Is Borax Toxic?

Homemade natural cleaners

Borax has been lining DIYer’s shelves for decades. It’s been a green cleaner staple and is even used to make kids’ crafts. But that is about to change. This month, Health Canada released its “Draft Screening Assessment for Boric Acid, its Salts and its Precursers”. It includes recommendations to avoid products like homemade slime and household pesticides that contain borax (a salt of boric acid). What interested me most was how this news impacted my homemade cleaning recipes, which include borax. And so, because diving into the details is what I do, I read (OK, some parts I skimmed) the Health Canada Assessment to get to the bottom of it. And I am happy to share what I learned with you can spend your time doing what you do!

What is Borax

Borax is a naturally-occurring mineral, a boron compound, and a salt of boric acid. Most of the borax used in Canada comes from mines in the US. It is a white powder that is used in a variety of products including cleaners, cosmetics, food packaging, insulation, ceramics, pesticides, adhesives, fertilizers, flame retardants, and swimming pool chemicals. Boron in its various forms is also found in effluent from oil sands, pulp and paper manufacturing, and coal plants.

Borax vs Boric Acid

In 2010, boric acid was added to the EU’s Substance of Very High Concern list as a reproductive toxin. In 2011, the Environmental Working Group advised against using borax in household cleaners due to its potential health impacts, specifically with respect to reproductive concerns. The internet is ripe with confusion around whether borax has the same toxicity as boric acid.

According to the Health Canada report, borax is considered to be equivalent to boric acid in terms of toxicity. It wasn’t very well explained, but from what I can tell it’s because there are a bunch of different boron-containing compounds that have the potential to convert to boric acid given the right conditions.

In summary: Borax is not boric acid. Borax may turn into boric acid in certain conditions.

The Bottom Line

While not conclusive, enough study results suggest that boric acid adversely affects fertility, reproduction and development.

The people most impacted by the health effects of borax are employees in manufacture/processing – they are exposed to significantly higher concentrations than consumers. This was enough for me to take pause: should my “green” laundry detergent cause someone else to get sick?

Health Canada’s recommendation to avoid crafts and pesticides is based on the idea that direct exposure (i.e. potential to eat it) is high, especially for children. And while the amount of boric acid that may enter your body from household use is low, since boric acid is found in our food, water, and air, Health Canada advises that we reduce our exposure wherever possible.

My Next Steps

In my homemade cleaners workshops to-date, I made it clear that the jury was out on borax. It’s important to avoid inhaling the dust and always keep out of reach of children. Given the information provided by Health Canada, I believe the advice to minimize household use is conservative and precautionary – I wish they would take this approach with more harmful ingredients in everyday products.

While Health Canada mostly advises against crafts and pesticides with borax, I am going to try borax-free cleaner recipes to take further steps to create a healthy home. I’ve already started testing a borax-free laundry detergent recipe and will remove it from my all-purpose cleaner. If I find borax really is the magic ingredient, then I will continue to use it with caution until I can find something less toxic yet still effective.

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