Kohl can be made from a variety of different mineral ores and organic compounds, and the color of Kohl powder usually reflects its composition. Possible colors for Kohl range from black, grey, brown, light brown, brick red, orange, dark blue, and a black-brown-red color. By observing the color, texture of the powder; and if possible the whole mineral used to make the kohl or surma, you can identify its composition and determine if it is safe to use.
Table of Contents
Black & Grey Kohl Composition
Black-Grey colored kohls usually reflects the presence of Galena if the kohl is mineral based. Galena is lead sulfide (PbS) ore with a small mixture of other compounds- silver and rhodonite are common ones for Galena ores. Galena-based kohl may also contain a very small amounts of cerussite (PbCO3) and anglesite (PbSO4), given that these are formed as weathering or oxidation products of Galena.
If the kohl is purely made out of Galena ore, then it will be a sparkly grey if the particle size is big or a matte grey if the particle size is small.
Kohl containing the lead mineral Galena may be a cause for concern for some people, and the safety of lead sulfide I will address in a later article.
A black color may also indicate the presence of Zincite (ZnO) and/or the presence of non-minerals like amorphous carbon or graphite- like the ash of vegetables, charcoal, the residue of burnt frankincense, talc, etc. Vegetable ash refers to the use of burnt medicinal herbs, like the False Daisy (Eclipta alba) and a type of Ironweed (Cyanthillium cinereum) that’s called Dandotapala or Sadodi in India . Note that it is in India that purely herbal & soot preparations of eyeliners are used – these types of kohl are known as kajal.
Note that Pure Zincite or pure ZnO is actually colorless and produces a white color when powdered. It’s the impurities of natural Zincite that give it its color.
So to summarize, black or grey colored kohl or surma may be Galena-based, Zincite-based, soot/carbon-based, or a mix of those. Surprisingly, the studies that I looked through did not mention any of the khol powders being made out of Stibnite. I found online sources claiming that Stibnite is the main ingredient for Ithmid kohl. Although vendors say that their kohl is ithmid, none of them are made of Stibnite. I don’t believe Ithmid is made out of Stibnite, and I will talk about the circumstantial evidence of Ithmid being Stibnite vs Galena in a future article.
Grey colored kohls may also indicate the presence of Sassolite (H3BO3). Grey-white & Light-Grey colored kohls also use Sassolite as it’s main constituent. Sassolite is a borate mineral, essentially it is the form of boric acid found in nature.
White Kohl Composition
Lighter colored kohls towards the color white may also indicate the presence of cerussite, or “white lead”. I am personally not worried about grey-black galena-based kohl that contains a small amount of cerussite naturally. But do know that pure cerussite and/or lead acetate was used in traditional Western cosmetics as a face paint, which caused a whole host of health problems due to lead poisoning. If you want to make a comparison, galena ore may contain a very small amount of cerussite, from which a very small amount of powdered galena is applied to the eyes. On the other hand, the Emperial British, the Ancient Romans and the Ancient Greeks covered their faces daily with layers of pure ceruse. So historically the amount of lead exposure was very high from the application of ceruse that the western nations practiced. Whereas the exposure to cerussite is low to nearly none-existent from regular galena-based kohl powders. Regardless, you should avoid using ceruse as “kohl”- that’s not kohl if you ask me. It’s poison.
For this reason, I am highly suspicious of pure white colored kohls made out of minerals. But it’s probably fine if it is made from Sassolite as the main ingredient.
Brown Red Kohl Composition
Brown kohl from Oman contains mostly Hematite (Fe2O3) and a small amount of Goethite (FeO(OH)).
Light brown kohl from India may still use Galena as a main constituent, but also may contain small quantities of Minium (Pb3O4 – also known as red lead) and/or zincite (ZnO). Note that Indian kohl sometimes have camphor (C10H16O) as an added ingredient.
Whereas orange kohl from India reflects a majority of toxic Minium (Pb3O4 ) or “red-lead” content.
Brick red kohl usually indicates a composition made up of different iron oxides, although I’ve read that rarely some vendors may adulterate the red kohl with cinnabar. Otherwise, the iron oxides that red kohl may contain includes Hematite and Goethite (Fe2O3 + FeO (OH) ). And a trace of other minerals like Galena & Quartz.
Cinnabar as a rare adulterant to kohl is problematic because it is composed of mercury(II) sulfide, or HgS. In ancient times, cinnabar was used as a cosmetic given that is has a very bright red color. Although the obvious issue is that cinnabar is high in mercury content. I don’t believe it is common to use cinnabar for making kohl. However it doesn’t hurt to ask the vendor to show you the type of kohl stone that the kohl powder is made out of.
And then there is a description of a Blackish-Brownish-Reddish kohl stone mentioned in one study  that claimed it is the Kohl Al-Ethmed (a.k.a. Ithmid or Ismid), which is found in the Al-Hijaz district- the best type coming from Asfahan. The kohl stone that study claims to be “Al-Ethmed” is virtually free of lead at 0.01% content, has an antimony content of 0.01%, and contains 27.79% of iron.
- Total safety management through standardization of formulated ayurvedic Kajal using Eclipta alba and Vernonia cinerea herbs [PSJD]
- A Study of the chemical composition of traditional eye cosmetics (kohls) used in Qatar and Yemen [J Cosmet Sci.]
- Composition of eye cosmetics (kohls) used in Oman [J Ethnopharmacol.]
- Kohl Al-Ethmed [PDF]
- X-ray fluorescence analysis of Pb, Fe and Zn in kohl [ScienceDirect]
Source Commentary – Its interesting to see that out of all the kohl samples from Yemen and Qatar, none of them contained any observable amounts of antimony sulfide, or stibnite. This goes to show that at least now a days stibnite ore is not used for making traditional kohl eyeliner. You can speculate that traditional kohl made from mineral ore may have a trace amount of antimony, but for the most part I don’t believe stibnite is a common enough mineral in the Middle East to be used to make kohl. Rather, it is commonly Zincite, Galena, or both minerals that are used for making traditional kohl – and both confer eye protecting benefits from UV rays of the sun.