What is borax?Borax is a naturally occurring mineral salt that is found in the soil everywhere, but is commercially mined mostly in California in the US, and Turkey, but large quantities can also found in Chile, Bolivia, Tibet and Romania. It's also known as sodium borate, sodium tetraborate, or disodium tetraborate. Closely related to borax is boric acid, although they are not the same thing.
Where's it found?Borax is commonly found in cleaning products, like laundry and dishwashing products. It's used commercially in products such as flame retardants, welding and soldering agents, and in preservatives and tanning agents. It's also used as a pesticide to control fleas, ants and cockroaches. In personal care products, it's used as a pH adjuster in very small concentrations, and according to Mountain Rose Herbs, also as an emulsifier, preservative, cleansing agent and a buffering agent.
What's the problem with borax?Although many people will tell you that borax has been used for over 100 years in household cleaning products, and it's therefore safe, this is not necessarily the case. Just because a product has been used for a long time, it doesn't mean it's safe. Lead was one of the main ingredients in Elizabethan makeup, and was melted down by children to make toy soldiers as late as the 1960's, but we now know that's not safe. Borax is less toxic than sodium chloride (table salt). Compare the toxicity on a Borax MSDS and a Sodium Chloride MSDS. But it's not the toxicity that's a problem with using borax as a cleaning product around the home. One of my lovely readers also happens to be a chemist, and as he very helpfully pointed out to me:
Whilst not acutely toxic, corrosive or carcinogenic, this well known and ‘safe’ chemical has been classified in the EU as “meets the criteria for classification as toxic for reproduction”.
Substances and mixtures imported into the EU which contain borax are now required to be labelled with the warnings "May damage fertility" and "May damage the unborn child."NICNAS, the Australian National Industrial Chemicals Notification and Assessment Scheme, concluded that:
"A quantitative risk assessment of consumer cleaning products containing boric acid at 1 % (laundry products) and 2 % (dishwashing liquids), concluded that these products are not of any significant human health concerns."However, many of the recipes for DIY cleaning products that you find around the web use borate in much higher concentrations than this. Type in 'cleaning with borax' and you'll find the top search result uses a lot more borax than 2% in the formulation. As chemists are fond of saying, it's the dose that makes the poison. I would argue that the DIY recipes have the quantities wrong, especially in light of the NICNAS conclusions.