Kohl (Arabic: كُحْل) is an ancient eye cosmetic, traditionally
made by grinding stibnite (Sb2S3) for similar purposes to charcoal
used in mascara. It is widely used in the Middle East, North Africa,
the Mediterranean, Eastern Europe, Latin America, South Asia,
Southeast Asia, 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
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
Middle East and North Africa
3 Horn of Africa
4 West Africa
5 South Asia
6 Kohl and Islam
8 Health concerns
8.1 Legal status
9 In popular culture
10 See also
12 External links
Antimony § Etymology
Ancient kohl cosmetic tube from western Iran, dated 800-500 BCE.
The Arabic name كحل kuḥl and the
Biblical Hebrew כחל kaḥal
 (cf. modern Hebrew כחול "blue") are cognates, from a Semitic
root k-ḥ-l. Transliteration variants of Arabic dialectal
pronunciation include kohl or kuhl.
The Persian word for kohl is sormeh.
It is known as either surmah or kājal 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
The Greek and Latin terms for antimony, stibium, στίβι,
στίμμι, were borrowed from the Egyptian name sdm.
Middle East and North Africa
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.[citation
needed] 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
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
Land of Punt in this New
Kingdom dynasty (c. 1500 BC).
Additionally, the pioneering
Muslim scholar Ibn Abi Shayba described
in a legal compilation how to apply kohl to the eye, as narrated by
Arab 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.
Originally the line from the bottom lip to the chin shows whether a
woman is married or not. This form of using Kohl on the face
originates from the Arabian Peninsula, and was introduced in the 7th
century in North-Africa.
Horn of Africa
A Somali woman with indha kuul ("kohl eyes").
Usage of kohl eye paint in the
Horn of Africa
Horn of Africa dates to the ancient
Kingdom of Punt. Somali, Djiboutian, Ethiopian and Eritrean women
have long applied kohl (kuul) for cosmetic purposes, as well as to
cleanse the eyes, lengthen eyelashes, and to protect the eyes from the
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
Sahara regions. Kohl is used by
both sexes, and by people of all ages, mainly during weddings, Islamic
festivals (such as
Eid ul Fitr
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.
Varanasi food seller with his granddaughter wearing kohl.
A Tamil woman applying kohl on her son in India.
Kohl is known by various names in South Asian languages, like surma in
Punjabi and Urdu, kajal in Hindi, Bengali and Gujarati, kajal 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. In many parts of India, especially in Southern India, Karnataka
in particular, 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 kajal. It can serve not only as a cosmetic but also
as medicine for the eyes.
In Punjabi culture, 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 or
the mother of the person.
Some women also add a dot of kajal on the left side of the foreheads
or on the waterline of the eye of women and children to ward off 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. It signifies
that the person is not perfect, with them having 'black mark', and
hence, people wouldn't be jealous of their beauty. 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.
Kohl and Islam
Pushtun man with kohl applied under eyes and beard dyed with henna
Sunnah of Mohammed.
Mohammed used kohl and recommended others to use it
because he believed that it was beneficial for the eyes and it is
Muslim men today during
Ramadan as a sign of
devotion. The Prophet "used to apply kohl to his right eye
three times, and to his left eye twice. Modern day
use kohl as it was the practice of Muhammed.
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
are 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
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 refuting 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
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
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
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
Eye cosmetics such as surma are recognized as one of the important
sources of lead exposure in Pakistan. As adverse health effects of
heavy metals are a public health concern, where especially lead may
cause negative health impacts to human fetal and infantile
development, a study in
Pakistan of pregnant women' nails in 2016,
showed thirteen nail samples out of 84 nails analyzed, contained lead
higher than the concentration (13.6 μg/g) of the fatal lead poisoning
case, with the possibility of an external contamination. The
observations showed that lead-containing surma consists of fine
particle of galena (ore of lead sulfide) in respirable dust range
(less than 10 μm) and relative in vitro bioavailability of lead in
the surma was determined as 5.2%. Thus, lead-containing surma consists
of inhalable and bioavailable particles, and it contributes an
increased risk of lead exposure.
"Blue" Kohl is a dark-bluish black pigment composed of both lead-based
compounds as well as a compound of antimony. The lead-based compounds
in kohl are galena (PbS) – dark grey and gloss laurionite (
PbCl(OH)) – white phosgenite ((PbCl)2CO3); cerussite (PbCO3) –
blue. The antimony-based compound in kohl is stibnite (Sb2S3) –
In January 2010, French researchers reported that the particular heavy
eye makeup that ancient
Egyptians wore may have had medical benefits.
At submicromolar concentrations, the specially made lead compounds can
elicit overproduction of nitrous oxide (N2O), which in turn can
trigger an enhancement of the immune response.
The ancient Egyptians, documented in the
Ebers Papyrus (c. 1550 BCE),
discuss these compounds within kohl as protective for the eyes.
Indeed, kohl was used an eyeliner and cosmetic. There are a number of
endemic ocular diseases in the Nile region including trachoma, a
chlamydial organism which can cause corneal scarring and conjunctival
cicatricial disease, with visual loss. Kohl was used not only as a
cosmetic but also as a medicinal collyrium (from Gr. kollurion). Two
of kohl's lead compounds — the lead chlorides laurionite and
phosgenite — were not natural to the Nile valley. It is believed
they were intentionally synthesized by the ancient
Egyptians for this
purpose. The widespread use of kohl across the
Mediterranean and the
Mid-east attests to its ability to protect the eye from infectious
disease and be used as a cosmetic.
Kohl is not on the list of color additives approved by the Food and
Drug Administration, which considers kohl unsafe for use due to its
potential lead content. It is thus illegal to import into, or sell in,
the United States.
In popular culture
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
The film actress
Theda Bara used kohl to rim her eyes throughout her
BBC Four program Lost Weekend which he curated, Rolling Stones
Keith Richards attributes his use of kohl to the
Semi-nomadic tribes of North Africa, where he vacationed frequently in
the late 1960s.
Marc Antony in the HBO series Rome is seen wearing Kohl along with
many of the Egyptian characters.
Jack Sparrow, a character in the Pirates of the Caribbean films, wears
kohl around his eyes.
Prince wore kohl around his eyes throughout his career.
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.
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.
Raees (played by Shah Rukh Khan) a character in the 2017 Indian
crime-action film Raees, wears kohl in the whole film as a part of his
Eyeliner video https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=L644Lt2_xmQ
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Wikimedia Commons has media related to kohl.
Look up kohl in Wiktionary, the free dictionary.
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