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Kohl, The Precursor To Modern Mascara

Aug 7, 2008
The uninitiated might be surprised to learn that kohl wasn't initially a department store chain, but a very popular cosmetic product, in use since thousands of years ago, and widely considered to be the precursor to modern mascara.

Kohl has been worn traditionally as far back as the Bronze Age (3500 BC onward). Ancient Egyptians used it as far back as 4,000 B.C. It was used on their eye lashes, eye brows, and to line their eyes, as the earliest form of mascara and eye liner. Literally, kohl means "to brighten the eyes", and use of kohl as eye make-up is depicted in hieroglyphs of ancient Egypt.

Kohl is a mixture of soot and other ingredients used predominantly by Middle Eastern, North African, Sub-Saharan African, and South Asian women, and to a lesser extent men, to darken the eyelids and as mascara for the eyelashes.

It prevented eye disease, by repelling tiny flies which transmit disease and inflammation. It was labeled an anti-poison component, protecting against harmful radiation.

It kept the delicate skin around the eyes from becoming dry and cracked. It protected against the intense heat of the sun, the bitter cold of the nights and the blinding glare of the water.

For medical purposes, kohl was even worn by men and children. Mothers would apply kohl to their infants' eyes soon after birth. Some did this to "strengthen the child's eyes," while others believed it could prevent the child from being cursed by an "evil eye".

Kohl was liberally applied all around the eye, sometimes extending outwards at the corners. This so-called cosmetic line (an exaggerated extension) that many people associate with ancient Egypt was primarily from the time of the Old Kingdom (2700 BC to 2200 BC) and was reserved for depictions of royalty or gods.

A delicately elongated inner corner extension was also in vogue during that time. Later, the line was drawn from the outer corners of the eyes and eyebrows toward the front of the earlobes, where the lines met.

Eyes were considered the most important part of the body to be emphasized with cosmetics. Kohl enlarges the eyes and makes them appear more beautiful. Egyptian women discovered that the whites of the eye appeared whiter and the large dark pupils appeared like black pools in their midst, creating a very striking effect.

To this day, kohl is known by various names in Indian languages, like sirma or surma in Punjabi, kajal in Hindi, and katuka in Telugu, among other examples. In India, it is used by women as a type of eyeliner that is put around the edge of the eyes.

Even now in southern rural India, especially in Kerala, women of the household prepare the kajal. This home-made kajal is used even for infants. Local tradition considers it to be a very good coolant for the eyes and believes that it "protects the eyesight and vision".

Modern day mascara is quite different from traditional kohl, both in terms of composition and perception. Most importantly, whereas kohl was considered to have some type of health benefits, mascara nowadays is used essentially for its cosmetic effects.

From initially humble beginnings, mascara has grown into a huge segment of the cosmetics industry. Worn mostly by women, it's being increasingly adopted by men (guy liner anyone?), but that's the subject of another article!
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