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The body is equipped with a versatile and sophisticated array of systems to keep itself clean and free of disease and infections. The immune system has many levels, and the skin is the first line of defence against pathogens.

The genitalia produces smegma, which is a mixture of dead skin cell debris, oil and fluids such as mucin that provides lubrication to the area and has antimicrobial properties as well. The natural lubricant removes waste products to the tip of the penis or the outside folds of the labia where it should be removed by regular cleaning. 

Smegma is composed of 27% fat and 13% protein; oil-producing glands around the genitals constantly release fluid as a part of natural bodily processes. There is some evidence—though it is contested—that smegma contains antibacterial enzymes including lysozyme and hormones like androsterone; the former is known to break bacterial cell walls. Other immunologically active compounds such as cytokines, cathepsin B and neutrophil elastase may be present as well.

  1. When can smegma be damaging?
  2. How to clean smegma
  3. Antibacterial creams for smegma

As can be gathered from above, smegma is not harmful on its own. It does, however, have an unpleasant odour, and thick, slightly flakey consistency. It is white in colour, but may be darker, depending on skin tone.

If the genitals are not cleaned often enough, though, smegma begins to accumulate and harden over time. This makes the area rife for infections, and the glans and tip of the penis, or the folds of the labia, will become inflamed and painful. In uncircumcised men, this can even prevent the foreskin from being able to be pulled back. 

Smegma buildup is most common in uncircumcised men since the fluid is caught in the space between the glans and foreskin. Bacteria thrive in moist environments, so infections such as balanitis are especially common for this subgroup.

While it is less common in women, smegma buildup can cause the folds of the labia to become inflamed or parts of the clitoris to stick together.

Smegma had previously been linked to certain cancers of the genitals, but recent observational studies have disproved these claims.

Read more: Penile cancer

If you notice a smelly, white buildup around your genitals it will likely be because of poor personal hygiene or inadequate cleansing methods. Improving these methods should help reduce symptoms and buildups to a great degree. Read on to learn about how to properly clean your genitals.

Read more: Penile pain

  1. Keeping the penis clean
  2. Keeping the vagina clean

Keeping the penis clean

According to the NHS, washing the penis daily with warm water is sufficient to prevent smegma-related infections and will help ward off other infections as well.

For those who are uncircumcised (meaning the foreskin hasn’t been removed), the foreskin should be retracted and the glans cleaned with warm water. You can use mild soap, but don’t use anything that is perfumed or contains more ingredients as it can inflame the area. If there is smegma, you can slowly remove it under warm water. 

Remember to not force the foreskin down if there is significant resistance since this can damage the area. Visit your doctor if this is the case.

Dry the area lightly with a towel after you are done—remember to be gentle. Also, remember that the overuse of products can dry your penis too much, which can also cause infections.

Circumcised men also need to follow a similar process; just remember to not use too much soap and to be gentle with the area. 

Don’t neglect your testicles and pubic area either—clean it with soap daily. This area is also prone to bacterial growth due to sweat accumulation. Maintaining good penile hygiene is central to your health and will also be a relief to your partner.

Keeping the vagina clean

Similar to the penis, the vagina should be washed daily to prevent infection. Natural discharge keeps the vagina healthy, but it is still important to irrigate and dry the area to prevent the accumulation of fluid. 

Again, it is best to avoid perfumed soaps, gels and antiseptics as these can alter the environment of the area and cause irritation. Vaginal fluids maintain an environment that discourages harmful microbial growth; these chemicals can tip the balance of healthy microbes by altering pH levels. 

Use mild soap to clean the area around the vulva and perineum once a day. Genital cleaning can be easily incorporated with daily bathing routines. 

You may need to clean your privates more than once daily when you are on your period. Once again, the idea is simple; gently cleansing the area does not allow unhealthy accumulation of dead skin and oil, and no soap is better than too much soap.

Read more: Vaginal health

If smegma does not clear in some days, or discomfort remains the same or worsens, you should get your doctor to take a look. An infection may be causing the inflammation, which may require treatment with broad-spectrum antimicrobial creams. 

Read more: Fungal infections

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References

  1. R S Van Howe. The Carcinogenicity of Smegma: Debunking a Myth J Eur Acad Dermatol Venereol . 2006 Oct;20(9):1046-54. PMID: 16987256
  2. Lofty-John Chukwuemeka Anyanwu , et al. Microbiology of Smegma in Boys in Kano, Nigeria. J Surg Res . 2012 Mar;173(1):21-5. PMID: 21872267
  3. Jae Min Chung, et al. Microbiology of smegma: Prospective comparative control study Investig Clin Urol. 2019 Mar; 60(2): 127–132. PMID: 30838346
  4. P M Fleiss, et al. Immunological Functions of the Human Prepuce Sex Transm Infect . 1998 Oct;74(5):364-7. PMID: 10195034
  5. NHS [Internet]. National Health Services; How to keep a penis clean
  6. NHS [Internet]. National Health Services; Keeping your vagina clean and healthy
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