When Dr Sandra Lee started an Instagram account in 2014 to showcase her work as a dermatologist, people were only mildly interested in how she administered Botox and tackled skin cancer.
But after she posted a clip of a blackhead being squeezed, something almost all of us have done in the privacy of our own homes, people got very, very excited.
As Dr Lee began posting other grotesque but strangely satisfying videos of extractions of squishy blackheads, removing whiteheads as hard as pebbles and excising inflamed cysts the size of small volcanoes, her career as a social media star, well, erupted.
Seven years on, using the catchy nickname of Dr Pimple Popper, the 50-year-old has rock star status in the world of dermatology, with fans including Gwyneth Paltrow and Kim Kardashian — both self-confessed ‘popaholics’.
Dr Sandra Lee (pictured), who boasts over 7.3 million YouTube subscribers and 4.4 million followers on Instagram, reflected on her career as a social media star
Dr Lee’s videos on her YouTube channel have been viewed an astonishing 1.8 billion times in total — she has 7.3 million subscribers. She’s got another 4.4 million followers on Instagram, 2.9 million on Facebook and 14 million on TikTok.
She also has a TV show called Dr Pimple Popper on the U.S. channel TLC that’s in its sixth season (episodes include Satisfying Blackhead Bonanza), has written a book on skincare called Put Your Best Face Forward and launched her product line SLMD in the UK this summer.
For many of us this is baffling, not to mention mildly nauseating. Yet clearly the number of people willing not only to stomach this stuff, but who find it useful, even enjoyable, is vast. ‘A small part of watching pimple-popping is entertainment,’ she admits. ‘Some people say it’s like riding a rollercoaster or watching a horror movie because there’s tension — you don’t know what’s going to happen and that gives you a thrill.
‘I think many people also find it satisfying on a deep psychological level because eliminating any kind of blemish, even if it’s not your own, offers a sense of accomplishment and closure. It seems to make people happy. What I hope is that I’m helping to educate people to be more tolerant and understanding of people with skin conditions because, as we age, there’s a literal garden of stuff on our skin, and those bumps and spots on our faces and bodies can affect every aspect of our lives.’
We meet in Dr Lee’s clinic in Upland, California. With long, dark hair and chiselled cheekbones, the 5ft 4in mother of two teenage sons is vivacious and friendly. She looks super-glam in a floaty pink dress underneath her white surgical coat.
For a moment, I’m taken aback because the clinic is already festooned with Christmas decorations, including a lighted tree and fake wreaths. ‘We’re shooting our Christmas show later this week,’ she explains. ‘I’m starting off with somebody who has an eye growth, another person with big bumps on their forehead and someone else with a giant growth on their jaw.
Dr Lee has eight treatment rooms in the suite of offices she shares with her dermatologist husband Jeffrey Rebish. Pictured: Performing an operation to excise a cyst
‘I won’t know exactly what these people have until I examine them.
‘We’re also repairing stretched earlobes, looking at a large skin cancer and then I’m going to do liposuction on someone’s tush,’ she says gaily, using the American term for what we Brits politely call a backside.
Presumably there’ll be blackheads to extract too and, although it doesn’t sound very festive to me, Dr Lee says that her Christmas specials are a highlight for her millions of fans across the globe.
There are eight treatment rooms in the suite of offices she shares with her dermatologist husband Jeffrey Rebish. The couple met in medical school, dated through years of dermatology training and run their practice together, each having their own patients. Her husband has said he doesn’t often watch her videos because ‘I’d rather not see that stuff outside the office’. She says that he’s ‘the brains for all the business stuff and I’m the personality’.
I tell her I watched her famous video of a blackhead extraction in horrid fascination. ‘You’re a popaholic!’ she says
All around us is evidence of her astonishing career trajectory. There’s a framed award from YouTube in 2016 to mark her first million followers. There’s a map with pins showing the countries people travel from to see her — Britain, Canada, Malaysia, Saudi Arabia — with the words ‘where’d you pop in from?’
Merchandise on show includes T-shirts, baseball caps and ‘poppin’ pimples’ shot glasses. Who’d want to drink out of one of those!
Dr Lee’s burgeoning empire now takes up a large amount of her time — and getting an appointment might take months, she says.
Her father was a dermatologist and as a young girl, she wasn’t squeamish about looking at pictures of people with chronic skin diseases in his medical journals.
Her parents — her mother stopped working as a nurse to raise her and her brother — were Chinese immigrants to the U.S. but weren’t ‘tiger-parents’ who hovered over them.
Dr Lee began sharing mostly anonymous videos and photos of her patients’ skin conditions in 2014. Pictured: Dr Lee, her husband and their sons
Nevertheless, they expected her to do well academically, and she got into medical school. After a dermatology residency and extra surgical training, she was fully qualified by the age of 33. She and her husband took over her father’s thriving dermatology business when he retired.
In 2014, Dr Lee began sharing mostly anonymous videos and photos of her patients’ skin conditions (with their permission) to publicise their private practice.
A particularly grisly blackhead extraction garnered attention. ‘I had comments and likes and I thought, “What the heck is this?”, so I posted another and another and then I realised that some people on the internet were sharing pimple popping videos with each other,’ she recalls.
