Smegma is a harmless combination of oils, skin cells, sweat and other fluids that accumulate around your genitals. It looks like crumbly cheese and usually has a foul odor. The best way to prevent and treat smegma is to regularly wash your genitals and the surrounding areas with soap and clean water.
Smegma is a thick, cheesy-looking secretion around your genitals that collects when you don’t wash them regularly. It can be white or yellow. It’s a combination of:
It isn’t a sexually transmitted disease or infection (STI), and it isn’t harmful. However, it can help create an ideal environment for bacteria to grow and feed, which makes a strong-smelling odor.
The oils in smegma help keep the skin around your genitals moist. They also help provide lubrication, which decreases friction and reduces pain, soreness and discomfort during sex.
In men and people assigned male at birth (AMAB) who are uncircumcised, smegma accumulates under your foreskin. The foreskin is a piece of skin that covers the glans (head) of your penis.
In women and people assigned female at birth (AFAB), smegma accumulates in the skin folds that surround your urethra and vagina (labia) and around your clitoris (clitoral hood).
In Latin, “smegma” means “detergent or soap.”
In Greek, it comes from the word “smēchein,” which means “to wash off or clean.”
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Smegma can occur naturally in everyone. However, it most commonly appears in people who are uncircumcised. The foreskin can trap oils, skin cells and other fluids, creating an ideal environment for smegma to accumulate.
It doesn’t usually appear before puberty. During puberty, your body starts going through physical changes to reach sexual maturity and produces more oils.
It also doesn’t occur as often after menopause in women and people AFAB, and around age 60 in men and people AMAB, when oil production starts to decline naturally.
Smegma is common because it exists naturally. It may accumulate if you don’t clean your genitals regularly.
As smegma builds up, it may:
A combination of oils, dead skin cells, sweat and other fluids causes smegma.
Smegma isn’t contagious. It isn’t a sexually transmitted infection. You can’t spread smegma to another person through skin-to-skin contact or unprotected sex.
Smegma is easy to recognize, so you don’t necessarily need a healthcare provider to diagnose it. However, it’s natural to be nervous if you notice smegma. A healthcare provider can diagnose smegma and rule out an STI.
The best way to treat smegma is to regularly wash your genitals and the surrounding areas until it goes away.
If you have foreskin, gently pull your foreskin as far back as you can toward your body. Use a clean washcloth or your hands to wash the skin under your foreskin with soap and warm, clean water. If you’re circumcised, clean your penis with soap and water.
If you have a vagina, gently pull apart your labia. Use a clean washcloth or your hands to wash the area with soap and warm water. Be careful not to get water or soap in your vagina.
The skin in these areas is sensitive, so it’s a good idea to use a mild soap free of perfumes, dyes or alcohol. Look for products labeled “fragrance-free,” “hypoallergenic” or “for sensitive skin.”
After you wash and rinse the area, thoroughly dry it with a clean towel. Put on clean, breathable underwear to help prevent bacterial growth.
At birth, your child’s foreskin attaches completely to their penis. Over time — usually in the first several years — the foreskin will separate from the head of the penis. This allows the foreskin to retract, or pull back. If you force the foreskin back before separation, it may cause pain, swelling and bleeding.
Before foreskin separation, only clean the outside of your child’s foreskin. Don’t use cotton swabs or other objects to try to clean the opening or underneath the foreskin.
After foreskin separation, you can wash beneath your child’s foreskin. Gently pull their foreskin back toward their body. Use mild soap and warm water to clean the area, and wipe away any smegma. You only need to clean the area once or twice a week.
Around age six, teach your child how to retract their foreskin and clean it while bathing. Regularly washing the area helps prevent smegma and infections.
If you wash your genitals regularly, smegma usually goes away after a few days.
The best way to prevent smegma is to wash your genitals regularly. It’s a good idea to wash your genitals daily to prevent smegma from accumulating.
You can prevent and treat smegma by regularly washing your genitals.
Smegma isn’t an STI, and it isn’t harmful. You don’t need to use condoms if you have smegma, though it’s a good idea to use them if you aren’t sure of your own or your partner’s STI status. It’s a good idea to talk to your partner if you have smegma and haven’t cleaned it away. If your partner has any questions, encourage them to talk to a healthcare provider before having sex.
See a healthcare provider if smegma doesn’t go away after a few days of regular cleaning or if new symptoms develop, including pain, discomfort or discoloration. You may have an STI or another condition that has similar symptoms as smegma.
A note from Cleveland Clinic
Smegma is a common condition that can happen in anyone. You may feel self-conscious, and it can be unpleasant if other symptoms develop, including pain, inflammation or discoloration. However, it isn’t an STI, it isn’t contagious and it goes away when you regularly clean your genitals.
It’s important to pay attention to your skin. Contact your healthcare provider if you notice any unexpected changes to your skin.
Last reviewed by a Cleveland Clinic medical professional on 10/04/2022.
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