Definition: what is smegma?
Smegma is a pasty and whitish accumulation of secretions produced by male or female genitals. Specifically, smegma is composed of a set of sebum and desquamated epidermal cells, which is collected mostly in the humid areas of the genitals.
Causes: why is smegma formed?
Smegma is often a sign of poor personal intimate hygiene: when neglected, the accumulation of these secretions can trigger inflammatory and infectious processes, limited to the genital level. In fact, being a moist material rich in proteins, smegma is an ideal soil for the development and replication of bacteria and fungi.
Careful daily intimate hygiene is therefore the only solution to prevent the accumulation of smegma at the genital level.
Smegma in the woman
In women, smegma settles around the clitoris and between the folds of the small vaginal lips. The secretions are therefore produced both by the apocrine glands located at the clitoral level, and by the sebaceous ones around the area of the labia minora.
In addition to this material of a glandular nature, the feminine smegma can be partly made up of some urine residues, desquamated epidermal cells and epithelial cells deriving from the disintegration of the mucous membranes.
Smegma in man
The male smegma is deposited in the end of the penis (at the level of the glans) and in the area below the foreskin (a layer of skin that covers the glans).
The whitish secretion is produced by tiny glands located along the mucosa of the foreskin, which tend to grow and migrate towards the surface. At this point, the glands detach from the mucosa, turn into fat and settle in the balano-preputial groove, thus giving rise to smegma.
Hypothesis on the composition of male smegma
Smegma is a white and irregular paste, similar to ricotta: when neglected, it could give off unpleasant smells.
There are various hypotheses about the true nature of smegma. Some authors believe that smegma is composed of fats (26.6%) and proteins (13.3%): this composition suggests that smegma is therefore effectively formed from debris from desquamated skin (dead cells).
Other scholars, however, are of the idea that smegma is rich in seminal and prostatic secretions, squalene and particular residues produced by some glands at the level of the urethra.
Although much disputed, other authors claim that smegma consists, in part, of enzymes with antibacterial action (eg lysozyme) and hormones (eg androsterone).
Smegma in childhood and senescence
Smegma is not an exclusive event of adulthood. The presence of some sebaceous glands at the level of the foreskin is in fact evident even in the child. However, the amount of smegma produced in the child is extremely limited.
It seems that smegma production begins to increase from adolescence, to then reach its peak during sexual maturity.
During senescence, smegma production is gradually reduced, until it almost completely disappears.
Smegma: a natural lubricant?
We have said that smegma is nothing but an accumulation of secretions, viscid or pasty, produced at the genital level. Starting from this statement, some authors re-evaluate the meaning of smegma in a positive key and interpret it as a sort of "natural ointment". The secretions accumulated at the level of the balano-preputial groove preserve a certain lubricating capacity. Consequently, the presence of a lubricant between the foreskin and glans allows movements to become fluid during sexual intercourse.
According to Dr. Wright - researcher on infectious diseases in the United States and Great Britain, and collaborator for the British Medical Association health magazine - smegma therefore protects the delicate genital area from rubbing, ensuring constant lubrication.
Smegma and circumcision
Circumcision is an ancient surgical practice, which involves the total removal of the foreskin: in doing so, the glans (terminal part of the penis) remains completely uncovered. In circumcised men, small leaks of urine and genital secretions do not stagnate in the balano-preputial groove, which makes the stagnation of smegma in the glans mucosa almost impossible.
It is therefore no coincidence that men undergoing circumcision are less subject to infectious or inflammatory phenomena at the genital level.
Circumcision is therefore an effective practice in preventing the accumulation of smegma, which is positively reflected in the defense against genital infections in general.
In itself, smegma is not a problematic condition, nor a pathological one. However, in the absence of adequate personal intimate hygiene, smegma can accumulate at the genital level and constitute an ideal environment for the proliferation of microorganisms. As a result, the development and replication of bacteria or fungi in the genital area could cause limited infections or inflammation. In women, for example, the accumulation of smegma could trigger infections in the cervix (cervicitis) or in the vagina (vaginitis). In humans, however, the stagnation of smegma in the balano-preputial groove could give rise to balanitis (infection of the glans) or to balano-postiti (infection of the glans and foreskin).
Smegma and prevention
The stagnation of smegma can be prevented by careful and delicate multi-day intimate hygiene.
The genitals, male and female, should be cleansed daily, even several times a day, using warm water and delicate intimate cleansers if possible.
The uncircumcised males should then pay particular attention to cleaning the glans by gently retracting the foreskin. However, it is important not to force the foreskin to eliminate the underlying smegma: such behavior could cause pain, bleeding, laceration of the skin and, in the most serious cases, scars.
It is advised, however, not to overdo the washings for intimate hygiene, and to avoid the use of deodorants, perfumes or aggressive detergents that could damage or irritate the skin of the genitals.
To conclude, a careful and regular personal intimate hygiene is undoubtedly the best solution to prevent the accumulation of smegma and thus avoid any genital infections related to it.