What Is Smegma?

Smegma can look like white cheese and have a strong, foul odor

Smegma is a white, cheese-like substance that can build along the folds of your labia and under your foreskin. 

Smegma is actually part of your body’s normal functioning. The sebaceous glands of your genitals secrete oils to moisturize the skin. That oil can combine with dead skin cells and moisture like sweat. The collection of skin oil, dead skin cells, and moisture can build up in and around the genitals, and that buildup is known as smegma.

Though smegma is a normal bodily creation, without proper cleaning, it can cause side effects like irritation and odor. 

What Does Smegma Look and Smell Like?

Smegma can be found between the tip of the penis and the foreskin in those who are uncircumcised. Those with uncircumcised penises have not had their foreskin—a thin layer of retractable skin that covers the end of the penis—surgically removed.

definition of smegma

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Smegma can also be found around the clitoris and in the labia—the skin folds that surround the vaginal opening and urethra opening. 

When it’s built up, smegma can look like thick or crumbly cheese. It can also have a strong, foul-smelling odor, like sour milk. 

What Causes Smegma?

Some smegma is a normal response to all the oils, dead skin cells, sweat, and other body fluids that are produced in and around the genitals mixing together. In fact, smegma actually serves a purpose—to provide lubrication. For instance, smegma allows for movement of the foreskin during intercourse. Without smegma, there can be friction and irritation.

Smegma can build up to levels at which it smells if you don’t regularly clean your genitals.

Who Is at Risk for Smegma?

Anybody with genitals can get smegma. 

Accumulated smegma, however, is thought to be more common among those with an uncircumcised penis. If an uncircumcised penis is left unwashed, oil secretions, dead skin cells, and moisture can build up under the foreskin to form smegma. 

Smegma might also be a sign of phimosis (tight foreskin) or paraphimosis (trapped foreskin). A healthcare provider will need to determine how to treat the conditions so that you can properly clean out the smegma.

Though it might be less common for children who’ve not yet gone through puberty to have smegma, it is possible. Even babies can develop smegma. In children who have not been circumcised, trapped smegma might form a lump under the foreskin known as a smegma pearl. Because of the smegma in the lump, the smegma pearl can look yellow.

Because oil production declines as you age, people who’ve gone through menopause and people with a penis who are 60 or older are less likely to have smegma.

Smegma Complications

If you clean your genitals regularly, smegma is not usually damaging or irritating. However, a buildup of smegma can foster an environment where bacteria and fungi can grow, leading to irritation and inflammation.

Accumulation of smegma underneath the foreskin may lead to balanitis, a swelling of the foreskin and head of the penis. Balanitis is most common among people with uncircumcised penises who have poor hygiene.

Smegma may also make it difficult to pull back your foreskin, potentially making an erection painful. Smegma may also cause clitoral adhesion, which is when the fold of skin around your clitoris (known as the clitoral hood) sticks to your clitoris.

How to Clean Smegma

The key to preventing and treating a buildup of smegma is practicing good personal hygiene. Washing your genitals each day or after you sweat can keep smegma under control.

Smegma Cleaning Tips for the Penis

If your foreskin is still intact, start by gently pulling down on the foreskin. Then, lather your hand or washcloth with unscented soap before stroking up and down your shaft, removing any smegma as you do. Pat dry when done.

You should also clean your penis with soap and water if you are circumcised. 

Smegma Cleaning Tips for the Vagina 

You should use water and mild soap to remove smegma from the labia. 

Start by gently pulling back the outer labia. Then, lather your hands or a washcloth with mild soap and gently stroke the skin to get it clean. You can do the same for the clitoral hood.

Be careful to avoid getting soap inside the vagina. The vagina is self-cleaning, so while the vulva (what’s outside of the vagina) needs to be washed with soap and water, the vagina does not. Getting soap inside the vagina can actually throw off the pH balance of the vagina and cause unwanted irritation and even infections.

How to Clean Smegma in Babies and Children

Given that some smegma is normal in babies and children, you might need to remove it if you are a parent or guardian.

Simply wash their penis or vulva with lukewarm water and mild soap once or twice a week.

Because the foreskin of an uncircumcised baby remains attached to the penis for the first few years, you only need to clean the outside of the foreskin until it pulls back easily on its own. When the foreskin separates and you can push the foreskin back easily, you can then clean under the foreskin as well.

If your child has smegma pearls, consult with a healthcare provider before trying to get rid of the pearls yourself. Though removing them is possible, it does increase the risk of phimosis, paraphimosis, possible irritation of the foreskin, and recurrence of the smegma pearl. 

As your child gets older, you can teach them how to clean their own genitals.

How to Prevent Smegma

The best technique for preventing smegma is the same technique as treating it: a daily rinse. 

When you wash your genitals, make sure to use non-irritating soap. After washing, put on clean, breathable underwear (like cotton underwear) to help prevent the growth of bacteria.

A Quick Review

Smegma is a normal and natural bodily occurrence. Smegma develops after your oil glands naturally produce skin oil, which is then combined with dead skin cells and moisture. The combination of substances creates smegma. Smegma most commonly develops underneath the foreskin of an uncircumcised penis. It can also develop in the folds of the labia and clitoris. Someone of any age can develop smegma, which looks like white cheese. Though small amounts of smegma are usually no problem, a buildup of the substance can lead to irritation and a strong, foul odor. The best way to get rid of—and prevent—smegma is by cleaning your genitals daily with water and mild soap.

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Health.com uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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