Kohl: An Ancient Cosmetic With Modern Implications

MOST PEOPLE ARE familiar with the ancient Egyptian practice of rimming the eyes and painting the eyelids, lashes and brows with the heavy black, gray or green make-up popularly known as kohl. To the Egyptians, kohl was more than an aid to beauty, but also played a role in religious rituals and identified prominent people in their communities, according to the manner in which the lines around their eyes were drawn. But kohl was also known to provide medicinal benefits that have been examined and brought to light in modern times.

For example, kohl protected the eyes from the intense heat of the sun and from infections. It reduced irritation from sand and wind, repelled bugs and served as a moisturizer. To this day, desert nomads apply kohl as a means of minimizing the unpleasant effects of the harsh desert climate on their eyes and skin.

Prophet Muhammed œ used kohl on his own eyes and referred to its medicinal properties when he said,

Treat your eyes with kohl, for it nourishes eyes and eyelashes. (Abû Dâwûd, Tirmidhi)

In another narration, he said,

The best of your kohl is ithmid (antimony), for it makes the vision clear and makes the hair grow. (Nisâ’î, Abû Dâwûd)

Antimony is a metallic element that was also used in the preparations of various medicines by the ancient cultures of China, India and Mexico. In its pure form, it can exist as a black powder, which was an ingredient in one kind of kohl that the Egyptians applied to their eyes. Other kinds of kohl included mixtures of ground gelena (a mineral containing lead) and an animal (possibly goose) fat. Analysis of the vessels used to store kohl and other cosmetics in ancient Egypt has revealed that other lead-containing compounds such as cerussite, laurionite and phosgenite were also used to make kohl. Green kohl almost certainly contained malachite, an oxide of copper.

Islamic scholars, such as the respected Imam Ibn Al-Qayyim, have stressed that the kind of kohl recommended by the Prophet œ was that prepared with antimony.

In his Zâd Al-Ma‘âd, Ibn Al-Qayyim wrote,

Kohl protects the health of the eyes, gives strength and clarity of vision, and cleanses the eye of bad substances. In addition to that, some types of kohl also serve as an adornment, and if it is applied before going to bed, this is even better. And ithmid (antimony) is more efficacious than other types of kohl.

Shaykh Ibn ¢Uthyamîn said,

Ithmid (antimony) is known to be very good for the eyes,” but cautioned, “I do not know anything about other types of kohl. Trustworthy doctors are the ones whom we should consult on this matter.

According to information on the Islamic website <www.islam-qa.com>,

There may be some kinds of modern, manufactured kohl that contain some chemical ingredients which may cause physical damage and remove some of the benefits of kohl. Hence people nowadays should look for pure kohl and not regard every kind of kohl available nowadays as beneficial.

Indeed, there has been some controversy regarding kohl, much of which contains lead compounds, similar to those used by the ancient Egyptians, and which are known to be toxic. Antimony is also toxic at certain levels. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in the United States regulates cosmetics to ensure that any toxic metals present in those products are at levels low enough to be considered “safe.” This has led to a ban on certain kinds of kohl in the U.S., and the FDA orders the detention at U.S. borders of items known to possibly contain harmful levels of lead, including eye cosmetics such as kohl, kajal and surma (popular in India and Pakistan), among others.

Kohl and Lead Poisoning

According to the Childhood Lead Poisoning Prevention Branch of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, lead poisoning is a serious condition that can affect nearly every system in the body. It is associated with learning disabilities, behavioral problems, anemia and changes in kidney function. In adults, lead poisoning can contribute to high blood pressure and can also cause damage to the reproductive organs. At its worst, it can lead to seizures, coma, and even death. Because its symptoms are not easily recognized, lead poisoning is often not discovered until it is too late to help an affected individual.

Several studies have linked kohl to lead poisoning. It is very important that people be educated as to the kinds kohl that are on the market and to understand that they may be putting themselves or their children in danger by applying kohl that contains high concentrations of lead.

Researchers from the University of Pittsburgh Graduate School of Public and International Affairs tested samples of kohl purchased in Morocco, Mauritania, Great Britain and the United States, noting that some of the samples had actually originated from Pakistan, India, and Saudi Arabia. Despite the widespread belief among the users of kohl that the cosmetic consists mainly of antimony, only trace amounts were found in any of the twenty-two samples. Shockingly, seven of the samples contained more than 50% lead, while the rest contained levels ranging from 0.6 – 37.3%.

In a similar study of twenty-one kohl specimens conducted by the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology in Washington, D.C., two thirds of the kohl samples contained significant amounts of lead, with ten samples in the 84-100% range! In this particular study, only one kohl sample was found to contain any antimony, at a concentration of 7.8%.

At the College of Medicine’s Department of Pharmacology in Dammam, Saudi Arabia, researchers found that people who used kohl had nearly three times the lead levels in their blood as people who did not use kohl at all and concluded that the public should be made aware of the dangers associated with this cosmetic. In much of Africa and Asia, kohl is the cosmetic of choice for women and is also used by men and children for medicinal purposes.

A Hazard for the Unborn Child

In yet another study, researchers in Haifa examined a group of fifty-four infants, ranging in age from 6-16 months. Twenty-four infants had had kohl applied to them in a manner that is traditional in much of the Middle East—around the eyes and at the site of the umbilical cord for the desired purpose of preventing infections. Not surprisingly, these infants were found to have excessive levels of lead in their blood. They were also significantly shorter than other children of the same age.

The remaining thirty children in the study had not had kohl applied to them since being born, yet there was a noticeable difference between the lead levels of the infants whose mothers regularly used kohl in their own eyes, and of those who did not. Therefore, the study concluded that the application of kohl to either the infant’s or to the mother’s eyes was associated with a significant increase in the infants’ blood lead levels. This is a crucial point to be considered by women who plan on having children.

Although there are laws in place in both the United States and Britain to forbid the sale of lead-containing cosmetics, a lot of unsafe kohl has nevertheless made it into both of these countries and is readily available for consumers. Whatever your location, it seems wise to investigate the safety of the kohl that either you or your loved ones may be using, and to inform others of its potential for harm.


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