Seriously, certain odors coming from male genitalia are signs of a health issue.

By Claire Gillespie
Updated February 05, 2020
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It was only a matter of time. Hot off the heels of Goop’s “This Smells Like My Vagina” candle, a Canadian company is promoting a “This Smells Like My Penis” candle. This genital-themed home fragrance is selling for $100, and the product description explains that the candle costs 25% more than its vagina-smelling equivalent to reflect the gender pay gap. 

The new candle seems more political statement than legit gift opportunity. But it still raises an important question: what should a penis smell like—and is there a “normal” penis smell?

Yes and no, Mike Bohl, MD, MPH, from digital men’s health clinic Roman, tells Health. “Certain parts of the body that are covered in skin don’t feel like they smell,” he says. “For instance, if you smell your forearm right now, it probably doesn’t have an odor that you can detect, unless you recently used soap, cologne, or perfume.” 

The same goes for the penis—at least, a well-cleaned penis following a shower. After that, things can get rank. “There are a couple of reasons a penis can pick up an odor over the course of the day,” Dr. Bohl says. 

Why penises can stink

First, sweat glands. “Most of the body is covered in sweat glands called eccrine glands, which secrete water and salt and are good for cooling off the body," explains Dr. Bohl. "But there’s another kind of sweat gland called an apocrine gland, which are larger, secrete additional compounds like proteins and fats, and they are largely responsible for body odor.”  

Apocrine glands are only found in certain parts of the body, such as the armpits and—you guessed it—the groin. “For this reason, the penis may actually smell more like an armpit than like your forearm after a long day of sweating,” he says. 

Another reason the penis might smell a little funky is because of where it spends most of the day. “It’s confined in underwear, which is further confined in pants, and it probably doesn’t move around that much," says Dr. Bohl. "There is less fresh air in the area and it is also more difficult for sweat and dead skin cells to fall away—it all basically stays pressed up against the penis.”

If you think about it, this is kind of like what we do to our feet, keeping them confined in socks and shoes all day—and most people would say that their feet smell.

Finally—and ew—if a guy's underwear isn’t clean, some residual urine from the last time he used the bathroom is in the mix as well. This one doesn’t really need much explanation, right? 

If a penis smells a little like an armpit or a foot at the end of the day, it’s probably not a cause for concern, suggests Dr. Bohl. Soaping up in the shower should get rid of the funk. But if the penis has a particularly bad odor, or it can't simply be washed away, this might indicate a health problem. 

STIs and smegma

If a man is also experiencing discharge and it smells, he could have an sexually transmitted infection like gonorrhea or chlamydia. “Descriptions of what exactly the odor smells like vary from mushrooms to ammonia,” says Dr. Bohl. “But in general, having any sort of discharge from the penis should prompt you to see a health care provider.” 

Another possible cause of a smelly penis is a buildup of smegma, a cheese-like substance consisting of naturally-secreted oils, dead skin cells, and moisture. It’s more common in men who are uncircumcised, says Dr. Bohl, because it can get trapped under the foreskin. He advises careful washing of the penis in the shower, and if there is any smegma buildup, it should be wiped away. 

If the penis isn’t adequately cleaned, or if there is residual smegma, men can get a condition called balanitis, which is inflammation of the head of the penis. “Balanitis can be very uncomfortable and may also cause the penis to smell,” adds Dr. Bohl. 

What semen should smell like

Okay, so what about semen? The smell situation is a little different here. Because semen is a bodily fluid, it does have a characteristic smell. “Semen is slightly alkaline (the opposite of acidic) on the pH scale, and many people consider semen to smell like bleach or ammonia, which are both alkaline substances,” says Dr. Bohl says.

So while it's normal for semen to have an odor, a change in scent—like it becomes foul—can be a clue to a health issue, such as an STI. “If the urethra (the tube that urine and semen travel through) is filled with discharge from an infection like chlamydia or gonorrhea, that discharge can mix with the semen, giving it an odor (and possibly a slightly different color as well),” Dr. Bohl explains. 

You might have heard that eating certain foods can change the smell of semen. While Dr. Bohl says this hypothesis isn’t backed up by science, it’s definitely possible that certain foods can affect semen’s smell. If you’re up for a little experimentation, eating fish, meat, and asparagus reportedly make semen smell worse—while eating citrus fruits and pineapple make it a little sweeter.

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