective natural cleaner and a safer alternative to many conventional cleaners. Yes, it is also a pesticide, but a natural one (and great at getting rid of ants- here’s a great tutorial) but I’m yet to find conclusive evidence that it is either safe or harmful to humans (other than if it is ingested, rubbed in the eyes, etc.).
What I Personally Do
I still consider borax safe for use in natural cleaning, but absolutely do your own research and make sure you are using appropriately in any capacity. I use a natural borax powder so it is free of any added surfactants or detergents, but Mule Team Borax is also considered a pure/natural form of borax.
Bottom line, I always advocate that every mom should listen to their gut (and the research, of course). If you aren’t comfortable using borax in your home, this line of green cleaning products may be a great option for you. (To hear more about why I trust them, listen to my interview with the founder in this Wellness Mama podcast.)
This article was medically reviewed by Madiha Saeed, MD, a board certified family physician. As always, this is not personal medical advice and we recommend that you talk with your doctor.
What are your thoughts on borax? Do you consider it safe enough to use for homemade creations?
Discussion (203 Comments)
I have a couple questions. What are your thoughts on using Mrs. Meyers cleaning products? Also, using Biokleen. I am using these and wondering are they good natural products? Safe for children to use also? Thanks.
Katie - Wellness Mama
They are safer than a lot of conventional ones, but they do contain endocrine disrupting fragrances and chemicals. I stick to homemade or branch basics personally.
Thanks for this article & finding a borax alternative. I have super sensitive skin & laundry detergent that has borax in it, gives me a rash. Excited to look into the alternative.
I think this is a case of a little knowledge can be dangerous in the wrong hands. Boric acid isn’t equivalent to borax. I too, use it for laundry detergent and a non-scratching surface scrub. After a family member contracted scabies from a flight (yes, that can happen!!) we used it to sprinkle on the carpets, mattresses, couch and then vacuumed it up. Worked great and no unpleasant chemicals or pesticides around.
WOuld you allow your children to make a concoction called ‘flubber’ that included Borax. I’m thinking not but before chastising a friend for allowing I wanted to make sure..thanks
My kids played with flubber as little kids with no harm. They are now 18 and 20 and smart and healthy.
Flubber is fine.
I’ve used the Mule Team brand for years. I add it to the laundry to whiten my whites. It works great! I’m glad it’s safe to use it.
I had already been making the liquid version of that 3-ingredient laundry soap for a number of months when our second son was born, so I was quite sure that his eczema wasn’t related to the fragrances or colours or other additives in my totally natural homemade soap! For a couple of years, we looked for food-based allergies, and just spent a lot of time creaming him up and keeping baths and swimming to a minimum. One day I thought, Well what if it is one of the 3 ingredients in my homemade soap? I bought some Ecos detergent and washed everything in the house, even if it was already clean. Within a couple of weeks, the eczema had all but disappeared. He can still get dry and itchy, but now I know that some people are much more sensitive to Borax .
Borax is a known irritant, but just how irritating may depend on the person (didn’t make a difference to the rest of us). But if you have an unexplained skin rash and you’re using Borax…..try avoiding it for a couple months to see if things improve.
I’m so thankful I came across this article, and comment! I am trying like crazy to figure out why my daughter’s skin is soo dry. My son had a slight case of eczema, which cleared up when I switched to fragrance-free everything. When my daugher came along, we were already using what I thought were the most natural cleaning agents that we could! I just made a batch of borax-free laundry powder, and am working on a mountain of laundry! I’m praying that she has a borax sensitivity, and not food allergies. Thanks again 🙂
Thanks for an interesting article and all your hard work. I have a friend from Syria who would not let her daughter participate in making slime with borax and glue. I thought it was odd and have wondered ever since if this was a menacing product. I will continue to use it to make slime with no worries (but plenty of adult supervision 😉 ).
Thank you for this post (well, all of your posts, really! :)) I recently bought a natural moisturizing cream from a local beekeeper. The last ingredient is borax and I had never seen it used in a personal care product before. I assumed it was safe since it was the last ingredient and have not noticed any irritation. I would like to try to make it myself without the borax. Do you think it is added as a stabilizer or thickener? I wish I would have asked the merchant why it was listed, but didn’t notice until I got home.
I believe it is an emulsifier. My first home beauty product over 11 years ago was a diaper rash cream that included a pinch of borax with the liquids, to help emulsify the oils.
Thanks Courtney! That’s what I figured.
Love Wellness Mama – thanks. I use 1/2 cup all mule team borax in a bathtub of water
weekly. It keeps away all fungus, e.g. under the breasts which break out after menopause.
Also, on the feet. My body is now totally clean. I figured that if it is safe in the washer –
why not. It works and I now longer spend money on hormonal creams of any sort.
I have also read that it is not toxic and some people take 1/8 tsp. per day in water to ward
off candida which is an internal fungus caused by taking antibiotics. Good luck!!
OMGoodness. This is the first time I’ve read any confirmation of the breast thing after menopause. You bring me hope and a good suggestion!
Just a slight film of coconut oil under breasts and other areas that can cause rash does the trick. I offered this to a nurse friend that is employed in a nursing home and she told me it is a magical panacea for the skin for the old folks. Most importantly in summer and those who sit a lot.
Hi, when you say fungus under the breast are you talking about the dark spot under the breast that gets darken in summer?
It’s a natural preservative.
I’ve always wondered about borax, since it’s in so many ‘recipes’ for homemade cleaning products and detergents… thanks for clearing it up with some facts!
