“This was awesome!” reads a top comment. “Good thing I had my bowl of popcorn ready,” reads another. Another fan wonders, “When do we get to see more?”
They’re not reacting to a Beyoncé video. They’re admiring a YouTube video of a dermatologist’s removal of an enormous cyst. It’s disgusting. Repulsive, actually. You can hear the skin cut and cottage cheese-like consistency oozing out. It’s something you’d watch to kick-start a hunger strike. And yet, it’s bizarrely satisfying.
Perhaps that’s why the video has 1.2 million views.
Dr. Sandra Lee, known as Dr. Pimple Popper, has become a viral video star thanks to her extractions of the grotesque. The dermatologist and surgeon hacks into blackheads, zits, and abscesses as if she were digging for gold. And with an upbeat and friendly can-do attitude to boot.
Sound fringe? Not exactly. Her numbers are impressive: Nearly 1 billion YouTube views and 2 million followers on both YouTube and Instagram.
And now, she’s expanding beyond her social media empire to launch her own skin care line. Her very first product is the SLMD x Dr. Pimple Popper Acne Spot Treatment, a $25 rollerball (available on her website) that’s filled with salicylic acid to help clear acne. Consider it Dr. Pimple Popper light.
Lee describes her new venture as “very stressful” but exciting—new territory for the gunk-scooping expert. She wanted to start with something simple but convenient that would speak to her fans.
Delving into acne products seemed like a no-brainer, and she wanted anything she sold to be fuss-free and portable. Lee imagines her customers packing the topical treatment in their gym bag, purse, or car because, as she says, “We never really know when a pimple will arise.”
It’s exactly that type of suspense and fear of the unknown that feeds her fan base.
Lee practiced dermatology for more than a decade when she decided to pursue a bit more press. Based in Southern California, she’d done a bit of TV work here, a few episodes of The Doctors there. It wasn’t until she saw the power of social media that she pivoted her marketing strategy.
For years, people bombarded her with questions regarding skin care. Surely there had to be a way to quench people’s curiosity with social media imagery.
“I really saw that people became popular [on Instagram] when they had something that was different or unique about them,” says Lee, noting experimental hair colorists or adventurous travelers who excel in visuals. She thought: Why can’t dermatology be just as exciting?
Lee posted a few skin care videos and pictures, but nothing really landed. That is, until she posted a blackhead extraction video in late 2014 and the numbers jumped. She posted another, and they doubled. She knew she was onto something. After a bit of digging, she discovered a Reddit group devoted to “popping.” They called themselves “popaholics.”
“I was floored to see 60,000 people sharing popping videos they found on the internet,” she says. Most of them were amateurs: People in their garage with beer cans strewn on the floor and dogs barking in the background. Definitely no gloves.
There was a devoted subculture, and she was more than qualified to cater to it. So she dubbed herself Dr. Pimple Popper, posted videos of some stomach-churning extractions, and it “took off from there,” she says. Quickly, pimple-popping fans appeared from all over the place to peep at her practice.
Lee describes social media influence as “stratospheric” in comparison to more traditional media models. “It’s a new era,” she says. ”You feel this power and responsibility.”
What is it about seeing a pimple meet its end?
Lee speaks to the psychological aspect of discovering what lies beneath. Initially, there’s the shock value, especially with bigger ticket items like cysts and abscesses.
“Some people are fascinated, some people are disgusted, but either way those people tend to show their friends,” she says.
It also serves as a cathartic exercise. People enjoy seeing the removal of the heinous. In a way, it gives them a sort of closure. “It makes them feel good because it’s a cleansing sort of thing. They feel that something is gone that shouldn’t be there in the first place . . . There’s an ending to it, and it relaxes them.” A lot of people say they watch them before they go to sleep.
“It’s not a weird community,” she explains, sounding protective of her audience. “It’s everybody: both sexes, all different races . . . there are popoholics everywhere.” Her audience is 75% female between the ages of 18-34, half hailing from the U.S., while the other half is spread out across the globe.
