Parents all over the world have various ways of dolling up their newborn babies. In several regions, a black eyeliner — with a name that depends on where you come from — is quite popular.

If you’re from India or Pakistan, the jet-black cosmetic is known as kajal or surma. If you’re Nigerian, depending on the language of your home area, it’s called tiro, tozali, or kwalli. In Yemen, it’s called kohl.

Unfortunately, purchased kajal is known to contain toxic amounts of lead and unsafe to use on your baby. However, there may be alternatives that’ll work for you if maintaining the tradition is important. Let’s take a look.

Since the times of Ancient Egypt, people have used kajal for cosmetic purposes, particularly in Africa, the Middle East, and Indian subcontinent.

Traditionally, kajal is made by grinding stibnite (a sulfide mineral) or galena (lead sulfide) with a mortar and pestle to get a black powder that has a silvery glitter. An alternative option is to burn a wick, collect the soot, and add edible oils.

You can also purchase kajal online, but be aware that these products are illegal in the United States.

Below is some background on the cosmetic that’s been dubbed “Cleopatra’s makeup.”


Kajal is thought to ward off the evil eye. And considering that some in the older generations urge its use, it’s easy to see why the cosmetic is employed.


Some believe that kajal protects the eyes from intense sun rays and eye disease. In ancient times, when ophthalmologists were a rare breed, kajal seemed like a good investment.

Research has shown that those living in ancient times weren’t completely wrong about lead — it can help prevent eye disease. That said, there still aren’t grounds to deny the very real risk of lead poisoning, which we’ll cover below.


In some parts of the world, a smear of kajal is believed to make your baby’s eyes look even bigger and more beautiful.

Where is kajal applied?

Kajal is mostly used in the eye area along the upper and inner lower lids.

Parents who prefer to avoid the eye region but still want to maintain tradition make a dot either on the forehead close to the hairline, baby’s neck, or sole of the baby’s foot. Kajal is also rubbed into the skin to prevent infection of the umbilical stump or a circumcision wound.

Let’s go back to where kajal comes from. If you’re considering purchasing kajal, the simple answer is don’t, as it’s not safe due to its toxic ingredients. However, if you’re considering making kajal, there’s more wiggle room.

Commercial kajal

Here’s the red light: A report from the Food and Drug Administration points out that lead in the form of lead sulfide comprises over 50 percent of typical kajal products. And the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports two cases of infant death due to kajal use.

In short, lead is toxic. It can damage the kidneys, brain, bone marrow, and other organs. High levels of lead in the blood can lead to coma, convulsions, and even death.

Since children have higher gut absorption and their nervous systems are still developing, they’re at high risk of lead poisoning. (That’s the reason lead-based paints were banned in 1978.)

In fact, even low levels of lead exposure — whether that be from oral ingestion, inhalation, or transdermally (through the skin) — can be harmful and cause problems with brain development. Also, the length of lead exposure increases the risk of toxicity.

Homemade kajal

Opinions ease up here depending on the ingredients (more on that in a minute), but keep in mind that there’s no way to vouch for sterility here. Plus, less than perfectly clean fingers will easily introduce an infection into your baby’s eyes.

In a 2015 report in World Scientific News, researchers in India reported that they successfully formulated kajal using two herbs that are well known in Ayurvedic medicine. While you may want to purchase Ayurvedic kajal, be sure to research its safety. Alternatively, you can make it at home.

Homemade almond kajal

Here’s what you need to make your own almond kajal:

  • an oil lamp with a wick and castor oil fuel
  • two glasses
  • a metal plate
  • a fork or tweezers
  • 3 or 4 almonds

Follow these easy steps, and you’ll have a homemade product:

  1. Thoroughly wash your hands and sterilize all utensils.
  2. Balance the plate on top of the glasses and place your oil lamp underneath.
  3. Light the lamp and hold an almond in the flame.
  4. As the almond burns, soot will collect on the underside of the plate. This is your kajal.
  5. One by one, burn each almond.
  6. Using a spoon or knife, scrape off the kajal and store it in a small jar.
  7. Add a few drops of almond oil, ghee, or clarified butter to make a paste.

Keep in mind that getting anything in your baby’s eyes can be irritating and cause tears. Still, almond-based kajal is considered safe, and like shampoo, it can be easily washed out if it gets in those precious little peepers.

Taking care of your baby’s eyes — as well as the rest of them — can, at times, come head-to-head with important cultural traditions.

However, remember that the heart behind the tradition was never to cause harm. In fact, it was quite the opposite. If our ancestors knew about the dangers of lead, they likely wouldn’t have used it.

In the spirit of honoring the tradition but applying modern-day knowledge, it’s best to avoid lead-containing kajal products. Use a safe alternative, and consider using it on other parts of the body — many of which are also part of tradition — to avoid eye irritation.

Furthermore, it’s important to discuss your cultural practices with your child’s pediatrician. This is important information to note in your child’s medical history in case there are any adverse reactions or side effects in the future.

Finally, be sure to seek medical attention if any signs of eye or skin irritation, including redness, swelling, mucus drainage, tenderness, or excessive tearing, are present.