Sexplanations: The Stigma Around Smegma

I recently overheard a group of people talking about their favourite words. As a result, I started thinking about my favourite words. I happen to love swear words. You can derive pleasure from the way your mouth forms the actual words. Why wouldn’t you want to say them! But I have also been having a love affair with the word smegma since I first heard it mentioned early on in my sexuality studies.

What is smegma? Other than a really cool word and a terrific holiday dinner conversation topic, smegma is a buildup of dead skin cells, skin oils, bacteria and moisture that can be found under the foreskin of the penis, along the ridge on the head of the penis, under the clitoral hood on the vulva and in the labial folds of the vulva. It is a pasty white colour and can have a foul odour.

It is also something we all have! Everyone excretes oil and water from their body and everyone sheds skin cells. However, smegma remains transparent and harmless when genitals are regularly cleaned, as well as useful as a natural lubricant. So why the stigma around smegma? Because we equate smegma with being unclean and smelly, and we prioritize cleanliness in our society.

Because smegma is something I will assume most people do not want to see on their genitals, it is important to prevent the buildup of smegma. How do you do this? Simply clean your genitals on a regular basis. Often a soft wash cloth and warm water is sufficient. Mild unscented soap if you choose, but soap can often cause dryness and irritation to the genitals. And remember never clean inside the vagina. As I have said many, many times, it cleans itself.

If you are not circumcised and have a foreskin, gently pull it back to clean underneath. If you have a vulva gently clean in the folds either with a soft cloth or your fingers, always moving in the direction of front to back, from the clitoris to the anus. If your genitals smell and the smell does not go away after you clean, and/or you have discharge coming from the tip of the penis or the vagina, this may be a sign of an infection, and a sign that you should see a healthcare provider.

If you have children it is important to teach them how to clean their genitals properly. When they are young doing it for them, when they are older helping them do it, and when they are older still, reminding them to do it themselves.

Smegma is not an infection or a disease, you cannot pass it on to another. However, if you are sharing your genitals with another person they may appreciate no visible smegma or foul smell.  Regular cleaning may increase your chances of getting some and remember, oral sex can be a great last minute gift idea.

Stacey Jacobs is a sexual health educator for SHORE Centre.


Stacey Jacobs has been a Sex Educator for almost 2 decades. For 13 of those years she worked as a Sexual Health Educator at Planned Parenthood. She teaches in the Sexuality, Marriage and Family Studies Program at the University of Waterloo and when not educating, she enjoys reading, walking her dogs and eating good food. The life of a Sex Educator is usually not as interesting as people assume.