In the latest health fad to alarm and exasperate medical experts, people on TikTok have “boarded the borax train” and are drinking and immersing themselves in the toxic cleansing product based on false claims that it can reduce inflammation, treat arthritis and “detoxify” the body.
The disturbing trend resembles both the 2018 Tide Pod Challenge, in which teenagers handed out packets of detergent on camera, and the infamous “Church of Bleach,” a fake religious organization that sold industrial bleach as a “miracle” solution that could cure a variety of serious ailments when ingested. (The family recently pleaded guilty to fraud and now await sentencing.)
Like the bogus trends that came before them, the new borax enthusiasts have used well-worn conspiracy theories and dubious data to support their poisonous practice. In one video, a TikTok user explained that she put borax in her smoothies because “they’re spraying us with chemtrails.” Others have suggested that the unproven health benefits of borax are being deliberately suppressed by Big Pharma in a plot to keep people paying for more expensive (and regulated) pharmaceutical products—a common refrain among people who market unproven health and wellness products.
Meanwhile, the borax trend has hit the radar of poison control centers and toxicology experts. In a disappointing article from the Capital National Poison Center, the organization described a case of a man who had to go to the emergency department several days after soaking in a borax bath, which caused severe skin irritation, swelling and dryness.
And that’s not the worst. According to the National Institutes of Health’s Office of Dietary Supplements, taking borax or related boric acid can cause nausea, gastrointestinal upset, vomiting, diarrhea, skin rash, flushing, agitation, seizures, depression, and vascular collapse.
A 1973 report outlined the cases of two infants who developed chronic borax intoxication after their mothers repeatedly dipped their pacifiers in a honey-borax solution, thinking the borax was a safe antiseptic (it’s not). After a few weeks, the babies started having seizures and developed anemia. The study’s authors blamed the harm on the “negligence” of the companies selling the mixture, noting that the mixture’s packaging failed to warn that it “is indeed a poison.”
No benefit, all risk
These days, borax – sodium tetraborate decahydrate – is found primarily in laundry detergents, where it acts as a bleaching agent. It is also used for the industrial manufacture of glass and, in small quantities, can be combined with glue to form slime that children can play with – without eating.
Some of the TikTokers who advocate drinking or bathing in borax note that it contains boron, which is a natural trace element readily found in common foods, such as fruits, peanuts, legumes, potatoes, and milk. It is (of course) also found in dietary 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 that it may help reduce the symptoms of osteoarthritis, possibly by inhibiting inflammation. There are also suggestions that it may affect some cancer risks. But no clinical trials have evaluated any of these 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 center notes that eating borax can turn your vomit and stools 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 false claims on TikTok. Some proponents may note two Turkish studies in rats that suggest borax reduces inflammation from human cancer drugs and spinal cord injuries. But the studies tested borax in groups of only eight and seven rats, respectively, and even larger studies do not support the use of borax in humans.
With no data showing benefits in humans, the poison center sums things up succinctly: “Borax is not intended for human consumption and may cause toxic effects when ingested, inhaled, or applied to the skin.”