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Meet the doctor fueling the internet’s pimple-popping obsession
How Dr. Sandra Lee became a YouTube lifestyle guru.
YouTube is taking the once-secretive habit of pimple popping and putting it out there for the world to see. And for the past year, we’ve been obsessed with these weird, intimate videos.
Blackheads, cysts, whiteheads, dilated pores, lipoma, soft pops, hard pops—people flock by the millions to experience that rush of endorphins following a truly great, clean pop. The trend of a video capturing the squeezing and eruption of a skin pore, originally rose to fame on Reddit where users could connect and share their own personal pops. A community soon formed and like any truly juicy secret, the subreddit didn’t stay hidden for long.
Soon popping became the topic of entire YouTube channels (YouTube’s greatest cysts and Dr. Vikram Yadav), inspired features in the Guardian, Cosmopolitan, and New York magazine. Dermatologists became YouTube celebrities. And thus begins the story of Dr. Sandra Lee, known better by her 1.3 million YouTube subscribers and 1.5 million Instagram followers as “Dr. Pimple Popper.”
Dr. Lee never intended to become YouTube’s popping queen, but after posting a random blackhead extraction to her Instagram and seeing the spike in views, she knew she was onto something. Despite growing up at her dad’s dermatology practice, Dr. Lee didn’t realize her own inclinations toward the speciality until she began medical school at Drexel University (then Ottoman University). Her self-proclaimed “type A personality” was a natural fit for the highly competitive field of dermatology, and following the completion of her residency in San Diego, Dr. Lee and her husband took over her father’s practice in Upland, California.
In November 2014, Dr. Lee started posting regularly to her YouTube channel in the hope of blending the world of medicine and social media. She credits BuzzFeed for taking her channel viral last year. The day it published an article about her work, Dr. Lee remembers being unable even to log into her phone due to the amount of notifications inundating her Instagram.
But why is such a visceral, arguably gross medical procedure something worth subscribing to and seeking out online?
“I think in general, [popping videos] make people happy or they get a rush of endorphins,” Dr. Lee tells the Daily Dot. “It’s almost like riding a roller coaster or watching a scary movie. It gets people excited. I think sometimes the first response of a lot of people is they are sort of repulsed by it, but it has this hypnotic quality. You can’t believe it and have to watch another one.”
Early on Dr. Lee began seeing her extraction videos gaining at least a million views each and in the last year alone, she’s garnered nearly 600 million views on YouTube. This statistic is not by chance. While Dr. Lee’s content is gripping and highly shareable, she’s also done a phenomenal job at leveraging her work. For one, she uploads between four and seven videos of skin extractions a week which significantly raises her chances of creating a web hit. She’s also begun making themed videos for holidays, and creating clean pop mashups that make 12 minutes and five procedures go by in a blink of an eye.
“It’s so funny, sometimes I see comments like, ‘I just came on looking for chipmunks and how did I end up here?’” Dr. Lee says. “The point of this really is to show people how wonderful the specialty is and also, teach people about their own skin.”
Her videos, specifically her voice and calm bedside manner, are often seen as an autonomous sensory meridian response (ASMR) and credited with helping viewers fall asleep, deal with anxiety, and in some extreme cases, battle obsessive-compulsive disorder and skin-picking compulsions. What makes Dr. Lee stand out from other medical professionals using YouTube is a warm sense of investment in her patients. She says she’s inspired NPR and viral Instagram account Humans of New York; Dr. Lee wants her videos to portray the stories of her patients and their particular, very normal ailments.
“The main thing about Dr. Pimple Popper is cysts and milias and things like this, [which] are completely normal things. You shouldn’t feel like a monster if you have one of these, they’re actually pretty common and they can be removed. Now people know,” Dr. Lee says.
In September Dr. Lee expanded her mission to collide the medical field and YouTube by opening her second channel, Dr. Pimple Popper University. While her extraction videos drive the views, Dr. Lee’s second channel focuses on discussing skin care treatments and procedures. Her hope is to debunk perennial myths and practices that are ultimately damaging and dangerous to the skin such as the idea of base tans. (Spoiler: It’s actually your body scrambling to protect itself so lather up on the sunscreen.)
“As a physician [YouTube] is sort of the new generation of where people will be going,” Dr. Lee maintains. “I think it establishes you as an expert in your field because this is how younger people access their information. This is how they get their education and now I have people every day coming from far away to see me.”
Through the popularization of her YouTube channel, Dr. Lee has seen patients from London, Saudi Arabia, and all across the United States. Looking through the comments of her YouTube channel, the adoration from fans is unmissable—both for the doctor and her patients.
Much like the popping subreddit, the comments of Dr. Pimple Popper’s videos often feel like a safe and supportive place for “popaholics” to interact. And they’ll do anything to protect consultation space. Early on Dr. Lee was constantly having her videos stolen for views and strikes made against her channel. While frustrating, Dr. Lee soon found her fans rallying in the comments and demanding the return of her content.
“So many people who watch, if you go onto someone’s [stolen video] you’ll see them scream, ‘Thief! This is stolen from Sandra Lee! I’m going to report you!’” Dr. Lee says, proudly. “I feel like I’m Daenerys from Game of Thrones. I have this whole army behind me watching my back.”
For America’s popaholics, Dr. Lee might just be the queen they’ve been waiting for.
Carly Lanning is a journalist who covers social media. Her work has been published by Psychology Today, NBC, Thrillist, and Ms. Magazine.