Lee speaks of the skin’s maladies in a down-to-earth way, but also in a way that demonstrates that she reveres the human body—and what it’s capable of if left unmonitored. This fascination is apparent in her videos, which convey an almost Indiana Jones-like spirit of uncovering skin care’s mysteries.
“Blackheads are snowflakes; no two are the same,” she says. “You don’t really know what you’re gonna get. People feel like it’s gambling. You never know when you’re gonna hit a good one.”
She herself has admitted to being caught up in the popping video obsession. “It’s sort of hypnotizing,” she says.
Lee’s motto is “Know when to pop, know when to stop.” She suggests that people seek medical help should a zit take on epic proportions. Trying to help people is a substantial part of her business model and marketing strategy.
“Acne doesn’t kill us or threaten any of our lives, but the main problem is if you have extensive acne or you pick it to an extent where you create scars, that is long lasting,” she said.
Take, for example, her “Pop Stars” video series, which follows the characters behind the zits. Their faces aren’t recognizable, but viewers know their voices and their stories. There’s “Mama Squishy,” who has a harsh though funny disposition. She’s a current favorite. Then there’s “Pops,” a senior citizen who heartbreakingly spoke of losing his wife and moving to an assisted living facility. He became so popular that he raised $12,000 from fans via a GoFundMe page.
“I’m trying to tell a story,” Lee says. She compares her video work to the wildly popular website Humans of New York.
In the beginning, Lee would approach her clients—a good many of them senior citizens who weren’t even seeing her for their acne—and offer them care at a discounted rate, sometimes even free, in exchange for permission to record a procedure for public viewing. They usually agreed, especially since such procedures are rarely covered by insurance.
She now fields requests from people all over the world who are eager to be treated by the czar of zit-zapping. These are individuals who don’t mind their pores getting their 15 minutes of stomach-churning fame. And since she posts almost daily—with 2-3 million views per day and 60-70 million views per month—she is always on the hunt for the next big zit.
For herself, the patient, and her rapt audience, she says, “It’s been a win-win-win.” There’s also the Dr. Pimple Popper University, which almost serves as kind of WebMD for dermatology. It’s an educational part of her site where people can ask questions about their skin care and receive medical advice. “The younger generation doesn’t watch TV or read newspapers,” Lee says. “They go on Youtube and the internet to find answers.”
A product line was a natural extension of her portfolio. Daily, readers ask her what they should use on their skin. Many admit they don’t have the money to consult a dermatologist. She intends to bridge that gap.
“I want to try to help them and give them something that they can use that is recommended by a dermatologist that they actually know and trust,” she says. Lee envisions her business model becoming the future of medicine—one in which medical professionals advertise and brand their services via social media.
“Listen, did I think I was gonna be named Dr. Pimple Popper, that I’d be the queen of pimple popping a few years ago? No, that wasn’t my aspiration,” she says. “But I think that this sort of venue is important for medicine in general. I feel this is the direction a lot of physicians will go.”
Whereas previous generations may have turned to the Yellow Pages for medical recommendations, Lee envisions a time when people search through YouTube or Instagram to virtually meet their next physician. They’ll get a chance to peek into the office, get a sense of the doctor’s bedside manner, even observe a sample procedure.
Lee has a plan for how she’ll extend her empire. The SLMD x Dr. Pimple Popper Acne Spot Treatment is just the first of her skin care collection.
“I have some big dreams; I’m excited about what’s coming up,” she says. There are plenty of dermatologists and social media stars who have come out with their own lines with varying degrees of success, but Lee believes hers will be different. She believes that her desire to assist the acne-prone will come across to the consumer.
“I really want it to help people,” she says. While she doesn’t offer further details, she promises it will be “going in a bit of a different direction” than standard skin care lines. She realizes that some might think she can’t compete against industry heavyweights, but she’s no stranger to taking new, alternative routes.
“I hope that just like when I did the Dr. Pimple Popper videos, a lot of dermatologists were thinking, ‘Why didn’t I think of that?’ I hope they’ll say the same thing now: Why didn’t I think of that?”