Borax is a naturally occurring mineral salt that has been widely used in homemade household cleaning formulas, but in recent years the safety of borax has been questioned. If you use homemade cleaners and want to be sure your formulas are safe, you might consider borax substitutes.
The Cause for Concern
Concerns about the safety of borax arose when the European Chemicals Agency placed borax on its "Very High Concern" list in December 2010. In February 2011, the Environmental Working Group (EWG), a U.S. nonprofit agency, issued warnings about borax. The EWG cited potential for borax exposure to cause skin and eye irritation, hormone disruption and damage to the male reproductive system. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's Office of Pesticide Programs also reassessed borax and boric acid (an acid derived from borax), and warned of the potential for developmental toxicity.
Cleaning with Borax Substitutes
Although they are chemically different from borax, baking soda and washing soda can be safe and effective alternatives because all three substances are abrasive powders and, to some degree, water softeners. Baking soda is a deodorizer and mild disinfectant. It's naturally abrasive, so it serves as a hard-surface scrub. Washing soda softens hard water so that detergents and soaps work more efficiently. It effectively cuts grease and soap scum.
If you want to substitute for borax in a particular home-cleaning recipe, start by replacing the borax with an equal proportion of baking soda or washing soda. Test the result in an unseen area of the items to be cleaned. Keep track of your proportions so you can adjust the ingredients, if needed. Here some additional to ways to use borax substitutes:
Add 1/2 cup of either baking soda or washing soda, along with your usual detergent, to the washing machine at the start of the wash cycle. For heavy wash loads, very soiled clothes or hard water conditions, use 1 cup of washing soda.
To create a simple homemade laundry detergent, thoroughly combine equal parts washing soda and soap flakes. You can make soap flakes by grating a bar of castile or glycerin soap in a food processor or with a hand grater. Use 1 to 2 tablespoons of this mixture in a warm to hot water wash. Be sure to store it in a tightly covered jar.
To eliminate detergent residue and leave your clothes feeling soft, add 1/2 cup of white vinegar to the rinse water. Alternatively, you can brighten clothes by adding 1/2 cup of strained lemon juice to the rinse cycle.
General Household Cleaning
For quick-cleaning countertops, sinks, tile or linoleum floors and other hard surfaces, sprinkle baking soda on a damp sponge and scrub as needed. Rinse the area with water, and dry it with a clean cloth or paper towel. Scrubbing with baking soda also removes tea and coffee stains from the insides of cups and mugs.
For general cleaning, as well as removal of heavy dirt and grease, mix 1/2 cup of washing soda in a gallon of warm water. Scrub the area with this solution, and then rinse thoroughly with plain water. The washing soda solution can be used on kitchen appliances, bathroom tiles, sinks and tubs, and as a toilet bowl cleaner. For outdoor use, it cleans patio furniture, garden tools and garage floors. To clean baked-on food and grease from cooking pots and pans, stove burners and barbecue grills, soak these items in the solution for up to 30 minutes, then rinse and dry.