Smegma is a naturally occurring substance found on the genitals of both men and women. It is the result of a buildup of skin cells, oil secretions, and moisture.
If left to build up, smegma can become smelly or lead to an infection. As a result, people should regularly clean the parts of the body where smegma occurs.
In this article, we examine how to identify smegma, the best ways to remove it, and how to prevent smegma from developing.
Smegma may appear as a cheese-like substance, which may concern some people. However, it is typically nothing to worry about unless it is not smegma but a symptom of an infection.
If a boy or man is uncircumcised, they will have a foreskin that covers the head of the penis. Sweat, oil, and skin cells can remain under the foreskin if the area is not cleaned properly.
At times, smegma may develop into white, pearl-shaped lumps under the foreskin. Unless a person experiences pain or other symptoms are present, this is also nothing to worry about.
In males, smegma most commonly develops in those who are not circumcised but can occur in all males. In females, smegma may build up between the labia and around the hood of the clitoris.
In adult men, smegma is formed of a combination of skin cells and oil produced by Tyson's glands under the foreskin. The purpose of smegma is to provide protection and lubrication to the penis.
Both male and female infants can develop an excess buildup of smegma, and it is important to speak to the child's pediatrician before cleaning.
When an infant boy develops smegma under the foreskin, parents may be tempted to pull back the foreskin and clean the head of the penis. This is not routinely recommended.
In most males, the foreskin is attached to the head of the penis from birth and starts to separate as they age. This normal separation allows for the foreskin to be pulled back and cleaned. If the foreskin is forcibly retracted, it can lead to severe pain, bleeding, skin tears, and scarring.
It is essential to talk to a pediatrician to determine if a child's foreskin is ready to be pulled back. Most boys are around the age of 5 when they can retract their foreskin on their own. Some boys are unable to retract the foreskin until they are adolescents, and this is still considered normal.
Some men and boys may experience a redness and swelling of the head of the penis. This is called balanitis. Males of any age who develop this condition should be seen by a pediatrician or doctor to make sure it is not being caused by one of the following:
- an infection
- psoriasis or other skin condition
- irritation, such as from the use of soaps, detergents, or condoms
If the penis is not cleaned regularly, smegma can build up and may become smelly, infected, or prevent foreskin movement.
In infants and young boys:
- Do not pull back the foreskin of an infant or young child; caregivers should speak to their pediatrician to determine an appropriate age to retract the foreskin.
- Clean the genitals with gentle soap and water as part of their regular bath routine.
- Do not use Q-tips, irrigation, or antiseptics to clean under an infant's foreskin.
As mentioned above, if the foreskin is retracted too soon, it can cause pain, bleeding and skin tears, so it is important that infant and young children's foreskin is not retracted too early.
Boys and men with a retractable foreskin should take the following steps when cleaning the penis to remove smegma:
- Gently retract the foreskin back toward the shaft of the penis.
- Clean the head of the penis under the foreskin with gentle soap and rinse with warm water.
- Dry beneath the foreskin with a soft towel.
- Pull the foreskin back over the head of the penis — never leave it retracted.
Remember to speak with a pediatrician or doctor if there is difficulty with pulling back the foreskin. Never force the foreskin back, as this can lead to both immediate and long-term problems.
In women and girls, smegma may build up between the labia and around the hood of the clitoris. In most cases, it is nothing to worry about, and good hygiene practices should take care of the buildup.
In female infants, smegma may develop in the vulva (sex organs outside of the vaginal area), where it acts as a protective barrier. A pediatrician will be able to explain whether, how, and when to clean.
It is important to keep an infant's vulva clean, but caregivers should keep in mind that they should use only mild soap and water or a baby wipe when cleaning.
Women and girls should take the following steps when cleaning the vulva to remove smegma:
- Gently wash the vulva with warm water and a mild soap.
- Avoid scented washes, powders, and sprays.
- Dry with a soft towel.
With infants, it is best to speak with a pediatrician about their recommendations on hygiene practices, including management of smegma.
While smegma is normal, it can lead to problems if it is left to build up. For both men and women, practicing good genital hygiene as mentioned above is essential.
Women may also want to consider the following preventive steps:
- wearing cotton underwear. Different types of cotton underwear are available to purchase online.
- avoiding thongs, nylon, acetate, or other synthetic fabric types
- avoiding wearing nylon pantyhose, leggings, or girdles that do not let the vagina breathe, leading to trapped moisture and heat
- avoid using feminine hygiene products, such as deodorants, feminine spray, oils, and greasy substances
- avoiding vaginal douching, as it can change the pH of the vagina and lead to bacterial overgrowth
Smegma is normal in both men and women and is due to the buildup of skin cells, oil secretions, and moisture. Practicing good genital hygiene may help prevent or reduce smegma buildup in both sexes.
While it is okay for uncircumcised men and older boys to retract their foreskin, it is not recommended for infants and younger boys. This is because the foreskin may not have separated from the head of the penis.
Forcibly pulling back the foreskin can lead to severe pain, bleeding, skin tears, and even scarring. Parents and caregivers should speak to their child's pediatrician for advice on genital hygiene.