Photo: How safe is borax?

You can clean without borax. Try my borax-free green cleaning recipes! (Credit: Lindsay Coulter)

Borax, or sodium borate, is an alkaline mineral salt. It's a naturally occurring element. But "natural" doesn't mean "harmless." Consider asbestos or mercury.

A brief history of borax

Before 2000, borax was a common household item. It was a popular, effective cleaning product. It disinfects, whitens and fights mold and mildew. It also kills ants (used as a low-risk pesticide).

Many DIY cleaning recipes featured borax as an eco-friendlier option to petroleum-based ingredients in conventional cleaning products.

In 2008, the European Union (PDF) classified boric acid and borax as reproductive toxins. But it said consumer exposure to low doses of borates in cleaning products—soaps and detergents—is 'negligible.'

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Confused? Me, too. So I called another "green living" expert, Adria Vasil of Echololic, who was also researching the safety of borax (and, like me, had a box collecting dust). She tried to untangle the borax mess in 2014:

"A few years ago, the European Union (PDF) said boric acid/borax were reproductive toxins at high levels but not endocrine disruptors (which can trigger problems at quite low levels). At that point, they issued another report (PDF) assessing the actual risk to consumers and they said levels used in detergents/soaps/cleaning products were safe. Then things shifted. They ended up putting boric acid on the list of potential hormone disruptors. I think it's important to clarify that the list basically prioritizes substances for further research for endocrine disrupting effects. The list contains some seriously troublesome chems, like known toxin PCB, as well as BPA, on which hundreds of studies have found hormone disrupting effects. Boric acid doesn't have the same lengthy rap sheet in terms of hormone disruption. So a lot of people are confused. Should we should keep using it with abandon? Should we shelve it for good? Well, I think we should certainly pause and wait for more research. It's also unclear why the EU only put boric acid on the list and not borax, when they've lumped the two together before. However, they are chemically different. So we'll assume borax was intentionally left off the list and is of less concern to consumers then boric acid, at these quantities."

In 2016, Health Canada did a screening assessment of boric acid: "The Government of Canada is proposing that boric acid, its salts and its precursors may be considered harmful to human health at current levels of exposure."

What's "exposure"?

  • Through food (such as fruits and vegetables) and drinking water. But "Natural sources of boric acid in food (for example, fruits and vegetables) are not considered to be a health risk."
  • Through common consumer products such as pesticides, cleaning products, cosmetics, drugs, natural health products, and swimming pool and spa products.
  • From DIY arts and crafts and toys made with boric acid.

What now?

Stay tuned for more on this topic when you sign up for my digest. (Then you won't miss follow-up blogs like this one.)

Lindsay Coulter, a fellow Queen of Green

August 4, 2016

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Mar 09, 2017
5:30 AM

Borax is NOT boric acid! It’s sodium tetraborate or sodium borate. They’re not the same things. Please review your research.

Sep 12, 2016
8:46 AM

I just purchased Borax to use for laundry. How should it be disposed of if it shouldn’t be used?

Sep 17, 2016
4:27 PM

Finish what you have, store it safely, and then try the borax-free cleaning recipes. Lindsay, Queen of Green

Sep 06, 2016
2:42 PM

My elderly neighbour, a lady, was going bald. The medical specialist asked her if she had used borax.

Sep 06, 2016
12:26 PM

I have a very old box of Borax in my cleaning cupboard, which I haven’t used for years. How do you suggest I get rid of it?

Sep 03, 2016
1:19 PM

To Mark - I’ve been using baking soda as my deodorant for 45 years. rmv - calcium may not be the limiting factor in bone formation/retention. Magnesium and resistance training are also important. Lotsa info on the internet, get a professional assessment if you have concerns.

Sep 03, 2016
1:12 PM

Wtf? I read the 2006 US EPA report. It’s a whole lotta bureaucratic mumble saying nothing. I read the EU document. It says boron is an essential (micro)nutrient. It says that Chinese, Turkish, and Hungarian tests on workers with occupational (high) exposures showed no effects. Tests on US workers : “There was a highly significant excess of offspring fathered by the male employees at the mine and production facility (529 observed births compared with 466.6 expected).” Wow. It is necessary, it increases fertility? I read the 2013 Health Canada document. Huh what? It says boron is a nutrient for frogs n fish, but not determined for humans. [Channeling Ferris Beuller’s history teacher] In what WAY does a human differ from a frog or fish? Correct answer: In regards to nutritional requirements for minerals — In no way! This document looks like it was written by a high school summer student! It’s another bureaucratic marvel saying diddly. Am I missing something here? Please enlighten me. I am capable of learning.

Aug 07, 2016
10:29 AM

This comment and question is for EVERYONE . Drinking tap water contains fluoride in most North American cities. Fluoride is made from the aluminium and fertilizer industries. Calcium is contained in fluoride.
What is your opinion on using Borax to neutrilize or clean out fluoride from drinking tap water?? What has your experience been like ? if using Borax in drinking water DECALSIFIES the drinking water … does that mean it could weaken the bones ?
Should a person avoid eating foods that are rich in calcium on a daily basis ?? Multi-vitamins contains calcium and aluminium… should those be avoided or taken in moderation? Is there such a product as ‘aluminium-free’ deodorant? is there a home made version of this? ?
Thank you )))

Aug 05, 2016
11:01 AM

Hi I think it is great to create 1-page reference of eco-friendly cleaners, but for those of us with ‘hard water’ castile soap is a big no-no. It turns into a gross film/slime over time on countertops, sinks, tubs, etc. because of the minerals in hard water. Please consider making recipes for cleaners for those of us outside of Vancouver or places with soft water could use. — Hard water is common in North American cities, and trying to use the recipes above would only turn off people of ‘natural cleaners.’ — I have tried most of them and they do not do a good job in hard water.

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