Watch Out for Borax

Recipes for homemade “green” cleaning products often contain a common ingredient: borax.

But borax – a white, powdery mineral also known as boric acid, sodium borate, sodium tetraborate or disodium tetraborate – can be toxic. In fact, it’s sometimes used to kill pests such as ants.

Borax and its relatives can cause irritation to the skin and eyes and disrupt hormones. Intense exposure may harm the male reproductive system.

The health hazards of borax are particularly significant for children, so it’s especially disturbing that in addition to cleaning products, it may be in some kids’ toys, too.

Here’s where to look for it – and what to use instead:

Cleaning products

Borax can eliminate odor, remove grime and add shine, but when inhaled or ingested, it can be toxic, particularly to young children, whose hands can pick up residues from surfaces and then put them in their mouths.

This family of chemicals can be hard to identify on cleaning product labels, so do your research and check ingredient lists. Visit EWG’s Guide to Healthy Cleaning for help.

For homemade cleaning products, safer alternatives are lemon juice, olive oil, baking soda and vinegar.

Slimy, pliable toys

Toys that stretch, bend or stick – including playdough, Silly Putty or Gak – often get that “goopy” quality from borax. Children mold them with their hands, then rub their eyes or put their hands in their mouths, potentially absorbing chemicals into their bodies.

Before purchasing these toys, consider making a homemade version. It’s easy to make playdough with just water, flour, salt and oil. Recipes are plentiful online, so experiment until you find the right blend for your child.

Personal care products

Manufacturers have mostly eliminated borax and its relative sodium borate from personal care products because the chemicals are easily absorbed through skin. The cosmetics industry recommends that no borates be used in products designed for use on damaged skin.

But parents shopping for diaper cream should still take care. Visit EWG’s Skin Deep Cosmetics Database to check the ingredients before buying or using it.

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