Kohl, also known as surma, khur, kuhl, kahal, or kajal, is a black substance used by the women of the Arabian Peninsula and India as eyeliner. Literally, Kohl means, ‘to brighten the eyes’.
Traditionally, Kohl was used by men, women and children in Egypt, North Africa and India for its supposed therapeutic qualities. It was believed to protect against eye disease and its blackness was thought to control the sun’s glare in the desert. It was also thought to be a powerful measure to ward off the evil eye. Ironically, the very substance that indigenous people used for centuries with so much belief in its benefits has now been discredited as a source of lead poisoning. Indeed, the FDA has banned the import of Kohl and Kohl-derived products in the US.
The hieroglyphs of ancient Egypt from the time of the Old Kingdom (2700 BC to 2200 BC) have depictions of kohl eye make-up. Egyptian queens applied Kohl around the eye, extending outward and upward in the corners, something only the royals and the gods could do. A delicate inner extension that seemed to join the two eyebrows was also in fashion at the time. Much later, the fashion changed. A line of Kohl was drawn from the outer corners of the eyes to the front of the earlobes. The Egyptians believed that an eye unadorned with Kohl had no protection against the evil eye.
In North Africa too, Kohl had a deeply spiritual significance. For instance in Morocco, Kohl is a symbol of the Kaaba, Islam's holy black stone housed in Mecca. Most North African mothers applied kohl to their infants soon after birth, not only on the eyes, but also on the eyebrows and umbilical cord. This was done to make the eyes bright and strong, as well as to adorn the baby with a personal amulet to ward off the evil eye.
Moroccan Jewish mothers drew a line of kohl across their infants’ forehead to protect them from the evil eye, and sometimes even put a dab of Kohl on their babies’ noses.
How Kohl was Stored and Used
Traditionally, Kohl was kept in shells. Later, pretty little containers made of ivory, alabaster, porcelain, glass, silver or wood were used to store Kohl. Even today, most Middle Eastern markets stock ornate silver "makhallas" -- kohl containers with stylish applicators used as stoppers.
The applicator, a short stylus made of wood, bone, silver, ivory or stone, traditionally had a bulbous tip. While it sometimes may be kept in the pot itself, some people (especially the Arabs) like to store it in a leather case.
Did You Know?
- The usage of Kohl to embellish the eyes dates back to the Bronze Age!
- Never apply kohl inside the eyelids -- apply it outside the lids to avoid some of its ill effects.
Traditional Beliefs Vs Modern Explanations about Kohl
Kohl was thought to prevent eye disease by repelling tiny flies which transmit disease and inflammation. It was also believed to keep the delicate skin around the eyes from getting dry. For people who lived in the desert of North Africa, Kohl protected against the sun’s blinding glare as well as the chill of the desert night.
How it actually works is quite different. Kohl contained lead and antimony that are toxic to bacteria carried by flies and contaminated water. So applying it around the eyes provided some relief from conjunctivitis and other bacterial eye infections. It keeps the eyes bright because the irritation from having soot in one’s eyes causes tearing. So the eyes are kept continuously washed clean of contaminants, grit, and bacteria.
Some more scientific details relating to properties and action of Kohl (Surma) suggest that it may produce beneficial effects in eyes in three different ways or directions because of the primary and natural properties of it’s major constituent, galena (lead sulphide).
First “Adsorptive” - which is surface phenomena. Thus helps in cleaning the eyes from dust as well as other foreign matters invading the eyes. Second “Astringent” - which is observed at the site of its application. Since Galena (Lead sulphide and the main constituent of Kohl) has an affinity for sulphur, therefore it combines with sulph-hydryl groups of the membrane and produces a local action due precipitation of proteins in a very low concentration. Third “Anti-infective” - this property is due to the coagulation of specific inhibitory action of Galena with vital enzyme system of the cell. this phenomena is known as Oligodynamic Action. Despite all these facts, however, surprisingly it has been stated by certain school of thoughts due to unknown reasons that Kohl (Surma) is or might be injurious to health due to the absorption of lead from eyes. I have incorporated enough matter on the subject which can help a common man & women to understand the situation. Kohl (Surma) does not absorb through transcorneal route as it is practically insoluble in aqueous medium of the eye. Further, the alkaline nature of lachrymal restricts it’s dissociation and the positive intra-occular pressure further prevents the absorption or penetration. Thus the so-called Lead Toxicity due to application of Kohl (Surma) is not possible.
Different Ways of Making Kohl
Traditionally, Kohl was always made using Galena, a lead sulfide that the Egyptians mined near the Red Sea. Sometimes, they lightened the Kohl by adding some white carbonate of lead, Cerussite, which was found in the same mine. In the Egyptian countryside today, Kohl is made from the soot of sunflower seeds and almond shells, perfumed with frankincense.
