What Is Smegma?

Medically Reviewed by Jabeen Begum, MD on May 08, 2024
3 min read

Smegma is a thick, white, cheesy substance that collects around your genitals. It's normal to have some smegma. And it usually isn't a health problem, but bacteria can grow in it, causing it to smell bad. Keeping your penis or vagina clean is the best solution.

Anyone can get smegma. It's more common in uncircumcised men who don't clean that area well enough. Women can also get smegma in their vaginal area. You usually won't get smegma before puberty, as it happens once your body matures and makes more oils. Also, it doesn't tend to happen as often in middle-aged and older adults when the body starts to make less oil.

Smegma on penis

Bacteria that grow in smegma can make the head of yourpenis swell up and hurt.

Smegma and foreskin

In people who are uncircumcised, the foreskin (skin that covers the head of your penis) can trap oils, skin cells, and other fluids, allowing smegma to build up.

Smegma on vagina

Smegma builds up in the creases of skin around the urethra and vagina (labia) and near the clitoris (clitoral hood).

Tiny glands called sebaceous glands in the penis and vagina release smegma to lubricate these areas. It's made of a combination of fatty oils, shed skin cells, and moisture, including sweat.

Is smegma normal?

It's normal to have some smegma. But if you don't wash carefully, it can start to build up under the foreskin and head of the penis, as well as inside the vagina.


Bacteria can build up in the smegma and turn the head of the penis red and swollen, which doctors call balanitis. Sometimes, balanitis tightens the foreskin and makes it hard to pull back or retract.

Smegma and odor

If there is any redness, swelling, or foul smell, contact your doctor right away. Also, call your doctor if it’s difficult or impossible to retract the foreskin.

Smegma and cancer

Experts used to think substances in smegma caused cancer of the penis. They now know this isn't true, but the irritation smegma causes might raise the risk for this cancer. Still, this type of cancer is rare in both circumcised and uncircumcised men.

Good hygiene is the best way to prevent smegma buildup. Wash your penis or vaginal area with warm water once a day.

Cleaning smegma with foreskin

Men who still have their foreskin should gently clean underneath it. Because young boys can also get smegma, parents should wash their penis gently with warm water every day. Don't try to clean underneath the foreskin in a baby or young boy. For the first few years of life, the foreskin is attached to the head of the penis by a membrane. Pulling too hard could cause pain, and it might damage the penis.

Cleaning your vagina
If you have a vagina, gently separate your labia. Use a clean washcloth or your hands to clean the area with soap and warm water. Be careful not to let water or soap get inside your vagina.

Should you use soap to clean smegma?

You don't need to use soap, but if you do, use a gentle one to avoid irritating the sensitive skin on your genitals. Don't scrub, use harsh cleansers, or apply soap more than once a day. Also, avoid scented cleansers or talcum powder, which can be irritating. After washing the area, dry it well with a clean towel, then put on clean underwear that allows air to circulate and stop bacteria from growing.

When to call a doctor

If you wash every day and you still notice a cheesy discharge or odor, pain, discomfort, or changes in your skin color, see your doctor. Sexually transmitted infections (STIs) sometimes have similar symptoms as smegma.

Smegma is a white, cheesy substance that can build up under the foreskin of the penis or in the vaginal area, especially if you don't clean well enough. It's normal to have some smegma, but if it builds up too much, it can cause problems such as odor and irritation. Sometimes, bacteria can grow in the smegma and cause issues such as redness and swelling of the penis head, known as balanitis. To prevent smegma buildup, it's essential to clean the genital area daily with warm water.