Borax: Not the green alternative it's cracked up to be

I'm just going to start with the bad news, OK? Borax is not a green cleaning ingredient, as many have been led to believe.

Yes, the 20-mule team laundry booster box has a very "green" look to it and plenty of recipes for "green" homemade cleaners require it. But we won't be fooled, and we hope you won't be, either. In short: EWG does not recommend using borax to clean your home.

What is borax? Borax is a (powdery, white) mineral that also goes by a few other names (just to make it confusing!): sodium borate, sodium tetraborate, or disodium tetraborate. A close cousin of borax is boric acid, which has many of the same concerns discussed below. While you might prefer to remember only one of these names, knowing them all helps you sleuth it out better when reading labels. Borax is a pesticide that poisons insects, fungus and weeds, but it also has plenty of other uses that we encounter in consumer products.

How are we exposed to borax? In our daily lives, there are two ways most of us encounter borax: when we clean and when we preen. It's also in slimy toys and some nutritional supplements.

1. Cleaning products It's not easy to find out what's in most cleaning products, with a few exceptions. But it's important to try, since many products are a source of harmful air contaminants and, to make it that much harder, greenwashing is rampant.

If you're thinking about making your own cleaning products as a safer alternative, we recommend that you not use the recipes that include borax, since it may pose health risks, too. Unfortunately, it's often pitched as a "green" or "natural" ingredient - but we don't agree. If you're going to make your own, consider these borax-free ideas.

2. Personal care products Boric acid or sodium borate can also be found in personal care products. The cosmetic industry's own safety panel states that these chemicals are unsafe for infant or damaged skin, because they can absorb readily into the body. Despite this guidance, boric acid is found in some diaper creams. See EWG's Skin Deep cosmetics database for other personal care products containing borax or boric acid and click here for diaper creams that don't contain it.

Both the European Union and Canada restrict these ingredients in body care products made for children under three years of age and require that products containing these ingredients be labeled as not appropriate for broken or damaged skin. No similar safety standards are in place in the United States.

3. Goopy toys Play Doh, silly putty, and other slimy toys may also contain boric acid. Homemade playdough is a safer alternative to the store bought variety - here's a simple, borax-free recipe. 4. Nutritional supplements Boron, a component of borax and boric acid, is considered a trace nutrient, though its essential biological role is unknown. As a result, some nutritional supplements contain boron, which may be in the form of boric acid - check the list of ingredients.

What's the problem with borax? Borax can have short- and long-term health effects:

Short-term irritant. Borax can be irritating when exposure occurs through skin or eye contact, inhalation or ingestion. Poison reports suggest misuse of borax-based pesticides can result in acute toxicity, with symptoms including vomiting, eye irritation, nausea, skin rash, oral irritation and respiratory effects. Toddlers and young children face special risks from hand-to-mouth transfer of carpet or crack and crevice, dust or spray borax treatments.

Hormone disruption. Borax and its cousin, boric acid, may disrupt hormones and harm the male reproductive system. Men working in boric acid-producing factories have a greater risk of decreased sperm count and libido. According to EPA's safety review of these pesticides, chronic exposure to high doses of borax or boric acid causes testicular atrophy in male mice, rats and dogs.

Animal studies reviewed by the EPA indicate that while the female reproductive system is less sensitive to borax, exposure to it can also lead to reduced ovulation and fertility. Borax and boric acid can cross the placenta, affecting fetal skeletal development and birth weight in animal studies of high-dose exposures.

In its 2006 review of the safety of borax pesticides, the EPA declined to perform a risk assessment that included exposures from cleaning supplies, cosmetics and other consumer goods along with professional and consumer pest-control products. As a result, it's difficult to assess the level of risk that may be involved in using borax to clean your home. In light of the reproductive effects reported in both animal and worker studies, we suggest that you avoid borax in homemade or store-bought cleaning supplies.

What should I use to keep my house clean? Most people buy cleaning products at the store, but making your own is pretty easy if you're up for it. Here are some simple tips for both - keeping in mind that a few basic products -- like all-purpose scrub -- are all that you really need:

Buying cleaning products. At the store, look for certified green products with the Green Seal or EcoLogo mark on the label whenever possible. And check with the manufacturer for a complete list of ingredients in any cleaners you use. If they won't tell you what's in it - don't buy it.

Unfortunately, borax will often only be listed on the product's label when its marketing reflects its pesticide qualities (e.g., the label claims it's an anti-bacterial product). If it's not marketed that way, manufacturers tend to claim that it's inert (which they can), because then it need not be listed on the label. Clear as mud, right? That's how they like it. Making your own. Common kitchen ingredients like vinegar, lemons, and baking soda make great homemade cleaning supplies. Always take care when combining ingredients - some combinations are safer than others! For example, combining bleach with any acid (vinegar, lemon juice) will create very toxic vapors that you don't want to breathe. Click here for some specifics about what not to combine.

Whether you buy or make your own, remember: other than plain soap and water, most cleaning supplies should be handled with caution, since many may be skin or eye irritants or produce caustic vapors.

Check out EWG's Healthy Home Tips on green cleaning for safer ways to keep your home clean. [Many thanks to Flickr CC & brainsthehead for the lemony pic]

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