In this article, I will be revealing to you my personal methods for making traditional ithmid kohl eyeliner, which was a type of eyeliner commonly used by many ancient civilizations. It goes by many different names, such as surma, kajal, and mestem/mesdemet by the Ancient Egyptians.
There are many different formulations for kohl eyeliner, and a common substitute to ithmid involves the use of soot or other vegetable ashes. But the authentic black ithmid kohl commonly used by Ancient Egyptians, other ancient civilizations, and Muslims around the world is primarily made from the mineral Galena, also known as a kohl stone. And there are several reasons why I delved into the process of make Ithmid.
Firstly, I wanted to insure that the kohl I used was as finely powdered as possible to insure the least amount of eye irritation. Secondly, I wanted to insure that what I was using was the authentic Ithmid or pure galena ore. Because sometimes what you get from a vendor may have something entirely different in it. Which you can’t guarantee unless it is someone trustworthy, or if you make it yourself.
And so if you are seeking a medicinal effect from ithmid kohl, then its effect depends on what it is actually made out of.
But as a disclaimer, this information is for educational purposes only, and I take no responsibility for what you do with this information. If you try to use this information, it is strictly at your own risk. I just wanted to share my personal experience with making authentic ithmid kohl.
And for you, it is probably way too labor intensive to make to make ithmid like I did. So If you just want to acquire some ithmid, I highly recommend realithmidkohl.com’s Hijazi Black Ithmid Kohl from Medinah. I had to refine it a bit to get the particle size a bit smaller, but otherwise it is the best ithmid that I have tried.
Table of Contents
Selection of the Kohl Stone
People who professionally make ithmid know better than me which type of kohl stone to select. But my intuition is to select the purest-looking kohl stone or galena mineral with the fewest amount of impurities as possible. A different but related stone may make for a better selection, but I don’t know any other criteria when it comes to selecting a kohl stone.
For the purest galena mineral, it would have the fewest defects, the most pristine cubic crystal structure, and a high quality luster or shine. Galena naturally forms cubic crystals when it is of a high purity. So I would end up selecting what appears to be closer to a crystal than a rough rock for making ithmid, since I am looking for the purest Galena mineral.
Once I made my selection, the next step is to scratch or pick off any materials on the kohl stone that are different from the main mass. Essentially, removing any dirt or impurities from the stone manually with a steel file or the like.
How to Make Pure Ithmid Kohl
In brief, here are the different steps for making ithmid kohl:
- Pasteurize the Kohl stones
- Reduce the size of the kohl stones using a mortar and pestle
- Grind the kohl stones in a dedicated electric grinder
- Filter the rough kohl powder through a single-ply cloth
- Further grind the kohl powder using a mortar and pestle for about an hour
- The ithmid is ready when it is matte grey
And here are the steps to making ithmid kohl with elaboration:
Firstly, you need to pasteurize the Galena stones. Spray them with isopropyl alcohol and wipe them down with a paper towel, and then wash 3 times with water alone. Then dry the Galena stones. Although I made (and currently am using) ithmid before with unpasteurized kohl stones, it doesn’t hurt to pasteurize them. If you don’t have isopropyl alcohol or would rather use something else, then pouring boiling hot water over the stones should also be enough to pasteurize them.
Secondly, using a steel mortar and pestle, crushing the Galena stones until it reaches a coarse gravel-like consistency. Steel is a good choice for a mortar and pestle because it is not brittle like porcelain, but not soft like marble. Porcelain would break if you try banging it on a hard surface. Whereas marble would disintegrate due to its softness.
Thirdly, place the galena gravel into electric spice grinder, and crush further. Depending on the durability & quality of the electric grinder, I recommend 10 second pumps on and off, until there is no more resistance against the blades. Note that this electric spice grinder is to be dedicated to making kohl powder alone, given that galena is not a substance safe to consume and likewise, food is not necessarily safe to put into eye cosmetics.
Fourthly, filter the rough galena powder through a single-ply cloth with a loose stitch, perhaps like a fine cheese cloth. What I do is attach the cloth with rubber bands to a bowl. I then pour a small amount of the rough galena powder on the center of the cloth-bowl. With a spoon, I would press over the powder and gently tap the bowl until most of the powder is filtered. The filtered powder you keep separately. And the big pieces that are not filtered I re-crush in a mortar & pestle separately. Repeat with the unfiltered powder until all of the crushed galena gets through the filter.
