Foreskin Problems

Foreskins are a funny thing, and there are a number of issues that can affect them. Whatever you think about yours (or anyone else's), you're unlikely to be alone.

About 5% of people cannot retract their foreskins fully

Foreskin figures

Foreskin is the hood of loose skin around the penis head that all men are born with. Its function is to protect the top of the penis. In the US just under 50% of the population have been circumcised. Here it's much less - 6% of men over the age of 15 in the UK have had it done - so lots more foreskins to talk about!

Every male has different foreskin - some will have more skin than others. Any amount is perfectly ok as long as it moves freely back and forth over the penis without pain.


Don't believe the hype: uncut does not equal unclean. All penises have a unique smell, and smegma (the white cheesy stuff that appears from nowhere under the foreskin) is completely natural. You should wash under your foreskin every day to avoid it building up and becoming smelly.

To do this effectively, gently pull back your foreskin, wash with warm water and gentle (un-perfumed) soap and pat dry. Then replace the foreskin and admire.

Healthy foreskin can be pulled back over the penis and put back again without being particularly painful. But there are a number of issues that can affect the foreskin, at any age.

Red, inflamed foreskin?

This is known in the trade as balanitis, and is very common at any age. Symptoms include soreness, itching and even white lumpy discharge under the foreskin. The head of the penis will likely look inflamed.

Regular cleansing of the foreskin makes infection less likely. If symptoms don't go away in a day or so you should get checked out by a doctor, as it is easily treatable in most cases. It can sometimes be a sign of an STI or thrush, so it's important to seek medical advice if you have symptoms.

Spots on the foreskin?

Any new sores or lumps on your genitals need checking out, especially if you've been having sex. Even if they seem to disappear.

Saying that, those little white spots under your foreskin in a ring around the head of your penis are perfectly normal - they're called Pearly Penile Papules. But if in doubt, check it out.

Too tight?

About 5% of people cannot retract their foreskins fully. This may make it difficult to keep clean and it may be painful to pee, masturbate or have sex.

We can Gently (capital G) encourage our foreskin to stretch by retracting it back slowly and gradually. Over time (this may take a few weeks) it should get comfortable to retract even when the penis is erect.

If it doesn't get any better, see your GP. The most common medical reason for a circumcision is a foreskin that's too tight, but this may not be necessary. There are creams that can be tried first.

Help! My foreskin's stuck!

Very occasionally, a tight foreskin gets trapped beyond the head of the penis and won't go back - this is called paraphimosis. The end of the penis swells up, which is extremely painful and makes the the problem worse.

If you really can't push your foreskin back, go to your doctor as soon as possible. You may feel slightly awkward, but they will be able to get it sorted. If your penis has turned purple as a result of the foreskin being stuck, you should head to A&E for treatment.


There is a strip of skin called the frenulum that tethers our foreskin to the underside of our penis. Sometimes it can tear during sex. Needless to say the more vigorous we are, the more likely it is to happen. It can also happen when there is not enough lubrication.

Don't panic - there's no need to see the doctor for this one. Just keep the area clean and dry for a few days, and avoid sex until it heals up, then go gently.

BBC Advice factfiles are here to help young people with a broad range of issues. They're based on advice from medical professionals, government bodies, charities and other relevant groups. Follow the links for more advice from these organisations.


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