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If you're craving a sultry, smokey, smudged liner look, look no further than a kohl eyeliner. Stemming back to ancient Egypt, as in—when people would literally grind up charcoal to use as eye makeup (do not try at home), the dark pigmented-style liner still lives on today. Kohl liners pack a similarly dramatic punch, but with more advanced formulas, of course.
But, there is a twist. The ingredient itself is unapproved for cosmetic use in the United States, and kohl eyeliners typically refer to the color of the liner (a dark blackish-charcoal color) and the super-soft formula. Kohl consists of salts of heavy metals, including lead, and should be avoided in cosmetics. That being said, the easy-to-apply easy-to-smudge "kohl" liners you find in stores are safe and has the ability to give you the smokey eye of your dreams.
Ahead, the best kohl (colored) eyeliners out there.
Best Overall: Charlotte Tilbury Rock 'N' Kohl Eyeliner
Although it’s called kohl, this formula is really more of a liquid-kohl hybrid. It boasts the supremely silky application of a liquid, though with the easily-smudged texture of kohl. (And if you really want to up the smudge factor, just buff it out with a brush.) It’s waterproof, lasting up to 14 hours, and is infused with crushed pearl powder to hydrate the delicate skin around your eyes. While there’s a nice range of dark shades to choose from, the eye-opening nude tone is also a must-try.
Best Overall, Runner-Up: Make Up For Ever Kohl Pencil
For those seeking a classic, simple black kohl liner, this is the one to go with. It does just come in the one black shade, but the formula is one of the smoothest we’ve ever used. Credit the addition of tons of hydrating ingredients, including vegetable lipids, vitamin E, and mango seed oil, just to name a few. Plus, the pigments are also specially formulated to be ultra-blendable.
Best Budget: Rimmel Scandaleyes Waterproof Gel Pencil
Yes, that price is correct. This drugstore staple is a fan favorite, rivaling (if not outperforming) many of its much pricier counterparts. The waterproof formula means it won’t run, even if you apply it in your waterline, and touts a gel formula that glides along skin without ever pulling or tugging—our biggest eyeliner pet peeve.
What Our Testers Say
"I found the liner did not run or smear on me throughout the day, and I was impressed with how efficiently it stayed in the waterline." —Ashley Rebecca, Product Tester
Best Drugstore: NYX Professional Makeup Slim Eye Pencil in Taupe
There are plenty of great eyeliners to be found at the drugstore, but this is one of our faves. It’s one of the brand’s best-sellers for a reason, containing hydrating coconut oil for a silky texture and feel, plus a dizzying array of 24 shades to pick from. And no matter which hue you choose, the rich pigments pack a serious color punch.
What Our Editors Say
"The slim eye pencil from NYX is my go-to when I want a pop of color. It’s creamy, pigmented, and available for a great price. I personally love the purple and lavender shimmer shades because they bring out the amber in my brown eyes." —Madeline Hirsch, Senior News Editor
Best Waterproof: Kulfi Underlined Kajal Eyeliner
Sure, you want a kohl liner to look smudgy, but you also want to be able to control those smudges and not have them happen on their own accord. Enter this option, a favorite of celebrity makeup artist Jamie Greenberg (who notes that kajal and kohl are the same things, FYI). “It’s waterproof and doesn’t move, even staying on the waterline nicely,” she says.
Best for Easy Application: Jillian Dempsey Kohl Eyeliner
If you want to get that kohl eyeliner effect but aren’t quite sure how to achieve it, try this guy. The dual-ended pencil features a silky tip on one end that delivers just the right amount of pigment and a built-in smudger on the other, great for buffing out the color. The formula is also totally natural and cruelty-free, filled with organic jojoba oil, marula oil, and shea butter.
What Our Editors Say
“So soft and silky, it just glides over inner and outer rims for a perfectly defined eye. I love the smudger—makes for a perfectly imperfect look. I'm partial to the Deep Burgundy shade. " —Leah Wyar, SVP/GM
Best Double-Duty: Stila Stay All Day Smudge Stick Waterproof Eye Liner
“This is another fabulous formula that glides on and literally stays in place all day,” says Greenberg. (More specifically, the waterproof pick lasts up to 12 hours.) But what we love most of all is that the creamy formula pulls double-duty, working just as well as a liner as it does as a shadow; just buff on all-over with your fingertips or a brush if you want to use it as the latter. It’s also nice for those who don’t love traditional pencil formats, with a twist-up tip that requires no sharpening.
