All about kohl

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A 4th century AD double cosmetic tube for kohl from the Louvre Museum in Paris

Kohl is an ancient eye cosmetic, traditionally made by grinding galena (lead sulfide) and other ingredients. It is widely used in South Asia, the Middle East, North Africa, the Horn of Africa, and parts of West Africa as eyeliner to contour and/or darken the eyelids and as mascara for the eyelashes. It is worn mostly by women, but also by some men and children.

Kohl has also been used in India as a cosmetic for a long time. In addition, mothers would apply kohl to their infants' eyes soon after birth. Some did this to "strengthen the child's eyes", and others believed it could prevent the child from being cursed by the evil eye.


Ancient kohl cosmetic tube from western Iran, dated 800-500 BCE

The Arabic name كحل kuḥl and the Biblical Hebrew כחל kaḥal  (c.f. modern Hebrew כחול "blue") are cognates, from a Semitic root k-ḥ-l. Transliteration variants of Arabic dialectal pronunciation include kol, kehal or kohal.

The Arabic word was loaned into a number of languages with the spread of Islam.

The Persian word for kohl is sorme.

It is known as either surma/sirma or kājal/gājal in South Asia.

In West Africa, it is also known as tozali or kwalli.

The English word alcohol is a loan of the Arabic word (via Middle Latin and French; originally in the sense "powder of antimony"; the modern meaning is from the 18th century).

The Russian word for antimony, сурьма, is a loan from the Persian term.

The Greek and Latin terms for antimony, stibium, στίβι, στίμμι, were borrowed from the Egyptian name sdm.


An 18th Dynasty Ancient Egyptian kohl container inscribed for Queen Tiye (1410-1372 BCE)

Kohl has been worn traditionally since the Protodynastic Period of Egypt (ca. 3100 BCE) by Egyptian queens and noble women, who used stibnite (the sulfide of antimony rather than of lead). The cosmetic palettes used for its preparation assumed a prominent role in the late Predynastic Egyptian culture.

Kohl was originally used as protection against eye ailments. There was also a belief that darkening around the eyes would protect one from the harsh rays of the sun.

Ancient Egyptian women wearing kohl, from a tomb mural in Thebes (1420-1375 BCE)

Galena eye paint (later termed Kohl in Arabic from the Akkadian word for the cosmetic) was widely applied in Ancient Egypt. Upper eyelids were painted black and lower ones were colored green, as depicted in ancient texts that describe the use of both black galena and green malachite. Ancient graves from the pre-historic Tasian culture point to the early application of galena in Egypt, a custom stretching from the Badarian period through to the Coptic era. Although found locally, both black galena and green malachite were also imported from nearby regions in Western Asia, Coptos and the Land of Punt.

The 18th Dynasty Ancient Egyptian Queen Hatshepsut would also grind charred frankincense into kohl eyeliner. This is the first recorded use of the resin. The frankincense itself had originally been obtained during an expedition to the ancient Land of Punt.

Additionally, the pioneering Muslim scholar Ibn Abi Shayba described in a legal compilation how to apply kohl to the eye, as narrated by earlier authorities.

Berber and Bedouin women in North Africa and the Middle East, respectively, also apply kohl to their faces. A vertical line is drawn from the bottom lip to the chin and along the bridge of the nose.


A Somali woman with indha kuul ("kohl eyes")

Usage of kohl eye paint in the Horn of Africa dates to the ancient kingdom of Punt. Somali and Ethiopian women have long applied kohl (kuul) for cosmetic purposes, as well as to cleanse the eyes, to ward off malevolent spirits, and to protect the eyes from the sun's rays.


Kohl is also applied in parts of West Africa by the Fulani and the affiliated Hausa people. In addition, it is used by the Tuareg, Wolof, Mandinka, Soninke, Dagomba, Kanuri, and other predominantly Muslim inhabitants of the Sahel and Sahara regions. Kohl is used by both sexes, and by people of all ages, mainly during weddings, Islamic festivals (such as Eid ul Fitr and Eid ul Adha), and trips to the mosque for the weekly Jumuah congregational prayer.

For women, kohl or black-henna is applied to the face as well in a similar manner as that practiced by communities in North Africa.


Kohl is known by various names in South Asian languages, like sirma or surma in Punjabi and Urdu, kajal in Hindi, Kajjal in Sanskrit,Kajalh in Marathi,kanmashi in Malayalam, kaadige in Kannada, kaatuka in Telugu and kan mai in Tamil. In India, it is used by women as a type of eyeliner that is put around the edge of the eyes. Even now in southern India, especially in Karnataka, women of the household prepare the kajal. This homemade kajal is used even for infants. Local tradition considers it to be a very good coolant for the eyes and believes that it protects the eyesight and vision from the sun.

Some Indian Ayurvedic or Ancient Indian Herbal medicines manufacturing companies add Camphor and other medicinal herbs, that are beneficial for eyes in their product named Kajal; which can serve not only as cosmetic but also serve as medicine good for eyes. Kajal manufactured by Himalaya Herbal Medicines & also "Jai Kajal" manufactured by western India Chemicals Mumbai got such added herbs that are too good for eyes.

In Punjabi culture, sirma or surma is a traditional ceremonial dye, which predominantly men of the Punjab wear around their eyes on special social or religious occasions. It is usually applied by the wife of brother or the mother of the male.

Some women also add a dot of kajal on the left side of the foreheads or on the waterline of the eye on women and children to protect them from 'buri nazar'. 'Buri nazar' literally means 'bad glance' and is comparable to the 'evil eye', although it can be interpreted as ill-wishes of people or even lustful eyes, in the sense of men ogling women.

