Saturday, August 26, 2006

Borax and Bluing

In the past few years, I've rediscovered two old staples of American house cleaning: borax and bluing.
Recently, I read on another homemaking sight that you can use borax to remove stains from carpets and to freshen them. So, I reached for my trusty Twenty-Mule-Team box and set to work. As I did, I wondered just what is borax and why does it clean. In the past, I have wondered the same thing about bluing. I thought others might have questions, too, so I thought I'd share a little research.
A. Bluing -- Here we go -- back to a lesson on color! Did you know that according to a web site published by Mrs. Stewart's bluing, the human eye can see distinguish between three hundred variations that we loosely label as "white". When it comes to items such as pure white sheets, pure white towels, pure white clothing, we expect to see true white -- which has a bluish hue to it. But, the fabrics from which these items are made naturally have a gray-beige or a yellowish tint. So, manufacturers bleach these products and add an agent that turns the fabric bluer in order to produce a pleasing snowy, white. This is the white that we associate with fresh, clean laundry.
Unfortunately, though white fabric items shine when we bring them home, they become dingy or yellowish when worn and washed repeatedly. This dinginess is a by-product of aging and of the laundry process. It also happens because the original blue that the manufacturers used on fabrics slowly fades.
Bluing is a product that restores the blue hue to white items. The blue counteracts the dinginess and the yellowing. This blue effect is not enough to turn fabric blue; it simply restores enough blue hue to make the fabric look brighter and whiter.
So far, I have used bluing only on whites, but I understand that it does brighten colors as well. This is for the same reason -- Colors that have yellowed and faded in the wash look fresher when the blue hue is restored. Since I have not tried bluing on colors, I can't recommend this yet. I'll do so soon, and, if I remember, I'll post the results.
In the early to mid-1900's, nearly every home laundry room contained a bottle of blueing. For some reason, after the mid-century, people forgot about bluing their whites and thought more in terms of bleaching them. I'm not sure why this happened. Bleach is great for removing stains, and I do use it in the wash-- but on a very limited basis. Bleach does little to counteract yellowing or to return garments to a snow white state. Also, bleaching is hard on fabrics, and reguarly washing items with bleach can cause them to disintigrate. There are many white items that should not be bleached at all.
At the same time that late 1900's consumers started focusing on bleach, companies also developed detergents and other products that claim to restore the blue hue to washable fabrics. Now, these companies do not usually word it that way in their advertising. They are more likely to say something like , "This detergent makes whites look whiter".
According to Mrs. Stewart's Bluing, the reason that so many modern detergents and fabric softeners are tinted blue is because of the early association between bluing and fresh, snowy white laundry. Companies that make such products realized that our parents naturally reached
for products that were similar in color to the wonderful liquid Grandma used to make her whites gleam. So, they added a blue color to their products, and this has passed down through the years so that even today we expect our detergents and fabric softeners to look blue.
However, just because a product looks blue itself does not mean that it will actually add a blue hue to your whites or that it will counteract yellowing. Real bluing is a suspension of a very fine blue iron powder in water. This formula can be counted on to safely restore the blue hue in the fabric and to elimiante a dingy or yellowish tint. Thus, advocates of bluing still believe that adding a bit of diluted bluing to your laundry is the best way to keep the freshness in your whites.
When used properly, bluing is a gentle and safe household product, with no obnoxious fumes. In contrast to bleach, bluing preserves the life of a garment.
B. BORAX is a name that can refer to three related chemical compounds or minerals. Twenty-Mule-Team Borax states that it is a naturally occurring mineral made of sodium, boron, oxygen and water. Large deposits of borax are found in many places of the world. One of these is near a city actually named Boron, California. Today, of course, borax can also be synthesized.
The reason that borax cleans is that it binds to and dissolves dirt particles. It also produces peroxides which bleach items.
I use Borax as a laundry booster, but I'm learning that it has many other uses as well. You can wash trash or garbage cans with a mild borax solution and, then, sprinkle some of the dry powder inside to keep it smelling fresh until the next cleaning. You can use it to remove urine stains and odors from mattresses, as well as to clean bathroom surfaces -- including fiberglass. Borax can soften and condition hard water.
Borax is supposed to keep away roaches, carpenter ants, and fleas. Our family once rented half of a duplex that was infested with roaches coming through the other side. The landlord sprinkled borax on the floor (which, having children, I was not happy about) to drive away the roaches. As far as I could tell, this did not work in our case. I do not know if it was becuase we already had an active infestation or if it was because the borax was not applied at the site where the roaches were living and breeding. (Oh, that gives me shivers just to type that sentence). Anyhow, I would guess that if you do have a pest problem, it's worth a try using borax to get rid of it. Though it is used in some commercial pesticides, it is probably your safest and least toxic option. However, I would be prepared to quickly move onto something else if the borax is not effective in getting rid of your unwanted guests. At any rate, cleaning with it might keep these insects from making themselves at home in the first place.
Despite being used in pesticides, Borax is safe to use around humans. It is even used as a food aditive in certain countries, though that is banned in the U.S. and I personally would not knowingly consume it. I feel safer when using Borax than when using some of the other household chemicals on my shelf. However, I would still urge that you use borax carefully and according to directions. Like all chemicals -- natural or otherwise -- It does have some potential for being harmful if used the wrong way.
If you have a hard time finding borax, look for it by the bleaches. Though it's not strictly a bleach, our local store stocks it in that section.

If you have tried bluing and borax, I'd like to see comments about your experiences with these items. I'd also love to hear from someone who has seen the shift away from these products to newer ones. I'd like to know how you compare borax and, espeically, bluing to other products that claim to achieve the same results.



Wendy WaterBirde said...

Hi There Elizabeth : )

I used borax for fleas that were in the carpet from a cat once. It worked really well, but only if mixed with salt. 4 parts borax and 1 part salt mixed and sprinkled on the carpet; walk on it to help it fall deeper into the fibers, and then leave it there till next vacuuming, when you then put down more.

This probably wouldnt be great if you have young kids, but then neither is using the toxic stuff then either (understaetment). And it works really well, dehydrates the fleas and eggs, and prevents them re-hatching (see )

Terri said...

Great post, Elizabeth! I used to use bluing several years ago but haven't been able to find it in the last couple of years. I'll have to take a look at Mrs. Stewart's web site. I use borax, too, as a laundry aid but not really for anything else. But I will - I'm moving away from commercial-made cleaners in our home to more natural ones.

annewithane65 (Kim) said...

Very interesting post...I've learned some things that I never knew before...thanks for sharing this information!

Elizabeth said...

Hi Terri,

Thanks for sharing your comment!

It is hard to find bluing. Sometimes, a store will carry it, but it will be easy to overlook because it's in a strange, out of the way place.

I do like the idea of moving towards more natural cleansers, and I like the fact that borax is gentle.


Elizabeth said...

Hi Anne with an e,

Thanks for sharing your comment!


Mrs. Melody said...

I am a big fan of Borax.I use it in hard to clean loads. I will be trying a homemade laundry soap recipe that calls for it soon.

You said in your comment on my site that the wheels are falling off your dishwasher. I have that problem too. Mine is also not draining well and little bits of food are getting stuck in it, and then spraying back on the dishes. Yuck. That's why I am going for the "dish rack" solution. :)

Be blessed and thanks for stopping by my site.

Elizabeth said...

Mrs. Melody,

Thanks for stopping by and for the input about borax.

I have wondered if my dishwasher isn't cleaning as well as it used to or if I'm just not rising things enough first. Your post makes me think it might be a problem with the dishwasher. I wonder if we have the same brand.