A Primer on India's Traditional Color Cosmetics

A Primer on India's Traditional Color Cosmetics

References of  the use of cosmetics in India is found in Charaka-samhita, a comprehensive text on ancient Indian medicine credited to Charaka, a practitioner of the traditional system of Indian medicine known as Ayurveda. Charaka is thought to have flourished sometime between the 2nd century bce and the 2nd century ce. The Charaka-samhita, as it exists today, is thought to have arisen in the 1st century ce. Studies on ancient Indian medicine indicate, however, that the original text was written several centuries earlier, according to Encyclopaedia Britannica. Traditionally, products used as cosmetics either were natural materials or natural materials with certain modifications classified under three broad categories:

  • Herbal: such as sandalwood, turmeric, neem, basil, coconut, lemon
  • Mineral:  such as  clays, red oxide, carbon, various metals
  • Animal: including  honey, wax, dairy products, eggs

Cosmetics and Toiletries has documented traditional types of color cosmetics used in India, though chemicals are now added to the traditional ingredients.


Sindoor or sindur is used by   women (till the death of their spouses) to indicate their married status. This red-colored powder is considered sacred and auspicious and is applied to the parting in women’s hair. Sindoor is available as a powder, liquid or as a stick making its application easier.


Traditionally a powder made using turmeric or saffron mixed with slaked lime, this product is used for social and/or religious markings. Kumkum is not available in various colors and forms – liquid, paste and powder – and is a daily part of makeup routines.


“Bindi” is Sanskrit for “dot” and refers to the dot applied to a woman’s forehead between the eyebrows, said to be the location of the sixth chakra or wheel of wisdom or energy point in the body. In Hindu tradition, this is considered the most sensitive part of body and is regarded as an exit point for energy. However, according to cultural norms, the pressure applied when sticking a bindi to this body site is said to retain energy and strengthen concentration, and the dot itself is believed to protect against demons or bad luck.

Bindis are ubiquitous as decals and are often embellished with sequins, gold dust, pearls and even stones, both artificial and/or precious. They are packaged on release paper, which is usually silicone coated.

Recently, the bindi has taken on a medical role. To improve nutrition, a medical foundation in India joined forces with an ad agency in Singapore to combat iodine deficiency, which is prevalent in developing countries. An adhesive-backed felt bindi embedded with iodine was developed, designed to topically dispense the daily required amount into the wearer’s body.


Kajal has been used to decorate the eyes of women since ages in India. It is applied to the eyelids, close to eyelashes, to enhance the expression of eyes and make them look larger and brighter. Traditionally kajal was prepared by burning ghee or vegetable oil in a bowl and collecting the soot. This was then mixed with sandalwood oil or camphor to obtain a black paste. Kajal formulations have now changed and consist of carbon black as the pigment in a mixture of oils and fatty, waxy bases.

In India, kajal is reported to be the highest-selling eye cosmetic; in fact, is driving the sales of other cosmetics. International brands such as Maybelline, MAC and Faces include kajal in their current product portfolios. L’Oréal India, recently debuted its L’Oréal Paris Kajal Magique line.

In western markets, where the word kajal has become synonymous with the more familiar kohl as a descriptor of the smokey eye crayon. Guerlain launched its luxury eye liner “Khol Me Kajal” in the shade “Noir Volcanique.”  Bourjois offered its own “Queen Attitude” kohl kajal.


Most women in S.Asia  decorate their hands and feet with intricate patterns of henna or mehendi for festive occasions, especially before wedding ceremonies. Mehndi is typically prepared by making a paste of henna leaves in water with ingredients such as eucalyptus oil, clove oil, tea extract, catechu or acacia tree extract, walnut extract, apricot extract, and/or lemon juice. Mehndi may also be used to impart an auburn color to gray hair.


In India, haldi or turmeric is used for rituals, particularly before weddings. It is applied as a paste as it imparts a glow to the skin.

New generations want the convenience of readymade products that are easy to apply – kajal from a pot or stick and bindis reinforced with antimicrobial adhesives – opportunities abound indeed!




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