Note that you don’t want to use a weak cloth because you will need to forcefully rubbing & pushing the ithmid powder through with a spoon. This causes weak fabric to tear and allows larger particles of the kohl powder to pass, which defeats the purpose of sifting it. another technique that you can do is start from 1 point and keep gently tapping the bowl, letting the ithmid powder above fall onto a plate underneath. Then you take that fallen powder, regrind, and repeat the sifting process again.
Fifthly, in a separate container place the filtered galena powder. At this point, I can tell you that the ithmid powder is still too rough to use because it is still quite shiny. I know from personal experience, given that it irritated my eye and made my eyes water when I tested it at this point. So to make this powder even finer, I would take a smaller portion of it, enough to fill a small attar bottle, and re-crush it in the
steel mortar and pestle for about an hour.
Alternatively, you could first start with a porcelain mortar and pestle, and then switch to
steel. That’s because unglazed porcelain is usually rougher than steel. Conceptually, it is similar to 1st starting with a rough-grit sand paper, and then moving down to a finer-grit sand paper.
Keep in mind that you don’t want to use a marble mortar and pestle because its hardness (mohs 3) is very close to that of galena (mohs 2.5–2.75). If you use marble mortar and pestle, you may end up with a lot of the marble itself powdered up along with the galena, which is quite undesirable. On the other hand, porcelain has a high hardness of approximately 7 on the mohs scale. Steel is also close to that hardness, varying from about 5 (ordinary steel) to 7 (hardened steel).
Overall, using a steel mortar and pestle is the best type because you can do both striking and super-fine grinding. Porcelain is brittle, so you can’t strike with it. And too rough to get the ithmid super-fine.
Sixthly, you keep crushing the ithmid powder until it is totally matte gray with little to no sparkles. At this point the ithmid should be ready to use. Sparkles indicate a large particle size that can scratch and irritate the eye, so that’s why it needs to be a matte grey color. And for this reason, the final grinding process with the mortar and pestle takes a lot of time. Especially if you start with too much. So that’s why as aforementioned, for use you just need to grind a small amount of ithmid powder from the bigger batch. And during the time it takes to do the grinding, I would listening to audio lectures or the like.
EDIT: I don’t really recommend steel mortar & pestles anymore. Although it is fine for crushing larger stones into smaller pieces, during the grinding step I would recommend instead to stick with either a porcelain or a “conditioned” granite mortar & pestle. That’s because there is a zinc coating or some other alloy that coats the steel mortar & pestle. This coating comes off enough to contaminate and ruin the ithmid, therefore causing eye irritation & pain.
Instead, I highly recommend using a granite mortar & pestle after you condition it. It has worked the best for me. Granite is naturally a rock, so it doesn’t contain unnatural substances like the coating on the steel mortar & pestle. Furthermore, Granite has a hardness of 7 mohs, compared to steel’s hardness of 5 mohs or less. Taking the zinc coating into consideration, zinc itself has a hardness of 2.5 mohs, although an alloy of zinc may be a bit higher. Essentially, this means that you will have less contamination with granite (and porcelain) than with steel.
Don’t handle ithmid powder during windy weather, for obvious reasons.
Never blend the ithmid powder with water or while it is wet in the electric spice grinder. This was a mistake on my part, and it ruined the ithmid powder. And in generally I discourage adding any liquids to the ithmid powder.
And do note that I won’t be using any equipment that I used in processing the galena for anything else, especially culinary. Lead sulfide is absorbable when consumed, albeit with extremely low bioavailability , so you don’t want to be eating that. Ithmid is only meant to be used on the eyes of course!
Adding Saffron to Kohl
I was very interested in using saffron with ithmid kohl at first. Saffron was mentioned in different ancient texts to have therapeutic effects on the eye. And even in our modern era scientists have found saffron to bestow beneficial effects on the eye, such as improving retinal function for those with macular degeneration , reducing intraocular pressure which (could) help with glaucoma , and treating against ocular neurodegeneration .
However, I personally do not have a favorable experience with adding saffron to the Ithmid powder. Unless you know what you are doing (and if so, please share in the comments below!), I don’t recommend it with ithmid, and I don’t use it myself (for the time being). That’s because there are a couple of problems I encountered with adding saffron that I haven’t found a solution for, but it may be mostly due to my ignorance.
First of all, I don’t know what is the correct dosage amount of saffron for a therapeutic effect on the eye. If you use too much saffron, I found that it significantly irritated my eye. So next time, I may try making saffron-infused ithmid kohl again with a much lower dose.
