what is borax substitute

Is Borax Safe?

Is borax safe?  You see, in my green cleaning kit I always have a box of borax to hand.  And every time I mention borax here on the blog a well meaning person or two often comments, telling me borax is dangerous, citing effects on fertility and so forth, and perhaps I shouldn’t be using it in my home.  I genuinely appreciate this concern, I really do.

Not wanting to risk mine or my family’s health, I’ve done quite a bit of research into if borax is safe to use around the house, and thought I’d share the results of my research.

First off, it’s critical to mention that in the UK and EU you can no longer buy borax.  In 2010 the EU reclassified the ‘Borate’ group of chemicals that Borax belongs to as potentially hazardous to health, so it is no longer available as a cleaning and laundry product.  Instead you can only buy “Borax Substitute”.  We’ll get on to the what is borax substitute question in a moment!

The Science Part

Let’s look at the chemical differences between Borax and Borax Subsitute:

What is Borax?

The chemical name of Borax is Sodium Tetraborate.  The borate at the end there signifies it’s a boron compound, and all borates can be considered derivatives of boric acid.  Borax occurs naturally, being produced by the repeated evaporation of seasonal lakes.

What is Borax Substitute?

The chemical name of Borax Substitute is Sodium Sesquicarbonate.  Sodium Sesquicarbonate is a mixed crystal of Sodium Carbonate (washing soda) and Sodium Bicarbonate (bicarbonate of soda).  It has a similar pH to borax, and is gentler than Sodium Carbonate yet stronger than Bicarbonate of Soda.  The water bound up in the crystal means that the product is cold water soluble, unlike Sodium Carbonate which cakes with cold water.

is borax safe

Is Borax Substitute Safe?

Sodium Sesquicarbonate is is included on the INCI list of cosmetic ingredients.  Well known for it’s water softening properties, cosmetically it ha has traditionally been used in bath salts and bath bombs, hair care products and deodorants.

Outside of the cosmetics sphere, it’s often used in swimming pools, in water treatment plants, and as a phosphate free replacement for cleaning.  Apparently in Japan, people are going crazy for Sodium Sesquicarbonate for it’s cleaning properties.  Perhaps they read Moral Fibres? ;)

Surprisingly, it’s also used in food.  Sodium Sesquicarbonate, is, in small amounts, FDA approved as a food additive in the US , where it’s used as an acidity regulator, anti-caking agent and as a raising agent.  Interestingly, it’s not food approved in the EU or Australia.

It’s long history aside, what about it’s safety?

This report is probably the most comprehensive I’ve found on the safety of borax substitute.  It’s four pages long, so in case you don’t have the time or inclination to read it, borax substitute is not considered to be harmful to health or the environment.  They have found it may cause slight irritation to sensitive skin, it may irritate the eyes if the dust gets in them and could be harmful if ingested in large quantities, but apart from that there are no main concerns.

To double and triple check, I kept up with my research, wanting to dot the i’s and cross the t’s if you will.  What I found was that the Environmental Working Group has, despite gaps in their data, classified Sodium Sesquicarbonate as low risk, with no serious issues identified.  Similarly the PAN Pesticides Database has so far found no risk.  Meanwhile this scientific journal found that in high doses (in rats) it caused conjunctivitis and it caused skin irritation but is safe to use in cosmetics.

My conclusion?  I’m perfectly happy to use Borax Substitute in my house for all my green cleaning needs, whilst adhering to the general principles of storing cleaning products – away from children and pets.

Is Borax Safe?

Now that we’ve established that Borax Subsitute is safe, this is all well and good for my fellow UK and EU readers, but what about my American, Australian and other worldwide readers?  As I’m recommending Borax Substitute, but unaware if Borax Substitute is available in your country, I feel like I’ve got a duty of care to find out if Borax (the Sodium Tetraborate stuff) is safe too?

Turns out the is borax safe question is a bit harder to answer.  It’s a bit of a grey area, so if you are US or Australian based, I’m afraid you’ll have to make up your own mind.

Is borax safe?  Let me present the facts:

Studies cite that they have tested either sodium tetraborate or boric acid.  However, if you remember from the science part at the top of this article, sodium tetraborate is not boric acid, it’s a derivative of boric acid.  There’s quite a bit of a difference, chemically, but the studies are vague.

