Ahhh, pimples. The favorite nemeses of any skincare junkie. Pimple popping videos, once reserved only for niche lovers of gross content or the subreddit r/popping, has now made its way to the mainstream — and people are loving it. Just ask a few of your friends next time you see them, and you're guaranteed to find a popaholic in the group.
I have struggled with everything from the offenseless blackhead to the cystic mountains on my back and face, probably since middle school. And while there are countless ointments, serums, oils, lotions, patches and pills that one could take for these skin conditions, some of you will know that the greatest satisfaction that can be derived from a pimple is that exquisite perfect pop.
Pimple popping is an art. It requires the practiced skill of how to gingerly extract the gross contents of your zit so that it won't scar and the ability to discern a prime-time pop from a pustule that hasn't yet come to the surface. And no one pops pimples, cysts, or blackheads better than certified dermatologist Sandra Lee, M.D. — better known affectionately and online as Dr. Pimple Popper.
I recently sat down with the world-renowned dermatologist and talked about how she achieved internet-fame, which acne myths not to follow, and the medical conditions that even her strong stomach couldn't handle.
Dr. Sandra Lee has been a certified surgical and cosmetic dermatologist since 2004. About four years ago, in 2014, she started posting photos and videos of her day-to-day life at the practice on Instagram to show the internet how "visual" the field of dermatology is. You know, just flexin' on the 'gram for fun, as we all do — until her Likes skyrocketed overnight.
"Pretty early on, I happened to post a blackhead extraction," she tells me in a conference room at one of her Southern California offices, "and I got a noticeable increase in attention. People were tagging their friends and making comments that they liked it, so I thought that was very weird. I did it again, and then it happened again ... So I decided to post a full video on YouTube, and when I did that, there were other videos, and I was like, 'Who are these people?'"
It's hard to believe that Dr. Pimple Popper was once (and not even that long ago) just a regular-shmegular person like us, trying to navigate her way through the jungle of the interweb. But it was on YouTube that one commenter changed the course of her career forever, by introducing her to the audience that would consider her sterile popping content an absolute treasure trove: "Someone said, 'You might want to check out the subreddit r/popping,' and I had never really been on reddit — I barely knew what reddit was — and I went there and I saw that there were fifty thousand people sharing popping videos. And they were all people with beer cans, a lot of dogs barking, dirty fingernails, using wet paper towels... It was all in the garage or in the living room."
Then it all clicked: "I thought, this is really weird. They're sharing these, but I have this content — I can just provide it for them," she says of her lightbulb moment.
And that moment would be the one to cement her moniker as well. Unprompted, Sandra goes in about the origins of her username. "I didn't know [much] about reddit, but I did notice that everyone had a fake name. So I thought, I have to have a fake name, and I decided to call myself Dr. Pimple Popper," she turns to me with a huge smile, the kind of smile I could imagine myself sporting if my YouTube videos alone also generated $3,600 a day. "That's kind of where it all started."
As someone who derives satisfaction from the occasional small zit or whitehead extraction but needs to turn away when more serious conditions requiring medical tools are involved, I was curious why Sandra thinks her online content did so well so quickly.
"My videos created a strong opinion in people," she says decisively. "Whether they hated it or loved it, they would tag somebody because they wanted to share it. Either way, it incited them to say something about it."
And now, some three and a half years later, Dr. Pimple Popper boasts over 2.6 billion (with a B) views on the video site. My mouth drops when I hear this figure, and Sandra confirms the shocking stat: "I mean, it's crazy how many more views we get for the amount of time we've been on there and how many subscribers we have. Because there's a lot of people who have been on Youtube for ten years, they have like, 10 million or more followers and only half a billion views."
No kidding. With her online success metastasizing practically overnight, it comes as no surprise to me that everyone suddenly wanted in on the popping action: "[When] the YouTube channel got big, we had production companies approaching me, book publishers approaching me, and all these people were like, 'Why don't we try to do something?,' and I kind of resisted it."
But when TLC called about a show and SpinMaster invited her to collaborate on a board game, she finally acquiesced.
"I didn't love the idea of giving up control, but it's just been wonderful. I mean, I'm on TLC, which is like a dream, and from that, my book is coming out and we have the game... I mean, how crazy is that?"
