ISSUE Kaajal is good for the eyes, say researchers. But, choose what you wear with care

French researchers have finally stumbled on it. In an article published in Analytical Chemistry, they report that the kaajal Cleopatra wore may have had medical — apart from aesthetic — benefits. Did she and the other Egyptians know this? Perhaps. “We knew ancient Greeks and Romans too had noted the make-up had medicinal properties, but wanted to determine exactly how,” says the report. “One may argue that these lead compounds were deliberately manufactured and used in ancient Egyptian formulations to prevent and treat eye illnesses by promoting the action of immune cells.”

I can hear you say, “Ha!” Our mothers knew kaajal's health benefits. So did their mothers and their mothers. Called kohl, surma, kanmashi and kanmai, it was essential eye make-up. We made it with home-made soot and applied it on newborns to “strengthen their eyes”.

About its aesthetics, we had no doubt. Ancient sculptures stylistically display the art of applying kaajal. Our dancers wouldn't dream of stepping on stage without it. Some actually draw it Cleopatra-style. Applied on the inside rim, it creates dramatically more striking eyes in seconds.

Actor Kritika Kamra swears by it. “I don't remember a day I've gone to school or even stepped out of my house without it,” she says. Kaajal's health returns may be iffy, but people believed that darkening the area around the eyes would protect them from the Sun.

There is just one hitch. Cleopatra and company concocted kaajal that had traces of lead salts. In theory, the use of lead-contaminated kohl may result in increased levels of lead in the bloodstream. And, we know what that can do to us. But analysts at the Louvre Museum and the CNRS research institute say that lead in very low doses produces nitric oxide, which boosts the immune system to fight eye infection.

Our traditional recipes are herbal and lead-free. Soak a cotton cloth wick in a silver dish filled with ghee made of cow's milk butter. Light the wick and hold a clean silver plate above. The burning wick leaves a film of soot on the underside of the silver plate. When the lamp dies down, scrape off the soot into a dish, mix good castor oil to it and store the supply of smooth surma.

Go traditional

You could substitute ghee with aloe vera jelly and family silver with earthen dishes. You could dip and dry the wick in sandalwood paste or the juice of Alstonia scholaris (Manjal karisilanganni) several times before burning it.

In rural Bengal, kajol is made from the ‘Monosha' plant, a type of cactus. The leaf of Monosha is covered with oil and is kept above a burning diya (mud lamp). Within minutes, the leaf is covered with creamy soft black soot, considered safe for infants.

Is kaajal good for the eyes? “It's based on individual reaction,” says Dr. Parthasarathy of Udhi Eye Hospital. “If you're allergic to any of its ingredients, it will harm you. If it hurts the skin under the eye, it'll be worse inside. But, the allergy goes away when you stop using it.”

He points out that there's no quality test for commercial kaajal. “Ideally, you should not let any outside substance enter the eye. If you have to, as in stage performances, I suggest you go for well-known brands of eye make-up, specially for kids. Apply it on the lining of the eyelids.” For those wearing contacts, he has added warning — “The cornea can be affected, so don't take chances if you're not sure of the quality. At the first sign of an allergic reaction, see a doctor.”

Be sure to buy a preparation free of galena (lead sulphide). Home-made kohl and some “natural” cosmetics in shops may contain this and other chemicals. The word kohl on the package may mean the colour and not the composition. So, whether you use kaajal, a pencil or a liquid eye-liner, examine the ingredients and the expiry date. And, buy them from authentic dealers.