The One Thing You Should Know About Cleaning with Borax

updated Feb 5, 2024
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Once a laundry room staple, borax has been making a comeback in recent years as a go-to for people looking for greener versions of everything from grout cleaners to pest control options. But is borax actually toxic? According to Shelly Clary, education specialist at the Virginia Poison Center at VCU Health, the short answer is yes. 

Quick Overview

How toxic is borax?

Borax is a chemical found in many types of cleaners, like dish detergents or stain removers, and although natural, it can be toxic and even lethal when ingested. Toxic levels include five to six grams for children and 10 to 25 grams for adults. Borax can also potentially irritate your skin or eyes, which is why it is important to safely (and correctly) use it when cleaning.

“Almost anything can be poisonous or toxic when used in the wrong way, in the wrong amount, or by the wrong person,” she explains of the powdered version of the chemical. But is it something that can safely be used around the house? According to Clary, maybe.

What is borax, and what is it good for?

Borax is a chemical that can be found in multi-purpose cleaners, toilet cleaners, laundry detergents, dish detergents, stain removers, and more, according to Clary. “It is produced by combining boron with sodium, hydrogen, and oxygen.”  

This alkaline white powder is good for all sorts of things: You can use it to clean the drain, clean your dishwasher, deodorize your carpets, and remove rust stains. It helps get rid of pesky bugs (including cockroaches) and kills weeds. In many ways, it’s similar to baking soda.

But there’s one thing you should know before you add borax to your cleaning arsenal: Although it’s “natural,” borax can be quite toxic, especially to young kids and pets.

Is borax safe?

This is a hotly contested topic and, as with most things, borax can be safe when used properly. However, it’s worth noting that borax can be lethal when ingested.

Toxic levels for children are 5 to 6 grams — or roughly a half teaspoon — and for adults, the toxic dose is 10 to 25 grams. Needless to say, if you have dogs or cats who like to lick the floors, it’s probably not a good idea to use borax for pest prevention.

Borax is also extremely alkaline: It has a pH of 9.5. (For comparison, baking soda has a pH of 8.) That makes it potentially irritating to your skin and eyes and, if inhaled, it can lead to nausea, vomiting, and difficulty breathing.

How to safely use borax

Clary shares there are ways to safely use the chemical. “As with most cleaning products, it is recommended to wear rubber gloves when cleaning to avoid exposures to the skin,” she says, adding that it’s especially important to wear gloves if you have open wounds on your hands, as it’s easier to absorb the chemicals through such spots. “You can also wear safety glasses to avoid splashing products into the eyes.”

Clary also suggests following these additional safety tips.

  • Always read and use products according to the instructions on the product label.
  • Fully rinse the area you are cleaning with water after washing with borax.
  • Store all products containing borax out of sight and reach from children and pets.
  • While cleaning, keep all products containing borax in a separate area away from foods and drinks.

Mixing borax with popular cleaning products — like vinegar and bleach — to create those popular DIY cleaning recipes is not recommended. “Combining bleach and vinegar produces a toxic chlorine gas,” she explains. “Borax and bleach combined can also produce toxic fumes.” That being said, there are some things that you can mix borax with. “Borax is safe to mix with water, dish soap, and vinegar to create an all-purpose spray,” Clary adds.

Frequently asked questions about borax

Below, some commonly asked questions about borax, answered by Clary. 

What are some symptoms of overexposure? 

“Health concerns after ingesting borax include headaches, nausea, vomiting, stomach aches, and skin erythema (redness of skin),” according to Clary. “Ingesting large amounts can cause kidney failure and even death. If borax gets in the eyes, it can cause irritation. When applied to the skin, it can cause redness, irritation, and peeling.”

What steps should you take after being exposed? 

First aid for accidental/unintentional exposures to products containing borax varies depending on the method of exposure, according to Clary.

  • Ingestion: Drink water to rinse out the mouth. Do not induce vomiting, as this can cause more harm.
  • Inhalation: Remove from the area to fresh air.
  • Eyes: Flush the eyes with lukewarm water for 15 minutes (remove contact lenses).
  • Skin: Remove any contaminated clothing and wash the area well with soap and water for 10 to 15 minutes.

Why should you use borax?

“Borax is often used as a household cleaning agent because it easily dissolves in water and does not have an odor,” Clary says. “Borax is known to help with stain removal, and sanitation, and can repel insects. Borax can be a safe product to use when cleaning if safety precautions and instructions are followed.”

Can you touch borax with your hands?

“Borax is not meant to be handled for prolonged periods of time, as it can cause skin irritation,” Clary says. “If you do touch borax with your hands it is important to wash them with soap and water immediately.”

What is a safer alternative to borax?

“When it comes to cleaning, baking soda can be a safe alternative to borax,” Clary says. “Like borax, baking soda can be used to clean kitchen appliances and brighten and soften clothing all while having a lower pH level and being non-toxic.”

If an individual has questions when it comes to using borax with various cleaning substances or has experienced exposure, Clary recommends they call the 24/7, free, and confidential Poison Help Line at 1-800-222-1222.