Kohl, Kehal, Kol, Kehal, Kohal, Surma, Kajal

Kohl is a mixture of soot and other ingredients used predominantly by women in the Middle East, North Africa, the Horn of Africa and South Asia to darken the eyelids and as mascara for the eyelashes. It is also sometimes spelled kol, kehal or kohal in the Arab world, and is known as surma or kajal in South Asia.

Kohl has been worn traditionally as far back as the Bronze Age (3500 B.C. onward) by the Egyptian queens. It 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. India's oldest caste, the koli, used kohl as a cosmetic. 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.



Egyptian kohl cosmetic tube inscribed with the cartouches of Amenhotep III and Queen Tiye.

Kohl was also used in Egypt along with malachite and lipstick made from ochre oil.

South Asia

Kohl is known by various names in South Asian languages, like sirma or surma in Punjabi, kajal in Hindi and Urdu, kaatuka in Telugu, kan mai in Tamil and kaadige in Kannada. 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 rural India, especially in Kerala, women of the household prepare the kajal. This home-made 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".

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 or the mother of the male.

Some women also add a dot of kajal on the left side of the foreheads or under the right ear of babies 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.


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 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, kajol is made from the "Monosha" plant, a type of cactus. 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. While homemade kohl is thought to be harmless, it is often made by grinding Galena (lead sulfide) and can pose a serious public health concern. Preparers of the homemade kohl are usually unaware that the mineral that they are sourcing, usually from unlicensed suppliers, may be Galena. Some "natural" commercialized cosmetics can also pose a serious public health concern. Galena used to be used in commercial kohl preparations before the toxicity of lead became known, but now reputable 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 reputable 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.


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 only use the term "kohl" 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. Consumers should verify that any cosmetic product is lead free before usage.

In January 2010, French researchers have reported that the heavy eye makeup may actually have had medical benefits. At low levels, the lead, theoretically harmful, actually stimulates the immune system by producing nitric oxide.

Pop culture

* The film actress Theda Bara used kohl to rim her eyes throughout her career.

* Jack Sparrow, a character in Pirates of the Caribbean film trilogy, wears kohl around his eyes.

* Edward Gorey wrote: "The Wanton, though she knows its danger / must needs smear Kohl about her eyes / and catch the attention of a stranger / with drawn-out, hoarse, erotic sighs."

* In the song Miss Sarajevo by U2, a line asks "Is there a time for kohl and lipstick? / a time for cutting 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.

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