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Are Zit-Squeezing Videos the New Porn?

Millions of us compulsively (and secretly) scour YouTube for videos of pus squiggling out of pores, ingrown hairs getting picked, or wax being dug from the depths of our ears.

A still from one of Dr. Vikram Yadav's (a.k.a.. "The King of Blackheads") many extraction videos on YouTube

The devil makes work for idle thumbs. And fingernails, specially made wands, scalpels, scissors, or whatever appliance you deem fit for extricating excess gunk from your body.

We all do it. Whether it's a swift squeeze of the blackheads on the side of your nose, a wiry hair that's managed to loop back into itself in your bikini line, or a ready-to-burst whitehead, our bodies are endlessly purge-able. Now, though, such self-maintenance doesn't just happen in the comfort of our own bathroom mirrors. Instead, there are millions of us uploading these moments to YouTube for curious viewers to watch. One video, titled "Best Pimple Pop Ever," has more than 22 million views. That's a lot of pus junkies. 

And it's not just a stomping ground for amateurs (though entire families screaming while mom forces decades-old sebum out of dad's back are a site to behold). There's also a community of medical professionals turning the camera on their extractions. Dr. Vikram Yadav, whom any extraction connoisseur will already be on a first-name basis with, is a main offender. The dermatologist—affectionately known as "the King of Blackheads"—boasts 168 million views on his videos, which largely consist of extreme close-usp of blackhead extractions from the noses of old Indian men. His most popular, "Black & White Heads on Nose Part 3," has 18 million views. The man is a celebrity. 

Not all of these new YouTube celebs are pus lords like Dr. Yadav, though. There's also Nick Chitty, a kindly-looking, mustachioed audiologist based in Wiltshire, England. He inserts cameras into the ears of his patients, along with a "trusty Jobson-Horne"—otherwise known as an ear curette—to hack away at the plugs of wax attached to their aural canals. You might be retching reading this, but his 3.5 million views suggest many find earwax removal pretty fucking sexy. One and a half million of those are for his magnum opus, "Ear wax removal Unbelievable what comes out," where he used the tiny metal instrument to unwed an unholy lump of amber bedded in an old man's ear. Chitty isn't just doing it for himself any more, either—his army of fans demand regular updates. 

"I have to upload videos regularly—otherwise I get angry messages from people saying they want more," he says. "They tell me I'm not uploading fast enough."

If that sounds like the kind of behavior you'd expect from someone watching a live webcam show, their pants around their ankles, that's because it kind of is. "Sometimes the video requests get sexual," Chitty says solemnly. Some viewers' obsessions breach reasonable borders, though. He tells me about one who copied him and got the tip of a cotton bud stuck in her ear. What did she do? Drove two hours to get him to remove it, of course. 

Cotton buds: the things most of us use to sort our ears out. Image via Wikimedia Commons

We all love picking at ourselves. Our bodies are—despite our clever, complex brains that make us brilliant and capable—just bags of assorted viscera. Underneath our skin (or even on the skin itself), we are all disgusting. And you can bet the most prudish—the people who will be reading this saying, "This is absolutely foul"—are the ones who spend hours hunched over, drawing out stubborn ingrown pubic hairs as if their lives depended on it. We're monkeys. We love to groom. But why the hell do such huge swaths of the population love watching other people push junk out of their bodies? 

Writer Sali Hughes, who has just released Pretty Honest, a straight-talking book of relatable beauty situations, hasn't watched any of the videos but understands why people would. "Squeezing spots and blackheads is massively satisfying as both a participant and, if you're anything like me, a spectator. I'm not at all surprised people watch spot squeezing on YouTube, because decent extractions just don't happen often enough in real life to keep a junkie high—though I can recommend splinter extraction for a similar buzz," she says. "Extractions also appeal to the neat freaks and the fixers among us. It's purging bacteria, releasing tension, easing discomfort, then sweeping the whole gross business away like it never happened."

