Borax, also called sodium tetraborate, is a powdery white mineral that has been used as a cleaning product for several decades. It has many uses:
- It helps get rid of stains, mold, and mildew around the house.
- It can kill insects such as ants.
- It’s used in laundry detergents and household cleansers to help whiten and get rid of dirt.
- It can neutralize odors and soften hard water.
In cosmetic products, borax is sometimes used as an emulsifier, buffering agent, or preservative for moisturizing products, creams, shampoos, gels, lotions, bath bombs, scrubs, and bath salts.
Borax is also an ingredient combined with glue and water to make “slime,” a gooey material that many kids enjoy playing with.
Today, modern ingredients have mostly replaced the use of borax in cleansers and cosmetics. And slime can be made out of other ingredients, such as cornstarch. But some people continue to use borax because it has been advertised as a “green” ingredient. But is it safe?
Borax is marketed as a green product because it doesn’t contain phosphates or chlorine. Instead, its main ingredient is sodium tetraborate, a naturally occurring mineral.
People sometimes confuse sodium tetraborate — the main ingredient in borax — and boric acid, which has similar properties. Boric acid, however, is usually used exclusively as a pesticide and is much more toxic than sodium tetraborate, so it should be handled with extra special care.
While borax may be natural, that doesn’t mean it’s completely safe. Borax often comes in a box with a caution label warning users that the product is an eye irritant and that it may be harmful if swallowed. While people are mostly exposed to borax in their homes, they may also encounter it at work, such as in factories or at borax mining and refining plants.
The National Institutes of Health has found that borax has been associated with several adverse health effects in humans. These include:
- hormone issues
Borax exposure can irritate the skin or eyes and can also irritate the body if inhaled or exposed. People have reported burns from borax exposure to their skin. Signs of borax exposure include:
- skin rash
- mouth infection
- eye irritation
- respiratory problems
High exposure to borax (and boric acid) is believed to disrupt the body’s hormones. They may especially impair male reproduction, reducing sperm count and libido.
In one study, scientists found that rats fed borax experienced atrophy of their testes, or reproductive organs. In women, borax may reduce ovulation and fertility. In pregnant lab animals, high-level exposures to borax was found to cross the placenta border, harming fetal development and causing low birth weight.
Borax is quickly broken down by the body if ingested and inhaled. Scientists have linked borax exposure — even from cosmetics — to organ damage and serious poisonings.
If a young child ingests as little as 5 to 10 grams of borax, they may experience severe vomiting, diarrhea, shock, and death. Small children can be exposed to borax through hand-to-mouth transfer, especially if they play with slime made with borax or crawl around the floor where pesticides have been applied.
Fatal doses of borax exposure for adults are estimated at 10 to 25 grams.
According to the David Suzuki Foundation, borax poses significant health risks. To reduce that risk, people can replace the borax-containing products they normally use with safer alternatives. Some alternatives to borax it suggests include:
- Disinfectants such as food-grade hydrogen peroxide, half a lemon, salt, white vinegar, and essential oils.
- Clothing detergents such as liquid or powdered oxygen bleach, baking soda, and washing soda.
- Mold and mildew fighters such as salt or white vinegar.
- Cosmetics that contain natural ingredients other than borax or boric acid.
Canada and the European Union restrict the use of borax in some cosmetic and health products and require that any products containing these ingredients be labeled as inappropriate for use on broken or damaged skin. Such safety regulations don’t exist in the United States.
Generally, borax has been found as safe to use as a cleaning product if you take the appropriate precautions. Using borax safely involves minimizing your routes of exposure.
Here’s safety tips to follow:
- Do not use cosmetic products that contain borax.
- Avoid inhaling borax powder by always keeping it a safe distance from your mouth.
- Use gloves when using borax as a cleaning agent around the house.
- Fully rinse the area you’re cleaning with water after washing with borax.
- Wash your hands with soap after using borax if it gets on your skin.
- Make sure clothes washed with borax are fully rinsed before drying and wearing them.
- Never leave borax in the reach of children, whether it’s in a box or used around the house. Don’t use borax to make slime with kids.
- Avoid using borax and boric acid products around pets. This includes avoiding use of borax as a pesticide on the ground, where pets may be commonly exposed.
- Keep borax away from your eyes, nose, and mouth to minimize your risks of exposure when using as a cleaning product.
- Cover any open wounds on your hands when using borax. Borax is more easily absorbed through open wounds on the skin, so keeping them covered can reduce your risk of exposure.
If you want to make a completely safe slime for your kid to play with, click here for a simple recipe.
In an emergency
In the event that someone ingests or inhales borax, especially a child, call the American Association of Poison Control Centers immediately at 1-800-222-1222. Medical experts will advise you how to act. How the situation is handled depends on the age and size of the person, as well as the dose of borax they were exposed to.