The dark cosmetic known as kohl (also kajol, al-kahal, surma, tiro and kuti) has been used by people across Asia and Africa since antiquity to adorn their eyes. Kohl is a mixture of gypsum or chalk and powdered carbon, traditionally made from grinding up galena (lead sulfide) or stibnite (antimony sulfide). In some regions the preparation also includes plant oils and soot from seeds, nuts and gum resins. Kohl is often worn by Muslim women in parts of North Africa and the Middle East. It is also used by immigrant communities in western countries. A case report in 1968 of a child who had Pb encephalopathy due to the use of homemade kohl brought the issue of this traditional use to the attention of the UK authorities and resulted in voluntary sale restrictions for this product (Warley, 1968).
Kohl products are widely available in shops and through internet sales in Europe where they are typically sold as cosmetics. Previous investigations of kohls have indicated variable compositions, but mention is frequently made of the presence of minerals based on lead such as galena and cerussite, which are prohibited in cosmetic products sold in Europe. In the present study, we purchased 23 kohls from shops and through the internet and analysed them by XRF and SEM-EDXS. The majority of these samples did not conform to European laws on cosmetic products, and were contaminated with Pb (from galena) at concentrations from a few to over 400000 mg kg-1. Cadmium, another element banned in cosmetic products in Europe, was also found as a contaminant in 13 of the kohls. Kohl Uk