The Great Borax (Sodium Borate) Debate in Organic Skincare (and a Few Words on the Skin Deep Database)
I’ve received this question on occasion, and often enough that I thought I’d share my answer here in the hope that it may lead to a better understanding of the ingredients we use in our organic skincare products.
It seems that there has been a fair amount of unnecessary concern generated when folks see certain ingredients–in this most recent instance, Borax (or Sodium Borate)–listed as a “moderate concern” on the well intentioned, yet a bit flawed, Environmental Working Group’s Skin Deep Database. I love the Database for its efforts to bring the power of knowledge to the average consumer, especially to help open people’s eyes to the truly harmful ingredients commonly found in our everyday lives, but an effort so large and encompassing cannot always appropriately weigh every little factor in the overall equation, and sometimes, ingredients are judged in very broad and generalized terms. At any rate, the Database seems to have generated this question more than a few times and I thought it may be helpful to include my full reply for your consideration. The following is a direct copy and paste of an email I sent in response to a question about why we use Borax in some of our organic skin and body care emulsions (lotions):
Hello, and thank you for your question about our use of Borax.
I can certainly understand your concerns about the use of Borax (or sodium borate) in some of our body care products, especially with the wealth of conflicting and confusing information on the internet and specifically, on the Skin Deep Database. While I do link to the database from our own website because I think it’s a wonderful resource for consumers, it is still a flawed, incomplete and imperfect system. And the EWG has even admitted as much. They have made some excellent improvements on the database recently, but as in any case of good research, one should still weigh the information against other reference sources as well.
For instance, we also use a dietary-grade (for ingestion) Vitamin E in many of our products. Our Vitamin E is sourced from natural non-GMO vegetable oil (very often sunflower or wheat germ oil) and is full-spectrum, meaning that it contains all the components of Vitamin E in its complete and natural form, rather than a synthetically produced or heavily processed derivative. Vitamin E is a wonderful antioxidant and, of course, is well known for its ability to heal the skin. However, the Skin Deep Database used to list Vitamin E as a skin irritant, potential carcinogen and had a moderate hazard level of 4. Since the changes that they have been implementing, they have now made a differentiation between naturally-sourced Vitamin E and its synthetic cousins. Even with that differentiation, Vitamin E is still listed as a “low” hazard, but with a score of 2. And it still makes a very small reference to a 25 year old cancer study. If one were to look at the Skin Deep Database without taking its data gaps and references with a grain of salt, they might just see the word “potential cancer” and become needlessly alarmed.
Regarding Borax, I have absolutely no concerns about its use in my skin care products, and I use it regularly as part of my non-toxic cleansing regimen both at home and in our workshop because of its many wonderful properties. A natural and unique mineral found in dried up lakebeds with large deposits found in the US Southwest, sodium borate serves many purposes and industries. In cleaning, Borax mixed with water creates a minor reaction and releases very small amounts of hydrogen peroxide, which makes it a mild antiseptic and helps to inhibit microbial growth. This is also a reason it is desirable in natural cosmetics. In our products, borax softens the water phase of an emulsion (lotion or creme) which assists in binding the disparate aspects of oil and water together, without the need for chemical emulsifying waxes (which are often referred to on cosmetic products as “vegetable emulsifying wax” but are actually an isolated fatty acid fused to a detergent or surfactant which are typically petroleum derived or completely synthetic). In other words, the Borax helps to reduce the surface tension of the water-based portion of our formulas, and enables the water to stay mixed together with the beeswax and oils, and contributes to the inherent natural preservation of the formula without the need for chemical based preservatives, many of which have been linked to cancer and which have been proven to reside in the lymph and fatty tissues of the human body.
Our use of Borax in our products represents 0.00297% of the formula. Certainly, there are potential health risks involved in using nearly any ingredient, natural or not. The way in which an ingredient is used, and the purpose it serves in a formula are factors that are not considered in the Skin Deep Database score, which they do attempt to specify next to the score. For instance, most of the research that I have found regarding the human toxicity of Borax applies to ingesting large amounts of the powder, and the exact amount is only estimated, not known.
