‘Kajal’ in Hindi, ‘surma’ in Punjabi, ‘kanmai’ in Tamil, ‘kaatuka’ in Telegu, ‘kaadige’ in Kannada, ‘kanmashi’ in Malayalam, ‘al-kahl’ in Arabic, kohl in English it has been a cosmetic of choice for the eyelids, mostly for women, from ancient times. Not just in India, its prevalence extends to the whole of South Asia, West Asia, North Africa and some parts of West Africa. Ancient Egyptians, including the famous queen, Cleopatra, extensively applied kajal to their eyes. Eyes of babies, both girls and boys, are often traditionally decorated with this black powder. Ancient sculptures stylistically display the art of applying this cosmetic.
However, for quite some time now, several voices of dissent with regards to the use of kohl has also appeared, chiefly because of its harmful effects on the skin. Traditionally, there have been various ingredients which have gone into the making of kajal in various regions, from the soot of a lit lamp to charcoal to lead sulphide (also called galena). It is the last ingredient, which is the chief ingredient of most commercially available kajal or kohl today, which is the subject of numerous studies, both in the West and in India. The studies highlight the fact that prolonged use of kajal leads to watery eyes, itchiness, allergies and infections, and also results in the entry of lead into the blood stream and bone marrow from the eyes.
The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA), whose regulations are taken seriously worldwide, expressly bans kajal or kohl in the States because of its deleterious effects. According to FDA’s website, “children are particularly susceptible to absorbing lead from the environment.” Further, “the effects associated with high levels of exposure are anaemia, kidney problems, and neurological damage that may include seizures, coma and death. Even at relatively low levels, chronic exposure to lead may lead to learning and behavior problems.”
In rural Bengal, kajal has also been traditionally made from the ‘phanimanasha’ or ‘manasha’ plant, a type of cactus, whose scientific name is Euphorbia neriifolia. The leaf is covered with oil and is kept above a burning diya. The leaf is soon covered with creamy soft black soot. Thus, the juice of the cactus mixed with oil forms the kajal.
It is this kajal which is the subject of investigations now by scientists of Kharagpur and Kolkata. A combined team, consiststing of scientists from the Indian Institute of Technology, Kharagpur, and doctors from the Priyamvada Birla Aravind Eye Hospital, Kolkata, studied the structure and microbiological properties of the phanimanasha kajal. Their study has appeared in the prestigious journal, Analyst, published by the Royal Society of Chemistry in the UK.
The structural analysis found that this type of kajal is made up of two types of tiny carbon nanoparticles, measured in billionths of a metre, one type much smaller than the other. The microbiological analysis found that this kajal is capable of damaging harmful bacteria and fungi. In the experiments, the carbon nanoparticles were found to have adhered to the cell walls and cell membranes of the bacteria and fungi, and thus to have caused extensive damage to them.
The team studied membranes of red blood cells and eyes of rabbits, induced with infection by the fungus, Candida albicans. Applied four times a day for 15 days, the infection was healed. The team has also showed that concentrations of upto one milligram per millilitre were found to be safe for mammalian cells.
However, the team members urge for caution. This experiment was conducted on a small scale and that too, in laboratory conditions. Effects of prolonged and excessive use of this type of kajal in real-life conditions, when various other factors come into play, need to be thoroughly investigated. Prolonged use of the commercial variety has been at various times proven to have caused problems to the eyes, from the frivolous to the serious, as well as to the blood through lead poisoning.
In India, calls have been made by scientists and doctors to bring in regulations. Anup Mehta, a paediatric surgeon in Delhi, in a paper published in the Oman Journal of Opthalmology in 2010, had called for various measures to curb lead-containing kajal, including educating of the public by doctors and health-care providers, regulatory directions for testing and banning of misleading ads.
Now this successful testing on kajal from the phanimanasha plant has brought in a ray of hope. Many more detailed studies are needed to confirm the initial findings, which have been very encouraging, though. In India, it is believed that kajal applied around the eyes of children strengthens the eyes as well as protects them from the ‘evil eyes’ (buri nazar) of people wanting to harm them. The new experiments provide hope that kajal can actually be used to protect the eyes from infections (or, metaphorically, the ‘evil eyes’), and that would be some achievement indeed.