Pliny and Discorides described another way of making Kohl in ancient Egypt. Galena was pounded with gum and frankincense, and then mixed with goose fat. This was mixed with cow dung and burned. Galena burnt to release lead oxide. Mixed with milk and fresh rainwater, this soot was again pounded in a mortar. After being decanted several times, the resultant Kohl powder was so fine that it felt like velvet against the delicate skin around the eyes.
In India, lamp-black and lead were the most common ingredients in the manufacture of Kohl. Another commonly used source in Morocco was Stibnite, an antimony compound. The soot from various nuts, seeds and gum resins was also used to make Kohl. In rural western Iran, women would burn cotton soaked in goat fat and collect the soot a rooster tail feather. They would keep it in a chicken skin leather pouch, and apply the Kohl with an applicator whittled from wild sheep bone, locally known as a mil. In Afghanistan, antimony is pounded with almond oil to make a pasty Kohl, which is applied using a wood stylus called mikh.
A Kitchen Recipe for Kohl -- Making Kohl in the kitchen is easy. The commonest grandmother’s recipe in India is as follows –
Take a tiny piece of camphor or an almond. Set it alight. Hold a clean teaspoon over the flame to collect the soot. Your Kohl or Kajal is ready for single-time use.
How to Obtain the Best Results with Kohl
Traditional Kohl never comes on a stick or in a pencil form. It is usually stored in a box and is applied with a stick-like applicator. Here is how to use it most effectively.
- Dampen the stick.
- Dip it in the Kohl and twist it until some of it sticks to the tip. Gently shake of flick off any excess Kohl on the applicator.
- Place the kohl stick in the inner corner of your eye.
- Close your eyes. Remember, do not squint or hold them too tightly shut or the line will get crooked.
- Gently draw the stick outwards, between the closed lids. The kohl will leave a smudgy line on both the upper and lower eyelids.
Traditional Cosmetic or Toxic Agent?
Kohl contains heavy metals lead and antimony, which are very toxic when applied on the skin. Even today, Kajal sticks, commercially available surma and Kohl powder often contains dangerously high levels of lead and other toxins.
Studies of children in the Middle East, on whom Kokl was applied since birth, show evidence of lead intoxication. So much so that doctors are now considering the widespread use of such lead containing ‘kohls’ and other medications in the Middle East as a definite source of lead poisoning. Unfortunately, children are more susceptible to lead intoxication. Application of kohl to a child’s eyes or to the umbilical stump at birth has been implicated as a possible determinant of elevated blood lead levels in young Saudi Arabian school girls. Use of lead-containing traditional remedies in newborns and infants has also been reported to result in lead encephalopathy.
In adults in the Middle East who are habitual users of Kohl and other lead-containing traditional remedies, elevated blood lead levels have been reported. Another study of Saudi men who habitually wore Kohl, suggests an increased risk of Trachoma among Kohl users. This indicates that not only is Kohl harmful in itself, the very act of applying it may also transmit infection.
It is unfortunate that the lack of stringent testing and quality control has led to a flooding of the market with Kohl containing toxic metals. Not only are traditional Kohls or Kajals easily available in India and the Middle East, they are also still used with impunity.
Another school of thought tries to use scientific evidence to suggest that Kohl does have some medical benefits. They argue that Kohl (Surma) does not get absorbed through transcorneal route, as it is practically insoluble in aqueous medium of the eye. Further, the alkaline nature of lachrymal restricts it’s dissociation and the positive intra-occular pressure further prevents the absorption or penetration. Thus the so-called Lead Toxicity due to application of Kohl (Surma) is not possible. Proponents of Kohl suggest that kohl that contains Galena (lead sulphide) could benefit in the following ways --
- By helping to clean the eyes from dust as well as other foreign matters invading the eyes.
- Since Galena has an affinity for sulphur, therefore it combines with sulph-hydryl groups of the membrane and produces a local action due precipitation of proteins in a very low concentration.
- Anti-infective quality.
The jury is still out on Kohl's health benefits. For consumers, it is important to be able to read and comprehend the label on a product before buying and using it.
Reading the Labels
The Food and Drug Administration in the US now requires all cosmetics sold in the US to carry a list of ingredients. It has also issued an import ban against all cosmetics that contain lead-based Kohl.
American consumers should look out for some words on the labels that spell danger – they should avoid all products containing galena, lead sulfide, or antimony. For consumers elsewhere in the world, look out for these ingredients on Kohl sticks. In case the ingredients are not mentioned on the product, consider not buying that product. Remember – it is always better to be safe than sorry.
- Kohl as traditional women’s adornment
- Kohl: Drawing the Line
- To see the FDA statement banning Kohl, go to US Food and Drug Administration