Smegma is a natural, cheese-like substance that accumulates under the prepuce, or the foreskin in men and under the clitoral hood in women. The exact contents of these subpreputial accumulations are debated amongst scientists, though it certainly contains desquamated epithelial cells, or dead skin cells. The color can be white to yellow, depending on the person’s skin pigments, and it has a distinctive odor.
In women, smegma builds up in the folds of the labia minora, around the clitoris. This area is sometimes called the clitoral hood, because the skin of the labia minora forms a hood-like covering over the clitoris, or the small, round protrusion in front of the urethral opening. The build-up may be moist or dry and can be washed away with water. It is a perfectly normal secretion in healthy women, made up of a combination of shed skin cells and sebum, a natural, oily lubricant secreted by the glands around the vulva and clitoris.
In men, the composition of this substance is still largely unknown, though it certainly contains dead skin cells. Male subpreputial collections may also contain sebum in early years, though not later in life, as well as secretions from the penis, and perhaps urethral gland secretions. At one point in time, it was alleged that structures called Tyson’s glands were producing sebum that contributed to the collection, but this has since been debunked.
Subpreputial collections have played a large role in the circumcision debate, mostly for men, but also for women in parts of the world. They are more prevalent in uncircumcised males and have often been associated with poor hygiene, disease, and an undesirable smell. For this reason, along with aesthetic and other purposes, male circumcision has become an accepted practice.
Many, however, argue against using smegma as reasoning for circumcision, as there is no evidence that it increases the risk of disease, and simply washing with water can remove the build-up and its odor. This substance also benefits sexual function, acting as a natural lubricant to allow the painless movement of the foreskin up and down over the glans, or head, of the penis. Some have also alleged that subpreputial collections may have antibiotic and cleansing properties. This has not been proven in humans, though it is true for other mammals.
Smegma tends to increase with age and, for most people, presents no problems. Most problems with infection stem from poor hygiene, unrelated to subpreputial wetness. Washing with warm water can solve problems of build-up, but too much washing, especially with harsh soaps, can cause dermatitis. Thick secretions from the vagina and penis are unlikely to be normal, and this could be a sign of an sexually transmitted infection.
Can Smegma Create Health Problems?
There was a time when healthcare professionals believed that smegma was associated with serious conditions such as penile and cervical cancer. However, more recent studies have concluded that there is, in fact, no relationship between smegma buildup and those conditions.
Though there are health issues associated with smegma, these tend to be very benign. One of the most common complications of smegma is that, if there is a buildup, it can cause the skin to stick together—namely, the foreskin to the penis or the clitoral hood to the shaft. While such situations are not particularly dangerous, they can be uncomfortable.
If this buildup goes untreated, it can create other health problems. For example, letting smegma accumulate on the penis and stick the skin together can result in inflammation, redness, and skin irritation on the skin of the penis. When ignored, this irritation can turn into balanitis, an infection that can cause penile itching, sores, and painful urination. Balanitis, in turn, can cause serious health problems if left untreated. Thankfully, however, treatment is usually as easy as thoroughly cleaning the penis and applying antibiotics or certain skincare creams.
Long story short, smegma is not the kiss of death, but you should handle it promptly to keep your genitals healthy.
How to Get Rid of Smegma
Treating smegma is a straightforward process: you just need to give your genitals a gentle but thorough wash.
For those with vaginas, the first step is to open your vaginal folds with your fingers, then wash your labia and the surrounding area with soap and warm water. Make sure your soap is very gentle and doesn’t contain any artificial scents or other compounds—these will only irritate your labia more. If it seems that any soap irritates your labia, consult a healthcare professional for the next steps.
For those with penises, the process is similar. If you’re circumcised, simply wash the entirety of your penis with warm water and gentle soap—again, avoid anything with artificial perfumes. If you’re uncircumcised, gently pull back your foreskin and use your fingers or a soft sponge to clean your glans with soap and water.
When you’re done cleaning, give your genitals a very thorough rinse. It may help to do this in the shower.
If your smegma has not been completely removed, repeat your cleaning routine for a few more days. If the smegma is still lingering by that point, it’s time to consult your doctor to see if they have recommendations—and ensure that you’re not experiencing another, more serious medical condition.
How to Prevent Smegma
If you’re anxious about waking up one morning and being overwhelmed by a flood of smegma, don't worry. It’s easy to prevent smegma, and the process breaks down to simple hygiene.
You should wash your penis or vagina at least twice per week to clear out dirt, oils, and other substances that naturally build up over the day. Doing so will ensure that there isn’t a buildup of smegma. If you’re extra hygiene-conscious, you can wash your genitals once a day. However, washing too vigorously or too frequently can dry out and irritate your penis or vagina, so you can adjust your cleaning schedule if needed.
In addition, as mentioned above, always use gentle soaps without added fragrances or chemicals while you’re cleaning your genitals. These substances can irritate your body and, in the case of vaginas, disrupt your internal chemical balance.
Is Smegma Gross?
While smegma often has an unpleasant odor and unseemly appearance, you shouldn’t be ashamed of it.
To be sure, it’s essential to keep yourself sanitary and make sure that you clean away any dead skin cells, dirt, and oils before they accumulate. However, you are not personally unpleasant or disgusting simply for having smegma. It is a part of the human body like any other, and having it is not shameful.
In other words, you shouldn’t keep yourself clean because you’re naturally gross or unpleasant. Instead, you should do it to respect your body and keep yourself healthy, which is what matters most at the end of the day.