What Is Borax and Does It Belong In Your Washing Machine?

Everything you need to know about this old-fashioned, all-natural detergent booster, including whether it's safe.

Decades ago, a box of borax could be found in laundry rooms across the country, but over time, the powdery white laundry booster fell out of favor. Now, this old-fashioned laundry additive seems to be gaining in popularity, particularly among those interested in natural cleaning methods and homemade cleaning solutions. But what exactly is borax, and is it really safe? Here's the low-down on this trendy-again laundry supply.

What Is Borax?

Also called sodium borate, borax is a naturally-occurring mineral salt most often mined from Turkey and California. The borax you'll find in the cleaning supplies aisle at the grocery store is partially dehydrated and looks like a white powder. The most common brand, 20 Mule Team ($16 for 65 ounces, amazon.com) was named after the process by which the mineral was carted out of the California and Nevada desert during the late 1800s.

How Does It Work?

Borax is extremely alkaline (pH of around 9.1), which creates a basic solution that can help fight acidic stains (like tomato or mustard) when dissolved in water and used as a pre-treating solution. When added to a load of laundry, borax can help get white clothes whiter. And when combined with bleach? It helps boost bleach's cleaning abilities.

Is It Safe?

Just because borax is naturally occurring doesn't make it harmless. In fact, the safety of borax has been a big source of debate among those looking for chemical-free ways to boost laundry cleaning. Many cosmetics and body care manufacturers have replaced the mineral with emulsifiers because of safety concerns. Since borax is very alkaline, it can irritate the skin in its undiluted form.

Similar to bleach, borax should be kept out of the reach of children and should never be ingested. Bottom line: Treat borax as you would other cleaners in your home, and keep it in a safe spot away from children.

Why Is It Becoming Popular Again?

Those who joined in on the slime craze over the past few years have already been reacquainted with this grocery store staple. Borax is used in many slime recipes, which inspired some slime enthusiasts to create borax-free alternatives for parents worried their little ones might eat it. Thanks to the slime trend, borax was once again back in homes–and its safety being discussed.

Recently, the natural cleaning community has taken up the borax debate. As blogger Julia from Simply Living Well explains in an Instagram post, borax can be a safe, yet powerful natural laundry booster (as long as you're not planning to eat or inhale the powder while washing your clothes). To make your own homemade borax-based laundry detergent, follow Julia's recipe combining Castile soap, borax, and washing soda. Your laundry will never look cleaner.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Is borax like baking soda?

    Borax (sodium tetraborate) and baking soda (sodium bicarbonate) are both salts that are commonly used as household cleaners. But borax (which has a pH of 9.5) is more alkaline than baking soda (which has a pH of 8).

  • What's the difference between borax and boric acid?

    Borax is a mineral that's used in laundry detergent, hand soap, and other cleaning products. Boric acid is a compound that's formulated by processing it with other chemicals and refining it. Boric acid is used in eyedrops and as a natural insecticide that can kill ants and cockroaches.

  • What are some other ways to use borax as a household cleaner?
    • Use borax as a natural way to remove stains from a stainless steel sink. Mix 1 cup of borax with 1/4 cup of lemon juice. Dip a sponge into the mixture and gently scrub the stain. Rinse with warm water.
    • Use borax to prevent and eliminate mildew. Mix 1/4 cup of borax in 1 quart of warm water and pour the mixture into a spray bottle. Spray the solution onto mildew-prone areas in your home, such as the shower. You can also spray it on existing mildew patches, wait 15 minutes, and scour the mildew away with a soft-bristled brush.
    • Use borax to boost the effectiveness of your dishwasher. Scatter 1/2 cup of borax in the bottom of the dishwasher before you load it with dishes. Run the dishwashing cycle with your usual detergent.
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