Written by Grove Collaborative

We tried it: Is borax a good cleaner?

Last Updated: August 12, 2021

20 Mule Team Borax is a popular powder cleanser and laundry booster. But how does it really hold up to tough stains? Grove writer Kristen Bailey took on 5 tough stains and odors to test out 20 Mule Team Borax and its cleaning capabilities.

Borax has been around forever. And 20 Mule Borax hints at this history with its name. Because back in 1883, it took teams of 20 mules to haul huge wagons of borax across Death Valley and into the hands of our great-great grandmothers.


So, what is borax, and is it a good cleaner? I’m here to try it out for myself.

First, what is borax?

Borax is a compound made from boron, a naturally occurring mineral. When you combine ingredients like boron, oxygen, and sodium, you get sodium tetraborate, sodium borate, or… borax.


20 Mule Team is the best known brand of borax, which they sell primarily as a laundry detergent booster. But it has scads of uses, which we’ll soon dive into.

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Is 20 Mule Team Borax the same as baking soda?

Borax (sodium tetraborate) and baking soda (sodium bicarbonate) aren’t the same thing. They’re both salts, and they’re both popular as “green” household cleaning agents, but borax has a pH of 9.5, compared to baking soda’s pH of 8.


This makes borax considerably more alkaline than baking soda. And while baking soda is safe to consume, borax is definitely not.


And learn more about how to use baking soda for cleaning here!

Is borax toxic?

It’s all-natural, yes, and it’s a mineral that we carry in our bodies. But does that make it “safe”?


The Environmental Working Group gives borax an overall grade of D, citing “some concern” around respiratory and skin effects and “high concern” over developmental and reproductive toxicity with long-term or intense exposure.


PubChem notes that it is not a carcinogen, but short-term borax exposure may irritate the eyes, skin, and respiratory tract.

Is borax safe for humans?

Ingesting it can cause acute poisoning. A lethal amount for children is around two teaspoons, while roughly six to nine teaspoons will do in an average-sized adult human.


But, if you handle borax with care and use it according to directions, it’s unlikely to cause you harm.

Is borax toxic to dogs and cats?

It is just as toxic to animals as it is to humans. If your pet ingests a small amount, it may experience mild to severe gastrointestinal symptoms. Larger amounts cause worse symptoms, including death.

Is borax safe for the environment?

The primary threat to the environment involves mining for boron. In general, open-pit mining eviscerates the landscape — and its wildlife. But Rio Tinto, the company that extracts most of the world’s boron, is well known for its environmental stewardship — its Death Valley borax mine is one of the greenest.

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Are borax and boric acid the same thing?

Borax and boric acid are not the same thing, although they’re closely related. When borax is reacted with a powerful acid, it becomes boric acid, which has a pH of 5.


The most common household use for boric acid is mold and insect control. Oh, right — and treating vaginal yeast infections.

We tried it: Is borax a good cleaner?

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1. Borax as a laundry booster

20 Mule Team Borax bills itself as a “detergent booster.” It’s not effective as a laundry detergent by itself, but since borax is alkaline, it increases the pH of the wash water. This makes it easier for your detergent to combine with the water so it penetrates clothes more deeply and pulls out more dirt and odor molecules.


When someone washed the kid’s blankets with two dank bathroom rugs, the whole load came out smelling really bad. So I tossed the bedding right back into the machine, whipped up a batch of booster, and added 1/2 cup to the load.

Step 1:

Pour one tablespoon of borax into a jar with a tight-closing lid.

Step 2:

Add two cups of simmering hot water to the jar.

Step 3:

Close the lid tightly, and Shake! It! Up! until the borax is completely dissolved.

The verdict

The kid’s bedding came out smelling so fresh and clean, I had to bury my face in it for a few moments. It also made her blankets super soft and fluffy. The borax laundry booster was easy to make, and it’ll keep until I use it again. And I’ll definitely use it again.

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How to make borax slime

Speaking of the kid, one of her favorite things on earth is slime. She makes it with borax, which is perfectly safe in the amounts we’re talking. Here’s how she does it:


Step 1: Combine 1/2 cup each of water and white or clear PVC glue in a large bowl.


Step 2: In a different container, add one teaspoon of borax to one cup of water, and mix until it’s dissolved.


Step 3: Add the borax solution to the glue mixture, and sitr.


Since the glue is made up of long, identical, and repeating strands of molecules, it’s nice and flowy. But when you add borax, the borate ions connect these strands together, and they get all tangled up. So the more you stir, the thicker and more rubbery the slime will be!

2. Stripping the laundry with borax

Ever heard of laundry stripping? Neither had I. It’s not as sexy as it sounds.


Laundry stripping deep-cleans your clothes, towels, or bedding to remove built-up dirt, grease, grime, odors, and residues left by hard water, detergents, softeners, and dryer sheets.


