Kohl: The Eyeliner Which Was Thought To Be Poison

The eyes are the windows to the soul, therefore what you apply around your eyes, plays an important role. The origins of makeup and cosmetics have come a long way since ancient times. Who could have thought that a simple eye makeup can become timeless when it comes to beautifying one’s face. This simple tool is the ancient eyeliner or kohl. Many do not know that the eyeliner we use today was inspired by the ancient kohl. We will uncover the myths of it being dangerous or beneficial to our health.

Cleopatra the enchanting ancient Egyptian ruler
Cleopatra was legendary, known for her extensive beauty regime, apart from applying kohl everyday she loved to bath in sour donkey milk and apply rosewater on her body daily.
Source: Image by 6557056 from Pixabay

The Origins Of The Ancient Eyeliner

Since the ancient Egyptian civilisation, they have been applying kohl to beautify and protect the eyes. It is simply the ancient version of today’s eyeliner. The most famous ancient figures were Queen Nefertiti and Cleopatra. Both queens enchanted the kingdom with their natural beauty. It was this ancient beauty regime of theirs that spurred eye beautification. Deemed sacred, they placed jars of kohl amongst the Pharaoh tombs for use in the afterlife.

Eye Beautification Between The Romans, The Greeks And The Egyptians

The Romans and the Greeks used kohl as an eyeliner. They only use kohl to sharpen the shape of their brows. They believed that the use of kohl should remain minimal. According to their culture, excessive adornment is only for the prostitutes.

The bust of ancient Egyptian Queen Nefertiti
Queen Nefertiti with black kohl around her eyes, she was the epitome of beauty in ancient Egyptian civilisation.
Source: Image by Heiko S. from Pixabay

However, the Egyptians practice was more than just a mere cosmetic. It was religiously significant within their culture. Both men and women from all social classes apply kohl. They believed that it also had important medicinal, religious and perhaps even magical qualities too.

How The Egyptians Apply Kohl

Kohl is mainly made from galena which is in the form of a crystal. It is one of the earliest mineral which contains lead sulphide, an important ore of lead and silver. Due to galena’s somewhat low melting point, it is easy to remove the lead by smelting since ancient times.

They used pestle and mortar to ground galena mixed with animal fats and oils onto a palette. To accompany the kohl, they would carve a small pointy stick as an applicator. Despite the convenience to remove the lead, archaeology findings have traced multiple chemicals including lead sulphide in the kohl found in the tombs.

Lead And Salt Found In Ancient Eyeliner

Archeological excavations have found in certain tombs, jars of kohl containing traces of lead salt. The Egyptians knew about the benefits of it since they believed applying it warded off eye diseases. The main ingredient found in the kohl which is known to be harmful is lead. If left untreated, may result in lead poisoning.

Lead poisoning is detrimental to the human health. It is unfortunately still present in many of today’s modern cosmetic brands. Lead sulphide, one of the common ingredients used to make kohl, will slowly permeate the skin, enter the bloodstream, is a common trigger for miscarriages. Long term effects include brain damage and cataract.

Lead Found In Eyeliner… Is It Good Or Bad?

Scientists pointed out that during ancient times, the life expectancy was between 30 to 40 years. Was this early mortality rate due to excessive use of kohl? Possibly, but we’ll never know for sure. There were also other factors that affected the lifespan of early civilisations too.

Apparently the Egyptians purposely added lead into their kohl concoction. Despite the lack of scientific knowledge, they were able to synthesise their ingredients in the kohl. Formulating the lead salt is a tricky and delicate process. It requires tending for weeks and not as simple as other makeup components.

Ancient manuscripts left scientists clues. Evidently during the ancient times, the Egyptians made lead salts as remedies for eye ailments, scars and discolourations. They believed that lead salts applied around the eye would protect them especially from the desert heat, the sand dust and other eye diseases.

Modern studies show that lead could directly stimulate immune cells already present in the eyelid. So the ancient Egyptians were ahead of their time in terms of science!

Ithmid‘: The Arabian Kohl

At the beginning of the Islamic period in the Middle East, there was ‘ithmid‘, or antimony. It is the Arabian Kohl in the form of a loose black powder derived from galena.

