Why it is that humans can’t regenerate our skin like, say, a salamander or a sea cucumber, is truly one of the meaner mysteries of science. What a convenient and cool party trick that would be. Instead, when we lose a significant amount of skin to a severe burn or skin cancer, we need to transplant skin from other parts of our bodies in the form of a “graft.” This graft can come from totally different areas of your body, including, in some cases, the scrotum.
John, 42, was born with a pinky finger that wouldn’t open properly. “The muscles and bones were all normal, but the skin just hadn’t developed,” he explains. At 7 months old, he underwent surgery to replace the skin on his pinky with skin and tissue from where his scrotum met his leg — a process reconstructive surgeons refer to as a “scrotal flap skin graft.”
John didn’t give his scrotal flap much thought until he hit adolescence and his pinky sprouted pubes. “I remember dad laughing and my brothers giving me a hard time. I kept it hidden for a long time,” he recalls. But as he got older, John grew accustomed to shaving his pinky when he shaved his face — and it became no big deal. He grew comfortable enough, in fact, to have a sense of humor about it and posted about the experience on Reddit, where he met several other men with scrotum-grafted hands.
Although John is far from alone, it’s difficult to get a sense of how common scrotal flap skin grafts are. One study found that over 160,000 skin grafts are performed annually on burn victims, but skin grafts are used to treat everything from severe burns and infections to bed sores and birth defects, so the real number is certainly much higher. What we do know is that the groin, abdomen and buttocks are all common donor sites for people who need skin grafts because they’re areas of our bodies typically covered by clothing, so scars are less obvious, and there’s more likely to be enough skin to use for the graft. Likewise, several studies show that the scrotum’s inherent elasticity makes it especially good for transplanting to other areas of the body when compared to other types of skin.
Board-certified plastic surgeon Alexis Parcells explains that unlike skin grafts that are transferred without a blood supply, scrotal flaps allow doctors to transplant tissue components like muscle, fat and bone. Because of this, although the latter is a more complicated process that takes several weeks (compared to three to five days), scrotal flaps tend to heal faster and have fewer complications.
There is, however, one big catch. In order for the skin and tissue to transfer properly, a person’s finger has to be “positioned in the groin and stabilized there for several weeks while the flap adjusts to living on the wound and develops its own blood supply,” Parcells says.
Shocked, I ask her again. Does she mean that a guy would have to have his hand surgically attached to his crotch for weeks, in order to get a healthy scrotum finger? “Yes, exactly,” she confirms.
Before she was removing fatty lumps and cysts from people’s faces on the TLC network, board-certified dermatologist Sandra Lee, aka Dr. Pimple Popper, was performing scrotal skin grafts. Two years before Lee’s jump to television, she documented such a procedure in a 2016 Facebook post. After enduring a workplace accident that sheared the skin from his right thumb, her patient had “his thumb sewn to his scrotal skin for two weeks to ensure that graft survives before it is detached,” Lee wrote at the time. “Imagine having your dominant hand connected to your groin for two whole weeks!!”
Since John was a baby when his surgery happened, he doesn’t remember this awkward stage for his scrotum finger, but he’s had to answer a lot of questions about it since. The award for creepiest question he’s received (on numerous occasions): What does it smell like?
“It smells like a finger,” he says.
So, if you spot a possible scrotum finger in the wild, instead of asking its owner a rude question or pointing out any unshaven pubes, just quietly appreciate that there is secret scrotum skin hiding in plain sight all around us. All the more reason to take care of your balls, fellas. They may come in handy one day.