Though the vast majority of people have stood in front of a mirror, trying their best to finagle the head of a zit off their chin or forehead, that satisfying release when it finally pops falls under the category of “things you don’t admit out loud.” That was until Dr. Sandra Lee — aka Dr. Pimple Popper — de-stigmatized it.
Three years ago, she came up with the idea of giving others a glimpse of a day-in-the-life of a dermatologist via her Instagram account. Her goal was to go beyond the skin checks, Botox injections, and acne prescriptions to the real nitty-gritty of the profession. Inspired by a hair colorist — @GuyTang — who posted unpolished images of his work, Lee decided to post candid and, OK, sometimes gross, videos of the messy side of her work as well. “When I met him, I thought, ‘Hmm, no one really does this in my business; why can’t I do this too?’ ” she tells Yahoo Lifestyle. “Why can’t I post dermatology picture and videos and create a following like he does?”
Her intuition proved on point — and after one blackhead video went semiviral, she switched her focus to a new Instagram account — @DrPimplePopper. Today, that account has nearly 3 million followers who watch as she tackles some gnarly cases. Her Insta-fame has shifted her career, giving her an even bigger platform, via a new TLC TV series, to share her craft. Did we mention she still practices dermatology and recently released her own product line, SLMD Skincare? Luckily, this busy powerhouse put down her tools for a few minutes to give us an inside look into her daily routine — and to talk about why everyone is so obsessed with watching pimples pop.
Yahoo: There’s something addictive about your videos! When was the turning point, when you knew you were onto something, when the Instagram account really took off?
Dr. Sandra Lee: One day, I offered to remove a patient’s blackheads in exchange for her allowing me to to videotape the process and post a short clip on my Instagram. To my surprise and interest, it got a noticeable jump in “likes” and attention. I noticed people were tagging their friends in the comment section. This was curious to me, so I did it again, and it happened again. People were saying, “This is satisfying,” or “This is fascinating,” and tagging their friends saying, “You have to see this!”
I soon discovered there was a subculture on the internet, a group of people around the world, that enjoys “popping” videos and sharing them with others that feel the same way.
However, these videos were a little different than what I do: no sterile medical gloves, squeezing a cyst or pimple on the beach or in a garage or living room, people screaming, wiping things away with paper towels, no anesthesia (!), dogs barking in the background, beer cans on the coffee table. I realized I did something at work that they would love, and I felt I could bring a better and more humane and safer “pop” to them.
My Instagram grew quickly at this point because my videos generated attention: People either loved it, hated it, or were obsessed with it. Either way, they tagged their friends, and this is how it grew.
It really took off in early 2015, when BuzzFeed picked it up, and made a reaction video to my videos. I remember my Instagram notifications were on my phone, and I couldn’t even get into my phone to turn them off because so many people were following me — I think I went from a few thousand to 20,000 followers within a few hours. Since then, I’ve just been growing my social media, and it’s come so far and been absolutely amazing.
I started to throw another log on the fire, posting on social media every day and uploading a daily YouTube video. In just three years I have had over 2 billion views on my YouTube channel, and have well over 10 million followers across all my social media platforms. It’s mind-boggling and crazy.
What do you think it is about pimple popping that people are so fascinated by?
I think there are a few reasons, but ultimately I think it really makes many people happy/content/relaxed. There’s a sense of completion — of cleansing. It calms people with some obsessive-compulsive tendencies. Many people actually watch my videos if they are having a panic attack, or to help them sleep! People who have a tendency to pick at their own skin when they are stressed say that watching my videos really helps them to keep their hands off their own skin.
I also think it may give some people a little rush — similar to what a person may feel from riding a roller coaster or watching a scary movie. And I think it’s fascinating for many people to see what can come out of the skin of a regular, normal, healthy human.
Also, people say that my voice has calming qualities, what people call ASMR [autonomous sensory meridian response]. Believe it or not, my videos are bedtime lullabies to many.
Let’s take things back a little further in your history. When did you become “obsessed” with popping pimples?
Believe it or not, I myself am not a popaholic. I call myself a “born-again popaholic.” When I have a great case with a good story and an amazing pop I get excited, but not because I’m going to be witness to it. More because I know the patient will be happy and the viewers will really love this one!
People think I want to see big pops and will send me a video of a huge cyst someone else has squeezed at home, or even a horse or cow abscess. I get shivers even thinking about it! I can’t — and won’t — look at these videos. I think this has to do with my loss of control. I wonder if that was a sterile environment; was the patient or animal in pain? Will they have a terrible life-threatening infection after and be left with a horrendous scar? When I do my own procedures and surgeries, I’m in control, and I know that it is a calm, sterile, painless environment, and these are the only kind I can watch!
Is there a particular pimple you’ll always remember?
There is a patient 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 $12,000 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.
For at-home pimple poppers, what are the tools of the trade or the most important things to keep in mind?
Let me start off by saying — as we dermatologists do— that I don’t recommend that you pop your own pimples. However, I know that most of you won’t follow this recommendation. So I instead insist: Know when to pop, and know when to stop. You really shouldn’t pop anything on your face unless it has come to a white/yellow head. It is OK to extract once the bump is very superficial to the surface of the skin.
The area needs to be sterilized, and be sure to use a clean tool, like the Dr. Pimple Popper Comedone Extractor. You’ll want to make sure you wash your face before with warm water to really open up the pores. It should come out pretty easily if it is ready, but if the pimple is not popping, there’s definitely a time to give up because forcing it and continually pushing and squeezing will only irritate your skin and certainly increase your risk for scarring. See a dermatologist or skin care professional to help you get these extracted. Finally, be sure to apply a spot treatment like my SLMD Acne Spot Treatment.
What anti-pimple products do you swear by?
Acne spot treatments are the best way to target an area or specific breakout. My favorites are salicylic acid, benzoyl peroxide, and sulfur for those with sensitive skin. Salicylic acid is a peel agent that helps exfoliate and is found in my SLMD Acne Spot Treatment. It crystallizes to a small-enough size to actually settle within our pores to help clear them of debris, and this helps prevent blackheads and whiteheads from forming and also helps to clear up existing blackheads and whiteheads, which are the primary lesions in acne.
When blackheads and whiteheads get inflamed due to bacteria, this is when you get the painful red pimples that we all recognize as acne. Benzoyl peroxide in the SLMD Acne Treatment is antibacterial, helping to minimize the growth of bacteria. The SLMD Blemish Cream uses sulfur, which is a great antibacterial option if you have sensitive skin, or have experienced irritation from other acne treatments.
What has surprised you the most about your fame/your Instagram?
I’m mainly surprised that pimple popping is what has gained me fame. Who would have thought! Insane. Five years prior to any of this, I had been on TV talk and news shows as a dermatologist, and that exposure is nothing compared to this. Now people travel from hours away, states away, even other countries and continents, to see me. All because they have seen me on the internet and feel they know me, they trust me, and want me to treat them. It’s extremely humbling and crazy!
What’s next for you?
I just had a TLC special This Is Zit. When it premiered, I didn’t realize how much I was freaking out until right before. But people liked it. Everyone was saying wonderful things. Part of that, I think, is because it captured the backstory of my patients.
We have a big job ahead of us now that we have been green-lit for 12 episodes to air later this year. So now we have to find great patients, heartfelt stories, and amazing transformations!
In three short years I have accomplished more with Dr. Pimple Popper than I could have ever dreamed. A skin care line — SLMD Skincare — that has started with an acne system (of course), now a series on television on TLC, a book coming out later this year — I am so excited to see what this year holds.
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