How to avoid damaging your penis

These are some of the most common ways that men injure themselves through sex and masturbation—and how to avoid their fate. In 2016, the late Bill Margold, a porn icon who started acting in hardcore films in 1972—on a rug in a garage in Venice, California that a giant gold cat had recently pissed on—told me the story of how, in the spirit of cleanliness and responsibility, he accidentally altered his penis...

These are some of the most common ways that men injure themselves through sex and masturbation—and how to avoid their fate.

In 2016, the late Bill Margold, a porn icon who started acting in hardcore films in 1972—on a rug in a garage in Venice, California that a giant gold cat had recently pissed on—told me the story of how, in the spirit of cleanliness and responsibility, he accidentally altered his penis. As a “good Jewish boy,” he said, he believed he should both urinate and wash his dick off immediately after sex. “The problem was—or, I guess it was a problem” he added, “that I washed my dick off with Aqua Velva,” the classic men’s aftershave. “I was,” he explained, “an Aqua Velva man.”

It stung, he recalled, as something with a high alcohol content would tend to do when in contact with sensitive tissue, like the glans. (Lore holds that sailors used to drink Aqua Velva when they couldn’t get booze.) But he muscled through the pain until he just couldn’t feel the sting anymore. By then, he added, he hadn’t only de-sensitized himself; the tip of his penis “started turning a little tan.”

Margold’s tale, like many from the early days of modern porn, may seem extreme. But it’s really not. Whether out of twisted beliefs about hygiene, masturbatory urges and a sense of expediency, sheer curiosity, or any other number of motives, men slather their penises in all manner of strange chemicals—often repeatedly. And that’s just the tip of the manifold and varied forms of casual abuse to which we subject our members in search of sexual pleasure, prowess, or even just a cure to erotic or everyday boredom. We often get away with such self-torture because the penis is a resilient organ. It is so well supplied with blood, a vital force for healing, explains Weill Cornell urologist Darius Paduch, MD, Ph.D., that even if we suffer cuts and abrasions, “the tendency to heal a penis is very good.”

But the penis is, somewhat paradoxically, also extremely sensitive. The skin of the shaft, explains Jesse Mills, MD, a urologist the UCLA Men’s Clinic, “is about as thin as that of the eyelid—very thin and very sensitive.” And the glans, a special sort of tissue not unlike that of the urethra, according to Ryan Terlecki, MD, a urologist at Wake Forest Baptist Health, “is especially sensitive to inflammation and irritation.” So for all that the penis can endure, it is also shockingly easy, especially through over-eager or under-thought masturbation, for men to seriously damage their penises. That can lead to short-to-long-term, and in some cases even permanent, changes in their texture, appearance, and sensory functioning. “It’s a very common complaint in my clinic,” stresses Mills. “I see tons of guys in their 20s and 30s who say, ‘I can’t feel my penis anymore—and most of the time,” it’s because of some self-induced damage to their tissue.

As with Margold’s experience, one of the most common ways men damage their penis is by using rough or caustic materials to wash up or get off. Most lubricants, Terlecki stresses, won’t cause a penis any pain or discomfort. Yet even lotions and creams meant for use on other parts of the body can cause some redness, burning, or other forms of irritation in the short-term. Shampoos, Paduch explains, contain detergents that help to strip away oils—which is convenient for our scalps. Rubbing that detergent into the glans of the penis, however, can cause caustic damage. Men also just make mistakes about what is safe to use for their bodies in general. “I’ve seen a couple of men using the cooking version of coconut oil” to masturbate, Paduch notes. But that iteration “is not like cosmetic coconut oil. When you masturbate with it, it becomes almost like sandpaper,” wearing away at sensitive penile tissue. Even some lubes marketed for sex and masturbation may contain irritants that irk the odd penis or items that trigger allergic reactions.

Chemical irritation is, in general, less of a concern for circumcised men. The glans, when exposed, the urologists I spoke to explained, undergoes tissue transformation; it thickens, toughens, becomes more like the rest of our skin. As such, explains Paduch, “it is more resistant to chemicals.” This transformation can also occur in uncircumcised men who expose their glans to mechanical stimulation often enough. There is no hard academic evidence that circumcision alters or reduces men’s sexual sensation, but this may just be due to a lack of study. Circumcision, Mill explains, does involve lopping off the foreskin and, often, quite a bit of the frenulum—sensitive parts of the penis involved in feeling pleasure. And the tissue of a circumcised penis’s glans is thicker than an uncircumcised penis’s. So it stands to reason, Mills says, that this would make it harder for the underlying nerves to register sensations.

