The red, swollen bumps, the annoying blackheads, the puss-filled pockets of inconvenience — acne is something many young adults struggle with. However, some find solace in videos of professionals removing the gunk from people’s bodies.
Dermatologist Dr. Sandra Lee, aka Dr. Pimple Popper, rose to internet fame in 2015 as she posted videos of herself popping pimples, removing blackheads and purging cysts on her clients.
Her YouTube videos have a collective view count of nearly 3 billion. She calls her fans “popaholics.” The videos became such a hit, TLC gave her a show in 2018. She inspired autonomous sensory meridian response (ASMR) related toys like Pop It All and acne-inspired cupcakes where customers pop a pimple made of fondant which causes custard to ooze out.
Lee’s videos, along with other pimple popping content, sparked strong reactions of both satisfaction and disgust among Northwest students like psychology senior AJ Hinson.
“I think these videos are gross because of the textures of the puss, ooze and colors,” Hinson said. “I am a big texture person; textures freak me out. Growing up, I had really bad acne and would often go to the doctor for my skin. I would also pop pimples before I knew how bad it was for your skin.”
Maryville’s Advanced Dermatology and Skin Cancer Center, dermatologist Dr. Charles Glass said, from a professional standpoint, these are relatively harmless videos.
“As long as they are being done by a professional, I don’t see a problem with these videos,” Glass said. “It’s when we see people trying to recreate these videos at home that causes problems.”
The center has debated on starting their own pimple popping videos.
“We’ve been talking about it,” Glass said. “We think it’d be a great way to promote ourselves and dermatology education. Our big problem is trying to make these videos without violating HIPPA.”
For Hinson, Dr. Pimple Popper’s videos trigger a memory of his own acne problems.
“There was one pimple that wouldn’t pop, so one day I focused and worked on it for about an hour,” Hinson said. “I can’t tell you how much puss was in it, but it hurt so badly and looked gross. The texture of the puss was thick and looked like a long worm. So I think I associate the pimple popping videos with pain and uncomfortableness.”
However, there is a growing sense of satisfaction for “popaholics.”
The reason some people find pimple pops satisfying and fascinating relates back to what is called the human disgust reflex and benign masochism.
According to a study conducted by West Chester University of Pennsylvania in 2013 called “Glad to be Sad,” benign masochism isn’t just limited to watching bodily function videos like pimple popping but also eating spicy food, listening to sad songs and riding roller coasters.
“Benign masochism refers to enjoying initially negative experiences that the
body (brain) falsely interprets as threatening,” the study found. “This realization that the body has been fooled, and that there is no real danger, leads to pleasure derived from ‘mind over body.’”
This phenomenon is also linked to other “gross” videos featuring things like ear wax removal, bot fly larvae removal, ingrown hair removal and splinter removal.
“I cringe when I see these videos, especially insect removal,” Hinson said. “I will literally click on the insect removal video and I’ll watch it until they remove it. I find it fascinating on how insects can get into the human body, but them being removed grosses me out. I feel an irritating tingly feeling in my neck and get the chills.”
A neuroscientist at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York, Dr. Heather Berlin, said it also goes back to humans evolution.
“Evolutionarily speaking, it's normal behavior to want to remove bumps from your skin because those bumps could be parasites or other things,” Berlin said.
Women are also more likely to watch these videos.
“I think these videos are popular because they’re satisfying,” Hinson said. “We’ve all had acne, and it’s satisfying to pop that pimple that’s been bothering us. My friend likes to watch them, and she’ll actually pop other people's pimples because she likes feeling the pressure before the pop. … I think people find it satisfying, just like they find popping bubble wrap satisfying.”
Part of the reason Lee became so popular was her description and educational commentary about different types of acne and preventative measures viewers and patients could take.
According to the Mayo Clinic, there are six different types of acne. These are whiteheads, blackheads, papules, pimples (papules with pus at the tip), nodules and cysts.
Some of the biggest causes of acne are excess oil production, hair follicles clogged by oil and dead skin cells, bacteria and excess activity of a type of hormone called androgen. The clinic said nothing about chocolate causing acne, despite the common myth that it does.
College students’ skin goes through a hard four or more years. Alcohol dries out skin which means the skin produces more oil. A sudden change in diet also affects the skin.
For Hinson, it’s important to stick to a skincare routine.
“I usually wash my face in the shower every other day, then I usually do a full face care routine about twice a week,” Hinson said. “My tip is read the ingredients of face masks and do your research on your skin. Know what each ingredient does for your skin. I tried and errors on face products for about six months before I found what works for me.”