Many people are already aware of the toxicity of lead compounds, so much so that anything associated with lead is considered deadly. But does the same hold true for traditional eyeliners made of the mineral Galena, also known as lead sulfide? So in this article I will investigating this issue, looking at the history of lead-based cosmetics and their anecdotes, chemistry surrounding the toxicity of lead sulfide, and what previous research papers have found.
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Brief History of Lead-Based Cosmetics
Whether you call it Kohl, Kajal, or Surma, people don’t usually associate eyeliner with toxic compounds. But historically, eyeliner has either been made from vegetable ash, like the burnt remains of Frankincense Gum (which is often used as incense), or made from powdered minerals. The primary mineral that is used to produce the dark black pigment for eyeliner is Galena, and to this day is still commonly used in the Middle East.
But lead sulfide derived from galena ore is not the same as other lead-based cosmetics that were used in the past. This is hinted by the fact that there is a lack of reports indicating the toxicity of galena-based eyeliner.
Rather, records were found mention stating its use by the Ancient Egyptians to treat many eye-related diseases, and hailed by other Middle Easterner civilizations to improve eyesight and protect the eyes from excessive UV radiation from the sun. Normally, exposing the eyes to excessive UV light damages the retina, leading to macular degeneration. That’s why you will find desert dwellers like the Ancient Egyptians & Bedouins using galena-based kohl the most, as applying the powder of lead sulfide to the eye as eyeliner caused a thin layer of the galena particles to coat eye and thereby protect the eye from the sun’s harsh UV rays.
Lead Sulfide also cranked up the immune system of the eye by raising its nitric oxide levels. This is was especially valuable for Ancient Egyptians who lived by the marsh-like environment next to the Nile river, as marshlands are moist environments where people are exposed to a lot of pathogenic bacteria and parasites. If those pathogens enter the eye, from splashes of water from the marshes or the like, then the victim could most likely lose their eyesight- so something like Galena was an invaluable medicine that would protect and save their eyes from different ailments.
Galena-based eyeliner is not the same as other lead-based cosmetics. In the past, the Ancient Romans, the Ancient Greeks, and the English of colonial Britain used a type of white lead face paint called venetian ceruse. Venetian ceruse is essentially a lead carbonate complex salt, 2PbCO3·Pb(OH)2, made from reacting elemental lead with vinegar, forming a white “lead rust” residue. The user often got lead poisoning from white lead because
- lead carbonate is highly bioavailable (meaning easily absorbed into the body)
- a lot of lead carbonate was layered on the face
- lead carbonate caused skin blemishes and withering
Whereas with the lead sulfide of Galena, it have very low bioavailability, is used in a very small amount, and actually stimulates the immunity of the eye. So as you can see, the form and the amount of exposure to the compound dictates how the body reacts to it.
I believe that toxicity of lead is more likely to occur if one consumes it. With eyeliners like kohl, kajal, and surma, there is no consumption involved. However with ceruse, one may inadvertently swallow some of the face paint. And in other instances, such as with the Ancient Romans who used lead plumbing and stored food in lead-lined containers such as “Sapa” (grape syrup) and wine. And to this day, there are lipsticks in the market that may use lead carbonate as an ingredient.
Routes for Absorption for Lead Sulfide
Lead Sulfide isn’t the same as other types of lead compounds. When using Galena in eye cosmetics, there are several factors you have to consider. The type of lead, the bioavailability of that type of lead, how that type of lead is handled by the body, and the way the body is exposed to the lead compound.
For me personally, I don’t worry about using Galena-based kohl as eyeliner. Although Galena-based kohl tends to have a high amount of lead content- sometimes up to 80 percent, it is in the form of lead sulfide which is an inorganic lead salt that is insoluble , and therefore has a very low-bioavailability. In other words, lead sulfide normally does not absorb easily into the body.
Furthermore when galena is used as an eyeliner, it is placed around the perimeter of the eye. The cornea of the eye does not act as a significant route for lead sulfide to be absorbed into the body . And very little of this galena powder is applied to the waterline of the eye.
So generally speaking, correctly applying the traditional kohl eyeliner made of pure Galena should not be a risk for lead poisoning. There are studies that show that kohl applied to the eyes does not raise lead blood levels, and does not cause a toxic effect on the eye.
But the key thing is that the kohl ithmid is used correctly. You are not suppose to eat it. This is a concern when it comes with children, who may itch their eye and not clean their hands afterwards. And then they may end up consuming some of the galena powder when they eat their food.
You are also not suppose to apply it to open wounds and the like. Some Middle Eastern people do this, particularly to the umbilical cord of the baby after they cut it away from the mother. They do this because the lead sulfide has a hormetic effect on the place applied (e.g. boosting nitric oxide production), and thereby could improve healing. But this may risk for significant absorption of lead.
Many people who do get lead poisoning or toxic levels of lead in their body get it through environmental factors- like air pollution from cars or industry, which causes you to breath in particles of lead. Another factor is being exposed to forms of lead compounds that is easily absorbed- like the highly bioavailable lead carbonate which is also a component of certain lipsticks. It doesn’t help that the lipstick is placed right on the mouth- this is a direct route for exposure.
Otherwise, the person has to know & verify that the contents of the kohl is the authentic pure ithmid, and make sure that they get it from a trustworthy vendor. I read a case study  where a woman was cheated and given a powder made out of the core of batteries as “kohl”. This adulterated powder contained cadmium, causing corneal edema, but thankfully her eye fully recovered later on.
- History of Toxicology and Environmental Health : Chapter 7 :: Kohl Use in Antiquity: Effects on the Eye [ResearchGate]
- A Study of the chemical composition of traditional eye cosmetics (kohls) used in Qatar and Yemen [used]
- Toxic effect of Cadmium found in eyeliner to the eye of a 21 year old Saudi woman: A case report [Saudi Pharm J.]