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On Smelly Dicks

Always make sure you don’t have a befouled boner

Ask any woman and she probably has a story about an experience with a less-than-pristine dick.

Case in point: Berlin, a Canadian sex worker who says she could smell one particular partner’s penis from the moment he took off his pants, before “nearly gagging” when his boxers followed. “I pulled back his foreskin, and it was full of what looked like dried cottage cheese,” she adds. “I was so grossed out I could barely croak out the words ‘get in the shower now.’” Post-shower, though, the smell still lingered, and she had to use a condom, something she says she rarely does. “This was a paid thing,” she clarifies, “or I’d have just thrown him out.”

Berlin’s might be the most pungent example of a smelly dick, but hers is by no means the only one. Women from all walks of life have had close encounters of the unclean kind, run-ins with rank rods and brushes with befouled boners. Julia, a 33-year-old creative director from Los Angeles, tells me that she’s twice hooked up with men whose dicks smelled “moldy.” In one case, she was “heading down for a 69 and it was too late to back off when the smell hit.” In the other, the guy had been riding his bike through the L.A. heat prior to their meeting, and hadn’t showered. She suspects that the dried sweat and unwashed “crotchal region” conspired to create the off-putting musty scent. It’s possible, too, that she was dealing with tinea cruris — popularly known as “crotch rot” — a fungal infection of the groin region encouraged by heat and moisture that can strike anyone, but is more common in men.

Meanwhile, yes: Smegma is a natural accumulation of skin cells, moisture and oils that occurs across all kinds of genital configurations. And yes, it has a role in lubricating the penis. But letting it build up over time can cause irritation and other problems. And if you’re looking to get your dick anywhere near someone else’s mouth, it’s only polite to make sure it isn’t encrusted with a foul-smelling cheeselike substance, however natural it may be.

Plus, come on: Women are constantly made to worry about our vaginas smelling gross — to the point that there’s an entire freshness industry selling us cleansing products that are not only unnecessary but actually bad for us. So taking a shower shouldn’t be a big deal.

That said, in a country where sex education typically ranges from inadequate to actively harmful, it’s not surprising that many men’s first indication that their hygiene might be a little lacking should come from their sexual partners. Men like Jerry, a 30-something UX professional from San Francisco, who once had a girlfriend tell him that his dick smelled and he needed to do something about it. Luckily, he says, he listened.

Some guys, however, don’t respond as well to the revelation that their hygiene regimen could use improvement. One woman I know had to tell the second guy she ever hooked up with that he needed to wash his dick after he tried to initiate oral sex. He immediately became flustered, probably never having heard this before. (When he later retracted his foreskin, there was “a piece of dried up toilet paper on the tip of his dick,” she says.)

Beyond embarrassment, the failure to impart even basic sexual education around cleanliness can have serious consequences. Rob, a 30-something illustrator from the U.K., wasn’t even taught that his foreskin was supposed to retract — meaning that he never fully pulled it back or, crucially, cleaned under it. At 15, he began to notice a lump and concluded that it had to be cancer, until he realized it was actually moving under his foreskin. This is where, in his words, it gets “fairly disgusting.” What emerged when he guided this lump toward the end of his dick was a “plaque of densely packed smegma” roughly the size of his fingernail. What followed was the “excavation” of several years worth of the substance — a traumatic experience that left some visible scarring on the glans.

If it’s not already clear, I want to emphatically state that I’m sympathetic. Sexual hygiene can be strenuous work, even when you know what you’re doing. I mean, do you know what lesbians do to wash our dicks? We boil them. We get a nice pot of water going on the stove, and we make ourselves a little dildo soup — something I wouldn’t recommend if yours isn’t made of silicone. But at least lesbians have got the benefit of a community that talks about these things to an almost obsessive degree.

Conversely, straight men don’t seem to talk about it much at all. Bob, a 30-year-old IT professional from Georgia, says that the last time he spoke to anyone about genital cleanliness was with his parents back when he was a child. He also doesn’t remember any mentions of the topic in his health classes. Jerry, the UX guy from the Bay Area, has definitely had conversations with other men about foot cleanliness, but “all genital hygiene has been like, figure it out yourself.”

And therein may lie the problem, as evidenced by the counterexample of gay men like Markus, a 28-year-old intelligence analyst from northern Europe who says that he’s encountered an unwashed dick maybe five times, a very low percentage when considering he’s had more than 500 sexual encounters. “Being uncircumcised and also gay is motivating when it comes to cleaning your dick imo,” he explains. “I clean my D daily in the shower, and additionally if I think I’m gonna have sex in the next 20 minutes.”

But even men like Markus have had moments of genital negligence. On one occasion, a guy he was into wanted to come to his place right after he’d just gotten through his exams. He set about cleaning the whole apartment and shaving his finals beard. But after his date had arrived and was about to go down on him, the guy hesitated. “He kinda cleared his throat and went, ‘Uh, could you go wash your dick?’” In spite of everything, he’d forgotten that one crucial step. “That’s how I died from being too embarrassed to be alive.”

So what does a proper dick-cleansing routine actually entail? It’s not terribly complicated, really — just make sure to do more than an incidental spritzing from the showerhead. If you’ve got a foreskin, you’ve got to pull it back and get in under there. Cleaning yourself off after you jerk it is a great idea, too. If you don’t want to shower every time you nut, keeping a pack of baby wipes handy is a convenient solution.

A note on soap: I’m of the opinion that your cleansing products should, for the most part, be as utilitarian as possible. That means no fragrance and no skin-irritating ingredients. That goes doubly for sensitive skin. Please don’t reach for a bar of hand soap, and if you can, resist the allure of the musky men’s body wash. Something like CeraVe’s Hydrating Body Wash is perfect, and it even comes in a plain, degendered bottle. It’s clean and simple, and if you want fragrance, you can apply it afterwards without making it fight the lingering scent of your body wash for olfactory dominance.

Overall, though, the key is keeping things dry. Ryan, a 29-year-old from Denver who works for a medical supply company, says he’s “exceedingly paranoid” about moisture. One of his exes used to complain of a guy whose genitals always smelled mildewy—ever since, Ryan towels and blow-dries until there’s zero feeling of moisture. Nobody should feel this paranoid about their junk, but a certain level of vigilance wouldn’t be misplaced when the alternative is to risk a fungal infection.

The classic solution your grandfather probably employed is something like a Gold Bond powder, though there are now a number of speciality products on the market with names like “ToppCock” and “FreshBalls” aimed at dealing with this specific problem. Be wary, however, of paying a premium for what may be little more than a fragrance-laced talcum powder with a goofy name, when plainer products may work just as well.

Whatever your method, remember: Cleaning your dick isn’t just polite; it’s good for you, too. So stay clean out there. And the next time you wash your junk, spare a thought for me hunched over my stove, boiling a pot of silicone cocks.