Oct. 11, 2018 -- New Age music plays on a piano. Two latex-gloved fingertips probe a small patch of skin, then press a blackhead until it gives up its contents. The fingers wipe away the goo, then move to the next blemish. This YouTube video, “Relaxing With Music and Cleansing Acne,” has had more than 3.5 million views in 5 months. And that’s nothing compared with the 36 million views that YouTube star Sandra Lee -- who styles herself Dr. Pimple Popper -- typically gets on her videos.
The wildly popular videos landed the Southern California-based dermatologist a TLC reality show, whose first season wrapped in August.
The millions of pimple video fanatics all over the world call themselves “popaholics.” But the phenomenon is hardly limited to zits. Blackheads, cysts, fatty globs called lipomas -- this dermatological landscape, as well as people who want to tour it, is varied.
But why does the very thing that makes some recoil captivate millions of others? “There really is something satisfying about knowing that something is in there, and I can get it out,” says Deirdre Hooper, a dermatologist and co-founder of Audubon Dermatology in New Orleans.
Hooper saps all sorts of blemishes in her office. “There’s a little bit of a rush, like an adrenaline release when, after draining a blackhead, something that the person was walking around with is now out.” Apparently, viewers get that rush, too.
Lee and other famous pimple poppers say their videos … ahem … exploded on YouTube by accident. Lee, who didn’t answer WebMD requests for an interview, explains in one of her clips that at first, she posted a variety of procedures online. “Dermatology is a visual field, so I thought other people would appreciate why I think it’s such an amazing field to be in.”
But then something unexpected happened. “When I would post a blackhead extraction video, I would get an interesting uptick in likes,” she recalls. “People either really strongly liked it or they strongly disliked it, but either way they tagged their friends.”
Soon, similar videos began showing up all over the globe.
Lalit Kasana, a homeopath and aesthetician in Greater Noida, India, posted his first video a year ago, also stumbling upon accidental fame. “I made a YouTube channel to introduce the latest skin and hair therapies [to other health care professionals], but when I posted my first extraction video, it was game-changing. It got international positive response,” he says. The first video got 10,000 views right away, and 100,000 within a day. “Right now, my YouTube channel has followers from 198 countries,” he says.
Kasana has posted some 150 videos, from mundane tattoo removals to the sensational gushing, squirting, and draining of pimples, cysts, as well as blackheads. Twenty of his clips have crossed the coveted 1 million-view threshold. His most popular videos, blackhead removals, get more than 4 million views apiece.
The Right Stuff
For many popaholics, it takes more than a good spurt to make a pimple popper worthy of fame. “Everybody has their favorites on YouTube,” says Alena LaBella, a self-described popaholic, who recently
opened an online pimple-popping emporium, Zitpal.com, for fellow fanatics. The shop carries sterile pads, extraction tools, and gunk-squirting toys.
Besides Lee and Kasana, LaBella counts Josefa Reina of Malaga, Spain, and Enilsa Brown of Killeen, TX, among her favorite online pimple-popping stars. “Everyone has their own technique,” she says. While one uses only cotton swabs to get the job done, another may wield numerous distinct tools. Lee, in particular, is known for her bedside manner. “She talks to the person the whole time she’s doing [the extraction]. She befriends them,” LaBella says.
Popaholics become experts and critics. When they don’t like a technique, they’ll throw tomatoes in the comments. “They’ll say ‘This is a bloodbath,’ ‘Keep your day job,’ ‘You’re doing it wrong,’ ” LaBella says. A commenter on a Dr. Pimple Popper video, for example, writes, “Squeeze with your fingers instead of gouging the person’s face 100 times in the same spot with this worthless instrument. It’s called common sense.”
But in the end, it’s that surge that keeps viewers coming back.
‘Kind of … Lulls You’
Among the scores of YouTube comments that accumulate beneath any given pimple-popper video is a common theme -- something like relief.
“When she panned to the forehead and I saw the goldmine [of blackheads] there, I sighed -- loudly,” one commenter writes. “Now for a glass of wine and DPP [Dr. Pimple Popper] blackheads,” another one says.
Kasana sees the theme among his commenters, too. “When people see that pus come out, it’s like their stress comes out with it,” he says. LaBella agrees. “It’s a very relaxing experience. It takes your mind away, kind of numbs you and lulls you. It’s gratifying.” That might explain why many commenters say they go to sleep to these videos.
A lot of popaholics call the videos “satisfying.” “Extremely satisfying when that thing came out in one piece,” a Dr. Pimple Popper viewer says of an outsized blackhead. “Oh this is so gross, yet so satisfying,” says another. “No other blackhead video has satisfied me the way this one has,” says one more.
Psychologists confirm that watching the procedures must provide some form of release. Some speculate that seeing what emerges from a blemish might trigger the release of that feel-good neurotransmitter in the brain called dopamine. Others suggest that the relief viewers feel is similar to that heavy sigh after holding your breath through a horror flick. Watching pimple-popper videos gives viewers a safe space in which to flirt with the grotesque without coming dangerously close to it. When it’s all over, they’ve gotten a thrill.
“There’s immediate gratification,” says LaBella, “of something that’s not supposed to be there being eliminated. It’s cathartic.”