Wednesday, November 11, 2020

Is My Latest Shower Cleaner Really Green? The Borax Dilemma

I developed my latest shower cleaner after I ran the dishwasher... in 2013.

I just didn't know it yet. 

Seven years ago, I wrote about a dishwasher detergent recipe I found that used only 2 ingredients: Borax and baking soda. I loved it. Not only did it clean my dishes, but it whitened my dishwasher, as well. It was cheap, effective, and green.

Could this work in the shower, as well?

The answer, generally speaking, is yes. Equal proportions of baking soda and Borax are quite effective at cleaning a shower. Borax is a natural mineral that's ground into a powder. Its rough texture works well for scrubbing away soap scum. Both that and baking soda are salts, so they also increase cleaning capacity by softening the water.

I could see this effectiveness as I scrubbed the mixture onto the bath ledge. The white powder quickly turned gray, while the white became brighter.

bath ledge with coalesced gray powder
It was pretty gross.

I was thrilled...

Until I noticed one problem.

Borax no longer had the same green support it had in 2013!

female stick figure screaming NOOOO!!!

When I tested the original dishwashing powder, the Green World was shouting Borax's praises. It was the green addition to any cleaning solution.

So what changed?

I went searching online, and most of what I found didn't change my mind about Borax. Multiple websites and blogs gave reasons for believing Borax was a bad choice, but none backed up their reasons with actual research. In fact, the vast majority simply linked to yet another blog that talked about the horrors of Borax... again with no evidence. 

I wasn't impressed.

Some screamed that Borax was poison. 

green bottle with a poison symbol on it holding green fluid with brown fumes coming out
Image via Pixabay

This, indeed, is a fact. One of its many uses is a pesticide, after all! 

I hunted down studies that specifically mention Borax within their trials, rather than boric acid (not even close to the same thing) or boron, and found that the mineral can cause harm in rats at extremely high levels. 

Of course, for that poison to affect someone, they would need to consume a large amount of it or at least coat their skin with it for an extended period. Since I don't plan on gargling with it or do I plan on using a Borax face mask, I'm not particularly concerned about this. 

Furthermore, there are plenty of poisons that are considered green. "Green" is not the same as "safe for human consumption," after all.

Of course, there's also open pit mining involved.

black and white drawing depicting mining machinery

This is pretty significant. 

At first, one might think that open pit mining is no more damaging than any other type of mining, and if you were solely speaking about human safety, you'd be correct. It's much safer for human workers than shaft mining since it reduces the chance of toxic gasses or cave-ins. It's also cheaper and more efficient than other methods. 

But that's where the benefits end. You see, open pit mining can have a significant impact on the environment. To quote Mission 2016: The Future of Strategic Natural Resources from MIT,

Environmental hazards are present during every step of the open-pit mining process. Hardrock mining exposes rock that has lain unexposed for geological eras. When crushed, these rocks expose radioactive elements, asbestos-like minerals, and metallic dust. During separation, residual rock slurries, which are mixtures of pulverized rock and liquid, are produced as tailings, toxic and radioactive elements from these liquids can leak into bedrock if not properly contained.

Unfortunately, if you continue reading to the end, it becomes abundantly clear that not just open-pit but all forms of mining are destructive to the environment. It does mention, however, that increasing government regulation to reduce damage would help and that programs companies enact to do this can actually pay for themselves.


Interestingly, 20 Mule Team, which is this nation's largest producer of Borax, has recognized this need. It works on reducing both water and energy consumption at its Rio Tinto mine. Hence, even though pit mining is environmentally damaging, steps are being taken to reduce that impact.

blue and black chemical symbol for boron, showing atomic weight

Further, boron, a key component of Borax, is also an essential nutrient that is sometimes used to help fertilize crops. In fact, 20 Mule Team brand Borax is approved by OMRI for use in organic farming in cases of soil micronutrient deficiency (Boron specific). 

So what's the verdict, then?

Ultimately, the decision, as always, is up to you. It depends on how much you trust the company's decision to work toward a sustainable future. 20 Mule Team has worked harder than most to produce a lower-impact mine, but there is still an impact. 

Open-pit mining is definitely a negative quality, but the flip side is that Borax is a much less toxic option than most cleaning products out there. Borax definitely works, so you'd be unlikely to waste any.

Personally, I'll continue to use it--in small doses. However, I'll also continue my hunt for a truly green shower cleaner that actually works well. Have I made a good decision, or would you choose differently? Why?

Monday, November 2, 2020

How to Prove You Slept Through Chemistry: My First Shower Cleaner Recipe Tested

I went through countless recipes, taking down website addresses and ingredients. I was determined to find something that would fit every requirement for the perfect shower cleaner. My fingers happily bounced across the keyboard, typing out ingredients, and then...

baking soda, vinegar, dish soap...?!

Oh, dear.

I recognized this recipe, and so, I imagine, did you.

Basic chemistry teaches us that baking soda and vinegar combine to create a fun little reaction in which you get a slight bubbling over of ingredients. I love to do this to clean my sink drain every couple of weeks.

But dish soap!

You probably remember that kid from the elementary school science fair: the one that took their time molding the perfect sculpture of a volcano, then added baking soda inside the "spout." They poured the fluid into the spout, and BAM!

volcano venting a lot of steam
Image by Julius Silver from Pixabay

A large amount of froth spewed out of the volcano sculpture. The adults all made impressed noises, and the kid got a B for effort because it was supposed to be an experiment, not a demonstration. We all loved watching that volcanic demonstration, though. 

So what does this story have to do with the recipe I discovered, you ask?

That fluid mixture was a combination of vinegar and dish soap.

I spent a few moments trying to decide whether the person that created this recipe was joking or if she slept through 3rd-grade chemistry. After perusing the page, I decided it was the latter. 

You see, the dish soap is what really made me pause. Even combining vinegar and baking soda doesn't faze me because the resulting bubbles are mild and short-lived. 

When you mix dish soap with vinegar, however, the baking soda/vinegar explosion becomes more potent. The more the dish soap blends with the vinegar, in fact, the more exciting the reaction becomes.

I was always careful to abide by science fair rules and never did the volcano demonstration. That left a gap in my younger self's experiences. Therefore, I decided to play with the ingredients and see just how big of an explosion I'd get. 

blue fluid being poured into a baking soda filled measuring cup

frothing white mixture covering a large area around a measuring cup in a sink

As you can see, this isn't a particularly good idea for a shower cleaner, but it does provide entertainment for yourself, as well as any children currently being remote-schooled in your home!

And speaking of children, I found a great article on Fun At Home With Kids that gives parents a great idea for how to teach chemistry to their young ones using a baking soda/vinegar demonstration--with dish soap! The author goes into detail about the science behind this reaction.

Now, don't use any recipes calling for this ingredient blend if you're planning to make shower cleaner, and stay tuned for my next shower cleaner test!