The Many, Many Uses of Borax for Laundry

:: Thursday, April 15, 2021 :: Posted By Orion Graham
Happy World Laundry Day! April 15 is your chance to thank the people who help us stay clean and hygienic, and to learn a few things about an activity that we’re all familiar with but probably don’t think that much about.

As long as people have been wearing clothes of any kind—from animal skins to wool, cotton, and polyester—they’ve needed to clean them. Over the last 125 or so years, borates have played a big part in helping people get their laundry cleaner.
You’re probably already using borax (sodium tetraborate) on laundry day; it’s an ingredient in a variety of modern laundry detergents. When added as 20 Mule Team Borax Detergent Booster, it aids in cleaning throughout the entire process, from the start to the spin cycle.

Agitation, chemical action, and heat

Three things are needed to get fabric clean: Agitation, heat, and chemical action. Each plays a separate part in the process, and together they synergize into an effective method for getting soils out of clothes.
  • Agitation: The purpose of agitation is to work your laundry chemicals—usually soap, detergent, or both—into the fabric in order for them to be effective.
  • Heat: Nowadays, we can choose hot, warm, and cold water to wash our clothes, but before the advent of modern detergents most laundry was done at around 140 °F. Washing with hot water is still useful for heavily soiled items. However, anyone who has ever shrunk a wool sweater knows that caution is needed when washing with hot water.
  • Chemical action: What goes into laundry soap and detergent has changed drastically throughout the years, but the goal has always been the same. The chemical action in soap and detergent works by loosening soils from clothes, trapping it so it doesn’t redeposit, and taking the soil with it when it’s rinsed out.

How borax became a household product

In the mid-19th century, borax was a high-priced commodity, mostly imported for pharmaceutical and metallurgical applications. There were only a few discovered deposits on Earth abundant enough to collect from, and even fewer refineries. The chemistry used to refine these raw minerals was also largely unfamiliar and unproven.
Compounding these limiting factors were cumbersome logistics, and refineries that were often far from the ore source. These circumstances kept borax production low, and the price was too expensive for everyday household use. This limited applications to niche markets that could afford and justify such a high-priced material. At that time, global consumption amounted to a few hundred tons a year.
This began to change in 1856, when borax was discovered in California at Clear Lake (later named Borax Lake) by a Dr. John Veatch, who was probably using the warm water as a cure for his aching joints. He started producing borax in 1864.
Subsequent discoveries in Teel’s Marsh, Nevada, and Death Valley increased active borax production. From there, American ingenuity began developing efficiencies in extraction and processing that enabled broader applications and expanded potential markets. By 1872, the domestic operations in California, Nevada, and elsewhere virtually eliminated the need to import product for the American market. 

The borax rush

As the American mines became more productive, a borax rush attracted prospectors and investors. Hundreds of entrepreneurial enterprises were suddenly in the business. But what goes up, as they say, must come down. The rush, coupled with other market dynamics, ultimately contributed to a borax market price collapse.
At the same time, logistics improved dramatically with the introduction of rail access. With the speed and efficiency of trains more easily available, U.S. Borax stopped using our 20 mule teams for transport. But we were happy to keep the iconic animals on the payroll as the brand grew, and later they even became mythologized on radio and television. By 1882, the freight rate from source to refinery dropped sharply, from $80 per ton to $13 per ton.

As a result, all but a handful of the companies remained. This led borax manufacturers to consolidate, and logistics to improved. When supply and demand eventually stabilized, borax was ready to reach an expanded market.

The uses of borax for laundry

By 1892, the production of refined borax in the American west reached nearly 7,000 tons. It was in this period that the popularity rose for household and consumer applications such as laundry soaps and hand cleaners. “A good laundress uses 20-Mule Team,” was a popular slogan in various U.S. Borax advertisements.
Whether added to soap or detergents, the benefits of borax for laundry are:
  • Improving cleaning action by aiding in the emulsification of oils and oil dispersion
  • Preventing dirt from redepositing by increasing particulate surface charge so that soils and cloth repel each other
  • Optimizing water pH levels by working as a water softener and neutralizing metals and other impurities that prevent soap and detergent effectiveness
  • Bleaching stains by safely and effectively releasing their available oxygen to remove their color
Amazingly, borax in detergents has benefits beyond getting clothes cleaner. In the 1970s, detergent manufacturers started adding a variety of enzymes to help break down specific types of stains, including tannins, proteins, and fats. These enzymes will attack and degrade each other. However, borax functions as an enzyme stabilizer, meaning your detergent stays effective longer. And, by softening the water, borates also prevent calcium build-up in appliances.
Today, detergent manufacturers rely on U.S. Borax products such as Neobor® and borax decahydrate for reliable, consistent sources of the refined borates that go into their products. Likewise, consumers rely on the purity of U.S. Borax borates found in Henkel's 20 Mule Team Borax® Detergent Booster for a wide range of home uses.

Laundry stripping

Laundry stripping is a method used to get clothes and linens cleaner by stripping the soil from them. Our friends at 20 Mule Team Borax have a lot of great information about laundry stripping and the easiest ways to do it at home.

Laundry stripping is effective because it removes the largely unseen soil particles that remain on clothes and linens even after they’ve been washed. Even “unseen” soils begin to build up over time, so stripping is most effective for items that have started to discolor from use but are still in good condition. In this process, the cleaning properties of borax are put into overdrive, with the results being impressive enough to make laundry stripping a regular part of laundry day for a growing number of households around the world.

Read this helpful guide to laundry stripping with borax to learn more.

DIY laundry soap

There are many reasons to make your own laundry soap. Some people like it because it lets them know exactly what is and isn’t going into their washing machine and the clothes they wear. Perfumes and dyes aren’t for everyone, so a simple recipe made of familiar ingredients—borax, soap, and washing soda—is appealing.

The chance to reduce packaging and consumer waste is another benefit of DIY detergent. One tradeoff for the convenience of commercially produced laundry detergent is that it is difficult to source products that do not involve single-use plastic packaging. By contrast, all the ingredients for homemade detergent can be found with biodegradable packaging—such as the cardboard 20 Mule Team Borax Detergent Booster package seen in grocery stores throughout the land.

Here's a simple recipe for DIY laundry soap from 20 Mule Team Borax Detergent Booster.

Keeping clean at home

The many ways that borax helps you in the laundry room also makes it an effective cleaner around the house. In your washing machine, borax helps absorb dirt. In your kitchen and bathroom, it’s great for cleaning rust, grout, and even mold and mildew. Borax helps laundry smell better and is also extremely effective at fighting pet urine odor because it combats the ammonia. And, borax works great for cleaning grout, metal sinks, crayon and pencil marks from walls, and so much more.
If you did your own laundry today on World Laundry Day, we applaud your efforts at getting into the holiday spirit! And, if someone else did your laundry for you, be sure to show them you care. The way we do laundry has changed a lot over the last 125 years, but the goal has always been the same—improving our daily quality of life by having clean clothes to live in. Using borax in the laundry room helps us live a little better.




U.S. Borax, part of Rio Tinto, is a global leader in the supply and science of borates—naturally-occurring minerals containing boron and other elements. We are 1,000 people serving 650 customers with more than 1,800 delivery locations globally. We supply around 30% of the world’s need for refined borates from our world-class mine in Boron, California, about 100 miles northeast of Los Angeles.  Learn more about Rio Tinto.

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