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What is Borax?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 17, 2024
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The term “borax” is used to refer both to a mineral and to a refined compound with numerous applications. The mineral takes the form of colorless to white soft crystals, which can sometimes be tinged with brown, yellow, or green. When struck against another material, borax leaves a crumbly white streak. The substance is also known as sodium tetraborate or disodium tetraborate, and it has been known to humans for thousands of years. The mineral is a chemical compound of the element boron, and the chemical formula is Na2B4O7*10H2O.

The name comes from a Persian word, burak, which was used to refer to borax and other borate salts in the Middle East, picked up by the Romans, and adopted by the Middle English. Borax and related salts were used in the preservation of both food and mummies, as well as to make pottery glazes in China and as a cleaning material. In Medieval Europe, it was used as a flux in soldering, to scour metal before it was welded together. Borax is still used for similar purposes today, although it is more heavily refined for purity.

While borax is not violently toxic, it can cause skin reactions. Ingestion is also not advised, as even small amounts are not beneficial to human health. Around the house, it can be useful for cleaning, laundry brightening, and as an insecticide or pesticide. Borax is also used in the manufacture of fire retardants, antiseptics, and fungicides. In the laboratory, the compound may be used as a buffer for chemical reactions, since it is a non-reactive base and will keep chemical solutions stable.

Naturally occurring borax has a high percentage of water. As the water evaporates, the mineral becomes more white and crumbly. If allowed to dehydrate, it will turn into tincalconite. When refined for use, borax is usually broken down and mixed with water, along with a catalyst that will cause the mineral to dissolve. Pure crystals of borax will reform, and be ready for packaging or further refining with other chemicals. Kernite, another chemical compound which contains boron, is also refined into borax.

When mixed with sulfuric acid, borax becomes boric acid. used in numerous industrial applications, including cleaning and preservation. It is also used as a mild antiseptic, and as an eye solution for people experiencing eye irritation. Boric acid is also marketed as an alternative insecticide, since it is more gentle than some chemical compounds.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a About Mechanics researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments

By anon999177 — On Nov 10, 2017

My husband decided to soak our apples in my homemade dishwasher detergent, which contains borax. Should I toss the apples?

By anon996656 — On Sep 23, 2016

Okay so I'm going to use this for slime. Will it cause skin irritation if I do?

By anon928290 — On Jan 27, 2014

Where do you get borax?

By anon342398 — On Jul 20, 2013

I soaked in a bath with Borax to cure scabies. It did not work and now I have a red skin rash!

By anon310594 — On Dec 24, 2012

I have been using homemade laundry soap with borax for years. It works great. Recipe is simple: 1 1/2 cups borax; 1 1/2 cups washing soda (also found in the laundry aisle at Kroger, made by Arm Hnd hammer but it is not baking soda) and 1 bar of Zote or Fel Naptha soap that has been grated. Mix them all together and use a tablespoon per load. If it is a really big load, I sometimes use a little more but it works great.

By sunshined — On Nov 17, 2012

How do you used borax as a pesticide or insecticide? I just had the pest man come and spray for bugs. While I like getting rid of the bugs, the chemicals they use really concern me.

For long term use, I don't think they are safe for my family and have been looking for some kind of natural alternatives.

By Mykol — On Nov 16, 2012

I saw a recipe online where you could make your own laundry detergent, which included borax as part of the ingredients. I am tempted to try this since I have a septic tank and need to be really careful about what I put down my drain.

I have used borax for other things, and keep a box around for household cleaning chores. I have tile floors in my bathroom and this helps keep the grout from getting dirty and dingy.

You can also use this to clean the bottom of your pots and pans and I have found it safe to use on stainless steel.

When you have a product like this, it is amazing how many other cleaning products you can get rid of. I see this as a multi-purpose, safe cleaner that works just as well as other expensive products I have bought.

By andee — On Nov 15, 2012

I buy borax to use as a laundry booster. It doesn't take the place of detergent, but helps it work better. All I do is add 1/2 cup to every load along with my regular detergent. I use this with both white and dark colored clothes, and it is a natural alternative to color safe bleach.

If you have hard water, it also helps soften the hard water so your clothes are cleaner and softer. It also works for tough stains that are hard to get out. I get the best results if I soak the item for about 30 minutes before washing. I have used it to get rid of everything from tomato sauce to grass stains.

By SarahSon — On Nov 15, 2012

@anon90161: I recently bought a box of 20-Mule-Team borax at the grocery store for around $3.00 as well. Until I went on a mission to find some borax, I never even realized it was sold in the laundry aisle. I had heard of people using this before, but didn't know it was still so easy to find.

I bought a box of this because I read it did a good job of keeping your drain smelling clean. It seems like no matter what I try, my garbage disposal smells bad and the water was draining slowly.

Putting a few teaspoons of borax down the drain followed by some warm water keeps the drain smelling clean and the water flowing freely. I think this is a pretty inexpensive way to avoid plumbing problems, and should not be harmful to the environment.

By anon247376 — On Feb 13, 2012

I have a box of the 20-Mule Team Borax which says, "Caution: Contains sodium tetraborate decahydrate. Do not take internally." So what about these wonderful recipes for borax to be taken internally (i.e., colon cleanse, flouride detox, and tooth powders)? Is there a borax that can be taken in small doses (1 gram with 1 cup water daily) safely?

By anon166336 — On Apr 07, 2011

Borax is used with great effect in detoxing fluoride from the body. Up to 1/4 teaspoon in a liter of water sipped throughout the day. One should research the subject well first, of course, but the health benefits can be enormous.

By anon158793 — On Mar 08, 2011

who knows what borax is? I don't and I can't understand this article.

By anon90161 — On Jun 14, 2010

what is the average price for borox?

By anon66302 — On Feb 18, 2010

At the Valencia, CA Target it costs about $3 for a big container. It is sold in the laundry/ detergent isle.

By anon36562 — On Jul 13, 2009

hwo much does it cost?

By Marknelson — On Apr 26, 2008

Thanks for the recipe. but is it the same as Silly Putty?

By bigmetal — On Feb 29, 2008

moms and teachers have been making borax goop for kids to play with for as long as i can remember. buy some 20 Mule Team Borax Laundry Booster at the grocery store, some white glue and food coloring (if you want). mix 1/2 cup glue, 1/2 cup water (you can add some food coloring if you want). in another bowl, mix 1 tsp of the borax with 1/2 cup water. then pour this mixture into the glue/water mixture. the result is a strange, gooey concoction which is a lot of fun to play with. be sure to cover the table and clothing so the food coloring doesn't stain, and don't let the kids put it in their mouth. you can promote it to your kids as slime or fake snot--they'll love the gross out factor!

Mary McMahon

Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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