How Dr. Sandra “Pimple Popper” Lee Became An International Phenomenon By Squeezing Zits


You may not know Dr. Sandra Lee—but you surely know her as “Dr. Pimple Popper"—the moniker that made her a viral superstar. She's likely the most famous dermatologist in the world thanks to her 1.5 billion views and 3 million Subscribers on YouTube, her hit TLC show This is Zit and her renowned skincare line SLMD.

How did it happen? Back in 2014, Lee decided to experiment with content on Instagram. “As a working dermatologist, I would see—and still do see—patients struggling with blackheads, milia, cysts, or other various bumps upon the skin. While not life-threatening, they are a nuisance," Lee explains. “One day, I offered to remove a patient's blackheads in exchange for her allowing me to videotape the process and post on my Instagram. She jumped at the opportunity, and when I posted it—to my surprise—it immediately got a lot of likes."

With her skincare line booming, Lee can admit that she never saw this as her destiny. “I never figured myself to be known as 'Dr. Pimple Popper' wherever I go!" Photo Courtesy of Joel Forrest / Barcroft USA

Curiosity got the best of Lee, so she did it again and couldn't believe how much more attention she received. Realizing she may have tapped into something, Lee was intrigued.

“People were curious about, even obsessed with 'popping.'" I noticed that there was strong feeling on my Instagram posts—people were either grossed out or loved it and wanted more," says Lee. “But, no matter what their reaction, people still tagged their friends."

Lee rode the wave and started posting on social media every day plus uploaded a daily YouTube video. That was just over three years ago, and she now has over 2 billion views on her YouTube channel, and well over 10 million followers across all her social media platforms. Lee realized she was sitting on a huge business opportunity and started thinking strategically. “What was I going to actually DO with this?" was the question Lee struggled to answer.

“Creating a merchandise line was a no-brainer. But, what I really wanted to do was create a unique dermatology skin care line," Lee says. Her goal was to alleviate confusion in the skincare aisle at the drugstore. She realized not everyone takes the time to schedule an appointment with a dermatologist—but they would want to buy a product that a dermatologist would recommend if they did see one. “I realized I had people around the world that followed me and would trust me to advise them about their own skin," Lee explains. “I created my line, SLMD skin care, to bring products to the masses that treated various skin conditions—and worked."

With her skincare line booming, Lee can admit that she never saw this as her destiny. “I never figured myself to be known as 'Dr. Pimple Popper' wherever I go!" she says. “But I think things happen for a reason. I saw an opportunity and seized upon it and it has transformed into the most wonderful, exciting thing. I'm having fun helping people around the world understand and take care of their own skin. I'm elevating the dermatology profession, and ultimately, the people who watch my pimple popping videos? It makes them happy and isn't life about being happy?"

So, what exactly is the allure of pimple popping videos? What draws people to watch and why can't they look away? Lee has some theories but ultimately, she believes it makes people feel both happy and relaxed. “There's a sense of completion and of cleansing. It calms people with some obsessive-compulsive tendencies. People who have a tendency to pick at their own skin when they're stressed say that watching my videos really helps them to keep their hands off their own skin," Lee explains. “Many people actually watch my videos if they're having a panic attack, or to help them sleep!" And for others, it provides a little bit of a rush—similar to riding a rollercoaster or watching a scary movie. “I think it's fascinating for many people to see what can come out of the skin of a regular, normal, healthy human."

Lee admits she is not a “popaholic." “I call myself a 'born again popaholic,'" she laughs. “When I have a great case with a good story and an amazing pop, I get excited, but not because I'm going to be witness to it. More because I know the patient will be happy and the viewers will really love this one! People think I want to see big pops and will send me videos of a huge cyst they squeezed at home—but, I get shivers even thinking out it!"

While being a viral superstar wasn't something that Lee expected—a career in dermatology was in her blood.

Her father was an established dermatologist for over 35 years. Lee grew up flipping through her father's dermatology textbooks and going to his office as a child to help file charts while checking out all the skin product samples (makeup, moisturizers, shampoos and more) that he kept in the office. “I'm just lucky I knew how great dermatology was at a younger age than most. I think that people who go into medicine may find out too late in the game that they really like dermatology and decide not to pursue it because it is an extremely competitive and difficult specialty to get accepted into," Lee explains. “I was lucky to know about it early on and tried to position myself to get there at an earlier stage in life."

