We talk a lot about foreskins when our kids are babies. According to ABC News, only 56% of male infants are circumcised today, though CBS News reports that “the overall rate among U.S. males age 14 to 59 is 81 percent, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.” That’s an awful lot of uncircumcised penises around, and not a lot of older uncircumcised people walking around who know how to take care of an uncircumcised penis. Although the risk of infection is rare, it is important to know proper hygiene.
So the parents of uncirc’ed boys have to become vocal advocates for, well, their kid’s penis. There are cutesy slogans: “If intact, don’t retract!” and “Only clean what is seen!” We tell people to “wipe it like a finger.”
This works really well, and it’s really great advice, and it’s exactly how you’re supposed to take care of your kid’s foreskin — that is, until it naturally starts to retract on its own.
So when does my kid’s foreskin start to retract?
Here’s the tricky part.
Retraction means the foreskin can be pulled back from the glans (head) of the penis.
According to Healthy Children, most children will be able to retract their foreskin by the time they’re five. They usually figure that out by messing around with them. However, the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, on the other hand, says “some boys” will be able to retract by age 5, but others will not retract until their teens. Basically: they have to figure out when their foreskin can retract; only they can figure out when their foreskin can retract, and you should never ever ever try to force it, the same way you’d never try to force a baby’s. According to CHOP, it can lead to the same types of complications: pain, bleeding, scarring, and adhesions.
I basically asked my kids: can you retract your foreskin? I mean, does it pull all the way back over the head of your penis? When they hit age five, only one of them couldn’t fully retract.
Speaking of when they can retract: even if they can retract a little, you’re supposed to teach them to pull back their foreskin when they pee. It should be pulled back, CHOP says, as far as the meatus (a fancy word that means “where the pee comes from”). Not only will this help them not spray pee everywhere, but it’ll also keep them from building up pee under their foreskin and possibly causing an infection, which is rare but can happen.
Okay, so they can retract. Now what?
Once your kid can retract, toss the “only clean what is seen” and “wipe it like a finger” and “if intact, don’t retract” part. Yeah, they’ve gotta pull that foreskin back and clean underneath it now. Just like your circumcised kid has to clean his circ’d penis — he’s got a little skin to clean under, too — so does your circumcised son.
“Although most men that are uncircumcised do a very good job cleaning below the foreskin, it’s more of a task for them,” Karen Boyle, M.D., director of male reproductive medicine and surgery at Chesapeake Urology Associates in Baltimore, told Shape.
According to The Independent, “Many of us don’t know the basics: a study showed 26% of uncircumcised men do not always wash under the foreskin, which can lead to a build-up of smegma, and can start to smell.”
According to the British National Health Service, this is how you wash a penis: with warm water every day, and this includes whether or not you have a circumcision. Pull the foreskin back and wash underneath it too. Regular washing prevents the buildup of smegma — which is, as Healthline says, “a buildup of dead skin cells, oil, and other fluids.”
Smegma keeps you clean, but too much of it can lead to issues, including infection — which, like we said above, is still pretty rare. The NHS says that “it can start to smell, stop you from easily pulling your foreskin back, and become a breeding ground for bacteria. This can cause redness and swelling of the head of your penis, called balanitis.” Symptoms of that, the NHS says, include a sore, smelly penis that is red and swollen, has thick fluid build-up, and makes it hurt to pee. But it doesn’t happen often.
Smegma buildup can also, according to the NHS, make it hard to retract your child’s foreskin.
So when my kids are in the tub/shower, I make sure to holler, “Wash your foreskins!” To which they groan, and reply, “We are!” It’s not weird or embarrassing, more like I reminded them to wash their hair when they’re really faking it and just wetting it instead.
NO ONE TELLS YOU THIS STUFF THOUGH. This is why there’s so much confusion and myths about uncirc’ed men. So, teach your children well.
In this case, teach them how to clean their damn foreskins.
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Anti-circ advocates generally quit after babyhood — once foreskins stay intact, they don’t tell parents how to take care of them. Real talk: we do.
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