In the latest health craze to alarm and annoy medical experts, people on TikTok have gleefully “jumped on the borax bandwagon” and drink and soak in the toxic cleaning product based on false claims that it can reduce inflammation, treat arthritis, and “detoxify” the body.
The disturbing trend harks back to both the 2018 Tide Pod Challenge trend, in which teens chewed on laundry detergent sachets on camera, and the infamous “Church of Bleach,” a bogus religious organization that sold industrial beach as a “miracle” solution that, when ingested, could cure a variety of serious illnesses. (The family was recently found guilty of fraud and is now awaiting sentencing.)
Like the bogus trends that came before them, the new borax enthusiasts have used worn-out conspiracy theories and dubious data to support their toxic practice. In a video, a TikTok user explained that she put borax in her smoothies because “they spray us with chemtrails.” Others have suggested that the unproven health benefits of borax are being purposefully suppressed by Big Pharma in a conspiracy to make people pay for more expensive (and regulated) pharmaceuticals – a common refrain among people selling unproven health and wellness products.
Meanwhile, the borax trend has hit the radar of poison control centers and toxicology experts. In a debunking article from the National Capital Poison Center, the organization outlined a case of a man who had to go to the emergency department days after soaking in a borax bath, causing severe skin irritation, swelling and dryness.
And that’s not the worst. According to the National Institute of Health’s Office of Dietary Supplements, ingestion of borax or the related boric acid can cause nausea, gastrointestinal discomfort, vomiting, diarrhea, skin flushing, rash, agitation, convulsions, depression and vascular collapse.
A 1973 report outlined the cases of two infants who developed chronic borate intoxication after their mothers repeatedly dipped their pacifiers in a honey-borax solution, thinking the borax was a safe antiseptic (it’s not). After weeks, the babies started having seizures and developed anemia. The study’s authors blamed the “negligence” of the companies selling the mixture, noting that the mixture’s packaging failed to warn that it “really is a poison.”
No benefit, all risks
Today, borax – sodium tetraborate decahydrate – is mainly found in laundry detergents, where it acts as a bleaching agent. It is also used for industrial glass production and, in small quantities, can be combined with glue to form slime that children can play with without eating.
Some TikTokers who advocate drinking or bathing in borax note that it contains boron, a naturally occurring trace element that is readily found in common foods, such as fruits, peanuts, legumes, potatoes, and milk. It is (of course) also in nutritional supplements. But boron is not considered an essential nutrient for humans and researchers have not identified a clear biological function for the element. There is some preliminary data suggesting that boron may be important for bone growth and may help reduce the symptoms of osteoarthritis, possibly by inhibiting inflammation. There is also some evidence that it may affect some cancer risks. But there are no clinical trials that have evaluated any of those potential health benefits.
And, most importantly, borax is not the same as elemental boron. Borax is toxic, with short-term use leading to irritation, nausea, vomiting and diarrhea. (The poison control center notes that eating borax can turn your vomit and stool a blue-green color.) And, as the report on the two babies points out, long-term use leads to seizures and anemia.
There is little evidence that the cleaning product can reduce inflammation, despite the false claims on TikTok. Some proponents may note two Turkish studies in rats suggesting that borax reduces inflammation from anticancer drugs in humans and spinal cord injuries. But the studies tested borax in groups of only eight and seven rats, respectively, and even larger studies don’t support the use of borax in humans.
With the lack of data suggesting benefits in humans, the poison control center sums things up succinctly: “Borax is not intended for human consumption and may cause toxic effects if ingested, inhaled, or applied to the skin.”