Hughes's point about the extraction lovers among us being junkies is spot on. If you're a picker or squeezer, your need to purge your body of what's within it can veer into obsession. It takes you over. Dr Frederick Toates, a professor of biological psychology at the Open University, wrote the actual book on obsessive-compulsive disorder. "It's a puzzle as to how someone happens upon [skin picking, ear-wax removal, whatever] in the first place," he says, "but once it's started, the evidence suggests this kind of aggressive action against the self triggers endorphins, and these act as rewards or reinforcers."

As for that sexualized element that Chitty spoke about—well, Toates says these acts are "tension-reducing in the way orgasm can be."

Watching worms of pus squiggle from widened pores, picking at an ingrown hair, or finding a secret stash of earwax down your ear canal provides not only a hormone rush but a feeling of self-affirmation. "It draws on the basic need that we all have to exert some control, to have some efficacy in the world," Toates says. "If we can't exert it on the outside world in a way that's acceptable and rewarding, then we compensate for it by doing weird things like self-mutilation, or even just twiddling our hair."

Someone going nuts on an ingrown hair. Image via Wikimedia Commons

Although squeezing ourselves, and watching other people being squeezed, can be almost orgasmic, there's often guilt associated with it too. Fans of videos like "Huge Cyst Extraction" (a mere 32 million of us) probably won't boast about their viewing preferences. Commenters type things like "EEEEWWWW," or "Why did I still click play >.<," but you get the feeling it's like a closeted bro googling "twink suck," then commenting "no homo" underneath the resulting video because he feels guilty for both seeking it out and getting off on it. This isn't the stuff you stumble upon by accident.

The guilt, the compulsion to watch, and the excitement of watching are all factors of both zit squeezing and watching zit squeezing. Research into gambling—another compulsive behavior, albeit one that's monetized a bit more effectively than pus farming—shows that the physical act of, say, pulling a plastic lever on a fruit machine, or rolling a die, draws gamblers into what's known as a compulsion loop.

As well as being fooled into thinking their piddling actions can have tangible outcomes, e.g., pulling a lever = money, the expectancy of an eventual outcome—heightened by its unpredictability—gives both gamblers and fans of zit popping a surge of dopamine. The outcome rarely fully satisfies them in the desired way, but gives them just enough pleasure to keep them going. It's the "high" that Hughes was talking about, which results in an evening lost to squeezing empty pores all over your face in the vain hope one tiny bump will produce a satisfactory squirt of white blood cells.

The compulsion-loop theory has been applied to internet users too. Judith Donath, an MIT media scholar, told Scientific American: "These rewards serve as jolts of energy that recharge the compulsion engine, much like the frisson a gambler receives when a new card hits the table. Cumulatively, the effect is potent and hard to resist."

Think of the last time you went on an 800-picture stalk through an acquaintance's photos, or a 20-minute swipe-through of Tinder. The thrill isn't in seeing what their hair looked like circa 2009, or their skin shedding tattoos with each 100 taps. It's because, with every click/tap/swipe, there's a new outcome.

The ongoing effects of this are damaging, though, and not just because of the embarrassment that comes with someone stumbling across your web history, or, in the case of zit squeezing, someone noticing the painful, semi-circular indents around a pimple that produced nothing but a pathetic, clear droplet. They're damaging because nothing's actually changing.

"These habits are all ways of getting feedback from an action when you've got no real reason to get out of bed in the morning," says Toates. Ouch. "These videos and these habits are feeding stress-triggered addictions, and they are going to be strengthened by not having any sort of meaningful activity in your life." OK, I get it, I need to take a long, hard look at myself. 

So, in essence, all these videos do—however much you (or I) love them—is square your uselessness. As exciting and high-giving as they are in the short term, they might also be the most compulsive viewing of all. Plus, they're just gross, right?

Follow Sophie Wilkinson on Twitter.