Dr Pimple Popper talks spot popping, viral fame and the pressures of YouTube

Sandra Lee – otherwise known as Dr Pimple Popper – is almost certainly your guilty pleasure [Photo: Getty]

Dr Sandra Lee may not be a familiar name to most of you but change that to Dr Pimple Popper and sickeningly satisfying images of popped spots will almost certainly enter your head.

The dermatologist has become renowned for her popping videos that leave us simultaneously disgusted and yearning for more.

Showing everything from quick and easy blackhead removals to painful cysts, Dr Pimple Popper has earned herself a pretty hefty YouTube following. Almost three million, to be precise.

Aside from popping for a living, the California native has made it her mission to educate the world on all things skincare.

We caught up with her to find out how it feels to have started a viral sensation, why you shouldn’t pop your spots (sorry guys) and just how long she can keep up with the insatiable YouTube demand.

How did I get into dermatology? Well, I officially became a dermatologist in 2003. My father’s one so I already knew quite a bit about it. In that sense, I was lucky because I don’t think a lot of people know what a great medical specialty dermatology is. But it is one of the most competitive routes to go down in medicine. It wasn’t easy but I made it.

I don’t just pop spots. I actually do a lot of surgeries like Mohs (micrographic surgery) which are skin cancer procedures. So I reconstruct faces as well as doing eye lifts and liposuction; a lot of cosmetic things. I also do soft cosmetics like Botox or fillers. I’m not really a general dermatologist per se.

I thought people would like to see a window into my world. About three years ago, I started an Instagram account just because I knew that dermatology was very visual. People know what normal skin should look like. The first video got mild attention. But when I posted an extraction video, I noticed there was a jump. So I posted another and another. People were tagging their friends so I decided to put a full extraction film on YouTube.

And then I realised blackhead extractions were popular. At first, I thought what is this? Is this a thing? On Reddit, there’s a whole subculture – a population of over 50,000 people – that share popping videos. Most of them are people in their garage or in their house just using paper towels. There’s beer cans lying around and no one uses gloves. So I thought I could be their queen. I have access to this stuff and I do it in a sterile clean way.

People’s fascination keeps me going. It’s why I keep posting videos. I think this obsession has a lot to do with the fact it makes people happy and content. People feel like there’s a release; like they’re getting rid of something. A lot of people say they watch my videos before they go to sleep to help decrease anxiety. Others find it’s like watching a scary movie where you have an endorphin rush. I even find that viewers with dermatillomania – a condition where they constantly pick their skin – find they have a tendency to stop picking as much.

I like to call myself a born age popaholic. I’m not someone who tries to pin someone down if they have a big spot. If I see a patient with a blackhead, I don’t feel like I have to stop and extract it. But I do get excited when I see something that other people will be fascinated by. There’s a hypnotic quality to it too. I remember I was editing one of my first good blackhead extractions and I kept watching it over and over. You get sucked in.

Here’s the spot popping 101. With blackheads, I use a comedone extractor and apply pressure around the outside. I can also use a punch biopsy tool which is like a little cookie cutter. That’s for when you want a deeper component of the skin. For larger growths, I’ll do standard excisions with a blade. But don’t worry, pretty much everything I do is under local anaesthesia.

It’s my duty to tell people there’s a prime time to pop a spot. Although I will say that you should see a dermatologist because we know we’re going to do it in a safe and sterile way. So the perfect time is when a spot has come to the surface of the skin. When it’s turned into a whitehead. Essentially what’s happening with a spot is there’s inflammation or bacteria involved, angering the skin and causing your body to create an immune reaction to fight it off. White blood cells go to the area and try to push the contents out. So it slowly starts to come to the surface. When that happens, take a sterile needle and nick the very surface of the skin.

Keep your hands off your skin. The less you traumatise the skin, the less chance you have of infection, of swelling, of permanent scarring. If you squeeze too early, you’re probably going to get a much deeper, much angrier spot.

I don’t know how long I’m going to last on YouTube. I feel like I’m about to reach the end. At the moment, I post six days a week and film around three to seven cases each day. I have a problem with delegating but I need to let others help with editing the videos. Sometimes, it’s hard for me because I have a personal responsibility to my patients. I want to protect them. But I’m trying to let go a little more because I’m going to explode. I’m going to pop.

Very few people say no to being filmed. 99.9% of my patients agree to it. Now, we get people seeking us out. People travel for hours just to visit me. That shows you the power of social media.

Don’t feel like acne is your fault. It’s a rite of passage for many of us because it happens primarily in our teenage years. A lot of it has to do with hormones and genetics. Yes, acne isn’t going to threaten your life but it can threaten the development of your personality. There’s a few things you can to help. Don’t pick at your acne. If you have light acne, use over-the-counter products. In fact, I came up with an acne line (SLMD Skincare) because I’m trying to bridge the gap between seeing a dermatologist and being confused by all the stuff that’s out there.

If you have severe acne, see a dermatologist. You can potentially get permanent scarring and that has great mental effect. All the time, I see parents bringing in their children the moment they have one pimple. And you know it’s because they had really bad acne when they were younger. They have scarring. It just proves how much it can affect people.  

Sun cream is so so important. The main problem is that a lot of people rely on sun cream in their make-up. And make-up isn’t under the same rules and regulations so a cosmetic product may not protect from all the different types of sun rays. People also don’t apply it enough. You need to remember to reapply. That’s a really big thing because the sun can create so many issues for the skin. If you learn how to protect your skin really well, you’ll be miles ahead of the rest.

I believe in karma. Be nice to people, be nice to your patients, be nice to everybody and good things will come to you. I have no secret pathway to getting to where I am. Dermatology is hard work. I didn’t finish school until I was 33. If that already turns you off, then maybe it’s not for you. This is a long road.

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