Sometimes, a circumcision—or at least a frenulectomy—is necessary to address health problems like chronic penile infections or frenulum tearings. But concerns about the sensory impact of circumcisions and infants’ or young men’s inability to meaningfully consent to the procedure have led to a backlash against male cuttings. It has also created a sub-culture of men who seek foreskin reconstructions or try to reconstruct them DIY-fashion, by using weights to pull their remaining penile skin forwards. Some claim this can restore the sensitivity of penile tissue. However, there does not seek to be much research on the efficacy—or safety—of these practices.)

Regardless of a man’s circumcision status, though, Paduch generally recommends that they all exercise caution, never putting anything on their glans that they wouldn’t put in their mouth or eye, opting (whenever possible) for silicon-based, body-safe lubricants, and only washing the glans as needed with soap and water. If they use, or have been using, an irritant on their dicks, he and all the other urologists I’ve spoken to recommend just cutting it out and giving the penis a while to heal. Typically, it will—although this may take some time, depending on the extent of the irritation the penis has suffered and other factors like a person’s age, overall health, or general healing speed.

Men who don’t heed that advice, though, and push through the pain—whether because they have desensitized themselves to that sensation, like the lubricant they’re using too much to relent for any reason, or actually like the rough or stinging sensations involved—may face some serious issues. Some men who overwash their penises with caustic agents (often because of an obsessive belief that dicks are somehow inherently dirty), or over-indulge in masturbation with them repeatedly can wind up with chronic conditions like balanitis or lichen sclerosus that leave penile tissue red or white, raw and thin. It can also lead, Mills argues, whether in circumcised or uncircumcised men, to further tissue change. “If you keep putting nasty things on your penis,” he argues, “the body’s reaction is to form a callus.” By doing so, it’s “basically turning something as sensitive as the inside of your eyelid into something as sensitive as the heel of your foot,” in a worst-case scenario.

Even these conditions are, in theory, recoverable if a man afflicted with them lets up on whatever practice was irritating his junk. Inflammation can clear up, perhaps with the aid of a topical steroid or some other doctor-prescribed treatment; even skin hardening can reverse itself, as with hand or foot callouses. But, Paduch points out, repetitive or long-term injuries or conditions can impair that healing process. Scars can form and tissue can atrophy or erode. This happens more quickly on shaft skin than on the glans, but it is possible there too; for some men, long-term damage will set in faster or more easily than for others. (Some types of inflammation or skin conditions, Terleki points out, can also spread into the urethra, causing scarring that can “block the flow of urine.”)

The risks we subject our penises too aren’t restricted to our choice of lubrication, though. Our choice to forego lube can be just as dangerous. Relatively dry masturbation, or sex, always risks pure mechanical irritation—a raw dick—and possibly a few nicks and cuts as well. (Even with ample lube, too much masturbation or sex still risks the same thing.) Circumcised men may actually be at greater risk of these mechanical abrasions, thanks to how thin or tight some of their circumcision scar tissue can be. These abrasions, however, typically heal quickly and easily.

But just as with caustic exposure, constantly irking an abrasion (by not giving it time to heal) can cause complications. They can get infected—especially if left untreated (and men, the urologists I’ve spoken to agree, are terrible at seeking help for medical issues related to their ever-taboo nether regions). And these infections, if left alone, can cause long-term or permanent penile damage. Or they can eventually scar, affecting sensation. Scars typically occur on the shaft of the penis, and those that form right under the glans can be a real pain, as they tighten the skin and risk re-tearing or irritation over and over. (Doctors can perform surgery, Mills points out, to excise a scar, giving skin a chance to re-heal and reducing tension in the area.) But with enough damage, the glans can scar or erode, long-term or permanently, due to mechanical abrasions as well.

Paduch notes that he’s encountered a number of men who wear “chastity cock devices” whether for a fetish or to prevent themselves from masturbating to supposedly heighten their sensation and orgasms during sex. The constant friction of these typically metal cages can cause permanent damage; “I’ve seen some abrasions almost to the point of erosion on the penis” tip, he explains.

