What Is Smegma? The Smelly Truth About Our Bodies

The wonderful thing is that we're learning something new about our bodies every day. Some of these things are fascinating while others can be downright worrisome. Somewhere in the middle of this is the topic of personal hygiene, where you learn about things like the effect on men's health of not wiping after peeing and body parts that you might be washing too much.

Have you ever heard of the word "smegma"? It has to do with personal hygiene too. It refers to a combination of oils, dead skin cells, debris, sweat, and other bodily fluids that accumulate in your genital region. It's typically more common in uncircumcised penises, and yes, smegma can occur in women too. Often thought of as having the thick, crumbly consistency of cottage cheese with a white or yellow hue, smegma can give out a foul odor, which some have likened to spoiled milk. 

Before you wrinkle your nose in disgust, it is important to understand that the components that make up smegma actually serve a purpose. Oils, for example, keep your body, including your private parts, lubricated. This reduces friction between the foreskin and penis head, per primary care physician Dr. A. Hart-Pinto (via JHP Medical U.K). In the case of female genitals, lubrication ensures that the clitoral hood is able to freely move back and forth over the clitoris, essentially protecting it, shared urologist and pelvic surgeon Dr. Rena Malik. It can also prevent dry skin and itching. But when smegma occurs, things can get messy. 

Smegma can cause other complications besides smell

Although the combination of oils, dead skin cells, debris, and other fluids that accumulate by way of smegma is harmless, and smegma isn't a sexually transmitted disease or infection, it does become a matter of personal hygiene. For starters, the smell can be pretty bad. This is because all of what gets collected at the head of your penis, in your foreskin, in the folds of the labia, and under the clitoral hood can become a breeding ground for bacteria, which results in a strong-smelling foul odor. Smegma can cause discoloration of your genitals too. 

Additionally, smegma can lead to ongoing inflammation in the area, shared Dr. Rena Malik. Clitoral adhesions can occur as a result of this. This is when the clitoral gland gets stuck to the hood, per the expert. In the case of penises, smegma buildup can cause the foreskin to stick to the penis. Both of these situations can be quite painful. Further complications from smegma include irritation, redness, and swelling in your genitals. For those with a penis, such irritation could even lead to a condition called "balanitis," which is an inflammation of the head of the penis. 

Because your body starts producing more oils after you hit puberty, smegma is largely a post-puberty smelly phenomenon. Similarly, as you age, since oil production declines, the opposite is true. Smegma might not be as much of a concern in older men and post-menopausal women. How do you prevent smegma?

Preventing smegma is a matter of personal hygiene

It comes down to the classic hygiene mistakes you didn't know you were making. Treating and preventing smegma is about washing your genitals properly and frequently to avoid the buildup of oil, dead skin cells, sweat, and debris. 

If you notice a foul odor and corresponding buildup in your foreskin or clitoral region, gently wash the area with warm water and mild soap. Make sure the soap is hypoallergenic and free of fragrances, alcohol, and dyes to avoid irritating the sensitive skin down there. People with an uncircumcised penis can gently pull your foreskin back to cleanse the area underneath. Those with vaginas can get in between the folds of the labia and clean the area with warm water and mild soap. And no, you don't have to be vigorous about it. That's probably a myth about feminine hygiene you need to stop believing. Pat dry after. 

Making sure you cleanse the area this way at least twice a week can go a long way in preventing smegma buildup. While smegma isn't contagious and is relatively harmless, it could become quite uncomfortable — smell and sensation-wise — for you. If you're engaging in sex with a partner, it could even become a turn-off. So, it might be a good idea, for all parties concerned, to look at ways to prevent it.