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It was almost one year ago that Dr. Lee first decided to upload a clip from a blackhead extraction to YouTube in an effort to broaden her social media presence and diversify things. At the time, she mostly had snippets of her TV appearances and some other procedure-type videos and only about 2,000 followers. Within a few days, the likes and comments were pouring in and it was obvious that these videos were meeting a demand.
“I was floored," she says. "I had no idea that there were whole websites devoted to pimple popping. It was quite clear that I had access to something that people wanted.”
She quickly added a new Instagram account dedicated to these clips, @DrPimplePopper, and started asking patients if she could film them. In mid-December, she hit the 500,000-follower mark and her YouTube channel now gets about a million views a day.
To keep up with demand, Lee says she stockpiles about two weeks’ worth of videos, so she can mete them out day-by-day. (She has an assistant shoot them with an iPhone.)
It’s not all that hard to get willing patients, says Lee. “Patients ask almost on a daily basis for me to identify a blackhead, cyst, or milium. Normally, I would as most dermatologists do, just reassure them that the bump is benign and doesn’t need to be treated. However, now I suggest that I can remove the area if they let me film the removal to post on my social media. I make it as anonymous as possible. And 99.9% of the time, they say yes, often even before I have a chance to get the whole proposal out of my mouth!"
You might notice that many of the videos or of older people. “I tend to see more of the elderly patients with [a] history of skin cancer,” notes Lee.
“So I see more solar comedones, a.k.a. blackheads, in older patient population — and luckily for my viewers, these blackheads can be quite big.”
One of her most popular videos of all time is of a man called Mr. Wilson, whose enormous blackheads are so incredibly numerous that she simply identifies them as "TNTC" — too numerous to count. So far, over 6.1 million people have watched the video.
And as her star has risen online, clogged-up clients have been coming from all over the country — and even the world — to seek out her help. They make the pilgrimage not just because Lee is one of the only doctors posting these things online, but also because most skin doctors just don’t do this sort of stuff on a daily basis.
“Most dermatologists, including myself before all of this, don’t really do a lot of these things like blackhead extractions or milia removal,” says Lee. They aren’t considered a billable condition, so they aren't covered by insurance and docs don’t get paid for them. “So most of the time, I am doing them for free in exchange for being able to film the process," she explains. "For a lot of people, these are things that really bother them but they wouldn’t have a way to get rid of otherwise. It’s not like they can just go to a facialist either. In some of these cases, I have to use a blade to nick the skin first, and aestheticians in most states aren’t legally allowed to use that sort of tool. Not to mention that they don’t have access to numbing medication, like I do.”
But the question remains: Why are we all watching? What’s behind the fascination with being disgusted? There’s no clinical term, but just like every human emotion, disgust is actually rooted in self-preservation, says Daniel Kelly, an associate professor of philosophy at Purdue University and author of the book Yuck: The Nature and Moral Significance of Disgust. It’s actually a part of what social scientists call the “behavioral immune system,” our brain's way of engaging in a kind of preventative medicine, he explains.