Boron is an element essential for human health – pivotal for healthy bones, joints, and dental enamel, and for regulating the absorption and metabolism of several elements – including magnesium, calcium and phosphorous.  You can even buy boron food supplements, and any excess boron tends to be excreted out of the body, suggesting that boron, and it’s derivatives, do not bio-accumulate in the body.

Borax is commonly used in natural laundry powders.  When you look at one conventional alternative to natural laundry powder – detergent capsules – there were reports of 1,500 cases of poisoning from detergent capsules in three years.  The same article reports that one child a day had to be hospitalised in 2012 and 2013 as a result, and that one child died.  I haven’t thus far been able to find any deaths directly attributable to borax.

The EU has banned borax on claims of impacts on reproductive health, following studies on mice and rats at high (abnormally high) ingested doses.  The only study I can find looking at the potential impact of human reproductive health is this one, that crucially relates to boric acid, not borax, investigating the reproductive effects of boron exposure in workers employed in a boric acid production plant.

The study found that the factory workers, representing worst-case exposure conditions to boric acid/borates are considerably lower than exposures which have previously led to reproductive effects in experimental animals.  No ill-effects on the workers reproductive health could be found.  The study concluded that “dose levels of boron associated with developmental and reproductive toxic effects in animals are by far not reachable for humans under conditions of normal handling and use“.  Therefore even if you are handling borax all day every day, like these workers are, you are unlikely to encounter any problems.

Borax is not a known carcinogen, but like borax substitute, it can be a skin irritant to sensitive skins.  I think it’s also important to bear in mind that many things we have in our homes are harmful in high enough concentration.  Salt for example is harmful, even lethal in high doses, yet we quite happily sprinkle it on to our cooking.  I wouldn’t recommend eating borax in any dosage.  There are reports of borax inhalation irritating airways.  I wouldn’t recommend inhaling borax.  Some people seem concerned about the effects of clothes washed in borax.  However borax is poorly absorbed through undamaged skin.  Your rinse cycle on your washing machine should also take care of rinsing away any excess borax.

What’s The Answer?

I don’t want to tell you if it’s safe for you to use borax or not.  I don’t feel it’s my place.  Instead I want to present the facts so that you can make up your mind.  Personally?  Is borax safe?  Based on what I’ve found out, if stored out of the reach of kids and pets I would be quite happy to use it in my house.  I personally feel that conventional laundry powders and liquids and bleach based cleaning products pose more of a risk to human health and to waterways, but that is just me.  I’d encourage you to do your own research to work out was if using borax is best for you or not.

What are your thoughts?  Is borax safe?  Are you happy using borax substitute?  Do you feel happy using it in place of Borax?  If so, what do you use borax for?

9 comments

  1. Hi

    Do you use borax substitute in your washing machine, or make your own washing powder receipe? I’d love to know what other cleaning recipes you use, as I’m planning on making up your scouring receipe for cleaning my si/s sink which gets very stained by tea. Thank you for this information on borax substitute.

    Reply
  2. Thanks for such great research! I’m in the US and never knew there was a borax substitute. I went and checked my box and it’s the Sodium tetrastuff. It has a caution label on the box for eye irritant, but that’s all. I use it occasionally for cleaning, but not often. Usually, I just use baking soda.

    I have a friend that makes her own laundry soap with it (she gave me the box I have, actually), but I can’t use it because I have a greywater system and it’s bad for the plants (I think something about the salts?) I have seen a few DIY beauty recipes that call for just a bit, and I’ve avoided those- it seems strange to use something for cleaning on your skin.

    Reply
  3. Hi, I remember as a child using Borax crystals in boiled water for bathing my eyes when I had conjunctivitis, we got it from the chemist specifically for this. It was a very mild solution, about a half dozen crystals in a saucer of boiled water. So I guess it’s probably only irritant to eyes and skin in stronger solutions, or when in crystal/dry form or if you’re particularly sensitive to it. I went looking for some a few years ago, and the chemist I asked didn’t know what I was talking about. I’m currently looking into the differences between Boron and Borax, and their affectiveness as a woodworm treatment. Boron is currently used as a safer alternative to permethrin, and I wondered if Borax would be even better.

    Reply
    • I should say I’m wondering if Borax is more effective than Boron, not necessarily safer. Although I personally have no problems with using Borax, when used as directed.

      Reply

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