Borax Isn't Really a Safe Household Cleaner

Borax Isn't Really a Safe Household Cleaner

I've used Borax for countless functions over the years, including as part of a paste (with some added water) to scrub the tub. 20 Mule Team Borax is truly "all natural" as the company proclaims, but all natural doesn't necessarily mean non-toxic. The Environmental Working Guide's (EWG) 2012 Guide To Healthy Cleaning gives 20 Mule Team Borax an "F" rating. The reasons are that it has "high concerns" when it comes to developmental and reproductive toxicity. The EWG also expresses "some concern" when it comes to asthma/respiratory and skin allergies and irritation.

What is borax? According to, borax refers to "both a mineral and a refined compound with numerous applications." The mineral is a chemical compound of the element boron, and has been used for 1,000s of years. Boraxis manufactured by 20 Mule Team, which operates one of the California's largest open pit mines in Boron, California (located in the Mojave Desert), one of the richest borate deposits on the planet. The mine supplies almost half of the world's demands for refine borates.

Looking at the Material Safety Data Sheets (MSDS) for 20 Mule Team Borax is particularly revealing, and sheds some light on why EWG gave it an "F" rating. The MSDS lists the acute health effects as the following:

  • Inhalation: Dust may cause mucous membrane irritation with coughing, dryness and sore throat
  • Skin contact: Non-irritating to intact skin. Absorption through large areas of damaged skin may produce symptoms similar to those following ingestion.
  • Eye contact: Direct contact with powder or dusts may cause irritation with redness, pain, blurred vision, and possibly corneal injury.
  • Ingestion: May cause gastrointestinal disturbances such as headache nausea, vomiting, abdominal pain, and diarrhea, with delayed effects of skin redness and peeling.

In addition, the MSDS states:

"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."

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The EPA's Integrated Risk Information System (IRIS) report for boron and compounds is also worth looking at. It states that "although the toxic effects of boron are manifested in the offspring, pregnant females (for both humans and test animals) are considered to be the "sensitive" population with respect to establishing an equivalent toxic dose across species." In other words, pregnant women and children should not be exposed to it. Perhaps that's why the U.S. National Library of Medicine calls boric acid "a dangerous poison."

There is a great alternative to Borax that is both safe and effective: baking soda. One way to use it is as a laundry booster. Add about a half a cup of it into each load. What other ways do you use baking soda?

Photo: Ben Sutherland

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Gina-Marie is a freelance writer armed with a passion for healthy living and a degree in journalism. Hailing from the dry, sunny Central San Joaquin Valley, she hasn't let the heat fry her brain!