It's hard out there for an uncircumcised penis.
A few years ago, Vice asked people on the street a simple question: "Do you like your dicks cut or uncut?" Some praised the penis in its natural state, but others reacted unfavorably to foreskin — and for a very specific reason: a perceived lack of cleanliness.
"Uncircumcised guys get dirt trapped in their flaps," one respondent said.
"I've only been with one man who was uncircumcised," another said. "It was a little gross. You have to clean it more."
"It's cleaner and healthier to be circumcised," yet another said.
Vice's interviewees didn't support their claims with science, but they did make one thing clear: There's a widely held belief in United States society that circumcised penises are more hygienic than uncircumcised penises. Some folks claim uncut penises have a "god-awful smell." Others say they're "disgusted" by merely thinking about them. Even actress Olivia Munn has publicly stated uncircumcised penises are "so gross."
But is it really true that circumcised penises are more hygienic? According to some medical experts, the answer is no.
Circumcision does make it "easier to keep the area clean," Dr. Carey Chronis, pediatrician and author of Dr. Carey's Baby Care: First Year Baby Care Guide, told Mic via email. But that doesn't mean an uncircumcised penis can't be as clean as a circumcised one — only that men need to wash beneath the foreskin, which is not a difficult task for most people.
According to a Mayo Clinic guide, all it takes for good hygiene is pulling back the foreskin, cleaning underneath with mild soap and water, rinsing and drying, then pulling the foreskin back into place. It's an easy routine parents are encouraged to teach their young boys.
The health risks: Folks with uncircumcised penises are more likely to get urinary tract infections, according to Chronis. But "the incidence of urinary tract in uncircumcised individuals is not high," he told Mic, "and this alone is not likely to be a deciding factor in choosing to circumcise."
"Periodically, in uncircumcised males, the foreskin does become infected," Chronis continued. But "with good hygiene, this should be a nonissue."
For Georganne Chapin, executive director of the anti-circumcision advocacy group Intact America, some parents who opt to circumcise their babies mistakenly believe their sons won't be able to clean themselves properly. But that's ridiculous, she told Mic: If we can learn to blow our nose and brush our teeth twice a day, men should be expected to clean underneath their foreskins.
"Men can become astrophysicists, great fathers, mathematicians, chess players, jazz musicians and Nobel Prize-winning writers," she said, "but they can't wash their penises?"
The gross-out factor: Smegma. The concept alone is enough to make most people "recoil and shriek out a reflexive 'eww' into the endless void of the universe," as Medical Daily so aptly put it. In fact, it's not as bad you may think, and it's not just a guy thing.
Smegma is a mixture of dead skin cells and bodily oils that occur naturally in male and female genitalia. It's typically found underneath the foreskin of uncircumcised penises.
"The primary role of smegma is to aide as a lubricant, allowing the foreskin to pull back with ease," Chronis said.
If you don't clean your genitals on the reg, your smegma can get pretty gross. It "becomes opaque, white or yellow, and most of all, rank," according to Medical Daily. "The gunk comes from the build-up of dead skin cells trapped in the foreskin or vagina, while the smell comes from the bacterial breakdown of the oils."
"Men can become astrophysicists, great fathers, mathematicians, chess players, jazz musicians and Nobel Prize-winning writers, but they can't wash their penises?"
But as with foreskin infections, smelly stuff can easily be fixed by proper hygiene — which is easy. "When we regularly clean our genitals, smegma is transparent and unnoticeable," according to Medical Daily.
Still, some people are turned off by the idea of bacteria around the penis — be it transparent or chunky. But as Chapin pointed out, bacteria are beneficial to our health.
"Imagine if we used that rationale with the stomach," she said. "Are we looking for an uncolonized gut? That would kill us all. Bacteria are not bad — bacteria are good."
But what about the HIV risk? Studies have shown that male circumcision "significantly reduces the risk of men contracting HIV through penile-vaginal sex," according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Circumcised penises harbor fewer bacteria than uncircumcised penises, which "could have a dramatic effect on the men's ability to fight off infections like HIV," according to Time.
That being said, wearing a condom during sex will drastically reduce your chances of contracting HIV — whether or not your penis has a foreskin.
So here's the dirty truth: Sure, uncircumcised penises are prone to bouts of uncleanliness. But there are tons of body parts that get dirty and smelly if you don't clean them enough, like your mouth, armpits and feet. If you clean each body part properly — be it a foot or a foreskin — you won't have a problem.