LOVE her or loathe her, Dr Pimple Popper, aka Dr Sandra Lee, is nothing if not a phenomenon. With nearly three million followers on Instagram and more than three million subscribers on YouTube, the certified dermatologist has made popping spots a grisly spectator sport.
With their permission, Dr Lee and her team record procedures in her dermatology practice — everything from blackhead removals to the excisions of cysts under the skin — and post them online to a dedicated (and growing) audience of poppettes. Gross or great, who’s to say?
‘It’s a super divisive thing, watching these videos,’ she tells me from her practice in Upland, near Los Angeles, California. ‘These things elicit such strong emotions. I liken it almost to watching porn — the more you watch, the more normal it becomes. What I do certainly connects, as I have patients travel from as far away as the UK, Africa and Saudi Arabia just to see me. That’s the power of social media.’
Lee has been in practice since 2004 but she only started using social media ‘about four or five years ago’ to keep a record of her television appearances.
‘In October 2014, I opened an Instagram account because I thought dermatology was a very interesting and very visual field,’ she recalls. ‘Then one day I posted a blackhead extraction video and it really piqued interest. It seemed strange so I did it again. And again. One blackhead extraction had a comment underneath that said: “you may want to check out a SubReddit topic on pimple popping.” So I did and I saw there was a community of 70,000 people who just shared pimple-popping videos all day. I knew then I could become their queen!’
Indeed she has. Dr Pimple Popper is now a one-woman industry with her own skincare range and an entire social media team. As well as her practice, she earns money from her videos on YouTube (one post on her channel has had more than 8 million views). But just who are these people watching?
‘My demographic is 75 per cent female and mainly between the ages of 18 and 34,’ Lee says. ‘It’s a high percentage of aestheticians and people in the beauty industry but we also have celebrities who follow us. We divide our videos into soft pops — blackheads or milia [the little white bumps in the skin] removal — and hard pops, which are surgical things like cyst removal.
‘Everyone likes the soft pops. The hard pops can be a little more challenging to watch. I feel like some people are popaholics and on here they feel like they have met their people… I’ve also been told some people watch these videos to help get rid of anxiety.’
I don’t know about getting rid of anxiety — watching several of Dr Lee’s videos had the opposite effect on me. Pimple popping is obviously not my bag. Do people actually want to be filmed?
‘Yes,’ she says. ‘Of course, I ask everyone if they want to be filmed before we start. I don’t show my patients’ faces. Maybe one in a hundred clients say no.’
Are there things Lee wouldn’t show?
‘Of course. I have a client who has hundreds of white cysts on his genitals and I haven’t shown the video. I don’t want patients to feel exploited. I try to obscure people’s faces as much as possible and obscure any words that can be identifying. I’m hesitant to do live videos as I would lose control.’
So what’s the gen on squeezing blackheads? OK or a no-no?
‘Blackheads are fine to extract as long as you don’t bruise or damage the skin,’ Lee says. ‘Make sure you have clean hands or wear gloves. You can minimise damage by steaming the face first. I like to use a comedone extractor [a small metal hooped implement available from pharmacies and The Body Shop for less than £5] but sometimes pinching the pimple can be superior.
‘However, you’ve got to know when to pop and when to stop. If something is not popping within 20 to 30 seconds, stop. If you keep trying, you’ll traumatise the skin and increase your risk of scarring and infection.’
And if you’re still confused, there are plenty of videos online to show you how it’s done. Just let your breakfast settle first.