Indian Beauty: Kohl/Kajal

Probably the most common “makeup item” I saw in India (and on Indians) was kohl (pronounced “coal”), also called kajal (pronounced KAH-djel, according to my relatives).

The “original” kajal is made by burning a ghee (clarified butter) candle and collecting the soot/smoke on the bottom of a silver bowl. I think the bowl could probably be any metal, but I imagine the soot shows up better on silver (plus it’s swanky). This kind of kajal — considered to be the “purest” form — is traditionally put on the eyes of infants. Kajal is thought to be “good for the eyes”, though no one I asked knew exactly how it was good (protecting against disease? Strengthening the eye? Diffusing sunlight?), and my grandfather-in-law the doctor was opposed to the practice of putting it on babies.
India, kajal, kohl
Modern kajal is most commonly sold in “chalk” form (it’s a pencil with a very large lead) and as a potted cream. My cousin had not heard of loose powder, applied with a stylus (e.g., HiP or Guerlain loose kohls), and this style was more difficult to find in stores.
India, kajal
The most hilarious detail was that the packaging might carry some kind of admonition: “This product is NOT a cosmetic; it is an ayurvedic medicine.”

In case you find yourself in India, contemplating the purchase of some personal care item, thinking, “ayurvedic toothpaste sounds like it would be good for me,” you should know this: Using the “ayurvedic” descriptor is a business decision more than anything else.  India taxes (heavily) the manufacture of goods.  There might be a 50% tax on the manufacturing cost of cosmetics (I think it goes as low as 12% and as high as 100%).

Medicines are not taxed, but there are other restrictions and regulations associated with producing medicine. Ayurvedic medicine, however, is much less regulated (kind of like the supplement industry in the U.S.). An ayurvedic medicine needs to include a list of ingredients — some of which must be natural, like eucalyptus oil — but it’s not necessarily any better for you than its non-ayurvedic counterpart.

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9 Responses to “Indian Beauty: Kohl/Kajal”

  • Diane says:

    don’t some of these contain lead? I definitely would not want to be putting lead in my eyes! I have used the Shahnaz one, I liked it but didn’t like how you can’t really sharpen it.

  • priya says:

    As an Indian I have always heard how kajal is good for your eye health, if u ask me what exactly it does , the answer is i dont know :)

  • lia says:

    I’ve been told that kajal is supposed to protect your eyes from the sun’s rays… but it might just be an old wives tale.

  • Amy says:

    Wow, I have indian friend but they never brought this to my attention… I love learning about other cultures and their traditions. It always amazes me what you can learn from them. Thanks for this post

  • I remember reading that the Egyptians used eye kohl to protect from eye related disease and infections :)

  • lexi920 says:

    Intersting. I hope to make it to India one day!

  • Jessica says:

    Hey there,

    The powder-kohl with stylus was at times inserted into an onion, then back into the powder and used in the “Eastern” method. The onion encouraged you to cry to water your eyes to wash it out of sand, fleas, etc. The oil-based kajal was to cool/nourish the eye area considering how dry the climate can get. Also some religious implications to using. The Shanaz is amazing. Great idea for the give away!

  • Laxshmee says:

    my father’s wife is morroccan and Incredibly enough powder kohl was my first encounter with any makeup at all. Not the creamier stuff that I use now!

  • Sarah says:

    Hi I’m from India kajal contains carbon which is foreign to ur eye little amounts of the kajal are used to line kids n babies which over time help them to gain resistance n strength just like hitler used arsenic … Maybe Dats y ur uncle is against it as some doctors are too

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