Harmony Borax Mine in Death Valley National Park, California.
Credit: PHB.cz (Richard Semik) / Shutterstock.com
Borax is a naturally occurring mineral powder that consists of soft, colorless crystals.
The mineral is an important compound of the element boron, and goes by a number of scientific names, including sodium borate and disodium tetraborate.
Borax is typically found in mineral deposits produced by the repeated evaporation of seasonal lakes. Several commercially important borax sources exist throughout the world, including large deposits in California, Turkey and Chile.
The substance has a long history of human use, according to a 2005 article in the Indian Journal of Chemical Technology — Babylonian goldsmiths used borax more than 4,000 years ago.
In households today, people use borax as a laundry detergent booster, household cleaner, deodorizer, fungicide and herbicide. In industry, borax is a vital ingredient in glass, pottery, ceramics, flame-retardants, enamel glazes, teeth-whitening products and buffering solutions for chemical reactions.
When borax is mixed with a mineral acid, such as sulfuric or hydrochloric acid, it becomes boric acid, which is commonly used in antiseptics, insecticides and eye solutions (for eye irritation).
Borax is often touted as a safe, "green" cleaning product, but the compound does have its dangers. Direct exposure to the substance through skin contact, eye contact, inhalation or ingestion can result in various short-term symptoms, including vomiting, eye irritation, skin rash and respiratory issues.
Research has also shown that high doses of borax and boric acid can affect the reproduction system and fetal development of animals. However, it's unclear what risk the substances pose to people during normal household use.