Traditional kohl has also been made at home: Ingredients like almonds or aloe vera may be burned using a clay lamp over which a clean plate (of bronze or copper, for example) traps the fumes. The soot that collects on the plate may be mixed with clarified butter or oil, creating kohl — and giving the material its creamy texture and sweet fragrance. This is how our grandmothers and great-grandmothers made cosmetic kajal, often keeping it in small brass bottles.

Regardless of how it is created, kohl, when used as a cosmetic, is applied on the waterlines of the eyes, making them look pronounced without trying too hard. “It’s a no-fuss, easy product,” says Natasha Ramachandran, a model in New York, who grew up in India. “You don’t have a lot of makeup on, and kajal… it adds a little something to your face. A lot of women seek comfort in that.”

The Kohl Conundrum

Throughout Africa, the Middle East, and South Asia, traditional kohl is a cultural and cosmetic staple, yet it is not without potential health risks: “The black iron oxide and pigments in most commercially produced kajal may contain elevated levels of lead,” says Renuka Thergaonkar, PhD, a cosmetic chemist in Mumbai. “Prolonged application can cause excessive lead storage in the body, which impacts the brain.”

The brain damage can lead to cognitive dysfunction and neurological disorders. In the U.S., the FDA has banned kohl as a color additive.

The Rich History of Kohl as a Sacred Practice

In South Asia, traditional kohl transcends surface-level beauty and is often used as a form of protection against the evil eye, a jealous gaze believed to cause fatalistic harm and injury. “Recently, I had a bride come to me for her makeup, and her mother told me to put a dot of kajal behind her ear [to ward off the evil eye],” says Syed Zubair, a Karachi-based makeup artist. 

In traditional households, newborns’ eyes are delicately dabbed with kohl because of the widely held belief that it repels not just the evil eye, but the glare of the sun and some diseases. In Ayurvedic medicine, kohl is said to have healing properties for cleansing and rejuvenating the eyes, and practitioners use it to make preventative treatments for eye infections.

How to Use Kohl — Straight From Karachi

After rimming your eyes with liner (on the waterlines, instead of along the lash lines, is the classic way to use traditional kohl) “push a rich bronze shadow into the base of the lashes, and [add] an even softer color like dirty gold to create a diffusion,” says Bina Khan, a celebrated makeup artist from Karachi. “It’ll create the impression that your [liner] has smudged really nicely. ”

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