Science Fair Project Encyclopedia
- This article is about smegma, a secretion of mammalian genitals. See Vernix caseosa for the substance that covers the skin of a baby at birth.
Smegma, a transliteration of the Greek word for soap, is a combination of exfoliated (shed) epithelial cells, transudated skin oils and moisture that can accumulate under the foreskin of males and within the female vulva area. Smegma is common to all mammals, male and female.
Smegma among mammals
In healthy animals, smegma helps clean and lubricate the genitals. In veterinary medicine, analysis of this smegma is sometimes used for detection of urinary infections, such as trichomoniasis. Some have recommended periodic cleaning of male genitals to improve the health of the animal.
Smegma among humans
Both males and females produce smegma. Since smegma can accumulate under the foreskin in males, its presence is less common and noticeable in circumcised males. This has caused the argument over whether circumcisions ought to be performed and related argument over whether smegma is beneficial or harmful. The lack of smegma has been described as a benefit of circumcision for men who neglect their hygiene. In contrast, the loss of subpreputial wetness consisting of natural skin oils has been described as a harm of circumcision for men whose glans could become dry and chafed. Smegma can be removed by wiping or washing the genital area.
The subpreputial wetness keeps the glans moist and may lubricate the movement of the foreskin. However, if allowed to accumulate and decay in the foreskin cavity, it can combine with shed skin cells and develop into an unpleasant smelling and unhealthy substance , so current medical opinion is that it should not be allowed to accumulate. In addition, accumulation of smegma can cause or aggravate a variety of irritations known as balanitis. Early medical studies such as those by Plaut, and Heins (1958) claimed that smegma accumulation led to the development of penile cancer, but recent studies have claimed that no such connection has been confirmed.
Uncircumcised men with poor personal hygiene are most affected by balanitis. Lack of aeration and irritation because of smegma and discharge surrounding the glans penis causes inflammation and edema. Adherence of the foreskin to the inflamed and edematous glans penis is one cause of phimosis .
Preventing accumulation is best done by rinsing the area with warm water. In females, the hood of the clitoris can be gently pulled back to wash away smegma. Some argue that soap is best avoided because it depletes natural skin oils and may cause non-specific dermatitis . In addition, vaginal deodorants that are sometimes used to combat unwanted odors can be harmful, as they tend to upset the normal balance of bacteria in the vaginal cavity. This can in turn upset the pH of the vagina . Noticeably unpleasant odours can be an indicator of a potentially serious medical problem, and deodorant sprays or washes may hide this condition.
Smegma in popular culture
- O'Neill HJ, Gershbein LL. Lipids of human and equine smegma. Oncology 1976;33(4):161-6.
- Effects of hygiene among the uncircumcised Krueger H, Osborn L. J Fam Pract. 1986 Apr;22(4):353-5.
- The bacterial flora of preputial space Neubert U, Lentze I. Hautarzt. 1979 Mar;30(3):149-53.
- Wright J. How smegma serves the penis: Nature's assurance that the uncircumcised glans penis will function smoothly is provided by smegma. Sexology (New York) 1970;37(2):50-53. URL: http://www.cirp.org/library/normal/wright1/
- Parkash S, Jeyakumar K, Subramanya K, et al. Human subpreputial collection: its nature and formation. J Urol 1973;110(2):211-12. URL: http://www.cirp.org/library/anatomy/parkash/
Images of Smegma
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