Dr. Sandra Lee has recently seen patients in her Upland, California, dermatology office who flew all the way from the New York, Canada, and even places as far as the UK and Saudi Arabia. And although the success is humbling, it can also feel overwhelming.
"It puts a lot of pressure on me," she told me over the phone. "I don't like it when people travel across the world and get a hotel room to come see me because they think I can help them more than other doctors. I don't proclaim I can do that, though it is quite amazing."
Why would someone fly halfway around the world just to see a dermatologist?
"It's because they've seen me in my videos," she said. "Would you rather see Joe Blow from down the street or a doctor you've regularly watched successfully perform procedures? I think there's a trust that's come with familiarity."
Despite her modesty, Lee is no normal doctor. Across the internet, she's known as Dr. Pimple Popper, the queen of the internet's "popping" community, which centers around videos of the extraction of whiteheads, blackheads, cysts, and other pustules from human skin. With more than 700,000 Instagram followers and YouTube subscribers, Lee has no shortage of fans, whom she lovingly refers to as "popaholics." Though Lee didn't start the popping craze, she's become a celebrity within the phenomenon. She uses these platforms to share graphic videos of her removing offending, often very large, issues from her (consenting) patients' bodies.
Before she was Dr. Pimple Popper, Lee had a YouTube channel for a few years, on which she'd put footage of herself on local and national talk shows, including The Doctors.
"Dermatologist life is really interesting, and I don't think a lot of people really realize that," she said. "At one point, I was extracting a blackhead, and I said to the patient, 'I'll do this for free if you let me film it.' When I posted the video, I got like a jump in views and likes."
To make sure it wasn't a fluke, Lee posted another similar video—and saw an even bigger increase in views and feedback. She decided to make her @DrPimplePopper Instagram account for "popping" clips, and to start adding longer videos to her rebranded YouTube channel.
Then, one commenter told her to check out popping threads on Reddit.
"I went there and realized that not only was there this community of people that just liked to watch popping videos, but it was already a huge thing," she said. "I started to post some of my videos, and when people realized I was someone who had my own material and could give them what they wanted, they actually took me under their wing and taught me what is was that people looked for in popping videos."
I think people are amazed that this is a human body they're watching and this is normal.
Though the popping scene has a lot of participants, Lee said her medical background—and production value—set her material apart.
"My videos are very different from the other videos that you'll see out there because there aren't people screaming in background, or dirty fingernails, or dogs barking, or really shaky cameras," she explained. "Mine are filmed in a calm, controlled, and sterile environment, and I always finish what I start. You don't see something and say, 'Oh my God, that's going to get infected,' and you're never like, 'Oh my gosh, that person is in pain.'"
Lee also said she has a "let me throw another log on the fire and see what happens" mentality when it comes to her Dr. Pimple Popper brand.
"The ultimate goal is not just popping, but to show people a window into my world as a dermatologist and to hopefully educate them," she said. "I started another YouTube channel called 'Dr. Pimple Popper University,' which is going to be an all-encompassing site where you can go to get advice about your skin."
This new channel will use videos to answer skincare questions. Lee hopes to show people—especially those who cannot afford a dermatologist—ways they can treat skin imperfections, and how to check their skin for things like moles, at home.
"Some people were surprised to see that cysts can be removed in a safe way, or that you can take care of these things under local anesthesia instead of general," she said. "These things are not painful or really uncomfortable, and now that I have an audience that is obviously interested, I am so ready to teach them."
I always finish what I start. You don't see something and say, 'Oh my God, that's going to get infected.'
Another goal for Lee is to create a safe space for popaholics who just genuinely enjoy watching videos of extractions. "I don't want them to feel like it's porn, where you have to hide out in your room, you know, sweating under the covers while watching this stuff," she said.
But beyond making and posting videos, Lee has found other ways to interact with her fans. She recently began doing scavenger hunts where she hides comedone extractors—a skincare tool that removes blackheads—in spots around the world and then use social media to share the GPS coordinates. She's hidden them in places from California, to upstate New York, to France and Italy.
"Every single one I've ever hidden has been found within half an hour," she said. "I kind of just drop them and run away and hide before sharing the coordinates, because it scares me how fast people can get there!"
Lee said that it's getting to the point where she has to wear a hat to the grocery store because so many people have started to recognize her.
"I joked this is worst kind of fame you can have—it's a lot of fame, but not much fortune," she said. "I think it's better to have it the other way around, a lot of fortune and no fame, right?"
As for why people are such die-hard popaholics, Lee has a few different theories.
"I think to a lot of people it feels very cleansing or satisfying to see something like that come out, and I also think people are amazed that this is a human body they're watching and this is normal," she said. "It also may come down to people having evolved from primates; some of us like to groom more than others."
Lee said that watching her popping videos also helps people with skin picking disorder, also known as "dermatillomania" or "excoriation." She said a lot of patients report that, when they regularly watch popping videos, they don't feel the need to pick their own skin. Patients and fans also tell her that the Dr. Pimple Popper videos can initiate an autonomous sensory meridian response (ASMR), a combined physical and mental state that involves tingling and low-level euphoria, which many people find comforting.
"If you go on YouTube, there are a lot of videos of people talking softly and getting body exams, and I guess people feel that tingliness from my voice because I speak calmly and quietly," she said. "When I do a procedure it's a double whammy, because I'm doing the popping and talking this way. But it's not intentional—it's just how I speak."
Whether becoming transfixed with pimple popping videos constitutes a fetish, however, she's equivocal.
"I don't think it's a sexual fetish—it's more of an obsessive-compulsive kind of thing, but I don't think people get off on it," she said before pausing. "Well, I'm sure there's a possibility."
In general, despite the –holic suffix, Dr. Pimple Popper believes her videos inspire a healthy fixation.
"There are a lot of trolls out there who leave really nasty comments, but we don't get much of that," she said. "It's a really nice community, where people understand each other and they're just happy there are other people who also love this stuff. Everyone kind of just seems happy to be there."