Amateur videos were already an underground fad on social media platforms like Reddit, but Dr Lee was the first dermatologist to put them on display.
‘People either loved them or hated them, but whatever reaction they had, they couldn’t help telling their friends and the views just kept on growing,’ she says.
The medical term for a blackhead or whitehead is a comedone — a pore clogged with keratin (skin protein) and sebum (oil).
Blackheads, which get their colour due to exposure to air, which oxidises the clogged pore, can be extracted at home. But whiteheads — completely blocked pores — have fine layers of skin that must be pierced and should be handled by a dermatologist.
Dr Lee’s (pictured) videos include pilar cysts, epidermoid cysts, which tend to break easily and become infected, and lipomas
‘Blackheads are like snowflakes — no two are alike,’ laughs Dr Lee. ‘They’re unpredictable — you never know if it’s going to slide out easily like a little tadpole or be stubborn.’ Her ‘favourite’ type of blackhead is the giant one called ‘dilated pore of Winer’.
‘They’re as big as raisins. There’s no mess — no blood. It’s like pulling the plug out of a kitchen sink. It comes away clean and it’s very satisfying.’
I tell Dr Lee that in the run-up to our interview, I waited until the last minute before watching any of her videos and viewed the first couple of clips through my fingers.
I watched her famous blackhead extraction on the nose of a patient called Pops and found myself cheering silently as Dr Lee cleared up clogged pores.
I watched in horrified fascination when a patient called Victor revealed a giant protuberance on his chest.
I had no idea the human body could produce such hideous substances, I tell her. And yes, it is fascinating — but it also gives me the shivers. She roars with laughter. ‘You’re a popaholic!’ she says. More like a popaphobe.
Dr Lee’s videos show other things that pop out of people’s skin like a pilar cyst, which has the consistency of an olive, epidermoid cysts, which tend to break easily and become infected, and lipomas, a collection of benign fat cells that can grow to large sizes.
Dr Lee (pictured) has celebrity fans who enjoy watching her videos – including Gwyneth Paltrow and Kim Kardashian
The procedures are free to patients (many are anonymous but people are happy to be identified on her TV show) in return for filming permission.
The benefit of Dr Lee’s work is that she sees the difference in patients who have long-detested, benign skin conditions that make them feel ugly and ashamed and who are thrilled to be rid of them.
‘Acne doesn’t threaten your life, but it definitely threatens your wellbeing and your emotional stability,’ she says. ‘Just last night, I was talking to a patient called Roger who had growths like grapefruit hanging off his nose.
‘He said that he goes out on walks and talks to his neighbours now that they’ve been removed. His condition wasn’t going to kill him, but he’s got a new lease on life.’ She says extreme cases like that are ‘exceedingly satisfying to resolve’.
Dr Lee encourages patients to bid farewell to the cyst or lipoma after it is removed. ‘I ask if they want to see what I’ve extracted, and their responses are usually “oh that’s crazy!” or “that’s disgusting!” It’s a subtle way of giving a person control over the thing that caused them distress.’
Indeed, these are some of the most moving videos of hers that I watched.
Celebrities are fans of the internet’s favourite dermatologist and watch the videos, too. ‘Gwyneth Paltrow told me she watches with her daughter and Kim Kardashian is a big popaholic — she admires the way I’ve built my social media presence,’ Dr Lee says.
Dr Lee (pictured) said she gets to meet lovely people and perform procedures that make lives better
In 2019, Chrissy Teigen asked Dr Lee for help with a stubborn chin pimple. ‘Please, Dr Pimple Popper I beg u,’ she wrote on Twitter. ‘I’ve had this thing on my chin for four years now. It gets bigger around my period. It’s unsqueezable and it’s ruining my life.’
Dr Lee replied: ‘DM me . . . I can make a house call.’
She adds: ‘A lot of celebrities don’t follow me openly. They follow me on their alternative accounts. I feel like I’m waiting for somebody like Brad Pitt to come along and tell me he’s a secret popaholic.’
She is certainly imaginative in how she communicates with her fans — a compilation of her greatest ‘pops’ was released this autumn set to Earth Wind and Fire’s disco hit September. Her new SLMD Skincare line, already a hit in the U.S., launched here in the summer, with products aimed at bridging the gap between a trip down the skincare aisle and a visit to the dermatologist or GP.
Formulated to treat and prevent various kinds of spots, products including the SLMD Skincare Retinol Serum (£40, slmdskincare.co.uk) and Glycolic Acid Body Lotion (£36) are particularly good for midlife women who suffer outbreaks of mild acne due to hormonal fluctuations.
‘I enjoy what I do,’ Dr Lee says. ‘I get to meet lovely people, treat fascinating skin conditions and perform procedures that make lives better. Even if something’s not very big, it can be distressing if it’s right in the middle of your nose or your forehead and you’re reminded of it every single day when you look in the mirror.
‘Some people might say my videos are like a car wreck where you drive by and can’t look away, but you’re getting rid of something that’s not supposed to be there. You’re getting that person back to normal, so there’s always a happy ending.’