Another way saffron can cause irritation is by having some sweet stickiness to it. This stickiness causes the ithmid, after application, to aggregate and become like little grains of sand in the eye. Again, this effect may be dose-dependent.
Maybe saffron is suppose to be used separately from ithmid in the first place, I don’t know.
During my experimentation, I did try adding very concentrated saffron water extract into the ithmid powder. But generally speaking, adding water to the Ithmid powder is a bad idea. Moisture and plant matter may act as a growth medium for bacteria and other microbes. Furthermore, a few too many drops of water makes the ithmid powder acquire a mud-like consistency, which makes it almost impossible to use as eyeliner. If you try dipping the kohl stick into it, you would pull out a ridiculous amount globbed onto the stick.
To avoid that, I added a drop at a time of the highly concentrated saffron water-extract into ithmid powder in a mortar & pestle. And then I would continue to grind until the water evaporated. Normally drops of water evaporate slowly in the open, so I waited for that while crushing the ithmid. Then I would add another drop and repeat the process until I was satisfied.
And in terms of evaporating the water out, don’t use a lighter’s flame if you add saffron water extract to the ithmid powder. You will end up with a hard clay if you do.
Now as far as making that highly concentrated saffron water-extract, what I did was add a few pieces of saffron in a glass vial, add a few drops of water, and heat it up with a lighter. And in between that I also gave it some time to steep. This helps extract the water-soluble constituents out of the saffron.
To summarize, these were the steps that I followed to add saffron to the ithmid powder:
- Add saffron to empty glass vial
- add a few drops of water with a dropper
- swish vial around
- heat vial gently with a lighter
- Swish again
- Let is steep for some time
- Using a dropper, tranfer a drop or 2 of saffron extract to the ithmid powder
- Grind this ithmid powder in mortar and pestle to dry it
I suppose you could also sun dry this ithmid powder.
Although I did experiment with adding saffron to ithmid, these instructions are more theoretical in nature, and I believe an ancient recipe from the past would suggest a different set of directions, in a way that saffron is suitable to the eye.
Heating Kohl Powder to Remove Moisture & Pasteurize
If you end up with moist kohl, whether it is from the wetness of the face (i.e. if you wash your face and then apply kohl, the kohl stick may transfer moisture), being in a humid environment (while leaving the kohl pot open for long periods of time, exposed to the humid-air), or otherwise then you need to find a way to remove the excess moisture from the ithmid powder. Likewise, those same methods for removing moisture may also pasteurize the kohl powder if you have a need for it.
In order to remove the moisture & pasteurize pure kohl powder, you can either:
- Expose indirectly to a flame
Drying the ithmid kohl by the sun is relatively safe, as far as I know. The UV rays from the sun has the ability to kill microbes, so sun drying would reduce microbial populations to some extent. If the kohl is made only from galena or kohl stone without additives, then there shouldn’t be organic substances in the kohl in the first place which would promote the growth of different microbes.
I don’t believe it safe to expose the ithmid stone or powder directly to flames. You don’t want to change the composition of the substance, which would result in toxic by-products. But if you gently heat up a vessel exposed to a small flame with the ithmid powder inside of it, stir with a kohl stick, then you should be able to remove moisture and pasteurize it at the same time. When you are stirring the kohl stick, you can tell that the moisture has mostly been evaporated when there is less resistance while moving the kohl stick in the powder. On the other hand, if there is a significant amount of water in your ithmid powder, it becomes harder to move the kohl stick through the powder.
Note that if the vessel is made of glass, first make sure it doesn’t shatter when heat is applied to it. Also note that this section is written specifically pertaining to pure ithmid kohl made from only the kohl stone. If you heat up some other type of powder with other additives, you may encounter some problems that I will not get into. And generally speaking, if I do not have a need to heat up the kohl powder, I would avoid doing so.
If you also need to make a kohl applicator to go with your ithmid:
- Comparison of Lead Bioavailability in F344 Rats Fed Lead Acetate, Lead Oxide, Lead Sulfide, or Lead Ore Concentrate From Skagway, Alaska [J Toxicol Environ Health]
- Short-term Outcomes of Saffron Supplementation in Patients with Age-related Macular Degeneration: A Double-blind, Placebo-controlled, Randomized Trial [Med Hypothesis Discov Innov Ophthalmol.]
- The ocular hypotensive effect of saffron extract in primary open angle glaucoma: a pilot study [BMC Complement Altern Med.]
- Beneficial effects of saffron (Crocus sativus L.) in ocular pathologies, particularly neurodegenerative retinal diseases [Neural Regen Res.]