The foreskin: a highly debated part of the male anatomy that some say is an unnecessary health risk, while others consider it a vital part of the reproductive system. Most Americans choose to have their children circumcised at infancy, forsaking the foreskin to prevent a slew of health problems that some medical professionals warn about. But in recent years, many are finding the benefits of keeping your crusader caped.

While people in most countries around the world choose to keep their sons as they are when they’re born, the U.S. has been the leader in performing circumcisions for non-religious reasons. That may soon be a thing of the past, however; according to a 2014 report published in Mayo Clinic Proceedings, circumcision in America is on the decline. Researchers found that instances of circumcision decreased from 83 percent of men in the 1960s to 77 percent of men in 2010. CBS News says that currently, the average percentage of men between the ages of 14 and 59 who are circumcised represent 81 percent of the American population.

So what gives? Why has this trend suddenly been turned on its head? Well, it may be that some scientists are changing their attitudes about circumcision and finding evidence that keeping your manhood fully clothed may be less risky than we previously thought. Here’s the truth, as we currently know it, regarding the foreskin.

It isn’t retractable from the beginning

When a baby boy is born, the foreskin is almost always fused to the glans of the penis, meaning that it cannot be retracted from the head. For most boys, the foreskin begins to separate from the glans around puberty, allowing for it to be retracted. However, it’s not unheard of for this to happen after the age of 18, or even as young as 3, according to Psychology Today.

For many parents, the fact that the foreskin does not retract when their child is born seems like a reason to get them circumcised. But Psychology Today states that infant boys who are not circumcised can be properly cleaned during baths or between diaper changes; cleaning the area with water can prevent irritation. But by no means should a parent try to retract the foreskin before it has retracted on its own; doing so can lead to tearing, pain, and the development of an unintentional infection.

Sometimes it just won’t retract at all

Phimosis is a condition in which the foreskin never separates from the glans of the penis, making it difficult to retract the skin without pain. According to the Department of Urology at the University of California, San Francisco phimosis can develop when tearing or forced retraction during childhood lead to scarring and subsequent infection.

For people who are diagnosed with pathological phimosis, meaning it’s not naturally corrected during childhood, symptoms often include penile irritation, bleeding, difficulty urinating, painful urination and erections, and recurrent infections like urinary tract infections. Doctors can treat this with a topical corticosteroid ointment, or, in some cases, circumcision.

There’s a cancer risk, but it’s not very high

According to the American Cancer Society, men who are not circumcised during childhood have a slightly increased risk of developing penile cancer than their cut counterparts. Researchers also found that adult circumcision did not reduce the risk of developing penile cancer. In some cases, it even increased risk.

So, what’s the reasoning behind this? Doctors aren’t entirely sure, but they can speculate. Some believe that when a man isn't circumcised, he’s at a higher risk of developing smegma, a combination of sebum and skin cells used to lubricate men’s foreskin and glans, and women’s clitoral hood and inner labia or phimosis, both of which they say might increase risk of penile cancer. Others think men who have their foreskin intact are more likely to become infected with the human papilloma virus (HPV), which has been linked to cancer in both men and women.

However intimidating this may sound, doctors emphasize that the risk of developing penile cancer, whether you are circumcised or not, is relatively low. Dr. Brian Morris, a researcher at the University of Sydney told Men’s Health that the current likelihood of developing penile cancer is one in 1,000 for uncircumcised men and one in 50,000 for circumcised men.

An Increased risk of HIV? That’s debatable

After three studies conducted by African researchers found that circumcising young boys was as effective at preventing HIV as a 60 percent effective vaccine, many started to believe circumcision was a highly beneficial preemptive measure. Another 2014 study published in the journal mBio found more evidence for this, finding that men harbored more bacteria in this area before circumcision than they did afterward — overall, there was 81 percent less bacteria. Researchers believe that bacterial growth can affect a man’s ability to fight off infections, like HIV.

But others are skeptical about this conclusion. According to Psychology Today, the African research had many holes in it; for one, the study was stopped before all the results were collected. What’s more, a belief that circumcision prevents HIV encourages many circumcised men in African countries to forgo wearing condoms. This is obviously not true; when the AIDS epidemic hit hardest in the U.S. during the 80s and 90s, 85 percent of men were circumcised and the disease still spread rampantly.

The best tip here: Always wear a condom, regardless of your circumcision status.

Uncircumcised men experience a little more sexual pleasure

Sorry circumcised men of the world, but this one seems to be true.  A 2013 study conducted by Belgian researchers took both circumcised men and uncircumcised men, and surveyed them for sensitivity down below as well as intensity of orgasm. Out of the 1,369 men interviewed over the age of 18, 310 were circumcised, while 1,059 were not. They were asked, on a scale of 0 to 5, just how sensitive their penis was during sex. It turns out that the uncut men were most likely to report higher levels of sensitivity. Overall, the average sensitivity for an uncircumcised man was found to be 3.72, while circumcised men reported an average of 3.31.

“It’s not a very big difference in sensitivity, but it’s a significant difference,” said Dr. Piete Hoebeke, of the Ghent University Hospital. Uncircumcised men also reported more intense orgasms, while circumcised men were more likely to feel pain or numbness in this special area due to scar tissue.  

No, it’s not any less clean

It has long been believed that being uncircumcised means you are somehow unclean, but most are finding that the only unclean people are those who disregard hygiene altogether. Men and women alike buildup smegma, but we usually get rid of this undesirable byproduct during regular bathing. Uncircumcised men most certainly do too as long as they regularly clean themselves. This is usually done by retracting the foreskin and simply cleansing the area with water (using soap may cause irritation).

As long as the area is cleaned regularly, there’s no way an infection will develop. In fact, regular bathing also helps lower the aforementioned risk of HPV, and may even get rid of the carcinogens smokers carry in their urine.

Source: Circumcision dramatically alters the penis microbiome, could explain protective effect against HIV. mBiosphere. 2013.

Hoebeke P, et al. Male circumcision decreases penile sensitivity as measured in a large cohort. PubMed. 2013.

Auvert B, Rech D, Singh B, et al. Association of the ANRS-12126 Male Circumcision Project with HIV Levels among Men in a South African Township: Evaluation of Effectiveness using Cross-sectional Surveys. PLOS Medicine. 2013.

Morris B, et al. Circumcision Rates in the United States: Rising or Falling? What Effect Might the New Affirmative Pediatric Policy Statement Have? Mayo Clinic Proceedings. 2014.