This Pimple-Popping Doc Is Taking Over The Internet

Sandra Lee, MD, is an unlikely internet star. Sure, she’s beautiful and accomplished, but it's her pimple popping skills that have garnered the attention — and the name Dr. Pimple Popper. And by attention, we mean nearly half-a-million subscribers obsessively refreshing her Instagram and checking her YouTube feed. You can't say that for many dermatologists, can you?

Dr. Lee’s fans are logging on day and night, waiting impatiently for this raven-haired Southern California-based doctor to post a new video to feed their insatiable need. Sure, watching her extract an enormous blackhead, remove an inflamed cyst from someone’s neck, or delicately excise a glistening blob of extraneous fat (a.k.a. lipoma) from a forearm is, well, nasty. Yet, for Dr. Lee’s thousands and thousands of fans, these videos are the first thing they want to see in the morning and the last thing they watch before bed.

I should know: I am one of those fans. I have spent an embarrassing amount of time watching Dr. Lee’s videos, as well as the scads of poorly lit, super-shaky, at-home extractions uploaded by less-professional people every day to YouTube — which often feature a girlfriend eagerly doing the squeezing on a guy, beer cans scattered in the background, a dog scuttling underfoot, and an ear-splitting squeal when something explodes. Regardless of how grainy or gross the video, when it comes to pimples, blackheads, cysts, and any and all enlarged, clogged, or otherwise deranged pore, I'll watch. I’m a “popaholic,” the term Dr. Lee has affectionately labeled fans of the genre. Ahead, I chat with Dr. Pimple Popper, take a closer look at why popaholics are so fascinated, and let you watch my top 10 favorite videos — if you dare.

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.
When you boil it down, disgust essentially protects us from allowing things that may make you sick to come too close — bodily fluids, decay, rotten smells, excrement, anything that has the potential to cause physical harm. “Once something exits the body, you never want it in again,” says Kelly. Think about it: fingernails, saliva, the contents of your pores. All fine when they’re in there. Once they're out: disgust.
But what about for those of us who find pimple popping oddly pleasurable and for whom the disgust aspect has seemingly worn off? Have I chipped away at my natural response too far, putting myself in some sort of danger?

Nope, it’s still there, says Kelly. “That frisson of excitement you get from watching the videos, it’s still coming from the same deep-seated psychological mechanism.”
There’s also the aspect of the whole thing that evokes a bit of the inner ape in all of us, says Kelly, in that we’re essentially just watching other people groom — something that our simian counterparts do for many hours a day. But they, too, are engaging in this behavior as a way to avoid sickness — carefully picking out bugs that could cause harm.

As for Dr. Lee — who admits that she's not much of a popaholic — she’s not entirely sure what the appeal is, but has a few theories. "It has a strangely calming effect on people; it's almost hypnotic, and I guess there's a sort of primitive aspect of it."

For people who happen to like to "pick," it's a perfect place to go online, she says. Some people play video games to chill out, others watch these videos!
One thing is clear though: For thousands and thousands of people, Lee’s uploads are wacky little digital gifts, a corner of the web that they’ve come to rely on for strange succor.

“A lot of people tell me they watch the videos at night, before they go to sleep,” says Lee. It’s true. For whatever deranged reason, I find it immensely relaxing and an oddly cleansing way to close out the day.
As for what’s up next for Lee, she’s doesn’t particularly seem to be seeking crazy fame or fortune from her sudden digital celebrity — at least not the way you might think.

"I’d like to use this exposure to really show my viewers a window into my world as a dermatologist," she says. "What they were drawn to me for, the popping, is really a small part of what I do as a dermatologist. Hopefully, I can teach them more about interesting skin conditions and their treatments and that I can teach people how to take better care of their own skin." To that end, she started a “sister” YouTube channel called Dr. Pimple Popper University which will have more educational videos about dermatology and how to take better care of one’s skin.

As for me, I just keep hitting refresh, but am glad to understand just how truly not alone I am in this habit. And to all my fellow popaholics out there who have been clearing your cache or watching in hiding: Be not ashamed of your secret screen addiction! Subscribe with pride! And good night, sleep tight, may the pores never close up tight.
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