Smegma is a buildup of dead skin cells, oil, and other fluids on the tip of the penis or in the folds of the vulva. If the buildup is not cleaned, it can become irritating or painful.

Our bodies do a good job of cleaning themselves, and sometimes that involves creating unusual substances and scents. But in some cases, a change in the smells or substances could be more serious. This can happen with smegma.

The buildup can grow over time, and if it’s not taken care of, it can lead to painful side effects.

Read on to learn more about why smegma develops and how it’s treated.

Smegma is a secretion of the oil glands around the genitals. For men, smegma often appears under the foreskin of the penis. In women, it’s most likely to appear between the folds of the labia or around the clitoral hood.

Smegma has several distinct characteristics:

  • thick, cheese-like consistency
  • white in color (can be darker depending on natural skin tone)
  • unpleasant smell

Developing smegma doesn’t mean you have a sexually transmitted infection or any type of infection. Instead, smegma for both men and women is affected by personal hygiene.

The fluids in smegma are released naturally by your body every day. They help lubricate your genitalia and keep the skin from feeling dry or itchy. If these fluids aren’t washed away regularly, they can start to build up.

Irregularly washing or not washing your genitalia well can cause the fluids to accumulate and harden. It’s important you wash your penis or vagina regularly in order to avoid this buildup.

Smegma is most common in uncircumcised males. The intact foreskin can trap bacteria and fluids, and that makes it easier for smegma to build up.

Because of the high rate of circumcision in the United States, women in the United States are more likely to develop smegma than men.

Smegma is not dangerous. Previous research indicated smegma might lead to penile cancer or cervical cancer, but more conclusive research has determined there is no relationship between smegma and cancer.

Smegma also rarely causes serious complications. If the buildup is not removed or treated, the smegma can become quite hard. This may cause the foreskin to stick to the penis, which can become painful.

In addition, smegma buildup and hardening can cause irritation, redness, swelling, and inflammation on the penis. This can lead to a condition called balanitis.

In women, the buildup may cause the clitoral hood to stick to the clitoral shaft. This can be uncomfortable or even painful.

The best way to treat smegma is to wash your genitalia. Following these instructions can help you eliminate any smegma buildup.

If you’re uncircumcised, gently pull back the foreskin. If you’re female, pull apart your vaginal folds with your first two fingers.

Use mild soap and warm water to wash beneath the foreskin or in and around the labia. Avoid using perfumed or highly-scented soaps. These products may irritate the sensitive skin. If you notice irritation associated with the use of soap, try using only warm water.

Rinse the penis or vagina thoroughly, and dry well.

For men, pull the foreskin back over the tip of the penis. Be careful to not irritate your penis by using sharp devices or products like cotton swabs to clean the head of your penis.

Repeat this cleaning procedure daily until the smegma disappears. Learn 7 tips for getting rid of vaginal odor.

If the buildup doesn’t clear up or if it grows worse and you develop new symptoms, contact your doctor. Also, contact your doctor if cleaning your genitalia doesn’t eliminate the thick fluid buildup. What you think is smegma may actually be symptoms of an infection or another condition.

The best way to prevent smegma is the same as treating it: wash well.

Both men and women should wash their genitalia well at least twice a week. This includes using mild soap and warm water to wash the areas around the penis and vagina. Rinse well to prevent irritation from the soap.

During every shower, a quick wash and rinse can help prevent buildup. This is especially true if your job makes you sweat a lot, or if you do a lot of sweat-inducing workouts.

Smegma is rarely a serious condition. If you think you have smegma on your penis or in the folds of your vulva, try thoroughly washing your genitalia for a few days.

If after a week the substances remain, you should consider making an appointment with your doctor. The symptoms you’re experiencing may be the result of an infection, and this will likely require additional treatment.