When I learned of this miracle, my mind went immediately to my collection of microfiber cloths, which look so dirty even when they’re clean.

How to make a borax laundry stripper

Step 1: Fill an appropriately sized container with an appropriate number of gallons of warm water.


Step 2: For each gallon of water, add a half-cup each of borax and washing soda, and stir to dissolve.


Step 3: Add one cup of laundry detergent, and stir to mix.


To strip your laundry:

Toss in your clean-but-not-clean duds

Stir gently for a couple of minutes

Stir hourly for six hours, then wash as usual

The verdict

Folks, I can’t even tell you how much better my microfiber cloths look, feel, and smell after stripping them. They’re still old, stained microfiber cloths, but they look cleaner and brighter than before — and they’re way softer and not at all greasy. Did you get a load of that filthy water? I seriously can’t believe my “clean” microfibers had so much filth built up in the fibers. And I’m more than a little grossed out that I’ve been washing my dishes with them.

So, even though I know you’re not supposed to use detergents on microfiber, you can bet your greasy grime I’m gonna be stripping these guys on a monthly basis. I can’t wait to do the bath towels!

3. Can borax remove rust?

I read in a few places that it removes rust, so I zeroed in on the rustiest thing I could find and followed the general instructions:


Step 1: Make a paste of roughly one part borax, two parts water, and a splash of vinegar or lemon juice.


Step 2: Rub the paste on the offending oxidation, let it sit for 15 minutes, then scrub the rust away.

The rusty grill, before

Slathered in borax paste

Scrub, scrub, scrub

The verdict: Much better!

4. Will borax kill weeds?

It will kill pretty much any plant in large concentrations, which makes it a potentially potent weed killer. So I heavily spritzed some weeds on my patio with a solution of two tablespoons of borax dissolved in two cups of hot water.

Day 1

Spritz, spritz, spritz!

Day 2

The weeds are looking a little wan.

Day 3

Now they appear ever so slightly sickly.

The verdict

Photo of hand holding weeds

5. Does borax get rid of smells?

The 20 Mule Team website touts it as a master deodorizer, working wonders on all sorts of malodorous areas.

Because of its high pH, it neutralizes acidic odors like uric acid and creates dry, alkaline environments that make odors like mildew easy to eradicate.

One of my least favorite smells in the house is the tween’s Converse high-tops during the peak of summer. So I followed 20 Mule Team’s directions and made a shoe deodorizing spray:


Step 1: Dissolve a half-tablespoon of borax in a cup of warm water in a spray bottle.


Step 2: Spritz the insides of the shoes, and let the solution work for 30 minutes.


Step 3: Scrub the insides with an old toothbrush, and wipe them out with a damp microfiber cloth.


20 Mule Team says it might take up to four days of this treatment to remove shoe stink completely.

The verdict

After the first treatment, the smell was considerably less deadly. After the second, they smelled footy and funky, but not stinky.


And after the third treatment, they were pretty much as odor-free as an everyday shoe worn by an active, hormonal 11-year-old can be. Highly recommended!

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How to make borax crystals

We had a blast making borax crystals, and it’s super easy to do. The best thing about borax crystals is that they grow fast.


Step 1: Scoop 6 tablespoons of borax into a wide-mouth glass jar.


Step 2: Pour in about two cups of simmering-hot water, and stir until the borax dissolves completely. (We added food coloring, but apparently not enough to turn the crystals a different color.)


Step 3: Twist pipe cleaners into the shapes you want. The color of the pipe cleaner determines the color of your trinket. If you want a big, chunky gemstone, coil a pipe cleaner into a bowl shape.


Step 4: Loop (or tie) a string through (or around) the pipe cleaner shape, and tie it to a pencil. Place the pencil across the jar so the shape is suspended in the liquid without touching the sides or bottom.


Step 5: Go find something else to do, and come back six to 24 hours later — the longer you wait, the more packed with crystals your shapes will be.

Some more DIY cleaning recipes with borax

In case you’re looking for more borax, here are three ideas straight from 20 Mule Team:

Can borax be used as an insecticide?

Ants

If non-lethal ant-control methods aren’t effective, mix one part borax with two parts sugar, and put it in an ant-sized lid directly in their path (but away from pets and kids!) They’ll load up on borax and take it back to the colony to share.

Roaches

Combine three parts borax and one part sugar, and apply a light dusting in places where cockroaches congregate (out of reach of pets and kids.) The roaches will lap it up, and in a matter of hours, the borax will dehydrate their exoskeletons, killing them dead.

Fleas

Never apply borax to your pet to treat a flea infestation — use your vet-recommended treatment method, or try a natural flea solution.


But if your pet’s former fleas are now procreating in your carpet or upholstery, sprinkle 20 Mule Team on the affected area, let it sit for at least 24 hours — keep pets and kids away! — then vacuum thoroughly. Vacuum the area every day for 14 days.

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