It is difficult, Paduch cautions, “to say, ‘yes, a particular chemical caused somebody a loss of sensitivity,’” due to repetitive exposure or associated chronic conditions. Some men may masturbate in extreme ways because they had low sensation from the start. And it is difficult to look at how thick a man’s glans has become, says Mills, and pin down how much it will affect sensation. However, argues Paduch, “obviously, it’s going to affect your feeling” to some extent.

Paduch also notes that a shocking number of men buy lubes or powders that promise to heighten their orgasms or general sexual experiences. “But often, these are based on capsicum, or hot peppers,” and pose their own special sensory problems. Specifically, he explains, “they dilate the blood vessels,” which can enhance sensation in moderation, as this opens up our usually somewhat protected penile nerves. Too much dilation, though, can break those vessels leading to serious tissue and nerve problems.

Men with erectile dysfunction, Paduch adds, also have a nasty habit of “jerking off harder and harder and harder,” whether with or without lube. This can actually lead to penile fractures, horrific injuries typically associated with rough sex or woman-on-top riding gone wrong in which a man tears the lining of the chambers of the penis that fill with blood during an erection. Although it is relatively easy to treat this condition, many men (somehow) avoid reporting it out of shame. Left untreated, penile fractures can lead to internal scarring that can often cause urethral damage, curvature, or even more ED, to name just a few potentially life-altering, sex-hurting afflictions.

These shockingly everyday behaviours and the complications they can lead to, do not pose the greatest long-term risks to penile functioning or sensation, though. Short of serious trauma like burns, blast injuries, or full on severance and re-attachment, the worst damage men do to their own dicks usually comes courtesy of the abuse of enhancement products, or (much rarer, but unfortunately not obscure) at-home penile surgeries.

Penis pumps, for example, have their valid uses. But “guys who use penile pumps to supposedly enlarge their penises, not for erectile dysfunction,” explains Paduch, “have absolutely damaged their penises by doing that because of the over-stretching of the nerves, the blowing up of the blood vessels.” Mills recounts one case of a 17-year-old who did enough damage to himself with a pump that he needed a prosthetic implant just to have erections; his erectile tissue was all but shot.

Cock rings can get stuck if applied too snugly. Some men just leave them on too long as well. This basically strangles penile tissue, starving it of blood flow and oxygen. Some men come to doctors with cock rings on and penile tissue that has essentially necrotized and died, explains Mills. “Guys can lose penile skin,” he adds, “and need skin grafts—or even lose the entire tip of the penis.”

Priapism, or the super long erections anti-ED meds war about, which can be caused by those pills (especially when abused) or a host of other conditions or products, can likewise cause tissue damage or death leading to even more erectile issues in the future, not to mention possible pain.

Terleki can rattle off any number of horrifying stories about men who have tried to enhance their own penises. He describes men who have given themselves, or sought out, “mineral oil injections underneath their penile skin to increase girth, only to have it scar into what looks like a volcano,” necessitating surgical removal and skin grafts. He also mentions several cases of men trying to “stud their penile shafts”—in one case by melting down dominoes and piercing their skin to insert pellets of that plastic material into it.

“As you can imagine,” he says, this required reconstructive surgery and “sensation was impaired.” Mills also has a story of a man who, 20 years ago, decided to elongate his penis by tying a rope around it with a weight attached at the bottom, then walking around while gravity worked on him—a practice that shows up in old European and East Asian texts. But as soon as he tried it, he ruptured his internal erectile issue—and waited two decades before seeking help. By that time, the damage was so set he needed an implant to get hard.

But issues related to casual self-abuse with caustic chemicals or excessive friction or force are all too common in urologists’ offices. Granted, these injuries aren’t always life-shattering. “Most guys,” argues Mills, “have sensitivity to spare,” so even if they lose a little sensitivity to long-term or permanent damage, they will hardly lose the ability to enjoy sex or orgasm. It might just take them longer to get off, “which is not a bad thing” in every case, Mills adds, “since I see a lot of guys in my practice who have the opposite problem.”

But the commonality of these injuries and perceived desensitisation likely linked to them speaks to a somewhat disturbing reality. For all that men love—and even worship—their own cocks, they can be shockingly blasé about what they subject their sensitive penile tissue to and reticent to seek help. For the sake of our penises, we really could think a little more about how we slather them up and smack them around.


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