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Vol. 13 No. 3 - July 2007

Kohl and Sindoor: the potential source of lead poisoning

 By: Dr. V.P. Kapoor*

The cosmetics are the utility products used extensively worldwide for maintaining and improving general appearance of face and other parts of the body e.g. mouth, hand fingers, eye, hair etc. The main objective of the cosmetic application is to look more impressive, beautiful and smart to a considerable extent. Kohl (kajal/surma) and Sindoor (kumkum) are the two important traditional cosmetics, which are used since ancient times. Kohls are very popular in Asia, Africa and Middle East, which are applied around the eyes to beautify them. It is extensively used by women and generally believed to be useful as an eye tonic. In India, Sindoor is an essential cosmetic item for women, who religiously and traditionally apply it on the forehead and at the parting of the hair. The Sindoor is used by the married women in India every day as well as on special occasions like Sankranti and Navratri to increase the longevity of their husbands. Women are frequently using these two traditional cosmetics without knowing the health hazards of these utility products. It is now well established that these items are the potential source of lead poisoning.

Health hazards of kohls

This traditional cosmetic is used for eye beautification in Asian, African and Middle Eastern countries. The popularity of kohls can be understood by the fact that the product is available in developed countries viz. USA and EU countries because of its demand by their immigrant population. According to different published reports, kohl contains up to 50% lead content and may be a potential source of lead poisoning. C. Parry et. al., (Environ Health Prospect, 1991, 94, 121-23) have analyzed 22 samples, purchased from USA, UK, Morocco and Mauritania which originated from India, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. Nine of these samples contained lead levels less than 0.6%; six samples had 3.31 to 37.3% lead and remainder possessed lead content in excess of 50%. Another report (AD Hardy et.al., J Ethanopharmacol, 1998, 60, 223-34) is based on the analysis of 47 kohl samples used in Oman through X-ray power diffraction and scanning electron microscopy. Out of these, 18 samples were made in Oman and in five of these, the main component was galena (PbS). Of the other 13 samples, 12 were based on amorphous carbon and one on hematite (Fe2O3). The remaining 29 samples were made in other countries and have been found to contain either PbS or Pb3O4 or Fe2O3 or ZnO or  CaCO3 or H3BO3as the main component.

Clinical trials had also been made in Israel to assess the impact of kohls with reference to blood lead, zinc protoporphyrin, haemoglobin, mean corpuscular volume (MCV), serum iron and calcium (A Nir et. al., Isr J Med Sci, 1992, 28, 417-21). Assessment was made on infants, aged 6-16 months, on 24 kohl users and 30 non-kohl users. It was found that blood lead levels were significantly higher in infants to whom kohl was applied (11.2 vs 4.3 microgram/dl, P less than 0.001) and were greater than 20 microgram/dl in three of them. In the non-kohl users, blood lead levels were significantly higher in infants whose mothers used kohls ( 5.2 vs 2.8 microgram/dl, P less than 0.02). No significant difference was found in other parameters. The clinical trial clearly indicated that application of kohl to infant or motherís eyes was associated with a significant increase in the infants blood lead levels and in some cases with asymptomatic lead poisoning.

Hazards of Sindoor

Traditionally, the red Sindoor was made at home from turmeric and alum. The turmeric powder, which becomes red when mixed with lime juice or lime powder, moistened in water, or with alum, iodine and camphor, or with oil and sea shell powder (calcium salts), or aguru, chandan and kasturi. It can also be made of sandalwood mixed with musk, or from a mixture of saffron ground with kusumbha flower. Another traditional ingredient used in making Sindoor was raw rice in water heated in a pan until it formed into a glue-like red carbonaceous compound, which solidified on cooling and finally powdered. It is also believed that in olden days, sindoor was also made with a special type of red marble stone, covered with turmeric and a little oil and left undisturbed for a few days, after which it turned into red powder

However, these traditional preparations have long been forgotten after the emergence of synthetic dye industry, which offered a variety of brilliant and fast red dyes at a cheaper price. Now-a-days, Sindoor is produced from chemical dyes, synthetic materials and lead salts. Some of the manufactures produce it by powdering crude red lead (Pb3O4). Commonly Sindoor prepared at large scale mostly contains very toxic, low grade commercial red lead oxide as such or along with other synthetic or natural bulking materials. In general, manufacturers, aim is to produce a fast blood red powder at lowcost using any brilliant red dye without considering the hazards and after-effects of the product. It is not surprising that red colour might be obtained by using Rhodamine B dye, which can induce hereditary disorders. Red colour may also be derived from mercury sulphite, which can cause skin cancer. All these toxic substances can cause hair loss, oedema and erythema. The market is flooded with unbranded products, which generally cause toxicity problems.

Current status of lead poisoning

Mankind has been using lead for over 6000 years, and solely as a result of anthropogenic activities, lead has become the most ubiquitous toxic metal. Hippocrates was probably the first of the ancient physicians to recognize lead as the cause of colic. Lead toxicity was recognised and recorded as early as 2000 BC and its widespread use has been a cause of endemic chronic plumbism in several societies throughout history. The last three centuries also witnessed the worst outbreaks of lead poisoning among adults, which were occupational in origin, although environmental pollution also reported adverse effects of lead on health. Many reviews and references are available in literature related to health effects of exposure to lead. Now-a-days, there is much concern about its exposure from occupational and community environment, contaminated food and consumer items, and water. In India, some industries especially those making batteries, cables, paints, sheets, pipes, industrial alloys are the major consumers of lead. The possible sources of lead exposure are contaminated soil and water, mining, ceramics, food adulterants, pencils, toys, industrial effluents, cosmetics and herbal medicines. In developed countries, lead exposure is on the decline due to implementation of environmental and occupational regulations but in developing countries lead poisoning continues to be a serious problem.

Amongst traditional cosmetics, kohl and Sindoor are the possible sources of lead exposure in India. The Sindoor available in market is usually of non standard specifications and parameters and the quality is generally unfit for skin application. As there are no strict regulations for cosmetics, there is every likelihood that some other harmful and banned red dyes could be used. The same situation exists for kohls as a lot of manufactures produced them through traditional practice without considering health hazards of the produce. Even most of the branded products do not carry the mandatory label of ingredients, colouring agent and Eco-mark. Eco-marked products assure the quality, performance and safety requirements of the Bureau of Indian Standards (BIS). These products are also required to declare the list of critical inputs and are not supposed to be manufactured from any carcinogenic or otherwise harmful ingredients. The presence of lead in cosmetics is strictly prohibited in UK and USA.


Kohl and Sindoor available in market contain appreciable amount of lead and thus become a source of lead poisoning. Lead exposure can result in a wide range of biological effects, depending upon the level and duration of exposure. When traces of lead salts are ingested, inhaled or absorbed, these can harm virtually every organ in the human body, especially the brain, kidney and reproductive system. The issue of traditional cosmetics containing lead requires a major attention for their thorough examination. The regulations regarding the acceptable limits of lead concentration are yet to be fixed. Prioritizing identification, monitoring of sources and implementation of regulatory norms are absolutely necessary.

*Emeritus Scientist-CSIR, National Botanical Research Institute, Lucknow-226 001, India
E-mail: [email protected]

This article has been reproduced from the archives of EnviroNews - Newsletter of ISEB India.

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