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Borax: Is it everything it’s cracked up to be?

While I have known about borax since my college days, I was never motivated to find out more about it until I started my own cleaning business.

I’m definitely interested in using safe and natural products, so using borax as a cleaning agent seemed like a logical thing to do. Borax is a natural mineral after all, and the claims made about it are that it is both safe and versatile.

But is it? A lot of claims are made about a lot of things, and they aren’t always true!

I have no scientific way to determine if borax is actually safe, but the general wisdom is that it is, so I am going to have to be fine with that. But is it a useful cleaner? That I knew I could test.

The best place to start, it seemed, was with the website for the 20 Mule Team Borax that you find in the laundry aisle of the grocery store.

According to the site, borax has a wide range of uses, including cleaning, deodorizing, and arts and crafts. We’ll skip the arts and crafts for this blog post, but if you want to find out even more uses for borax, visit the extensive though entirely too-technical-for-the-average-person Wikipedia page found here.

The 20 Mule Team site claims that borax can be used to eliminate pet odors, as a pre-soak for laundry stains, as an additive during the wash, as an additive to steam clean your carpets, in the automatic dishwasher to make your dishes shine, as a surface cleaner, and as a scrub for your pots and pans.

Over the last several months I have been experimenting with borax to find out if these claims were true, and here’s what I found (with my very subjective and unscientific testing methods):

CLAIM: Add borax to your dishwasher for extra clean dishes: I have indeed done this on occasion and have been happy with the results. One of the effects that borax has when added to water is to soften it. Water is hard when it contains dissolved ions of magnesium and calcium. Adding borax to water will slightly soften water by raising its pH. Don’t ask me to explain how this actually comes about, because I don’t fully understand it myself. (According to this website, Dallas has only slightly hard water.)

Now, it’s important for me to point out here that I am one of those persons who pre washes my dishes before I place them in the dishwasher. I realize that a lot of detergent manufacturers claim that this is not necessary, but I have found that unless you plan on washing your dishes right away (which I generally do not), the smell that emanates from your dishwasher by the end of the week is just too unpleasant. So my dishes are already pretty clean before I run the dishwasher cycle.

Of course, it needs to be said that I am usually not unhappy with how my dishes turn out to begin with, so adding borax was not a step that I felt I needed to take. Nonetheless, I gave it a shot and it did seem that the borax helped the dishes get extra squeaky clean, and at the very least, did not harm my dishes in anyway.

RESULTS: I will give a thumbs up for adding borax to the dishwasher.

CLAIM: Use borax as a laundry pre-soak to eliminate tough stains: I have done this as well and have been happy with the results. About half of my work is done outside, and since I wear a baseball hat all year round, it can quickly become gnarly. In the past I have used a stain remover like Shout around the inner rim before I washed it, but was dissatisfied with the results and the lingering product odor left on the hat even after it dried.

Then I tried a pre-soak with borax. I filled my kitchen sink with warm water and about ½ cup of borax. I sloshed it around (it dissolves slowly but never completely), added my hat, and let it soak for maybe an hour or so. I then ran it through the wash with my clothes and it turned out great. Sure, it wasn’t like new, but the borax helped eliminate a lot of the oil and perspiration that had soaked into the rim.

I also tried this with a stain. I managed to get something oily on the front of my cotton shirt – probably olive oil – and nothing would get it out. I did the same pre-soak in the sink, but with a touch of added detergent, and again let it soak for about an hour. When it came out of the wash the stain had nearly disappeared. it was not completely gone, but the borax did a much better job compared to anything I had tried in the past.

RESULTS: I’ll give a thumbs up on using borax as a pre-soak, too.

CLAIM: Add borax when you wash your clothes for better results: I started doing this with my whites. Most of my whites are socks, undershirts, and handkerchiefs. Understandably, the socks get dingy pretty quickly. I do feel like the borax did brighten my whites, but I am unable to say exactly how much. 5%, 10%, 30%? There’s no way for me to quantify that, but my general impression is that my whites are brighter when I use borax in the wash.

I was happy with doing this until I tried using borax with my darks. I got very different results with the darks, and I was afraid I had ruined my clothes. Initially, I felt like the borax had faded my darks, and wondered if that fading effect was really what I was observing with my whites. Sure, I guess there’s nothing wrong with “fading” when it comes to whites, right? But it sure didn’t make my darks look too hot.

Later, I decide that the borax had left more of a residue on my darks that looked almost like a filmy sheen – that’s really the only way I can think to describe it.

However, after washing my clothes again without the borax, the appearance of fading and filmy sheen did diminish somewhat, so it appears that this effect is only temporary.

RESULTS: For adding borax to the clothes washer, I’ll give it a thumbs up with whites, but a thumbs down with darks.

CLAIM: Borax is an effective cleaning scrub for the bathroom: I have cleaned the inside of commodes with a toilet brush and a mixture of borax and castile soap on several occasions. It seems to do an adequate job, although it will not completely eliminate hard water rings.

I have also had the opportunity to clean a dirty tub with borax, too. I just took a damp sponge, sprinkled a generous amount of borax onto it, and then scrubbed the ring away. I was skeptical at first, but it did manage to eliminate most of the soap scum ring, leaving only a slight soapy feel behind that you could feel with your fingers more than you could see with your eyes.

If you are genuinely concerned about the safety of surface cleaners that you use in your bathroom or home, and you want a more natural alternative, I definitely think borax would do a good enough job to satisfy your needs and expectations.

RESULTS: Borax can be a helpful scrubbing agent in the bathroom.

All in all, I do not think that borax will ever replace all other cleaners in your home, and it definitely is not a miracle cleaning agent. But my impression is that it is useful enough to keep on hand as part of your natural cleaning arsenal. I know it will be a part of mine.

As of yet, I have not used borax to eliminate pet odors, as a scrub for pots and pans, or as an additive to steam clean carpets, but perhaps one day I’ll get around to those as well.

For more ideas and information, visit the 20 Mule Team Borax website.


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