Smegma is a substance made up of oil and dead skin cells. It can accumulate under the foreskin in uncircumcised males or around the folds of the labia in females. It’s not a sign of a sexually transmitted infection, and it’s not a serious condition. But left untreated, it can cause an odor or, in some cases, harden and lead to irritation in the genitals.

Read on to learn how to get rid of and prevent smegma buildup.

The simplest way to remove smegma is to adjust your personal hygiene routine. In men, that means properly cleaning your genitals, including around and under your foreskin. Your body produces a lubricant to help the foreskin retract. That lubricant can build up under your foreskin along with other natural oils, dead skin cells, dirt, and bacteria. That’s why this condition is less common in circumcised men.

Properly cleaning your penis is the easiest way to remove smegma.

  1. Gently pull back your foreskin. If the smegma has hardened, you may not be able to pull it back all the way. Don’t force it, as that can cause pain and tear the skin, which could lead to infection.
  2. Use a mild soap and warm water to wash the area that’s usually covered by your foreskin. Avoid harsh scrubbing, as that can irritate the sensitive skin. If the smegma has hardened. gently rubbing oil on the area before cleaning it may help loosen up the accumulation.
  3. Thoroughly rinse off all the soap and then gently pat the area dry.
  4. Pull your foreskin back over the tip of your penis.
  5. Repeat this daily until the smegma disappears.

It’s important to avoid scraping the smegma with sharp devices or cotton swabs. That can cause additional irritation.

If the smegma isn’t improving after a week of proper cleaning, or if it’s getting worse, see your doctor. You should also see your doctor if your penis is red or inflamed. You may have an infection or another condition that requires medical treatment.

Read more: Signs and symptoms of common STDs in men »

Saline rinses and Epsom salt baths

In a medical account from 1997, regular saline rinses under the foreskin were shown to help reduce inflammation and remove smegma in as little as one week. There are also anecdotal reports of people finding relief from soaking in an Epsom salt bath. You can purchase saline solutions and Epsom salts at most drugstores. Follow the packaging instructions, or ask your doctor for more information.

Hygiene in uncircumcised babies and children

Smegma in infants may look like white dots, or “pearls” under the skin of the foreskin. In most babies, the foreskin won’t fully retract at birth. Full retraction usually occurs by age 5, but may also happen later in some boys.

Don’t attempt to force your son’s foreskin back when bathing him. Forcing the foreskin back can cause pain, bleeding, or damage to the skin. Instead, gently sponge bathe the genitals with water and soap externally. You don’t need to use cotton swabs or irrigation on or under the foreskin.

Once retraction occurs, occasionally cleaning under the foreskin can help reduce smegma. After puberty, your son will need to add cleaning under the foreskin to his normal hygiene routine. Teaching your son how to do this will help him develop good personal hygiene habits and reduce his risk for smegma accumulation. The steps for cleaning an uncircumcised child are the same as the steps for adults.

  1. If your son is older, have him gently pull his foreskin away from the end of the penis toward the shaft. If your son is too young to do this himself, you can help him to do this.
  2. Using soap and warm water, rinse the area. Avoid hard scrubbing, because this area is sensitive.
  3. Rinse off all of the soap and pat the area dry.
  4. Gently pull the foreskin back over the penis.

Smegma can occur in women and may be the cause of vaginal odor. It can build up in the folds of the labia or around the clitoral hood.

Learn more: 7 tips for getting rid of vaginal odor »

Similar to men, the easiest way to remove smegma from the female genitals is through proper personal hygiene.

  1. Gently pull back the vaginal folds. You can position your first two fingers in a V-shape to help spread the folds.
  2. Use warm water and, if needed, a gentle soap, to clean the folds. Avoid getting soap inside the vaginal opening.
  3. Thoroughly rinse the area.
  4. Gently pat the area dry.

You may also want to wear underwear made of breathable materials, like cotton, and avoid wearing tight pants to help reduce your risk for smegma buildup.

Changes to vaginal discharge and odor may indicate an infection. See your doctor if the smegma doesn’t clear up or gets worse. You should also see your doctor if you have pain, itching, or a burning sensation in your genitals, or if you have abnormal discharge. As well, see your doctor if you have yellow or green vaginal discharge.

Smegma can be prevented through good personal hygiene. Clean your genitals daily, and avoid using harsh soaps or products in the area. In women, that includes avoiding douches, or vaginal rinses, which can lead to vaginal infections and other health concerns.

If you regularly have excess smegma accumulation despite good personal hygiene, or if you notice other changes to your genitals, include inflammation, pain, or abnormal discharge, see your doctor.