Pretty crazy, as it turns out. Her eponymous TLC show, which the channel has just announced will be renewed for a second season, has been doing well with ratings and with women between the ages of 21-54 — so well, in fact, that it's ranked #1 among the demographic for its time slot.
When I asked about possibilities for a second season, in advance of TLC's recent announcement, Sandra shyly recoiled, a drastic change from her gregarious bubbly personality: "I don't know what I'm allowed to say!" It's all making much more sense now.
Pimple Pete is the board game manifestation of her hit show.
Available on Amazon and Walmart, and coming soon to a Target near you, the game mimics the satisfying and cathartic feeling of pimple-popping in a safe and fun way. "If you ever feel the need to pop your own pimple," which Sandra vehemently advocates again, "just pop Pete's!"
"So many people want to do what I do," she explains. "And if they do it carefully, like I have to do, they won't get splashed. And that is also the worst thing that can happen to me. So that's sort of the premise behind the game."
So we shouldn't be popping our own pimples (oops), I say to her dejectedly, half-hiding my face behind my right hand. But say we did, hypothetically — is there a good way to deal with a zit without being left with an unsightly scar?
"I'm going to be like all dermatologists and say don't pop your pimples," she reiterates. "But I know that most of us will not listen to that. I mean, I myself [can relate] — If you have a big one, you can't keep your hands off it.
"There is a best time to pop a pimple. And that's when it comes close to the surface of the skin. Because the deeper you traumatize your skin, like if you try to poke it or squeeze something that's deeper, the more you risk scarring.
"So you want to use warm compresses that help it come to a head, and then once it's really superficial, nick it with something that's sterile, like a sterile needle, and then you can express the content."
"So you pop it, rather than squeeze first?" I ask, like some savage who's never laid eyes on a skincare video. She looks at me like, duh: "I don't want to squeeze it before it pops because then you're really traumatizing yourself."
Embarrassed at my obviously lacking skincare routine, I try to change the subject away from best popping practices and back to her personal life — specifically, her dynamic with her kids and co-worker husband.
"He's the brains and I'm the personality," she says to me jokingly. "We complement each other well, we have different things we do at the office."
When I ask her if that's ever difficult, the whole mixing business and pleasure ordeal, she immediately retorts, "The big thing, I think for everyone who works with their husband or a family member, is the hierarchy.
"We would never be able to work together if I worked for him or if he worked for me. The fact that we work alongside each other [is key], because we know we have each other's best interest at heart. ... And that's what I think is nice about working with your husband."
As for her kids, 12 and 13, who are dealing with her internet success and viral YouTube fame, she says:
"One of them doesn't watch the videos or the show at all. The other one will tell me when there's a reaction video or some other video about me because he kind of monitors [YouTube] every now and then.
"But my older kid is like, I can't watch this stuff, and I understand it and respect that. But I don't really act like anything's different — I mean, I once said to them, 'You know, your mom is a YouTuber,' and they were like, 'Mom, you are not a YouTuber. Please, don't ever say that.'
They probably ground me more than anything."
Sounds about right. As a dermatologist who was never exactly seeking Hollywood-levels of fame, Sandra explains that her popularity is taking some getting used to. "It's crazy to me that people recognize me," she reveals quite candidly, "that's the weird thing."
What interests me about Dr. Pimple Popper — in addition to her sensational ability to give the internet content it might not have known it wanted — is her incredibly strong stomach and ability to tackle even the most revolting lumps.
As someone who struggles to sit through a single extraction video, I can't help but wonder how exactly she became wired this way.
"My dad's a dermatologist," she begins, "and dermatology stuff has never really bothered me. We had every single textbook sitting around [the house] of various things growing out of people's skins.
"I was used to seeing stuff like that, it didn't bother me. I mean, there are crazy things I see — you should see my phone. My phone is ridiculous. Everyone else has their families on their phones, but I have skin, zits, cysts — that's my life."
But it doesn't mean even Dr. Pimple Popper is immune to all grossness of the medical variety. She shared two instances from med school that were so vom-inducing not even the pimple-popping doctor could stomach:
"I blame it on my period!," she prefaces as a disclaimer. "But two things happened in medical school that made me feel nauseous."