Furthermore, the bulk of the research is based on animal testing, with cruel trials stretching out over time in highly unlikely dosages and types of exposure (in addition, the studies included use of boric acid ,which is not the same thing as sodium borate, but is derived from it). The rating on Lavender Essential Oil does not include similar references in the Database, though I’m quite certain that if one were to drink a couple glasses of it, or inject the essential oil subcutaneously, they would indeed be feeling rather poorly. But these are exactly the sorts of data gaps which the Skin Deep Database allows for, though I personally think they still need to do a little more to make that more clear.
One thing I would like to stress is that I am probably the biggest stickler out there when it comes to purity in products, especially my own. I started making my own skin care formulas in my apartment kitchen nearly 20 years ago because I could not find the level of purity I was looking for in the marketplace. I have always been very chemical sensitive, especially to synthetic fragrances, and I had to start educating myself on food and cosmetic ingredients so that I could avoid the common offenders. The more I learned about the chemicals routinely used in our everyday food and body care products, the more I observed a direct link between the health of our planet and the health of humans. Especially concerning to me is that there seems to have been an increased incidence of cancer in all its forms in proportionate correlation to the use of chemicals in everything from agricultural crops to the water flowing from our faucets to the heavily processed “food” products on grocery shelves and the body care products we use daily on our skin. 14 years ago, I started selling the products I was making for myself quite by accident, and we’ve been growing ever since. I’ve turned away opportunities due to requests from large hotel chains who wanted me to change my formulas (ie: use chemical ingredients) so that I could produce in larger quantities or compete on a more economical scale, but I would not veer from my natural path. I believe that dedication to making products using only natural and organic ingredients, in as complete a form as possible, is the answer to a healthier planet, and to that of her inhabitants. I am very passionate about this, and every product I have formulated has been with that core value in mind.
At any rate, I’ve compiled a little information about Borax, or Sodium Borate, for your consideration (below). It is only with information that we can make informed purchasing choices, and that is ultimately something that each of us must decide for ourselves.
If I can answer any other questions, please don’t hesitate to contact me. And thank you again for your interest in WoodSprite Organic Body products.
WoodSprite Organic Body.
From Mountain Rose Herbs –
Borax Powder Profile
Appearance: White crystalline granules
Shelf life: 2-3 years
Notes: Stores well under any condition but extreme moisture is best avoided. Avoid contact with the eyes and mouth, and do not expose directly to the skin. Can be used directly for cleaning purposes, and is suitable for both cosmetic and cleaning purposes. Manufactured according to USP standards.
Anhydrous Borax- 70.1%
Boric Acid – 48.5%
Sodium Oxide – 20.8%
Water of Crystallization – 46.2%
Size- US #30 Mesh
Borax (Sodium borate) is a natural mineral which is widely used in the cosmetic industry. Since it is also utilized as a detergent, many people are shocked to learn that it is also a main ingredient in their favorite brand of bath salt! Borax naturally occurs from the repeated evaporation of seasonal lakes. The largest deposits of this mineral may be found in California, the American southwest, Chile, and Tibet. Borax is a very popular ingredient, simply because of its many varied applications, and its ease of use.
Borax is found in creams, lotions, shampoos, gels, bath salts, and bath bombs. It is an emulsifier, preservative, cleansing agent, and a buffering agent. Commonly used in bath salts, borax has the ability to soften the water, and suspend soap particles in the bathwater. The result is soft, clean, and healthy skin, which is not clogged by the residue of soap particles. When used in collaboration with citric acid in bath bomb or bath salt recipes, the product will produce a fizzing action. It also forms bath or body gel, when mixed with water and guar gum. In summary, Borax has the following uses for body care products:
* Water softener
* Particle suspension
* Buffering agent
* Fizzing action (when used with citric acid)
To use: Simply mix borax into the water portion of your recipe, and heat to a temperature of above 75 °C. Stir until fully dissolved, and then incorporate into your recipe.
Precautions: Not to be ingested, large doses may be fatal. May cause irritation if exposed to the skin, eyes, or if inhaled. Handle with caution, and keep away from children and pets.
