When a young and hopeful Dr. Sandra Lee set her eyes on becoming a dermatologist years ago, being known colloquially as “Dr. Pimple Popper” was nowhere on her bingo card.
But today, Lee is very much OK with that nickname, as it’s earned her millions of followers across TikTok, Instagram, and YouTube, where her fans can squirm in both horror and fascination as she treats bulging cysts, inflamed boils, and painful-looking pimples. The moniker also inspired Lee’s very own TLC reality show, Dr. Pimple Popper, which debuted its seventh season last week.
As the story goes, Lee found her fame inadvertently back in 2010, when she began uploading photos and videos of various cosmetic procedures, such as Botox and filler, offered by her dermatology office. But she soon discovered that her audience was inexplicably more drawn to videos of blackhead extractions, exploding pimples, and other squeamish content.
“It sort of came by accident,” Lee tells The Daily Beast. “But also, it’s almost like it was meant to be. It fell into place. I didn't know people would enjoy pimple-popping, but it really has been this wonderful opportunity to showcase how amazing dermatology is.”
On her reality show and across her social media accounts, Lee gives an up-close look at the range of skin conditions seen in her office. One day she could be removing a “nipple” from someone’s forehead, another afternoon is spent extracting horn-like growths from a patient’s face, and she might end up ducking for cover when popping a particularly juicy cyst. And to the pleasure of Lee’s audience, they get a front-row seat to the pus-filled action.
Lee understands that some viewers might originally watch her pimple-popping videos out of morbid curiosity—she coins these obsessive junkies “popaholics”—but she’s found that many of her fans have come away with a better understanding of different types of skin conditions, and have even helped diagnose other people.
Plus, Lee is proud that her work has helped to break down stigmas around lumps and bumps, reasoning that the more people are familiar with various skin ailments, the more they’re open to seeking out proper treatment.
“It makes it a lot more manageable, emotionally and mentally,” Lee says. “I do know that I have patients, or I know people who have seen people on the street that may have something, and they now recognize it. I mean, a 9-year-old will know what a lipoma is. That’s crazy! They also know not to judge that person, not to pull away in horror.”
And when asked about the community of people who find these zit-bursting videos erotic, Lee laughs, saying that while she has heard of the fetish, she doesn’t think it’s a terribly popular kink.
“Maybe I choose to think it’s not that common,” she says. “I mean, honestly, I guess if I lost everything, maybe I could start an OnlyFans. Just kidding, just kidding! But I think that if it’s a fetish, there’s probably going to be a group of that on OnlyFans. So, if we don’t see it there, I’m gonna guess it’s not a fetish.”
While no human cyst or suspicious growth is too stomach-churning for Lee to tackle, she admits that she can’t bring herself to watch extractions on animals. She also has a hard time stomaching fan-submitted videos of people trying to pop their friends’ random abscesses.
“I don’t want to watch that—sorry, I’m scrolling,” Lee laughs. “I’m not saying what I’m doing is a better way of doing things, but it’s such a clean, sterile, non-painful way of doing things. You know, like a civilized way. When you see people popping in their garage, or they’re drunk, or they’re doing [it] with dirty fingernails and paper towels—it gives me shivers.”
“I feel like a lot of the time, even when I work as a surgeon, it’s sort of like a dance,” Lee adds. “It’s beautiful. It sounds weird to people, but I think that’s part of what I try to show, that there’s a lot of beauty and elegance to it, it can be painless—it can be a very pretty thing to see. And it really makes people feel good to have something that was in disorder back in order again.”