Even the most easily nauseated, who can barely even stomach the word "pus," will find it hard not to smile while watching Dr. Pimple Popper, TLC's new — and long-awaited — dermatological makeover series. Every week, dermatologist Sandra Lee, MD, (aka Dr. Pimple Popper) meets with different men and women suffering from rare, often confidence-crushing skin conditions. The boils they carry are massive. The cysts are bubbling up to balloon-sized. But it's the people underneath the incredible lumps and growths that make the show worth watching. Just cover your eyes through the pimple eruptions, if you must.
Maybe it's Dr. Lee's chatty, likable bedside manner, or because the four skin disorders she faces are seriously gnarly, but the hour-long premiere episode is gripping right off the bat. First, there's Melissa and her three-pound pillow of a neck growth, which has forced her to wear a sweatshirt day and night for the past three years. Then there's sweet and self-deprecating Tyler, who has two mysterious cysts on his face and a worrisome family history of cancer. Taj brings Dr. Lee a chest filled with painful boils, while Amber silently suffers with an ear-piercing gone terribly wrong.
All four patients bring their own unique condition to Dr. Lee's table (literally, the surgical one), but it's definitely a bumpy road to salvation. Seriously, so many bumps.
Case #1: Melissa
We meet 30-year-old Melissa at a Shop & Cart in her hometown of Sioux Falls, South Dakota, where she's wearing a black zip-up hoodie. "I wear a hooded sweatshirt day and night, even when it's 90 degrees outside because I have this huge lump on the back of my neck," she says. Melissa first noticed the now-massive bulging bump back in 2015, when it was only an inch and a half and easy to cover up, but it grew to the size of a grapefruit within a year, and has since tripled in size.
Though shockingly large, Melissa says that she hasn't felt a pressing need to get the growth removed because it's not actually painful. "It just feels squishy," she says, tugging at the ballooned-out skin on her neck. "When I lay down, it gets pushed up under my head, like an extra pillow. I just assumed it would go away eventually, but it just got bigger and bigger."
Upon initial inspection, Dr. Lee is concerned that Melissa's growth is, well, still growing. "The fact that it has grown so rapidly is suspicious," she explains. "Does that mean there's something bad in there that's growing out of control?" The answer, thankfully, is no. Melissa is diagnosed with a large lipoma, which is a benign collection of fat cells. "It's as if one fat cell started making clonal copies of itself," Dr. Lee explains.
After numbing Melissa with local anesthesia (which means Melissa's awake — eek), Dr. Lee cuts into the lipoma — and immediately, the top layer of pus starts flowing out (you might want to cover your eyes for this part). The tricky part is excising the entirety of the lipoma, so Dr. Lee has to yank at the mass, pulling the solidified fat buildup out in handfuls. In the end (you can open your eyes now), there's a bowling ball-sized ball of white pus lying on the surgical table, which is a much better place for it than in Melissa's neck.
Case #2: Tyler
Patient #2 take us to the tiny town of Litchfield, New Hampshire, where we meet Tyler, a 25-year-old construction worker with two cysts on his face."The first lump on my forehead showed up about five or six years ago, and the second bump over my eye came up a few years after that," Tyler explains, motioning to a larger horn-like cyst in the middle of his forehead. "At first, I thought it was a zit, but then it kept growing." Luckily, like Melissa, neither of Tyler's growths are painful. "You can poke it and move it around under the skin," he laughs — demonstrating how his snapback baseball hat gets caught on the protruding lump when he puts it on backwards.
Even though the bumps are on his face, and can't really be covered, Tyler hasn't been in any rush to get them checked out. "I have a long history of cancer in my family, and I'm just afraid I'm going to get bad news," he admits. But as a new dad, Tyler has all the more reason to get his health in order. "I have to focus on being healthy now, so I can be there for my daughter," he says. "It's a health concern — a major one."
So Tyler makes his first trip to the West Coast to visit Dr. Lee, who immediately gets him on the table to cut into his face. Again, take caution here if you're squeamish — because right after the first cut, there's a spewing of what looks like hunks of potatoes. (Good thing Tyler loves mashed potatoes.) Cyst number one: successfully extracted.
Moving on to number two, the second bump is smaller, and barely noticeable over Tyler's right eye. But Dr. Lee immediately notices that the cyst is abnormally deep under the skin, which gives her pause and sends Tyler into an is-it-cancer panic. "It's the deepest cyst I've ever seen, tucked under the eye muscle," Dr. Lee explains. "The material is not like anything I've ever seen before; it's so deep and buried down in there." The doc then closes and sends the excised cyst sample to pathology, while we're left crossing our fingers that the biopsy comes back benign.
Case #3: Taj
Taj enters Dr. Lee's office with an array of small, puffy bumps on his shoulders and chest, many of which have turned into larger infected boils. "The boils pop, and when they do, they're juicy," says Tyler. "When they get to a certain size, I just pop them and it's so painful." Dr. Lee immediately diagnoses Taj's bumps as an extreme case of steatocystoma multiplex, a common skin condition that typically occurs around puberty. "What happens is that the oil glands on the skin clog up and can get infected, which is when they really hurt and have a potential to scar," Dr. Lee explains.
Because Taj has these steatocystoma cysts all over his body, Dr. Lee has to work slowly and methodically to make sure that she gets all the pus out all and doesn't worsen the infection. She goes to town, and if you're a self-professed popaholic, Taj's case is a must-watch. (And if you're not? Well, you know what to do.) The white and yellowish liquid spills out of his body like hot butter. "These guys are fun to remove and satisfying to watch," says Dr. Lee. "Sometimes we do a guessing game — what color is going to come out?" Lovely.
Case #4: Amber
The last case of the premiere brings us to Amber, who we meet at a farmer's market in L.A. The 29-year-old has massive growths hanging from both her earlobes, where dangly earrings would hang. "Two weeks after I got my ears pierced, I noticed these two little growths on the back of my ear," says Amber. "A few weeks after that, they grew bigger, about the size of a small grape, and now they're huge."
Amber's squishy lumps are technically referred to as keloids, usually caused by skin trauma and broken cartilage, and thus are very common after a botched ear piercing. The skin cells that thrive under trauma are triggered to overproduce, which is why the keloids can grow to be enormous, as with Amber's ears. More than an issue of vanity, the biggest problem with the lumpy growths is the pain. "By the end of the day, I want to rip my headband off because they're throbbing," says Amber. "I can't even get comfortable laying down."
Dr. Lee is tasked with removing Amber's keloids very carefully. "When I'm removing a keloid, I have to be careful not to damage any of the surrounding skin, because keloids are born out of trauma, so any additional trauma could cause them to grow back," she says. That's why the keloids are a delicate project: Sometimes by removing them you can accidentally create even bigger lumps.
The extraction is the bloodiest of the episode — which makes sense, because Amber's keloids are growing close to the ear's blood supply. It's no less of an extreme extraction, but there is a little less pus.
At the end of the episode, we circle back to all the patients one month post-surgery, and the joy of their new leases on life will make you forget every oozy extraction. Most importantly, we also learn that Tyler's mystery cyst is benign. Of course, they save that vital tidbit for the last scene — because hey, that's TV, and this is Dr. Pimple Popper, where anything can happen. Tune in next week for a whole new episode, and a whole lot more pus.