The first? "Once, I had to watch an autopsy and it was a Korean guy... He looked like somebody who — I'm not Korean, I'm Chinese — but he looked like a friend's father, or someone familiar. They were removing the brain, and they were like, 'Pull the head back,' like, the whole thing like a mask!"
After that experience, Sandra decided she would never go into that line of medicine. Ever. "That actually made me feel like I was going to hurl, it was that disgusting," she said.
The second time was during her rotation in the pediatrics department:
"There was a little kid, like 3 or 4, who came in. I don't remember what his issue was, but he was dying. We all had to shoot albumin into him, because he had no pressure, so we were trying to stick lines in him and shoot him with fluid.
"I, like, turned green."
"I think I was on my period again," she says while I laugh, needing no excuse for wanting to pass out at the sight. "So that's probably why I went into dermatology, because I don't have to deal with stuff like that. I just deal with cysts. The person is alive, and they better be alive after [I'm done with them]."
Honestly, fair enough.
Since she's already brought up her period twice, I ask if she has any skincare tips for women throughout their cycles.
"If you're pretty regular," she explains, "it might be smart to have some over-the-counter anti-acne medication to use the week of your [period] so you can prevent things from getting really bad."
SLMD is different from other skincare brands in that it's a medical skincare line. "I'm trying to create products that I would actually give to my own patients," she explains, "but this is for people who can't see a dermatologist. And most people can't."
SLMD started with an acne line, which makes sense given its creator. But now they're tackling other skin conditions, like Keratosis Pilaris, and branching out into non-acne-specific scrubs, lotions, and SPF moisturizers.
Her goal is for SLMD to complement her television show and online content: "My videos educate people, and now they understand the difference between a blackhead, a whitehead, and a cyst. But now that they understand that, I can give them products and tell them, 'This product works for blackheads specifically because of this,' and I explain it to them. They're going to use that product because they know why it works, and why specifically benzoperoxide works on a red bump, versus retinol, which works better for a whitehead or a blackhead."
And thank God for her and her SLMD line, because shopping for skincare products can get SO CONFUSING.
As I'm told our time together is nearing its end, I'm eager to ask her a question that's been burning inside me for years: Was my mother right? Growing up, I'd heard so many skincare myths — pizza causes acne, don't touch your face or you'll break out.
It was finally my chance to ask a trusted professional how to separate fact from fiction.
"Pizza only causes acne if you rub it all over your face," she says, radiating the confidence of someone with almost fifteen years of experience under her belt. "It has a lot to do with oil."
Then she drops the facts: "Acne has so much to do with genetics and your hormones. What kind of skin you're born with — like, if your parents have really oily skin and are more prone to acne, you're likely to have that too. And the hormones... that's why it happens the worst during puberty."
"I think milk can help promote acne, but the reason is the hormones that are in milk," she says. I ask if that's the reason everyone associates chocolate with pimples, and she says yes. "I think skim milk has more hormones than regular whole milk, so that can promote more breakout."
But Sandra says linking nutrition to acne can only be done on a person-to-person case, because it varies so much. "It really has so much to do with genetics and hormones," she stresses. "But if you find that tomatoes make you feel like you're breaking out — sometimes they make people feel like they're flushed, or they get red so they feel like they're breaking out, or their skin is hot or bothered — then don't eat them. But it's different for everyone."
As for touching your skin, which I was always reprimanded for as a child, there is definitely some truth to it.
Sandra says, "Violinists will have breakouts more on their chin and neck because they rest their chin on the violin, football players will have breakouts on their shoulders because they're wearing shoulder pads. I've seen women or men who have long hair across their face, and when they lift it up, they have tons of blackheads and whiteheads there. And that's because of products! Products they might use that occlude the skin."
"If you're always resting something [on one part of your skin], it's going to have a higher chance of clogging your pores, and promoting blackheads and whiteheads, which lead to acne. So in that sense, yes."
In other words, if you're always obsessing over one part of your face, touching it with oily hands or covering it with product, don't be surprised if you break out there.