Lee even married a dermatologist and together they took over her father's practice. Lee was equipped to understand the community so enamored by pimple popping because of her front row seat to the world of dermatology her whole life. “I'm very proud that the popping community, the people on all of my social media are very kind to each other and supportive. It's as if they have found 'their people,'" Lee explains. “I get very few trolls and that's what really keeps me going. If this were negative at all, I'm sure I would have stopped as soon as it started."

"What draws people to watch and why can't they look away? Lee has some theories but ultimately, she believes it makes people feel both happy and relaxed." Photo Courtesy of The Cut

For example, Lee had one patient named Pops with the most intricate blackheads. During the first extraction video that she posted with him, he revealed that he'd just lost his wife, needed to move into a retirement home but couldn't afford it. “He got hundreds of letters from around the world and through that, viewers encouraged me to start a GoFundMe account for him that raised $12k!" Lee says. “I mean, how does that happen from popping pimples? You should have seen how that changed his outlook on life. He learned that all these people who don't know him care about him and that is what makes it all worthwhile." Lee thinks her TLC show is a success because it shows the backstories of her patients. “My show came at a really good time in this world, where a lot of us don't know what's real or what's fake news," she explains.

"Lee was equipped to understand the community so enamored by pimple popping because of her front row seat to the world of dermatology her whole life." Photo Courtesy of Vice

“There are reality shows based on people being crazy and that's why people watch them - because they're bonkers. Pimple popping is crazy to start with, but I'm acting like it's normal. And, I feel like in this day and age we want crazy things to go back to normal and pimple popping surgeries and extractions are kind of a metaphor for this."

And, Hollywood has certainly caught on to the pimple popping obsession. Lee admits she did not realize how many celebrity popaholics were out there! “Gillian Jacobs from Love talked about her obsession on Jimmy Kimmel Live. Ashley Graham follows me and likes my posts. Ayesha Curry called me when she had a mini pimple emergency, so I drove down to give her a cortisol injection on set," Lee reveals. “Also, Sophie Turner who plays Sansa Stark on Game of Thrones is a follower. Last season, there's a clip that is very pimple popper-esque. I posted a meme that referenced it that Sophie liked, so I know she's been showing my videos on set. I think it's a discreet little wink to pimple popping and me!"

By making a name for herself in dermatology in such an innovative way, Lee admits she was concerned that there might be some backlash from others in the industry. “I worried that other physicians, especially dermatologists, would feel that I'm doing our specialty a disservice, or I'm taking advantage of my patients," Lee explains. “However, the comfort and condition of my patients are my highest priority. My patients and viewers know this. I think that other derms who may think negatively about what I do simply haven't watched the videos. If they did, they would see that I'm actually elevating the specialty. We're so much MORE than pimple poppers. We're surgeons, psychologists, friends and advocates for our patients." Lee finds validation in the outpouring of support she's received from dermatologists in training who use her videos in preparation to interact with their own patients! “It's the biggest compliment to know that I'm a role model for all of these young dermatologists, estheticians, physician assistants, people interested in going into health care."

As Lee prepares to continue to grow her skincare line and pimple popping following, she's grateful for the opportunities that keep coming. “I don't think I would have had the confidence to post like this on social media just out of residency training. I believe this came at the perfect time—all the planets—or pimples—aligned," Lee says. “I was comfortable posting on social media but mature enough to recognize the dangers and the pitfalls. I felt confident in my techniques and treatments as a dermatologist. I felt good about myself as a woman, a wife, a mother—all important before you expose yourself to the world on social media!"

For those who want to take the plunge and turn their passions into a business, Lee says if you really want it, you must be willing to put in the time and dedication. “And I'm not saying this because I'm there yet—but I have the drive and the determination to keep trying and keep working hard to get where I want to be," she says. “You get what you put into something, and a little luck doesn't hurt either. It's okay to be competitive, but not negatively competitive. If you're good, people will come to you—never step on others to get higher!"

7min read

The Middle East And North Africa Are Brimming With Untapped Female Potential

Women of the Middle East have made significant strides in the past decade in a number of sectors, but huge gaps remain within the labor market, especially in leadership roles.

A huge number of institutions have researched and quantified trends of and obstacles to the full utilization of females in the marketplace. Gabriela Ramos, is the Chief-of-Staff to The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), an alliance of thirty-six governments seeking to improve economic growth and world trade. The OECD reports that increasing participation in the women's labor force could easily result in a $12 trillion jump in the global GDP by the year 2025.

