Warning: This story contains graphic â if not disgusting, yet fascinatingÂ â videos and physical descriptions of the act of popping pimples.
Believe it or not, thereâs an entire subculture of peopleÂ really passionate about popping pimples.
Sandra Lee, a dermatologist in Southern California, calls them âpopaholicsâ and their sickening â yet, somewhat intriguing âÂ obsession with watching others do the dirty deed âpopaholicism.â And sheâs giving them exactly what they want â âpops,â oozing blackheads, whiteheads and cystsÂ of all sizes, shapes and colors.
Lee, a cosmetic and surgical dermatologist in Upland better known as âDr. Pimple Popper,âÂ has gained widespread attention on social media, where she has posted countless videos showing her removing poppable things from her patientsâ bodies. Now she has her own show on TLC by the same name â providing a deeper dive into her patientsâ lives and the up-close and personal proceduresÂ she performs on them.
âItâs fascinating to me why people love this stuff,â Lee told The Washington Post earlier this week, explaining that people have told her that watching the videos relaxes and entertains them.
Since its premiere last week, which drew some 2.4 million viewers, TLCâs âDr. Pimple Popperâ has aired two episodes, showing several patients learning about their conditions and having various growths removed from their bodies.
âI think itâs going to capture the interest of more than just âpopaholicsâ; it will convert people into âpopaholicismâ because I think it shows a more well-rounded picture of what goes on,â Lee said about the show.
She said that âitâs not just about the âpopsâ or the surgeryâ because it shows her patientsâ journeys â something she does not typically get to see.
âItâs so interesting to me that this is all sort of starting on the grotesque, or something that is shocking or gross to so many people, but it ends up being a happy story,â she said about the show.
But why would people watch that?
Heather Berlin, aÂ neuroscientistÂ at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York, said that âevolutionarily speaking, itâs normal behavior to want to remove bumps from your skinâ because those bumps could be parasites or other things, so she said it makes sense that human beings evolved in a way that such behavior can be pleasurable to them.
For some people, BerlinÂ said, popping pimples or watching others do it stimulates the nucleus accumbens, the reward center in the brain that receives dopamine and gives people âa little hit of pleasure.â But, she said, to others, the behavior may seem disgusting; in those cases, she said, a different part of the brain called the insular cortex is activated.
So why do some people find it pleasing and others repulsive? That, Berlin said, is not known.
LeeÂ said she realized that there was a market for pimple-popping videos several years ago when she created an Instagram page as âa little window into my world as a dermatologist.â SheÂ said her page had not attracted any significant attention until she posted a video of a blackhead extraction. People went nuts. âI thought that was very strange,â she said, âso I did it again, and the same thing happened.â
Lee said she discovered a subculture on the Internet, where people had shared tens of thousands of videos showcasing their best pimple pops.
The videos typically showed people âin their backyard or in their garage or living room and they had dirty fingernails â no gloves â and paper towels, and dogs barking and beer bottles half-opened and people screaming and no anesthetic and things like that,â she said. So, she said, she saw an opportunity to provide similar videos, but in a safe and sterile environment, so she started recording more extractions and even surgeries.
âI knew not everybody likes popping,â she said. âI think you get the opposite ends of the spectrum â people who are obsessed with it and people who are disgusted by it. But thatâs how it grew, too, because either way, people would tag their friends to show them and thatâs how it got bigger.â
(Lee graciously advised this reporter to start with videos showing âsoft popsâ â bumps like blackheads and whiteheads that do not require surgery â then work her way up to the âhard pops.â)
But the decision to show it all on TV was not so easy.
Howard Lee, president and general manager ofÂ TLC, told The Post that though the dermatologist had become an online phenomenon, network executives questioned how her world would be seen on television.
He said theyÂ âhad to have a real discussion about whether we wanted to try it out on our air.â
âWe absolutely had concerns. We didnât know whether what Dr. Lee does for a living would turn off viewers,â he said, noting that in the TV show, âwe are actually on the inside like a fly on the wall in her office.â
âWe watch what sheâs doing and some of it may be too graphic for some members of our audience and we were very well aware of that,â he added. He said âmaybe thereâs a factor where some viewers are just turned off by it and yet, oddly, the other half of the audience is compelled by it.â
Now that the show has aired, the president said, âDr. Lee has been embraced by her audience.â
Lee said she is still surprised by how she became Dr. Pimple Popper â a brand that has led to a skin-care line, a television show and, soon, a game.
âThis is bonkers â just bonkers,â she said.
But, she said, itâs also âspecial.â âI feel honored and humbled by it,â she said. âItâs intimidating, too, because I feel like Iâm representing dermatology in general and I want to make sure I represent dermatologists well.Â Itâs been a ride. I have to sit back sometimes and remind myself to enjoy it.â