Any man who is uncircumcised is familiar with the cheesy, sticky, white or yellowish substance that tends to build up underneath the foreskin. This pasty, often smelly substance - known commonly as smegma -- is generally regarded as unpleasant and dirty. On the other hand, smegma does, in fact, play an important role in penis health, so it is worth learning more about it and understanding its purpose before dismissing it as a source of disgust and embarrassment.

What is smegma, exactly?

The lining of the foreskin secretes a mucousy substance that serves as a lubricant; it is analogous to the tears that lubricate the eyes and prevent the eyelids from sticking to their surface. In the same manner, this mucousy fluid allows the foreskin and glans to slide over each other and protects the glans from irritation. As the foreskin and glans rub together, dead skin cells are shed; because of the presence of the foreskin, they do not fall away, but instead combine with the mucous - as well as sweat and other body fluids - to form the paste that is known as smegma.

In spite of its image as dirty, smegma is actually harmless; in fact, it has antiviral properties that can help to protect the penile tissue. In infants, it is especially important, as it forms a barrier that shields the delicate glans from the harmful effects of urine. On the other hand, while it serves a beneficial purpose, smegma can also cause problems if it is allowed to build up underneath the foreskin; therefore, adequate hygiene measures are needed to prevent these from occurring.

Potential problems caused by smegma build-up

Over time, smegma build-up can cause a variety of problems:

1) When smegma becomes thick, dry and waxy, it can actually cause the foreskin to stick to the glans, rather than allowing them to slide over each other naturally. When the foreskin cannot be retracted over the glans - a condition known as phimosis - men may experience discomfort or even pain during sex.

2) Trapped smegma also provides a haven for bacteria. When these microorganisms take up residence under the foreskin, their presence can trigger an immune system response, leading to swelling of the foreskin, pain, redness and even a smelly discharge. This condition is known as balanitis, and it is responsible for about 1 in 10 visits to sex clinics or urologists by men.

3) While less serious than phimosis or balanitis, built-up smegma can cause a distinctive, foul odor that can be a considerable source of embarrassment. Removing the smegma regularly can reduce this unpleasant, fishy smell.

On the other hand, it is important to point out that the sebaceous glands that produce the mucousy oil actually produce a fishy odor on their own. This smell can be heightened by the hormones that are released during sex; many men report that they notice a strong, fishy odor immediately after sex or masturbation. This is not related to smegma, and it is not easily washed away.

In addition to these problems, there is a widespread perception that the presence of smegma can cause cancer. Researchers have, in fact, discovered a link between smegma and penile cancer; however, it is believed that the smegma itself does not cause cancer. Rather, it is the irritation that occurs when the area under the foreskin is not cleaned carefully that is responsible for the cellular changes that can lead to cancerous tumors.

Proper care for the penis

In order to prevent problems that can occur when smegma is allowed to accumulate under the foreskin, proper hygiene measures are necessary. First, the penis should be washed in warm water every day. The foreskin should be gently retracted (never forced) to expose the glans, and any smegma that is present should be wiped away with the finger tips. The use of very hot water, or of strong soaps or shower gels, is not recommended, because these can deplete the body of its natural lubricating oils; the detergents in ordinary soaps can cause irritation. After washing, the skin should be dried carefully and the foreskin rolled back into place.

Some men choose to use deodorants or fragrances to deal with odors. However, this is not a good idea, as again, the chemicals in these products can cause irritation. On the other hand, use of a good penis health cream (health professionals recommend Man1 Man Oil) that contains vitamin A - a natural antibacterial ingredient - can help to control odors as well as soften and strengthen the skin. A product like this can be applied daily to improve overall penis health.