Say what you will about circumcision (and I know you all have lots to say about it), but have you ever wondered what happens to the foreskins of circumcised babies after they’re snipped?
As the mother of two girls, I’ve never had to make a circumcision decision. Which is just as well, as I doubt my Jewish grandmother would have approved of my decision, had I made one.
I had also never wondered about the fate of those little flaps of skin.
Turns out, circumcised foreskins have long and fascinating lives after they part ways with their original owners. They’re used for everything from cosmetics to scientific studies.
The Stir’s Christie Haskell dug deep into the largely hidden industry of baby foreskins. An infant’s foreskin has special cell properties, similar to those found in stem cells. Their versatility means that they can be used to cultivate skin cells.
Because of this, they’re not tossed out with the rest of the medical waste after a birth. Instead, hospitals sell them to companies and institutions for a wide variety of uses. Companies will pay thousands of dollars for a single foreskin.
Some of the strangest purposes they’re put to:
- Cosmetics: Foreskins are used to make high-end skin creams. The skin products contain fibroblasts grown on the foreskin and harvested from it. One foreskin can be used for decades to produce fancy face cream like the SkinMedica products hawked on Oprah.
- Skin grafts: In addition to making products for skin, a baby’s foreskin can be turned into a skin graft for a burn victim. Because the cells are extremely flexible, they’re less likely to be rejected. Currently, this technology can be lifesaving in providing a real skin “band aid” to cover an open wound while a burn victim heals. Researchers at Harvard and Tufts are working on advanced skin replacements that use human foreskins.
- Cosmetic testing: All those cruelty-free cosmetics you buy? Some of them are tested on foreskins. This yields better results, since they’re human skin. And it saves the lives of the rodents your shampoo would otherwise be tested on.
Emotions around this topic run high. So high that “intactivists” recently harassed a woman whose baby died after a circumcision.
Clearly, there are ethical issues with circumcision: some parents consider it a religious mandate, some consider it mutilation. Most seem to be in the middle ground, making personal decisions about what they think is best for their kids.
If you feel strongly that circumcision is wrong, the good uses foreskins are put to after the procedure may seem like a money-making racket for hospitals. On the other hand, there’s good medical research being done with them. Once the circumcision has occurred, it’s cool that the skin is useful.
I’m fascinated by how little-known this is. I mentioned it to my husband over the weekend, and he was shocked to hear that baby foreskins are used in medical research. Then he realized that he works with them every day in his own research lab. He’d just never made the mental leap to connect the “human foreskin” tissue samples they get with newborn human babies.