By Linda Conlin, Pro to Pro Managing Editor

Captain Jack Sparrow, a fictional character, and the main protagonist of the Pirates of the Caribbean film series, had an especially memorable appearance with a leather tricorn hat, braided goatee, gold teeth, objects in his hair, tattoos, and more. But especially dramatic was the use of kohl around his eyes, giving him an exotic and somewhat intimidating look. Kohl is an ancient eye cosmetic widely used by all genders in the Middle East, Caucasus and North Africa, South Asia, West Africa, and the Horn of Africa. Its use is thought to have originated in ancient Egypt for beautification, sun protection – much like the eye black we see in sports – possible medicinal purposes, and protection from the curse of the ‘evil eye.’ The tradition continues today, particularly for special occasions. Actor Johnny Depp introduced adding kohl to Sparrow’s look when he was inspired by his study of nomads, whom he compared to pirates.

Although commercially available in areas where it’s a tradition, kohl is often homemade from burning plants, seeds, sap, and other locally available materials into soot, which is then applied with olive oil. (Currently, it is banned from import to the U.S., as studies have questioned its safety due to the dangers of lead poisoning.) There are two methods of applying kohl for cosmetic appeal - tightlining and waterlining. In tightlining, kohl is drawn at the base of the upper and lower lashes, while with waterlining, it’s applied onto the inner rim of the eyelids.

Eyecare professionals warn against waterlining because it can result in meibomian gland dysfunction (MGD), a blockage of the glands that secrete the oily layer of the tear film. MGD can lead to altered tear film composition, ocular surface disease, ocular and eyelid discomfort, and evaporative dry eye. In the case of homemade kohl or other eye cosmetics, there’s also a risk of particles intruding onto the surface of the eye, and infection. Similarly, the recent interest in eyeliner tattoos including waterline tattoos, poses risks. Consequences can include infection, irritation, allergic reaction to pigments, ink migration, and MGD. This is not to mention that most waterline tattoos fade within months due to continuous wetting from tears.

Considering that you’ve never seen an ancient pirate wearing sunglasses on the glittering seas, except for waterlining, Captain Jack may have had a good idea.