What Is Smegma?

Secretion from the oil glands around the genitals

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Smegma is a natural secretion from the oil glands around the genitals. It is found under the foreskin of a penis or under the folds of the vagina. It has a thick consistency and may appear white in color. It is also associated with an unpleasant odor. Smegma is, however, normal and not a sign of a sexually transmitted disease (STD).

Smegma is a natural lubricant that keeps the skin around the genitals moist. It becomes problematic when it is allowed to build up as a result of poor hygiene.

The word smegma is derived from the Latin word for soap or detergent.

shower head


Mohd Hafiez Mohd Razali / EyeEm / Getty Images

Appearance

Smegma is an oily secretion from sebaceous (oil) glands around the genitals. It is opaque and white in color, and it has a thick consistency. Most people don't produce much smegma prior to puberty. Smegma also becomes less common as a person ages and overall production of oil declines.

In people who have a penis, smegma accumulates most easily on uncircumcised penises. The head of an uncircumcised penis is covered by a layer of skin called a foreskin, under which smegma appears and builds up. In a baby, the foreskin is tightly attached to the head of the penis, covering and protecting it completely. As the penis lengthens, the foreskin naturally begins to retract, creating an opportunity for debris, grime, and skin cells to accumulate between it and the head of the penis.

Smegma in young boys tends to appear as pearl-white bumps.

In people with a vagina, smegma tends to accumulate under the hood of the clitoris or the folds of the labia. In infants, it also may be found in the vulva. 

Function

The main function of smegma is to keep the area around the genitals moist and lubricated. Smegma is naturally produced by the body. However, if it is not washed away for a long period of time, it can accumulate, become sticky, and adhere to the skin surrounding the penis and clitoris. Irregularly washing the genital area can also lead to a build-up of smegma.

Management

Preventing a buildup of smegma is a matter of good personal hygiene—cleaning the genitals regularly with warm water and mild soap during baths or showers. If smegma is problematic, wearing underwear made of breathable materials like cotton may help.

For someone with a circumcised penis, gently clean all the areas around the head, especially along the ridge that separates the head from the shaft. An uncircumcised penis requires slightly more attention. Clean beneath the foreskin once or twice a day with warm soapy water. Do not scrape the foreskin. A doctor should be consulted if the penis appears infected or red. 

For someone with a vagina, pull back the outer lips of the vulva to clean the area under the clitoral hood. Avoid using heavily scented soaps to prevent irritation. If there are bumps, itching, or changes in vaginal discharge, see a doctor. 

Getting into the habit of checking the genitals regularly for excess smegma and signs of a potential infection or other problems can prevent smegma from becoming a problem. This is especially important for people who tend to sweat a lot, which can contribute to more smegma and make it easier for smegma to accumulate.

Complications

Smegma is not a sign of a sexually transmitted infection. However, if it's allowed to accumulate, it can give off a strong, foul odor and take on a cottage cheese-like consistency. It can also lead to more serious medical issues, such as conditions like phimosis, balanitis, and clitoral adhesion.

Phimosis

Phimosis is a condition where the foreskin cannot be pulled back from around the tip of the penis. It may appear as a tight ring or rubber band of foreskin around the tip of the penis. Phimosis can be physiological or pathological depending on the situation.

Physiologic phimosis is common and normal among infants and children. Some children are born with tight foreskin at birth. Phimosis is normal for an uncircumcised infant or child, and usually resolves over time.

Pathologic phimosis is a tight foreskin that results from scarring, infection, or inflammation of the foreskin. It is often associated with ballooning of the foreskin during urination, difficulty urinating, or infection. It can happen in children and adults. Other symptoms of phimosis include redness, unusual discharge, and a tight foreskin.

Depending on its severity, phimosis may be treated with:

  • Circumcision (removal of the foreskin)
  • Topical creams
  • Steroids
  • Gradual stretching of the foreskin
  • Surgical reshaping of the foreskin

Balanitis

Another condition that can arise from a build-up of smegma is balanitis, which is inflammation of the penis head and foreskin. Balanitis is characterized by a shiny red or red-orange hue, swelling, and tenderness of the penis, along with a foul odor and pain during urination. Bleeding may also occur. It's most common in uncircumcised men and in those with phimosis. Balanitis affects up to 11% of men over the age of 40.

Balanitis may also be caused by:

Balanitis requires medical attention. Depending on the cause of the balanitis, different treatments may be prescribed. Typical treatment is a topical or oral antibiotic. Providers will recommend that those with balanitis to wash and dry under their foreskin often to reduce the risk of recurrent balanitis.

Clitoral Adhesion

Smegma that builds up around the clitoris can harden and cause the hood to stick to the shaft, which can be painful and result in clitoral adhesion. The accumulated smegma can dry out and harden beneath the clitoral hood, resulting in irritation and pain. 

When the clitoral hood adheres to the clitoris, either partially or entirely, it prevents the hood from properly protecting the glans. It is important for the glans of the clitoris to have adequate lubrication, which allows the clitoral hood to slide over the glans without sensitivity or discomfort.

Clitoral adhesion can usually be removed by cleaning the area where smegma has built up. Home remedies like baby oil may also be used to loosen the accumulated secretion. Special feminine soaps are not necessary. In fact, some of these products may cause further irritation.

If the build-up does not clear up after a few days of cleaning, the pain worsens, or other symptoms develop, the smegma may be a symptom of an infection or something else. A doctor should be consulted.

A Word From Verywell

Smegma is a natural substance produced by the body. It is generally not a cause for concern unless it builds up and causes issues in the genital area. The easiest way to prevent any problems from smegma is by regularly bathing and keeping the genital area clean. If smegma continues to accumulate even with good personal hygiene, a doctor should be consulted about whether it is a symptom of an infection or something else.

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2 Sources
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  1. UCSF Department of Urology. Phimosis.

  2. Morris B, Krieger J. Balanitis and related inflammatory conditions affecting the penis. Urogenital infections and inflammations. Mar 15, 2018. doi:10.5680/lhuii000027