From Journal of the American College of Toxicology Vol: 2 Year: 1983
Final Report on the Safety Assessment of Sodium Borate and Boric Acid
(BORIC ACID IS NOT THE SAME THING AS SODIUM BORATE)
Sodium borate and boric acid are used in cosmetics as preservatives,antiseptics, water softeners, pH adjusters, emulsifiers, neutralizers, stabilizers, buffers, or viscosifiers. Investigators have reported that sodium borate and boric acid are poorly absorbed through intact skin; however, both compounds are absorbed through abraded, denuded, or burned skin. In a 90-day dermal toxicity study, boric acid (25-200 mg/kg/day) was nonirritating and nontoxic when applied to the intact skin of rabbits. Sodium borate and boric acid were relatively nontoxic when tested orally in animals. A 5% sodium borate in water solution was mildly or moderately irritating to the skin of rabbits and guinea pigs, and practically nonirritating when instilled in rabbit’s eyes. Acute studies indicated that, at 10% in water, boric acid was mildly or moderately irritating to the skin of rabbits and guinea pigs. Sodium borate or boric acid in the diet of rabbits and rats caused growth retardation. Doses of up to 1.06 g/kg/day sodium borate in the diet of male rats exerted toxic effects on the gonads as well as infertility. Boric acid was nonmutagenic in the Ames test. Boric Acid induced reduced eye phenocopies and lumpy chromosomal inclusions in drosophila melanogaster. Limited carcinogenic and teratogenic studies did not indicate a statistically significant effect. In clinical studies, cosmetic formulations containing up to 3.2% sodium borate were nonirritating to moderately irritating and nonsensitizing when applied to human skin. Formulations containing up to 2.4% boric acid were moderately irritating and practically nonirritating. Photopatch testing of formulations containing 1.1% or 1.7% sodium borate were negative. Based on the increased absorption of boric acid by damaged skin as compared to intact skin, as well as the testicular atrophy observed in experimental animals, the panel concluded that sodium borate and boric acid, in concentrations < 5% are safe as cosmetic ingredients when used as currently recommended; however, cosmetic formulations containing free sodium borate or boric acid at this concentration should not be used on infant or injured skin.
From Chemistry.about.com –
What Is Borax?
Borax (also known as sodium borate decahydrate; sodium pyroborate; birax; sodium tetraborate decahydrate; sodium biborate) is a natural mineral compound (Na_2 B_4 O_7 • 10H_2 O). It was discovered over 4000 years ago. Borax is usually found deep within the ground, although it has been mined near the surface in Death Valley, California since the 1800s. Although it has numerous industrial uses, in the home borax is used as a natural laundry booster, multipurpose cleaner, fungicide, preservative, insecticide, herbicide, disinfectant, dessicant, and ingredient in making ‘slime’. Borax crystals are odorless, whitish (can have various color impurities), and alkaline. Borax is not flammable and is not reactive. It can be mixed with most other cleaning agents, including chlorine bleach.
How Does Borax Clean?
Borax has many chemical properties that contribute to its cleaning power. Borax and other borates clean and bleach by converting some water molecules to hydrogen peroxide (H_2 O_2 ). This reaction is more favorable in hotter water. The pH of borax is about 9.5, so it produces a basic solution in water, thereby increasing the effectiveness of bleach and other cleaners. In other chemical reactions, borax acts as a buffer, maintaining a stable pH needed to maintain cleansing chemical reactions. The boron, salt, and/or oxygen of boron inhibit the metabolic processes of many organisms. This characteristic allows borax to disinfect and kill unwanted pests. Borates bond with other particles to keep ingredients dispersed evenly in a mixture, which maximizes the surface area of active particles to enhance cleaning power.
Risks Associated with Borax
Borax is natural, but that does not mean it is automatically safer for you or for ‘the environment’ than man-made chemicals. Although plants need boron, too much of it will kill them, so borax can be used as an herbicide. Borax may also be used to kill roaches, ants, and fleas. In fact, it is also toxic to people. Signs of chronic toxic exposure include red and peeling skin, seizures, and kidney failure. The estimated lethal dose (ingested) for adults is 15-20 grams; less than 5 grams can kill a child or pet. For this reason, borax should not be used around food. More commonly, borax is associated with skin, eye, or respiratory irritation. It is also important to point out that exposure to borax may impair fertility or cause damage to an unborn child.
Now, none of these risks mean that you shouldn’t use borax. If you do a bit of research, you will find risks associated with all cleaning products, natural or man-made. However, you do need to be aware of product risks so that you can use those products properly. Don’t use borax around food, keep it out of reach of children and pets, and make sure you rinse borax out of clothes and off of surfaces before use.
Please make sure to visit the WoodSprite Organic Body Blog