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KOHL: The Dark World



What is the first thing we notice about Cleopatra? Her wonderful black kohl lined eyes. Also known as kajal (in Hindi) or surma (in Arab), it is believe to protect the eyes from the glaring sun and also eye infections. Kohl dates back to the Bronze Age. Kohl was widely used in Egypt, Middle East, parts of Africa and the South Asian region.

The Egyptians used two types of eye makeup:

  • Udju* which was made from green malachite (green ore of copper)
  • Mesdemet*, a dark gray ore of lead, was derived from either stibnite (antimony sulphide) or, more typically, galena (lead sulphide.)

In Afghanistan, women use a mixture of pounded antimony and almond oil to make kohl. Antimony is believed to strengthen eyes.

Beliefs associated with kohl

  • In India as well as the other countries constituting the Indian Sub continent kohl is considered it to be a very good coolant for the eyes.
  • It also protects the eyes from infections.
  • It is also believed to protect the eyesight and vision from the harsh and harmful rays of the sun
  • Some women also add a dot of kohl on the left side of the child’s forehead or under the right ear, to protect them from evil eye or buri nazar.
  • It is applied to infants as it is believed to enlarge their eyes and grant them better vision.


Homemade kohl is easy to prepare but one has to be very careful with the hygiene factor. This is because the substance prepared is applied to eyes. To prepare homemade kohl

  • Dip a clean, white muslin cloth, in white sandalwood paste and then dry it in the shade.
  • Repeat this process all day long.
  • After sunset, make a wick out of the cloth
  • Use it to light a mud lamp filled with castor oil.
  • Keep a brass vessel over the lamp, and leave it overnight.
  • In the morning, add one or two drops of ghee (clarified butter – from cow) or castor oil to the soot which now lines the brass vessel.
  • Store it in a clean dry box.

In rural Bengal, kohl or kajol is prepared from a cactus like plant called “Monosha“. The leaf of this plant is smeared with oil and is kept above a burning mud lamp filled with castor oil. The leaf is covered with creamy black soot which is considered so safe and sterile that it is even applied to infants.

Health concerns

Kohl is usually not considered dangerous by doctors. However,

  • Do not sleep wearing kohl even if it is home made as one runs the risk of causing an eye infection.
  • Kohl can also be made from grinding lead sulfide, thereby accidentally creating elemental lead instead. This is very dangerous because it is toxic in nature. When applied to our eyes, it can increase the levels of lead in your bloodstream. Prolonged usage can cause death due to lead poisoning.
  • Doctors strictly rule out any kind of application of kajal (cosmetic or home made) to infants.

But today, there are other options that too in a variety of hues. Many cosmetic brands only use the term “kohl” to describe the product, rather than its actual ingredients. Consumers should verify whether or not the Kohl is lead free before usage. Some modern eye cosmetics are marketed as “kohl” but are prepared differently and in accordance with relevant health standards. Try Maybelline, M.A.C., The Body Shop, L’Oreal or Lakme which ever is available.


* (http://www.touregypt.net/egypt-info/magazine-mag09012000-mag4.htm)


Posts by SpeakBindas Editorial Team.

3 thoughts on “KOHL: The Dark World

  1. Severina Singh says:

    Growing up in Europe I never went without khol in my eyes. It was readily accessible through friends from North Africa and in North African shops. Then I moved here and there was an Indian shop I could get it at. So I wore khol for years and years and years..and about 10 years ago the shop closed and no more khol! I miss it so much. I have used khol pencils/crayons and they do not do the same. If I put them inside my lids they make my eyes cry! Where can I buy some REAL khol from India, made without lead?? Is there a website somewhere I can order it from?? Thank you.

  2. jane says:

    I used kohl (North African) for man y years and developed skin cancer on one of my eyelids. It was a rodent ulcer and has been cut out but I would like to warn others.

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