Few things excite Dr. Sandra Lee like a “great blackhead.”
You probably know the kind — firm and pellet-shaped, a superior blackhead is the type that initially teases its extractor before eventually bursting forth fully intact, smooth-skinned and prodigiously sized; a waxy gem mined from the fleshy epidermal depths.
Perhaps most importantly, Lee explains, a great blackhead is one that looks good on camera. The board-certified dermatologist based in Upland, Calif., would know.
For almost a year now, Lee — a 45-year-old mother of two sons — has been recording herself popping her patient’s pimples, extracting their blackheads and extruding their cysts like toothpaste from a never-ending horror tube. She posts the videos on Instagram and YouTube, where she has quickly become an unlikely star with hundreds of thousands of followers and more than 170 million views.
Like many YouTube stars, her videos generate hundreds, and sometimes thousands, of dollars in income, though the figure can vary dramatically from one video to the next.
She is also a beloved figure on “Popping,” a 62,000-user-strong Reddit forum devoted to “Pictures, videos, and stories about cysts and pimples.”
“People usually have a strong response to my videos, usually amazed or disgusted,” Lee told The Washington Post, noting that most of her fans are female. “People are just fascinated by skin issues and its kind of become — not exactly a fetish — but a fascination. People can’t believe that these things can happen to our skin.”
Lee sees a certain beauty in each ailment, comparing blackheads to snowflakes and noting that “each one is unique.”
Among her most unique and popular videos is one she posted earlier this month that captures Lee removing a massive, disc-shaped blackhead from an elderly woman’s face. The charming exchange between patient and doctor — in which they discuss drinking and jokingly compare the blackhead to buried treasure — has amassed almost 4.5 million views.
Lee’s fans regularly leave comments saying they came for the riveting footage, but end up staying — and returning — for the doctor’s playful banter and soothing voice, which has a way of making vile scenes strangely relaxing for many viewers.
Lee may seem like a natural-born popper, but that isn’t the case, she said. She refuses to pop her husband’s pimples and dislikes watching amateur popping videos people send her from YouTube. She is an avid shoe-shopper who takes her own grooming habits very seriously.
Not too long ago, Lee preferred surgeries, but noticed a surge in interest when she posted a blackhead video online last year. Because many minor procedures aren’t covered by insurance, she started offering them to patients for free in exchange for being able to film the extraction and post it online. As her videos improved in quality, Lee began sharing more information about her patients’ stories. Suddenly, clients were arriving from surrounding states and as far away as Europe.
“There’s ‘Humans of New York’ and I feel like I’ve created ‘Humans of Dermatology,’ where the people are anonymous, but you get a little snippet of their life,” she told The Post. “You don’t just want to see anonymous blackheads, you want to know about the story behind the person who has them.”
Different fans like different types of videos, Lee noted. Most videos fall within two main categories: “hard pops” and “soft pops.” Hard pops include messy extractions like a benign tumor or a cyst, which may include bleeding and squirting. Soft pops, which Lee greatly prefers, include blackheads and the small, hard white bumps that can appear beneath the skin knows as “Milia,”
While fans prefer different kinds of pops, for almost all there is also something inherently satisfying about watching a messy problem get quickly resolved. Some fans, Lee said, watch her videos before falling asleep at night. Others, she added, partake for their own amusement and still others tout the videos’ anxiety-curing benefits.
Under a recent blackhead video, one YouTube fan said she planned to turn the videos into a stay-at-home date night for her and her husband, complete with a glass of wine and snacks.
“We’ll call it a ‘date in'” she wrote.
Another user said she watches Lee’s videos anytime she feels a panic attack coming on.
“I watch one of these, and It brings me back to reality,” she wrote. “I think it”s just the feeling of seeing a problem, and just fixing it.”
“OMG…that wasn’t a blackhead that was an alien implant….lol……and oh this old lady is sooo cute,” added another.
Lee’s favorite patient, and her most popular with viewers, is a patient named “Mr. Wilson.” He has a skin condition known as Rhinophyma, which causes thickened skin on his nose and dilated pores, creating “these really big blackheads, just the greatest blackheads, which come out very smoothly,” Lee said.
He has come back for multiple visits and, the sheer quantity of the oil squirting from his face has turned his visits into a fan obsession. While some might see that obsession as exploitative, Lee insists the popping community is overwhelmingly supportive of the people whose skin they fixate on.
And if you, too, enjoy indulging in popping videos, she has a message for you: you’re not unusual.
“Popping is something a lot of people are kinda of embarrassed about liking,” she said. “The fact is that people who follow me and others see these videos and it makes them feel better. It makes them feel like they’re not alone.”