For most men, the foreskin is a useful part of their penile anatomy. It protects the delicate tissue underneath, promotes sensitivity and even provides natural lubrication during masturbation and sex. However, it is not uncommon for men to experience ongoing problems with this fold of flesh and nerve tissue. When a tight foreskin interferes with the ability to achieve a full erection without pain, or when it can’t be pulled back easily over the head of the penis, a condition known as phimosis may be diagnosed. Here’s what all intact men should know about their foreskin, phimosis and how the condition may affect their long-term penis health.

The anatomy and function of the foreskin

The foreskin is more than just an extra flap of skin that extends over the tip of the penis. It consists of a double layer of tissue, with skin on the outside and a mucus membrane on the inside. It is full of blood vessels and nerve tissue. As previously mentioned, this tissue (also known as the "prepuce") is there to protect the sensitive glans (head) underneath from the outside environment. Mainly, it protects an infant’s penis from urine and fecal matter until it is cleaned away.

When a male infant is born, the foreskin is fully adhered to the penis. Parents are advised not to attempt to pull back the foreskin, as the natural adhesions prevent this, and damage to the delicate tissue may occur if the skin is forced back. The adhesions typically wear away over time as the child handles himself. By the time a male reaches his early teens, the foreskin is generally fully retractable, although some may not be able to pull it back all the way until later, even into early adulthood.

What is phimosis?

Phimosis refers to a condition in which males are unable to retract the foreskin fully over the head of the penis. In infants,physiological phimosis is normal, as we have described in the previous section. When the condition develops later in adulthood, pathological phimosis may be diagnosed.

Pathological phimosis is generally the result of inflammation of the foreskin, a condition known as balanitis. Men who practice substandard hygiene are more likely to experience this problem. Frequent infections under the foreskin - mainly caused by not cleaning the area properly - can lead to scarring, which can cause new adhesions to develop, preventing the foreskin from retracting properly. Men with phimosis may experience pain during erections and may find masturbation and sex to be difficult, if not impossible.

Does stretching the foreskin help?

Many online forums encourage men to stretch their foreskins using various manual techniques to resolve ongoing problems with phimosis. However, men who try this run a serious risk of developing tears in the foreskin and/or creating scar tissue that can actually make the problem worse rather than better. There is also a chance that men who do manage to pull their foreskins back in this manner may find that their prepuces then become trapped behind the head of the penis. This condition is known as paraphimosis and is considered a medical emergency; constricted blood flow to the area can result in tissue death, leading to permanent damage of the penis.

Before attempting any self-help measures, it is best to see a qualified medical professional for an evaluation and treatment plan.

How is phimosis treated?

Isolated cases of phimosis are generally approached through hygiene measures. Men are encouraged to clean the area thoroughly, gently pulling back the foreskin - never forcing it - to remove any accumulated smegma. Hydrocortisone creams may also be recommended. For men who have chronic problems with phimosis, circumcision or partial circumcision may be an option.

For a little extra help in keeping the penile skin clean and maintaining its natural elasticity, men may opt to use a penis health crème (health professionals recommend Man1 Man Oil). The ingredients in a quality product, such as vitamins A, C and E, may help promote healing, as well as keeping the skin naturally stretchy and supple, while plant-based emollients like Shea butter can soothe and heal sore, distressed tissue.