What Is Circumcision? 9 Things You Probably Didn't Know About Male Circumcision, but Should

Did you know people once thought it cured paralysis?

Circumcision may not be something we talk about every day, but a lot of us probably come in contact with the result of this cultural tradition quite regularly. The neonatal circumcision rate is over 58%, according to the most recent CDC report. In fact, that rate is actually lower than it was 30 years ago, when it was over 64%. There are multiple reasons why someone might choose to circumcise their child (or be circumcised as an adult), so we looked into the subject to find out more about this ever-changing trend.

Circumcision is hygienic.

Circumcision is the removal of the foreskin, a layer of tissue that covers the head of the penis. Smegma, a bodily secretion made up of dead skin cells and oily secretions, settles beneath the foreskin.

"Smegma exists to ease the retraction of the foreskin over the head of the penis during urination and sex," Michael Reitano, MD, physician in residence for the men's health service Roman, tells Health. "However, smegma is also an ideal mix for the growth of bacteria and, as smegma accumulates under the foreskin, the hot, moist environment allows for the rapid overgrowth of bacteria that can create foul-smelling byproducts."

By removing the foreskin, men can reduce their risk of unwanted bacterial growth on their penis. Men who are uncircumcised should have routine penile care with careful hygienic cleansing to keep their down-there healthy, adds Dr. Reitano.

Circumcision is typically performed at birth—for a few, very good reasons.

It shouldn't come as a surprise that the process of removing skin from the genitals is anything but comfortable. As a result, most cultures that circumcise opt to do so at birth.

"Babies definitely feel pain, but the procedure seems to be better tolerated by infants," says Dr. Reitano. "The older a child becomes, the more resistant they may be to any elective surgical procedure, especially one to the penis. Psychological consequences have to be considered as the child's age increases, as well."

Newborns have a much shorter healing period than adults, too. A baby boy typically heals within 7-10 days after the procedure, whereas it takes an adult between two to three weeks to fully heal, Reitano says.

Another common reason families choose to circumcise their newborns is that some insurance companies will not cover the procedure after babies are a month old, he adds.

But it doesn’t come without risks.

Though circumcision can be a healthy, hygienic choice in the long run, any medical procedure has its risks. Dr. Reitano says that complications of circumcision include infection, excessive bleeding and either removing too much or too little foreskin. The procedure also poses a possible risk of damage to the urethra (the tube from which urine passes out of the body) and the glans (the tip of the penis).When too little skin is removed (which is called an incomplete circumcision), smegma can build up under the remaining foreskin, which can lead to infection or adhesions at the head of the penis.

Circumcision can help protect against STIs.

One of circumcision's biggest benefits? It decreases a man's risk of acquiring HIV and other STIs, like HPV, Dr. Reitano says.

Although penile cancer is rare, men who've been circumcised have a lower incidence of this cancer—perhaps due to having less HPV, he explains. It may become even more rare as young men are encouraged to receive the HPV vaccine. Another plus? Urinary tract infections are much less common in circumcised men, he adds.

Women prefer a circumcised penis.

Sorry fellas, it's true. In a 2019 study, researchers examined the results of 29 different studies on women's circumcision preference. They found that across countries and cultures, the number of women who preferred a circumcised penis significantly outweighed the number of women who unretouched version. Although circumcision does not alter sexual function in any way, the study revealed that women generally favor circumcised penises because of the belief that they can perform better sexually, are more hygienic, and reduce their risk of contracting an infection.

There’s no difference in sexual function between a circumcised penis and an uncircumcised penis.

Luckily, men on both sides of the knife experience an equal amount of pleasure. Dr. Reitano says the difference between circumcised and uncircumcised men's sexual function is probably non-existent. A study in the Journal of Sexual Medicine states that they found "no evidence overall for any significant difference in components of sexual function, sensitivity, sexual sensation, or sexual pleasure in men who are circumcised and men who are not."

So if there's no difference, why do some people oppose circumcision? Dr. Reitano says that there are a few reasons. A lot of people find the procedure painful and unnecessary. Others make the decision not to stay consistent with their culture. For some, it's just a matter of preference.

Circumcision was once thought to be a cure to paralysis.

In the late 19th century, doctors believed that circumcision was a viable cure to a myriad of ailments. An article in the Circumcision Reference Library revealed the writings of Lewis Sayre, a professor of orthopedic surgery at Bellevue Hospital Medical College, which stated that he was once called to treat a paralyzed 5-year-old boy. He examined the boy's foreskin, which was contracted tightly around his penis, and believed that this was causing him pain. The boy was circumcised and somehow regained his ability to walk shortly after the procedure. While there's no proof that circumcision can cure paralysis, it's no surprise that a doctor from the 1870s would jump to this conclusion.

Foreskin facials are a real beauty treatment.

Want Kate Beckinsale's ageless complexion? You're going to need to put penis on your face. No, seriously: Foreskin facials are a real beauty treatment that celebs are turning to. The facial involves a serum that is derived from the cells taken from circumcised foreskins of South Korean babies. The treatment is supposed to boost radiance in your face and has been used by other A-listers like Sandra Bullock and Cate Blanchett. Want to try it? One hour-and-a-half long session will set you back a cool $650. Also, you have to live with the fact that you had a penis facial!

Circumcision is a personal or familial choice.

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) guidelines state that the health benefits of circumcision in newborns outweigh the risks, but they neither recommend nor advise against circumcision. This is a decision that is made by the family based on the medical circumstances, their cultural environment, local customs, and religious beliefs.

The decision to circumcise is a personal one, but we recommend consulting your doctor prior to the procedure to make sure it's a good fit for you and your baby.

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