Don’t eat borax: The dangerous TikTok health trend to treat joint pain

Science and Health

First, it was Tide pods, now there is a new bizarre social media trend to consume a household product not intended for consumption. This time, it’s borax.

People on TikTok tout the benefits of consuming a compound most commonly associated with pesticides and cleaning agents. 

This isn’t the first time a borax craze went viral over TikTok, with people since 2020 touting “Laundry Stripping,” a technique for removing excess gunk, oils, etc. At the time, several experts came out against it, noting how toxic borax can be when not handled appropriately. 

However, this latest craze has nothing to do with laundry. Rather, people on TikTok are outright consuming borax. And it isn’t for a fad or meme, rather, they are touting possible health benefits, specifically reducing joint pain. 

But what even is borax anyway and what makes it unsafe? Why do people think consuming borax can have health benefits and treat joint pain? Here’s everything you need to know.

Borax in its form as a natural mineral. It is used in cleaning agents but is toxic for humans. (credit: Wikimedia Commons)

What is borax?

Borax is a compound that can be found in nature, specifically in dry lakebeds. This white powdery mineral is essentially a compound of boron, oxygen, hydrogen, and sodium and it goes by many other longer, far more scientific-sounding names, such as sodium borate and sodium tetraborate.

It is most commonly used as a cleaning agent and can be found in cleaners and laundry detergents. However, it also is used in specialty toothpaste and mouthwash, herbicides, paint, and some cosmetics.

The same compound as borax can be used to make boric acid, which is used as a pesticide.

Borax being commonly used in laundry detergent explains why it went so viral on TikTok for “Laundry Stripping.” So what’s going on?

Why are people eating borax on TikTok? What are the health benefits of borax?

The main argument for consuming borax is that it can help with joint pain. There is arguably some rationale for this.

@jd.nutrition What is arthritis? Dr. Rex Newnhams cures for arthritis ⁉️ what causes arthritis arthritis chronic pain arthritis symptoms arthritis in hands symptoms #borax #20mileteam #inflammation #arthritis #fibromyalgia #fibro #arthritisrelief #arthritispainrelief #flouride #pineal #pinealgland #lyme #lymedisease #lymewarrior #jointpain #adhd #add #memory #hormonebalance #hormone #hormones #hormonehealth #Herbs #tinctures #recipe #rootsofhealing #lyme #lymedisease #detox #awakening #herbalmedicine #chronicillness #immunebooster ♬ original sound – JDNutrition

Several TikTok users cited the work of Dr. Rex E. Newnham, a researcher who wrote multiple papers on using borax to treating arthritis and osteoporosis.

While information about his life and prior research is hard to come by, Newnham appears to have been a real researcher who authored several papers and books about the subject. He supposedly was born in New Zealand and conducted research all over the world before dying in the UK in 2008. He also had a background in soil and plant science. In his research in the 1960s, Newnham reportedly observed that plants need boron to absorb calcium. He then wondered what would happen if one were to give humans boron supplements. 

Since Newnham reportedly had arthritis, he decided to test a treatment method on himself.

As documented in one such paper, presented at the International Symposium on Health Effects of Boron and its Compounds in 1992 at the University of California, Irvine, Newnham believed a “lack of dietary boron would enhance the occurrence and severity of some forms of arthritis or that boron supplementation could alleviate arthritic conditions in animals and humans.” To test this, he decided to take six milligrams of boron daily in the form of sodium tetraborate – or in other words, borax. He then said he tested this on other people and even claimed that 90,000 bottles of these boron supplements were sold in Australia and were successful, but this was stopped after Australia’s new regulations declared boron poisonous. 

Despite this, Newnham claimed that this worked and claimed to be supported by other studies, such as a supposed double-blind trial at the Royal Melbourne Hospital. He also said he traveled to countries rich in boron, like Israel, where he said the high boron content in the coastal plain water used for irrigation as well as the Dead Sea. There, he claimed that just 0.35% of the Israeli population had rheumatoid arthritis, which he said could be the result of a more boron-rich diet.

Other reported health benefits touted by some online to borax include easing swelling in the mouth and eye, easing menstrual pain, cancer treatment, and many more.

But if this is all true, why aren’t boron supplements more popular?

Some online have blamed a conspiracy by Big Pharma. These people claim that Newnham approached pharmaceutical companies with his findings, only for them to lobby to block his progress so they could keep making billions off of arthritis treatments. 

Whether this claim is true is unclear, but there is further research on boron and its use in treating joint pain. And yes, several of these studies, including ones published by the US National Institutes of Health (NIH), have cited Newnham’s work on the subject. Indeed, according to one such article shared on the NIH website, scientists have known for years that boron is essential for strong bones.

While it may be lacking in any US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approval due to the inherently unregulated nature of the supplement industry, boron itself might be fully safe to take as a dietary supplement, though you could just alter your dietary choices to include more boron-rich foods instead.

Consuming borax, though, is another story altogether. 

Is borax safe to eat?

Borax has been banned in all US food products for good reason, as it has a host of negative side effects. 

This is despite the fact that, while borax is an all-natural ingredient, that doesn’t mean it is safe. 

Negative side effects from consuming borax can include, but are not limited to:

  • Skin rashes
  • Vomiting
  • Nausea
  • Eye irritation
  • Respiratory problems
  • Impaired male sex drive and fertility
  • Organ damage
  • Death

So why are people taking borax at all when they could just take boron supplements?

As noted by TikTok user Magdalene Rose (@maggieroseadvocate), who touts the effectiveness of borax, many people take borax because it also includes hydrogen, oxygen, and sodium, which she says some people find more helpful. However, this may actually be more problematic since just because the ingredients are safe separately doesn’t mean they are safe together. For instance, carbon monoxide can be deadly for humans, but both carbon and oxygen separately are essential for humans.

However, there are also plenty of people advocating for people to avoid borax at all costs.

@sciencebat_ Replying to @Playwright Mags Just be safe about what you consume please. #healthandwellness #sciencetok #chemistry #holistichealth #holistichealing #holisticwellness #educational #learnontiktok #foryourpage #fyp #scienceexperiments #borax #boron #chemtok #medtok ♬ Clair de lune/Debussy – もつ

“Please do not ingest borax. What in the holistic, clear people bulls*** is this?” analytical chemist Dani Bat (@sciencebat_) said in a response to one of the more popular videos advocating borax as a remedy for pain. “It will harm you. It has a warning label on the box saying it can be harmful if ingested. If it’s taken in large quantities, it can cause acute kidney failure.”

Borax is so toxic that even when using it at home, it is important to follow guidelines to stay safe, such as wearing gloves, not letting it touch your clothing, not inhaling it, etc.

However, it is true that there is existing evidence from reputable sources about the benefits of boron in treating arthritis, osteoporosis, and otherwise relieving joint pain. There may indeed be something to be said about its potential applications as a proper treatment method. 

But as for borax? All the evidence points to it being a very effective cleaning agent and pesticide – and very much not something your body needs.