All my life I grew up thinking that Kohl or Kajal was applied as a cosmetic and also to make little cute babies look ugly to protect them from buri nazar 🧿 . To most of us Kohl still represents a color and not really the ingredients that go into it. Then one fine day, walking through the streets of old Delhi, I come across this sackful of shiny silver stones, and I gave in to the human nature of liking shiny objects and asked the seller as to what this amazingly beautiful thing was? to which he replied uninterestedly "it is used to make kajal".
And, this is where my research started about what really was this beautiful and fascinating stone all about, which led me into the dark world of commercial cosmetics (topic for another day another blog). I also read a lot about the origin and history of Surma and why people used it. So here's a quick read for you so that you don't have to spend a month reading, researching and looking for it.
Origin, Science & History
Kohl or Surma has been believed to be worn since before 3100 BCE, in the Protodynastic period of Egypt by Egyptian queens and noble women. Different versions of the word have been found in Arabic, Persian, Greek, Latin, Azerbaijan which led to the Urdu word Surma or the Bengali word Kajol.
But what really was it back then in ancient Egypt? Egyptians used Stibnite, which is a sulphide of antimony. For those of you who hated the periodic table or didn't have anything to do with chemistry - Antimony (Sb) is an element and it's ore is a sulphide of antimony called Stibnite.
Another compound that was used and is still in use, is Galena - a sulphide of lead (Pb). The picture above is of Galena. Ancient Egyptians are said to have applied the paint of Galena on their upper eyelid and green malachite on the lower lid, majorly to protect their eyes from the harsh sun. Safe to conclude that from North Africa to Middle East, Kohl/ Surma has been used for over 5,000 years now.
Benefits of Surma
Surma was never worn for aesthetic purposes to begin with, it has its roots in medicine. Surma was worn/ applied as a preventative and also curative medicine for eye ailments. Some of the most popular benefits of Surma are -
Blocks UV rays - have you observed that Kohl/ Surma was never really popularly used across the globe, it is majorly something we associate with the men and women of the desert... Morocco, Egypt, Middle East, Western India and Pakistan. We don't really associate Kohl/ Surma with Caucasians! This is not by chance, it is for a purpose. As someone that was born and brought up in the desert state of Rajasthan, I can tell you that the sun can literally blind you there. Galena has UV absorptive properties. The microscopic particles of Galena - Ithmid Kohl, form a thin film over the eye which absorbs UV rays, preventing them from entering our eyes. How cool is it that Surma was the OG polaroid sunglasses 😎 protecting our retina!!!
Boosts Nitric Oxide - the second main benefit of Surma is that it promotes the production of Nitric Oxide in the eye. Nitric oxide has a wide range of benefits, some of which are listed below. Now you'd be like why don't I consume Nitric Oxide directly? That's what I "pop-a-pill" conditioning makes us think, but it really doesn't work like that because Nitric Oxide (NO) disintegrates very very quickly, in a matter of seconds, hence you want to stimulate the production of Nitric Oxide in the body.
Anti-microbial : Nitric Oxide boosts our immune system's ability to fight foreign bodies by being effective against a wide range of bacteria including the ones that are resistant to antibiotics. It is always a better idea to allow the body to produce its own Nitric Oxide to fight infections rather than popping antibiotics which makes the bacteria resistant to them very quickly, rendering antibiotics ineffective.
Vasodilation : Nitric Oxide controls basal blood flow in the optic nerve, choroid, and retina. And, the most common ailments are all caused by a lack of blood flow to that body part. How many of us really practice Trataka or exercise our eyes? At least applying Surma will improve the ocular blood circulation.
Intraocular Pressure : Nitric Oxide also lowers the intraocular pressure which is the pressure inside our eyes, the primary cause of the eye diseases Glacoma. This is so important, especially in today's day and age when most of our work involves us staring into a screen for long hours. So even if you don't have a lot of UV exposure, it is still a good idea to apply Surma everyday.
In my dictionary now, Surma is a health and hygiene product, not a cosmetic.
Commercial Kohls and Controversies
Now not everyone was able to get access to Stibnite or Galena for Surma. So the economically challenged denizens of Ancient Egypt started using the soot of oil lamps or the burnt ashes of Frankincense Gum as Kohl for the eyes. Burnt substances are carcinogens and hence soot based kohl are harmful for the eye rather than beneficial.
But in the 90s some American based research went ahead and said that since there is Lead (Pb) in Surma it must be toxic of which there is no proof because there is no detailed research on the subject. However, in 2010, a French research talked about how the lead in surma is not toxic and detailed the benefits of applying Galena to the eyes.
Now what I don't get is that Governments across the world will also the use of Lead and Toxic compounds in our processed food... remember the exceedingly high levels of lead in Maggi controversy from a few years ago? Next, the cosmetic giants of the world are not even required to give out the complete list of ingredients that they use in their products.
I, like most people, use the Maybelline New York Collosal Kajal, so I tried looking for what was in it, on the pack, online etc. and basically found nothing...they don't reveal what goes into their products at all.
Well, I don't know about you, but I choose to know what I am putting in (the skin absorbs everything) my body, and trust ancient wisdom that has been passed on from 1000s of generations over the modern capitalist cosmetic giants.
So, basically I have ditched all my Kajal pencils (kept one for the rare occasions that I apply a full face of makeup) and moved to using Surma daily. One big noticeable difference is how my eyes used to burn and water constantly with commercial kajal, that has completely stopped and the Surma feels so natural in the eye. Also, at the end of the day you don't have to go all crazy on your eyes with a makeup remover, which is just more chemicals, because surma just somehow dissolves and does not leave any stubborn residue.