To realize the possibilities, attention needs to be directed toward the most significantly underutilized resource: the women of MENA—the Middle East and North African countries. Educating the men of MENA on the importance of women working and holding leadership roles will improve the economies of those nations and lead to both national and global rewards, such as dissolving cultural stereotypes.

The OECD reports that increasing participation in the women's labor force could easily result in a $12 trillion jump in the global GDP by the year 2025.

In order to put this issue in perspective, the MENA region has the second highest unemployment rate in the world. According to the World Bank, more women than men go to universities, but for many in this region the journey ends with a degree. After graduating, women tend to stay at home due to social and cultural pressures. In 2017, the OECD estimated that unemployment among women is costing some $575 billion annually.

Forbes and Arabian Business have each published lists of the 100 most powerful Arab businesswomen, yet most female entrepreneurs in the Middle East run family businesses. When it comes to managerial positions, the MENA region ranks last with only 13 percent women among the total number of CEOs according to the Swiss-based International Labor Organization ( publication "Women Business Management – Gaining Momentum in the Middle East and Africa.")

The lopsided tendency that keeps women in family business—remaining tethered to the home even if they are prepared and capable of moving "into the world"—is noted in a report prepared by OECD. The survey provides factual support for the intuitive concern of cultural and political imbalance impeding the progression of women into the workplace who are otherwise fully capable. The nations of Algeria, Tunisia, Morocco, Libya, Jordan and Egypt all prohibit gender discrimination and legislate equal pay for men and women, but the progressive-sounding checklist of their rights fails to impact on "hiring, wages or women's labor force participation." In fact, the report continues, "Women in the six countries receive inferior wages for equal work… and in the private sector women rarely hold management positions or sit on the boards of companies."

This is more than a feminist mantra; MENA's males must learn that they, too, will benefit from accelerating the entry of women into the workforce on all levels. Some projections of value lost because women are unable to work; or conversely the amount of potential revenue are significant.

Elissa Freiha, founder of Womena, the leading empowerment platform in the Middle East, emphasizes the financial benefit of having women in high positions when communicating with men's groups. From a business perspective it has been proven through the market Index provider that companies with more women on their boards deliver 36% better equity than those lacking board diversity.

She challenges companies with the knowledge that, "From a business level, you can have a potential of 63% by incorporating the female perspective on the executive team and the boards of companies."

Freiha agrees that educating MENA's men will turn the tide. "It is difficult to argue culturally that a woman can disconnect herself from the household and community." Her own father, a United Arab Emirates native of Lebanese descent, preferred she get a job in the government, but after one month she quit and went on to create Womena. The fact that this win-lose situation was supported by an open-minded father, further propelled Freiha to start her own business.

"From a business level, you can have a potential of 63% by incorporating the female perspective on the executive team and the boards of companies." - Elissa Frei

While not all men share the open-mindedness of Freiha's dad, a striking number of MENA's women have convincingly demonstrated that the talent pool is skilled, capable and all-around impressive. One such woman is the prominent Sheikha Lubna bint Khalid bin Sultan Al-Qasimi, who is currently serving as a cabinet minister in the United Arab Emirates and previously headed a successful IT strategy company.

Al-Qasimi exemplifies the potential for MENA women in leadership, but how can one example become a cultural norm? Marcello Bonatto, who runs Re: Coded, a program that teaches young people in Turkey, Iraq and Yemen to become technology leaders, believes that multigenerational education is the key. He believes in the importance of educating the parent along with their offspring, "particularly when it comes to women." Bonatto notes the number of conflict-affected youth who have succeeded through his program—a boot camp training in technology.

The United Nations Women alongside Promundo—a Brazil-based NGO that promotes gender-equality and non-violence—sponsored a study titled, "International Men and Gender Equality Survey of the Middle East and North Africa in 2017."

This study surveyed ten thousand men and women between the ages of 18 and 59 across both rural and urban areas in Egypt, Lebanon, Morocco and the Palestinian Authority. It reports that, "Men expected to control their wives' personal freedoms from what they wear to when the couple has sex." Additionally, a mere one-tenth to one-third of men reported having recently carried out a more conventionally "female task" in their home.

Although the MENA region is steeped in historical tribal culture, the current conflict of gender roles is at a crucial turning point. Masculine power structures still play a huge role in these countries, and despite this obstacle, women are on the rise. But without the support of their nations' men this will continue to be an uphill battle. And if change won't come from the culture, maybe it can come from money. By educating MENA's men about these issues, the estimated $27 trillion that women could bring to their economies might not be a dream. Women have been empowering themselves for years, but it's time for MENA's men to empower its women.