Health concerns about lead in traditional kohl

Kohl (also known as: kajal, surma, al-kahl/al-kohl) is a traditional eye cosmetic of Middle Eastern, Asian and North African societies. It is also used in ways similar to a natural health product for general eye health, treatments to cuts, and is regarded as a general antibacterial substance.

Alerted by Direction de santé publique de Montréal, Health Canada issued a public advisory in September 2005 informing consumers about the potential exposure to lead through traditional kohl. Health Canada has taken action to remove known lead-containing kohl from the market, however it is suspected that there may be more kohl products currently being sold in Canada which contain lead.


Traditional kohl should not be confused with modern eyeliner. Usually, kohl is in powder form, and is put on with an applicator stick. It can be purchased at various ethnic markets and gift shops in Canada. Modern eyeliner (sometimes labelled as "kohl"), is most often in pencil form, and is sold at national retailers across the country. These eyeliners undergo more stringent product controls and have not been found to contain lead.

Traditional kohl (unlabelled)

Traditional kohl (unlabelled)

Modern Eyeliner

Modern Eyeliner

Why is lead a problem?

Lead is a metal which accumulates in the body and is therefore toxic even at low levels of exposure. Lead poisoning is not always easy to recognize. Symptoms of lead poisoning can include: headaches, irritability, abdominal pain, vomiting, general weakness, paleness, weight loss, poor attention span, noticeable learning difficulty, slowed speech development and hyperactivity.

Lead is especially harmful to children. Exposure to even small amounts of lead in the womb, during infancy or early childhood can result in lower birth weight, behavioural problems, learning disabilities and reduced intelligence. Lead can increase the risk of miscarriages, stillbirths and premature deliveries in pregnant women, and can also affect male fertility.

What can I do?

  • As a precaution, Health Canada advises Canadians to not use the above products or any other unlabelled kohl products.
  • If you have doubts about kohl in your possession, stop using it and dispose of it immediately. This can be done through normal household trash, being careful to wrap or encase the product to prevent access by children.

If you suspect that you or your child have been exposed to lead through the use of traditional kohl, consult a physician. Other questions and concerns about kohl can be addressed to your nearest Product Safety Office at 1-866-662-0666 or by email at

Photos of labelled kohl found to contain high levels of lead:

Hashmi Kohl Aswad (Pakistan)

Hashmi Kohl Aswad (Pakistan)

Khojati (India)

Khojati (India)

What is Health Canada doing about lead in traditional kohl?

Health Canada sampled 14 kohl products across Canada for the presence of lead. The following products were found to contain high levels of lead:

  • Hashmi Kohl Aswad from Pakistan;
  • Khojati from India; and
  • unlabelled kohl from Morocco.

Although lead-containing kohl has been removed from the market and measures have been taken to prevent further importation into Canada, there may be other kohl products in Canada which contain lead that are unknown to Health Canada.

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