Woman with kohl on her eyes
The subtle look of Kohl applied around the eyes.
Source: Image by Pexels

Just like the Egyptians, the Arabs believed that applying this kohl around the eye protects the vision from the desert heat and dust. ‘Ithmid’ has natural and medicinal benefits for the eyes. It’s a belief until today that it can strengthen one’s vision and cure nearly all types of eye diseases.

Some of the eye diseases that ‘ithmid’ can purportedly cure are redness, conjunctivitis and internal bleeding. Elderly people who suffer from impaired vision can benefit greatly by using kohl. It also helps the lashes to grow naturally longer and thicker. It is effective for people dealing with hair loss as it is able to thicken the hair if mixed with a little amount of lemon juice. In terms of hair, it has the ability to treat nonhereditary baldness through stimulating hair follicles, in addition to its use for treating alopecia.

Sadly, the use of kohl is not as commonly available as the modern eyeliner, which is heavily laced with chemicals. Interestingly enough, there have been a revival of artisanal companies, formulating their own organic and natural cosmetics. A piece of good news to the consumers who prefer products derived from nature.

Woman applying mascara
For those who want to avoid cosmetics laced with chemicals there are plenty of safe and natural makeup brands available now.
Source: Image by Gabriela Guerino from Pexels

Today’s Modern Yet Natural Eyeliner

One brand called Saffron & Rose, has developed a modern day kohl which is totally derived from natural sources. The concoction is painstakingly handmade, and ground using a “pestle and mortar”. The ingredients consist of olive pips, dates, cloves, dried rose petals, lavender, olive oil and soot. It is in a form of a loose powder and it comes in two colours which are blackish grey and dark blue.

The kohl is carefully poured into each case which is carved with different motifs, all made from stainless steel or brass. Most people mistake the casing for a perfume oil bottle due to its feminine and exotic design.

Actual kohl powder
Saffron & Rose kohl powder come in grey black and dark blue.
Source: Image by Adrien Olichon from Unsplash

The kohl powder and the casing are handmade in a rural area in Morocco away from its large cities. This old tradition enables women in the rural area to work and make a living. This form of fair trade is very important in the fundamental business of Saffron & Rose.

The Saffron & Rose kohl is a multipurpose powder. One can use it to outline the lower eyelid and upper lid. It also can be used as an eyeshadow for that smokey eye look. To shape the brows, the kohl powder can also be used to form a defining arch with a subtle natural colour.

The kohl is actually the brand’s best seller. Most clients swear by the positive response they received. Not only it made their eyes looked attractive, some testified that applying this improved their vision, and even reduced their eye allergies.

Eco-Friendly Artisanal Kohl

The founder and CEO of Saffron & Rose, Lana Mohammad said that kohl is a unique gift that you buy for yourself or your loved ones. Apart from its natural ingredients, it has many medicinal properties that people do not know about and it really is effective. Additionally, it is eco-friendly since one kohl takes two years to finish, they practise refilling. Customers can bring back their empty casings to be refilled with kohl powder.

Brass kohl casing from Saffron & Rose
Each kohl casing has a different design and motif, these casings come in stainless steel too.
Source: Image from Saffron & Rose

“There is no need to waste more money on casings, one is enough. Just refill when you run out of kohl powder. Beauty is important but sustainability comes first,” says Lana.

Maybe it is time to check the label for every makeup that you have in your makeup bag. Why not go green today by switching to natural products that are 100% safe?

The kohl from Saffron & Rose are available at UNPLUG, Level 1 at Bangsar Village 2, Kuala Lumpur. UNPLUG is a section with multi-label brands which sell apparels, beauty products and household items all made from natural resources.

It is important to go natural and for more information on natural wellness and scents, you can read about essential oils here.

Hazwani CHE DIN

About Hazwani CHE DIN

Spent her childhood spread across several countries, Wani truly understands global cultures. Advocates fine art, and organises artisanal bazaar to promote them. What's next? Well, she plans to continue exploring uncharted areas; and continue immersing in and learning foreign cultures.

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