What Is Sodium Perborate Monohydrate? Why Should You Avoid It?

Sodium Perborate Gets Whites Whiter, But There's More to the Story

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Sodium perborate monohydrate is a white powder and a boron compound, which hydrolyzes to hydrogen peroxide and boron. It's also called sodium perborate monohydrate, SPB, perboric acid, sodium salt, monohydrate, sodium borate monohydrate, sodium perborate, CAS# 10332-33-9 and EC# 231-556-4. Its chemical formula is NaBO3 · H2O.

How Sodium Perborate Is Used in Cleaning

Sodium perborate is an active form of oxygen used to whiten, brighten, clean, and deodorize. Sodium perborate may be used in a large number of cleaning products, such as laundry detergents, automatic dishwasher detergents, oxygen powder bleaches, fabric softeners, hand dishwashing detergents, all-purpose cleaners, air fresheners and stain removers. Products like Oxi-Clean are almost entirely made up of this substance.

Its concentration in products varies. According to Chem-OnLine.org, conventional detergents may contain 8-15% of sodium perborate by weight whereas "compact" detergent powders may contain 10-20%. Some oxygen bleach powders may contain as much as 30-80%!

To see products that may contain it, try searching the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Household Products Database, the Environmental Working Group's "Guide to Healthy Cleaning," or the Good Guide. Some products labeled "green" or eco-friendly do contain it, so be sure to read the ingredients.

Other Uses for Sodium Perborate

Sodium perborate isn't just limited to cleaning uses; it can also be found in pharmaceutical and cosmetic preparations. It is used in some whitening toothpastes, denture cleaners, hair bleaches, wound cleaners, douches, contact lens cleaners and solutions, eye drops, and artificial tears products. Check the Good Guide or the Environmental Working Groups Skin Deep Cosmetic Database for products that may contain it. 

Regulation and Safety Issues

When sodium perborate is used in cosmetics and pharmaceutical preparations, it is monitored by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). For cleaning uses, it is monitored by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

Sodium perborate is an oxidizing and toxic boron compound, which hydrolyzes to hydrogen peroxide and boron. Boron in the form of boric acid has been shown to cause developmental and reproductive effects in animal studies as noted in a document on boron by the International Program on Chemical Safety, which is comprised of the United Nations Environment Program, the International Labor Organization, and the World Health Organization.

It is also a combustible material that may cause a fire. In addition, it is harmful if swallowed, toxic by inhalation, irritating to the respiratory system, and may cause serious damage to the eyes according to the risk phrases defined by the European Union Commission Directive 2001/59/EC as noted by Sigma Uldrich, a supplier of the substance, on its website.

Seriously consider the health and safety effects of sodium perborate before using products with them. It is interesting to note that sodium perborate is banned for use in cosmetics in Japan according to the Good Guide.

Environmental Effects

The National Library of Medicine's Hazardous Substances Databank notes that a 1973 peer review study showed that it harmed fresh and brackish water organisms of Germany when dumped into sewage water. Other data on the environmental effects is lacking.

Green Alternatives

Products containing hydrogen peroxide as a natural bleaching agent are a good alternative. Another eco-friendly laundry and stain fighting solution is to purchase one of the many non-chlorine oxygen based bleaches on the market, such as Seventh Generation's Natural Oxy Stain Remover. Remember, for every product that contains sodium perborate, there is an equally effective product that doesn't, so always read the labels and check out product reviews when in doubt.