What do King Tut, David Bowie, Kim Kardashian, and Nina Simone all have in common? For starters, their iconic eyeliner. While many of us are barraged with TikToks and YouTube tutorials on eyeliner styles from cat to smokey, eyeliner is one of the world’s oldest cosmetics, dating back thousands of years. Today, most people view eyeliner exclusively as a beauty product. They are not wrong. Nonetheless, eyeliner has a rich history. In many ancient societies and in modern-day culture, eyeliner has spiritual and cultural significance and a few health benefits to boot.

Recently, I was shuffling through black-and-white photos of my grandparents on my South Asian side. I noticed that my grandmother, and indeed all of the women in these photos, donned jet-black eyeliner and no other makeup. Pictures of my grandmother as a baby or toddler do not exist, but one photo of my aunt shows her wearing thick black liner when she could not have been more than one year old! I asked my mom about this and she brushed it off by saying something to the effect of “Yeah, that’s a thing over there…it’s called kajal and it’s makeup, but not really.” This prompted me to ask, “How is eyeliner not makeup?” In researching the answer to this, I found a deeper connection to my own heritage and family.

Archaeological evidence tells us that men and women alike wore eyeliner in both Ancient Egypt and Southern Iraq as early as 3500 BCE. Antimony and ground lead sulfides were combined with water, oil, and copper to create kohl, a dark black ointment-like substance that these people wore. This was not done for aesthetic reasons, but rather for medicinal, spiritual, and social reasons.

It was believed in Ancient Northern Africa, Egypt, subcontinent India, and the Middle East that kohl would protect one from the evil eye, the belief that when someone is envious of you, their curse-filled glare will direct bad luck and negativity your way. Lining the eyes with kohl, or kajal and Surma, as it is called in South Asia, was a surefire way to ensure protection for oneself and one’s family. This belief, combined with the medical benefits of kohl liner, made its use ubiquitous amongst men, women, and children. This explains why my infant aunt was wearing liner in the photo. After all, babies perhaps need the most protection of all!

Kohl has been proven to be medicinally significant. Samples of kohl found in ancient tombs were studied by scientists. Its components, including sulfides, copper, and lead, prompted skin cells to produce two and a half times the amount of nitric acid than they would otherwise, making it enormously effective in fighting viral infections. The cat-eye lining of the eyes worn by men in Ancient Egypt not only demonstrated their elevated social status but also acted as an anti-inflammatory agent and kept bugs away. In fact, according to the National Institutes of Health, kajal can be used to prevent and treat conjunctivitis, blepharitis, and even cataracts.

In addition to the medical benefits and spiritual importance of kohl, its use also demonstrated one’s social status and power. In Ancient Egypt, wealthy men and women elaborately lined their eyes with kohl to ward off evil, but the intricacy of the design and specific use of kohl (less wealthy people used soot to line their eyes) was also used to demonstrate one’s power and high status in society. The thickly lined cat eye design used by pharaohs and queens in Ancient Egypt is best demonstrated on King Tut’s famous coffin and the bust of Queen Nefertiti.

Today, eyeliner is almost solely worn for aesthetic reasons. However, its recent use by Iranian women gives this pigment power. Following Masha Amini’s death in September 2022 at the hands of Iran’s Morality Police after her arrest, Iranian women cut their hair short, burned their hijabs, and yes, started wearing thick jet-black kohl as a form of protest against the regime. A cosmetic as resistance! A use no one could have predicted.

The global sale of eyeliner alone brings in hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue each year. Foremost of its existence, eyeliner was not gendered and seldom used for beautification alone. The legacy of its significance in ancient times can be seen all over the world today, particularly in South Asia where kohl/kajal/Surma are still used to line eyes, as been the practice for thousands of years. While I rarely wear eye makeup, lately when I put on the black pigment of my liner around my eyes, albeit in a self-sharpening pencil encasement, I feel a connection to all the women in my family who came before me and the millions of women in parts of the world where I have never been to, but have roots in. For that reason, perhaps more than any other, eyeliner will remain culturally and spiritually significant for folks around the world.