A Tamil woman applying kohl on her son in India

In the centuries-old Indian Bharatnatayam dances, the dancers apply heavy kohl to their eyes so as to draw attention to their eye gestures and movement. The kohl is then applied to eyebrows and eyelids to add further enhancement to the dancers.

Preparation of homemade kajal begins with dipping a clean, white, thin muslin cloth, about four by four inches square, in sandalwood paste or the juice of Alstonia scholaris (Manjal karisilanganni), which is then dried in the shade. This dip and dry process is done all day long. After sunset, a wick is made out of the cloth, which is then used to light a mud lamp filled with castor oil. A brass vessel is kept over the lamp, leaving a little gap, just enough for the oxygen to aid the burning of the lamp. This is left burning overnight. In the morning, one or two drops of pure ghee (clarified cow's butter) or castor oil is added to the soot which now lines the brass vessel. It is then stored in a clean dry box.

All the ingredients used in this preparation (sandalwood/Manjal karsilanganni, castor oil, ghee) are believed to have medicinal properties. They are still used in Indian therapies like ayurveda and Siddha medicines.

In rural Bengal, kajal is made from the "Monosha" plant, a type of succulent spurge (Euphorbia neriifolia). The leaf of Monosha is covered with oil and is kept above a burning diya (mud lamp). Within minutes the leaf is covered with creamy soft black soot which is so safe and sterile that it is even applied to infants.


The content of kohl and the recipes to prepare it vary greatly. In North Africa and Middle East, homemade kohl is often made by grinding galena (lead sulfide). In the west, manufacturers use amorphous carbon or organic charcoal instead of lead. Plant oils and the soot from various nuts, seeds, and gum resins are often added to the carbon powder. Unfortunately, the non-lead products are considered to be of inferior quality to the older, traditional varieties and therefore there has been an increase in the use of handmade, lead-based kohl.

A Kurdish kohl (kil) set

For decades various conflicting reports in the literature have been published relating to Kohl application to eyes being responsible for causing higher blood lead concentration, which may cause lead poisoning. While at the same time, a number of research studies and reports have also been published negating any such links with increased blood lead level upon Kohl (surma) application.

A group of researchers in China tried to find some scientific basis of this claimed property of lead sulphide (Galena) relating to absorption of sun rays when applied into the eyes in the form of Kohl. The authors reported the ultraviolet (UV) absorption spectra of a thin film of lead sulphide prepared on “Indium Tin Oxide” (ITO) substrate. The spectra showed that lead sulphide thin films had higher absorption and lower transmittance in UV light band which further increases with the increased deposition voltage.

The drive to eliminate lead from kohl was sparked by studies in the early 1990s of preparations of kohl that found high levels of contaminants including lead. Lead levels in commercial kohl preparations were as high as 84%. Kohl samples from Oman and Cairo, analyzed using X-ray powder diffraction and scanning electron microscopy, found galena. One decade later, a study of kohl manufactured in Egypt and India found that a third of the samples studied contained lead, while the remaining two thirds contained amorphous carbon, zincite, cuprite, goethite, elemental silicon or talc, hematite, minium, and organic compounds.

Lead-contaminated kohl use has been linked to increased levels of lead in the bloodstream, putting its users at risk of lead poisoning and lead intoxication. Complications of lead poisoning include anemia, growth retardation, low IQ, convulsions, and in severe cases, death. Anemia from lead poisoning is of special concern in Middle Eastern and South Asian countries where other forms of anemia are prevalent – including iron deficiency anemia (from malnutrition) and hemoglobinopathy (sickle cell anemia, thalassemia).

These banned products are different from lead-free cosmetics that use the term "kohl" only to describe its shade/color, rather than its actual ingredients. Some modern eye cosmetics are marketed as "kohl" but are prepared differently and in accordance with relevant health standards.

In January 2010, French researchers have reported that the particular heavy eye makeup that ancient Egyptians wore may actually have had medical benefits. At low levels, the specially made lead compounds actually helped the immune system by stimulating production of nitric oxide.

Legal status
Kohl is illegal to import into or sell in the United States, because it is not on the list of color additives approved by the FDA (which considers Kohl unsafe for use).


Theda Bara, with her eyes highlighted by kohl

  • At the beginning of the 1999 British film East is East, the character George Khan played by Om Puri applies kohl to his son's eyes before his wedding.
  • The film actress Theda Bara used kohl to rim her eyes throughout her career.
  • Jack Sparrow, a character in the Pirates of the Caribbean films, wears kohl around his eyes.
  • Edward Gorey wrote: "The Wanton, though she knows its dangers / must needs smear Kohl about her eyes / and wake the interest of strangers / with long-drawn, hoarse, erotic sighs."
  • In the song "Miss Sarajevo" by U2, a line asks "Is there a time for kohl and lipstick? / a time for curling hair / is there a time for High Street shopping? / to find the right dress to wear".
  • Mariska Veres, lead singer for the Dutch rock group Shocking Blue, wore kohl around her eyes to accentuate her exotic beauty.
  • In the webcomic Gunnerkrigg Court, kohl is referenced by the name surma, which is the protagonist's mother's name, and the protagonist's name is antimony, an ingredient of kohl.
  • Charley, a character in the 2009 film A Single Man, used kohl to prepare herself for a dinner date.
  • Rabia, a character in the 2010 Pakistani drama Dastaan, used kohl to line Bano's eyes to enhance her beauty.

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