Confessions Of The Internet's Favorite Pimple Popper

Dr. Sandra Lee, a.k.a. "Dr. Pimple Popper," is a board-certified dermatologist and cosmetic surgeon in Upland, CA who has her own TLC show. She has practiced for 15 years and specializes in cyst removals and blackhead extractions. The following story was told to Kelsey Castañon and edited for length and clarity.
I had been practicing for more than a decade when I started getting into Instagram in late 2014. I noticed hairstylists and makeup artists were uploading 15-second clips and before-and-after transformations of their work, and I thought, Dermatology is a really visual field. I wonder if people would be interested in seeing what we do, too. Then one day, I happened to post a blackhead extraction on someone's back and noticed an immediate increase in attention. People were tagging other people. They were writing, "Oh my gosh, you have to look at this." So, I did it again. Same reaction.
I decided to post a full extraction video to my YouTube channel, which at the time just had a few of my TV appearances. But when I went to put in my tags, I discovered there was a whole community of people on the internet sharing popping videos with each other. Essentially, these people were amateurs — they were popping pimples with a paper towel, in their backyard, beer cans everywhere, with no gloves, and dirty fingernails. I thought, I pop pimples all day. I'm a surgeon, so I can surgically excise things that pop out of the skin and try to video tape it. I could be their queen.
This wouldn't have worked five or 10 years ago, because we didn't have smartphones like we do today. After that, I just kept throwing logs on the fire to see how big it could get — and look what happened.
Finding Her Niche
In the last three years, I've done more pimple popping and cyst removals than I have in my entire career times 100. As dermatologists, we usually don't do these types of extractions. They're not medically necessary and are not covered by insurance, so it would be very expensive for the patient — easily $500 or $600. When I first started, I would just ask, "Do you want me to remove these blackheads for you? I won't bill you, if you don't mind me anonymously videotaping it." Everybody said yes.
It made me realize that people want these removed, but there's no one to do it for them. So it was a win-win-win: I was able to create these videos, people were able to watch and enjoy them, and the patients were benefiting because they wouldn't have to pay for something that bothered them. Sometimes patients ask not to include their faces or voices, and I'm totally fine with that. The whole point is to make them feel safe — that's important for me. They are #1. We're not there trying to get the perfect camera shot or angle; that part is just secondary.
Going Hollywood
I was almost kicked off Instagram and YouTube multiple times. There were other people before me, like Dr. Miami — who does a lot of Brazilian butt lifts — putting behind-the-scenes images on Instagram, and he was kicked off. The photos were considered too shocking. My posts would get taken down all the time; I'd get the notice, "This is deemed not appropriate," or whatnot.
Then the CEO of Instagram did an interview with Selena Gomez and Kevin Hart, and the question, "Who do you think the most creative person is on Instagram?" came up. Of all people, Selena chose me! Everything changed after that, and I haven't had any issues with my posts since.
Dr. Sandra Lee with her patient, and fan, Ayesha Curry
Embracing The Popaholics
Popaholics are everywhere — they know no creed, no region of the world, no socioeconomic status. In a room of 10, there's probably one or two people who love pimple popping videos. There are a lot of celebrities who are closet popaholics, too. Some will come out and say it, like Gillian Jacobs from Love, who went on Jimmy Kimmel and talked about it. Ashley Graham follows me and likes my posts. Even Ayesha Curry called when she had a mini pimple emergency, so I drove down to give her a cortisol injection on set.
Then there are others who just will not admit it. There's an Oscar-winning actress who has written me, and I've sent popaholic merchandise to her, but she won't follow me — at least not on her official account. It's like, Come on! It's not like this is some serial killer gang or something.
I’m not really a popaholic myself — I'm what you'd call a "born-again." I actually start to sweat when people send me popping videos of themselves. It makes me so anxious to think that someone is in pain, or that the tools aren't sterile or they aren't doing it in a clean, controlled environment. It's different when I do it, because I'm in control; I know everything is clean, I know no one is in pain. When I see someone squeezing out a huge cyst on someone's back and the person is screaming, I can't even look at it! That's just barbaric.
Going Beyond The Pop
It's not just about the pops for me. What I love about my job is that it feels very similar to [the photo series] Humans of New York. It's somewhat anonymous. You don't know who these people are, but you hear their stories. That's what I try to do with my videos. It's as if you're standing in line at Disneyland or on the subway and you're forced to have a conversation with someone you normally wouldn't talk with. When you're stuck in a room for 30 minutes, you learn the most amazing things. That's what I try to show people, and some viewers fall in love with my patients just from hearing their story.
That's what happened with this one guy named Pops. He had the most amazing blackheads, and during the first extraction video we did on him, he talked about how he had just lost his wife. He had to go to a retirement home and he was so upset because he couldn't afford it. He got hundreds of letters from around the world. Through that, viewers encouraged me to start a GoFundMe account and we raised $12K for him. I mean, how does that happen from popping pimples? You should have seen how that changed his outlook on life. He learned that all these people who don’t know him care about him and that is what makes it all worthwhile.
A New Way To Watch
I was never excited about doing a Dr. Pimple Popper show. When you sign on for something like that, you're no longer the person in control. So I went into it thinking, if it happens, great, but I wasn't going to pursue it. Then, when the TLC special premiered, I didn't realize how much I was freaking out until right before. But... people liked it.
I heard from the network on the Nielsen ratings, and it actually beat out the #1 show. Everyone was saying all these wonderful things on Twitter. Part of that, I think, is because it captured the backstory of my patients. We now have 12 episodes coming out on TLC in the summer. Even saying that makes me nervous! This show has come at a really good time in this world, where a lot of us don't know what's real or what's fake news. There are reality shows based on people being crazy and that's why people watch them — because they're bonkers. Pimple popping is crazy, but I'm acting like it's normal. So it's the opposite.

It might gross some people out, but for those who love it, these videos make them so happy.

Dr. Sandra Lee
It might gross some people out, but for those who love it, these videos make them so happy. It decreases their stress. It lulls them to sleep. Maybe in this day and age, that's all people are looking for: something to show us that we're all going to be okay.

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