Best Shade Range: MAC Eye Kohl Pencil
A true cult classic, we appreciate that this pick comes not only in a line-up of the classic dark shades you’d expect from a kohl formula—black, brown—but also some more unexpected colors and a variety of finishes, too. There’s a bright mint with a pearlized finish and a beautiful shimmery bronze, just to name a few. Either way, the pencil glides on smoothly and has the added benefit of being an ophthalmologist-tested, a boon for those with sensitive eyes.
Best Shade Range, Runner-Up: Younique Moodstruck Precision Pencil Eyeliner
Greenberg loves the “smooth and soft formula,” as well as all of the colors this pencil comes in. Speaking of, these aren’t just your basic shades but some more unique options, think a robin’s egg blue, royal purple, and crisp white that can be used along the waterline to help make you look more awake.
Best for a Dramatic Effect: Rituel de Fille The Black Orb Engimatic Eyeliner
For anyone looking to really drive home the smokey, smoldering eye vibes that you get with a kohl liner, this pick can’t be beaten. The name says it all; instead of coming in a traditional pencil, this is, well, an orb of deeply pigmented black kohl pigment. You can apply it as you would a powder, using an angled liner brush, though it’s so creamy and intense that it can even be smudged on the lower and upper lash line with your fingertips for a very dramatic look. Happy users rave about how buildable the color is, too.
Best for a Natural Effect: Laura Mercier Kohl Eye Pencil
To be fair, kohl liners are more often associated with an ultra-dramatic, in-your-face, smokey eye. But they can also be used to create a more subdued look, particularly if you try this option. Why? The unique tip has a thicker diameter than other liners, specially made to help line the inside of the eyelid at the base of the lashes, a technique that makes for an eye-opening yet natural effect.
Best Splurge: Victoria Beckham Satin Kajal Liner
This pick may be pricey, but it’s well worth every penny. It’s supremely creamy, never tugging or skipping, and highly pigmented. It’s also a top choice for anyone with sensitive eyes, ophthalmologist- and dermatologist-tested, and safe to use on the waterline, even for contact lens wearers. Not to mention that the dual-sided pencil comes with a built-in smudger on one end.
What Our Editors Say
The Victoria Beckham Satin Kajal Liner is the smoothest kohl liner I’ve ever used. It glides on effortlessly and is highly-pigmented for maximum color payoff, but my favorite aspect is the smudger—it makes for crazy-easy smokey eyes.” —Karli Bendlin, Senior Editor
Kohl eyeliners are ideal for those looking for a smudgy, smokey effect. The Charlotte Tilbury Rock ‘N’ Kohl Eyeliner (view at Sephora) is our top choice—super silky, long-lasting, and available in a nice range of colors. Newbies will appreciate that the Jillian Dempsey Kohl Eyeliner (view at Credo Beauty) is a dual-ended option with a built-in smudger that makes application easier than ever (and also has a squeaky clean, natural formula). Meanwhile, the NYX Professional Makeup Slim Eye Pencil Long-Lasting Eyeliner (view at Ulta) is a top drugstore pick with a wallet-friendly price tag and jaw-droppingly extensive shade range. Or try the Stila Stay All Day Smudge Stick Waterproof Eyeliner (view at Ulta), a two-in-one with a stay-put, waterproof formula that works just as well as a liner as it does an eye shadow.
What to Look for in a Kohl Eyeliner
Kohl or Kajal
Greenberg points out that two mean the same thing and are often used interchangeably. Seeing either term on a pencil is a sign that it has that silky, easy to smudge texture you're after.
Soft, Moveable Texture
It's this soft texture that will allow you to create a smokey look. Make sure to opt for a pick that doesn't tug at the delicate skin around your eyes.
How Quickly It Sets
Because a kohl formula is meant to be smudged out, you’ll ideally want to find an option that gives you enough playtime to work with it before it totally sets in place, points out Greenberg.
How do you sharpen kohl eyeliners?
There’s nothing fancy or special you need to do here; just a traditional, classic eyeliner sharpener will get the job done, says Greenberg.
How do you apply kohl eyeliners?
Because these are so soft and creamy, your best bet is to first create small dashes, suggests Greenberg. Then use an angled liner brush, or even your finger, to blend these dashes so that they connect into one line. Continue buffing if you’re after a more smudged effect.
Do kohl eyeliners expire?
Why Trust Byrdie?
Byrdie contributor Melanie Rud has over a decade of experience in the beauty industry, writing for some of the biggest magazines and websites out there. Kohl eyeliner is her preferred liner formula of choice, which she likes to use to line her top waterline.
Meet the Expert
Jamie Greenberg is a celebrity makeup artist based in Los Angeles. She frequently works with celebrities such as Chelsea Handler and Kaley Cuoco, has done campaigns with major beauty brands, and is also known for her editorial work.