I basically came to the same conclusion when I looked a bit into it. I do use the all purpose cleaner my tabletop or countertop, and wipe it down with a wet rag I lovethat cleaner and dont think that the small amount of borax is dangerous in any way.
That’s my opinion.
I actually read somewhere that because borax is so alkaline someone was using like a tsp or less don’t remember exactly in a cup of water and drinking it to alkalize her body. I wouldn’t do that myself however it was don’t by someone who lived to tell the tale ????.
I use use Calben Seafoam powdered laundry detergent. I also add some washing soda in really dirty loads. I have 25 pounds of it so I am using it. I do not use borax in my laundry because it makes me itch.
I am going to try a Borax free recipe I found last week.
Just wondering if anyone else has read the borax conspiracy? I read it just the other day and found it very interesting. Would love to hear from anyone else who may have read it especially you, Katie.
Thought this was very interesting….
I have been taking the borax concentrate mixture (1 heaping teaspoon of borax to one (16.9) ounce bottle of water) at 1 ounce per day now for about a month and have had a significant reduction in arthritis symptoms. I also use it in my “no poo” regimen” as baking soda irritated my scalp, but the borax has not caused me any issues… approximately 1/4 cup mixed into 32 ounce cup of hot water – I use the first amount of mixture that comes out of the cup into my hair which I have gotten wet in a bath. I add the remainder of the borax/water to my bath after washing my hair one time and soak in the water for a little while. Rinse with tub water to start, then I do a 50/50 ratio of vinegar in a shower rinse after to finish rinsing out the borax wash and soften my hair. I LOVE it! My face, which has always had issues with pimples and black heads, is clear for the first time in my life – and I didn’t break out during my cycle like I normally do. DO read the article as I feel the Herxheimer reaction is something to be aware of — I did get sick the first few days of taking the mixture but muddled through it and kept taking it and bathing with it. I did have a yeast infection too in the nether regions.. and that has resolved. I cannot take the “prescription” medications for yeast infections – those make me seriously ill – like ER visit ill…. so, this was a nice alternative – and natural too.
Me too and got many people on it. It’s miraculous for arthritis and people get their dark hair back as well.
Do people get their dark hair back from taking it internally or from shampooing with is?
Woh we can use it for yeast infection?
yes i have and it is revealing as to what is going on in our medical world. the bottom line is this, there are people who want to control and bleed us financially. i have seen evidence of this everywhere.
good farmers cannot put boron back into the soil except thru mulching and composting. that doesn’t work in the production world so we are all becoming deficient. the reason is that boron kills bugs. only thru natural mulching can it not harm the complex chains of algae (mycrorisae spelling?) ants and many other sensitive critters. this means all the farmers soils are deficient in boron. the powers behind the medical industry know this, they have banned borax in europe austrailia and USA . the story gets better i mean worse. good luck with your research , be prepared for a rabbit hole like alice and wonderland.
Borax banned in the USA? I see it sold everywhere…
I think he means banned as a pesticide / ingredient in pesticide
I take borax water every day, along with magnesium water (1 liter carbonated water plus 3 tablespoons plain milk of magnesia, makes a magnesium that is well absorbed, 1/4 to 1/2 cup,several times a day) and diatomaceous earth.
Borax is completely safe. Only in ENORMOUS amounts could it be toxic. It is a necessary component in a healthy body. Used to get it naturally in our foods from the earth. I have consumed it in very small amounts and use it for a wide variety of household cleaning AND bathing in! Trust it with my life. But as with all internet information, do your research, and then research some more. Look at actual science.
I read it and I drink every day borax. (1 tespoon in 1 l of water and from this one teaspoon into my tea ). It helps really fantastic, i can walk again without pain in my knee.
Thank you for posting. I am starting to drink it as well.
I have been taking a pinch of borax in a liter of water each day for the past year with no bad effects. From what I have read it is less toxic than table salt. I think the reasons for it being banned from food use have more to do with covering up it’s importance as a treatment for arthritis (too cheap for the drug companies to make money from). I wonder if the scientists have ever done a comparative investigation into the toxicity of NaCl vs Boroax? Maybe they should! http://www.health-science-spirit.com/borax.htm
hi, you could just have lemon juice to alkaline the body. I know that sounds ironic, but lemon juice does make the gut become more alkaline than acidic.
I tried having the juice of half a lemon in a glass of water, a month ago when I had a UTI. It really hurt my stomach! It’s still acid at that stage, and it was too much for me. Dilute borax is already alkaline when it hit’s the stomach, and if taken on an empty stomach,it doesn’t interfere with digestion by raising the Ph of the stomach acid. The same happens to me when I try Apple Cider Vinegar – too much acid.
Lemon juice doesn’t supplement you with boron, which is an essential trace element for strong healthy bones and teeth.
Yeah ummm…no…that doesn’t work. 1.) Ingesting a small amount of a slightly more alkaline (pH ~ 2.4) substance will not change the overall pH of the gastric system (pH ~ 1.5). Think of what that titration curve would look like. Do you know what a titration curve is? It would be more effective to drink bleach. Its far more alkaline (pH ~ 12.5). Bottoms up!
LEMON JUICE OR ACV WHEN TAKEN WITHOUT saliva in the mouth ,….that is when you drink them in a gulp without sipping them, you create more acidity in the body. DO NOT USE STRAW either. Always drink them slowly sipping them so that they become instantly alkaline in the body !!