Smegma: Even the word sounds gross, but is this stuff really as disgusting and dirty as it seems?
For the uninitiated circumcised men out there, smegma is a substance with the texture of soft cheese that can form under a man’s foreskin. Surprisingly, the word itself actually means “soap” in Latin and Ancient Greek, and some (particularly those in the Intactivist movement) claim that this substance has tremendously beneficial qualities, like an ability to fight infections or guard against STDs.
And so, as with so many other penile mysteries we’ve looked into (what’s in your ejaculate, for example, or how to pee with a an erection), we decided to look under the foreskin and find out the facts of smegma for ourselves. To help us, we reached out to a certified smegma expert, Brian Steixner, director of men’s health for the Jersey Urology Group, to ask what exactly smegma is up to down there.
What Is Smegma, Anyway?
According to Steixner, smegma is “a healthy, sterile concentration of cells that have come off of the inside of the foreskin, as well as a small amount of glandular secretion that comes out of small glands on the foreskin.” The majority of the stuff, then, is just dead skin mixed with some fats and fatty acids, but what makes it unique is actually down to the nature of the foreskin itself.
“The foreskin is made up of mostly premature white blood cells and stem cells, making it very elastic in nature,” says Steixner. Because of this, smegma forms there and nowhere else on the male body (for women, it forms around the clitoris and in the folds of the labia).
Interestingly enough, many circumcised men also can produce a little bit of smegma. Steixner notes that, “Circumcision is never perfect, so there’s usually a little foreskin left, and in that area, a little smegma does form. But most men shower and clean it off and never even notice it. They don’t produce as much, but for some, it will be there.”
Also, if you’re wondering, despite sometimes being referred to as “d*** cheese,” you really shouldn’t eat it.
The Pros of Smegma
It’s a naturally occurring lubricant that can (presumably unwittingly) aid couples during penetration.
Aaand… that’s really it.
The Cons of Smegma
As it turns out, despite the fact that smegma is sterile and completely natural, “When it goes wrong, it goes really wrong,” Steixner explains. That’s because the area under the foreskin is a warm, wet, dark place that can become a petri dish for the bacteria that live on your body. When they get trapped in there, there are a lot of nutrients for them to feed on, and since that just leads to more bacteria, a lot can go bad. “It can become foul-smelling. It can become infected. So hygiene is really key,” says Steixner.
There really is no special way to remove smegma — you simply have to pull the foreskin back and clean it out with soap and water. But as long as you’re a generally hygienic person (i.e., you shower every day or every other day), even uncircumcised men are unlikely to form enough smegma to be noticeable. It, and its associated problems, more commonly occur in people who don’t take care of themselves. “In our very penocentric society, it’s not so common in the young population,” says Steixner. But in older people in nursing homes, and oftentimes homeless people, he frequently sees something called balanitis, which is an inflammation of the penis head and foreskin.
Even more frightening than that: “Some believe that it’s this infectious environment that can lead to penile cancer, which is a rare but particularly vicious form of cancer that uncircumcised men are at a much higher risk for,” says Steixner.
So, while smegma is perfectly natural — and can make a good lubricant during sex! (vomit again) — there’s nothing probiotic or regenerative or anything like that in it. It’s just some dead skin that you really, really should clean outta there.