Element 51 in our International Year of the Periodic Table series is antimony. The element is found in a variety of modern industrial applications, including flame retardants, organ pipes, and car batteries. It is also an ingredient in cosmetics, where it can be mixed with lead to produce kohl.
Kohl is a popular beauty product among people living in Asia, Africa, and the Middle East. Unfortunately, a large number of these products contain dangerous levels of lead, and their use may be contributing to high rates of lead poisoning among this population.
This is especially concerning because kohl has been used for centuries as a cosmetic around the eyes. The substance is traditionally made by grinding up a metallic mineral such as galena (lead sulfide), although other kinds of kohl are also known, such as mixtures of ground gelena and animal fat, as well as black steatite – a type of talc – and green phosgenite – an oxide of copper.
The health risks of using contaminated kohl can be serious, especially for children, who are more susceptible to lead poisoning. High levels of lead in the blood can cause a range of problems, from anemia to low IQ and even convulsions.
Our researchers have recently been analysing kohl samples bought in Morocco, Mauritania, Great Britain, and the United States. They have discovered that, despite the widespread belief that kohl consists mainly of antimony, it is generally not true. SEM-EDXS, a method that provides information on the structure and particle size of materials, confirmed that most of the kohl samples were comprised of mixtures of different minerals, with only traces of antimony present in any of them. However, nine of the twenty-two samples contained more than 50% lead, with a mean value of 37.3%. antimony Kohl