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Search for “popping” on YouTube, and you’re immediately presented with thousands of horrifying clips of people squeezing out blackheads, pushing out pus, and zapping their zits. It’s not for the faint of heart. Some of the videos look like something from a David Cronenberg movie, and the comments are filled with viewers expressing their outright disgust.
— caitlyn1972 (@caitlyn19721) August 26, 2018
But despite the immediate horror we feel when we see someone tackle an especially enormous pimple, we keep watching…and watching. Pimple popping videos are oddly addictive, and even though we find them disgusting, from time to time, we keep finding ourselves navigating to that dark side of YouTube.
We looked into the science of pimple popping—and no, we’re not talking about general dermatology. The good news is that you’re not weird simply because you spend your afternoons watching strangers lance their carbuncles. The bad news…well, we’ll get there.
I could probably watch pimple popping videos all day, as well as haircut videos. Something about them is so satisfying.
— Bradley Nelson (@bradleynelson22) August 27, 2018
We also scoured Amazon for products that would let us indulge our pimple-popping proclivities, with somewhat mixed results. If you’re a fellow popper, here’s what you need to know.
First, it’s important to understand the scope of the addiction.
Sandra Lee, MD, is a California-based dermatologist who started uploading videos of her practice in 2015. Her YouTube channel, “Dr. Pimple Popper,” has more than four million subscribers. Read that again: four million subscribers. That’s people who watched one of her videos and said, “Yes, YouTube, please notify me every single time another one of these is available.” Her most popular video, “Back Blackhead Extraction Session #2, Addressing the Inflamed One,” has more than 48 million views.
Lee’s channel is educational, and she claims that it’s a tremendous resource for aspiring dermatologists. She invites her viewers to guess patients’ diagnoses based on their “pops,” and she engages with her audience regularly.
“People love to learn about their skin, why these growths happen, how they are removed,” she said on her site. “I hear so often from people about how they watch my videos and then aspire to become dermatologists or other skincare specialists. At the end of the day, the reason for all of this is really to educate people, and to help them take better care of their own body and skin.”
It’s not hard to see why a charismatic, attractive doctor has such an enormous following—even given her strange subject matter.
But Lee isn’t the only “popaholic” celebrity on YouTube. Many of the top popping videos have millions of views without any attempt at providing educational content; they’re simply short clips of weird stuff pouring out of skin. Take “Biggest Zit Cyst Pop Ever,” uploaded by Kris Honey three years ago; it has 17 million views. For comparison, the famous “My Name is John Daker” video has a mere 2.4 million views.
Why are those videos so popular? Why do we keep watching them? And most importantly, why do we always decide to turn them on right when we’re about to eat lunch?
One thing’s for sure: Acne generally isn’t cute. We did stumble onto an exception—Amazon has a plush toy designed to look like Propionibacterium acnes, the bacteria that causes acne—but that’s the exception, not the rule. There’s nothing attractive about pimple-popping videos.
By the way, you can check out that acne plush toy here. You know you want to.
Some neuroscientists believe that our love of pimple popping is an evolutionary trait.
That might explain why we get a similar charge from using things like blackhead masks. Basically, we get a charge out of ridding ourselves of diseases and parasites; at some point in human history, our love of popping was a serious advantage.
“Evolutionarily speaking, it’s normal behavior to want to remove bumps from your skin,” neuroscientist Heather Berlin of Mount Sinai Hospital in New York told The Washington Post in July 2018.
Of course, the opposite effect also comes into play; we don’t want to imagine ourselves getting diseases or massive cysts, so we’re repulsed by the same videos that fascinate us. That push-and-pull has helped to make popping videos
Another possible reason: We all know what “popping” feels like. It’s a relieving sensation, and we can empathize with our fellow humans when we see them squeeze out all of that nastiness.
“There’s some kind of relief by proxy,” Dean McKay, PhD, a psychology professor at Fordham University in New York City, told Women’s Health regarding the pimple-popping videos. “If you see a pimple on someone’s face and it gets popped, it’s an opportunity to imagine that your pimple gets popped.”
Lee summed that up simply on her website.
“There’s a great sense of satisfaction to watch pressure being built up and released, and to watch the body being cleansed or cleaned,” she noted.
Why are pimple popping videos so satisfying and why do I only watch them at night alone in the dark?
— mariah (@mariahgools) August 21, 2018
We might also appreciate disgusting stuff because it reminds us that we’re safe. It’s the same reason scary movies are popular: Popping videos give us a safe outlet for experiencing negative emotions and learning to cope with them.
“It’s similar to why people go on roller coasters. You feel fear, even though you know you’re safe,” Clark McCauley, PhD, told Shape. “You get a big arousal value out of them. Arousal has a positive component as it hits this reward track.”
Whether or not that sense of satisfaction comes from biology, evolution, or cultural conditioning, we can’t really say. The reasons for our fascination are likely multifaceted. If there is an evolutionary aspect to our popaholicism, there’s also an empathetic element and a horror element—people love these videos for different reasons.
We do know that pimple popping isn’t the only gross activity we love watching. Recently, dandruff-scraping videos have grown in popularity, but as one piece on Self pointed out, many of the videos show people with seborrheic dermatitis, a condition much more serious than typical dandruff. Chiropractic videos are also popular, with videos like “epic ring dingers” attracting millions of views (a ring dinger, by the way, is slang for a massive chiropractic adjustment).
That’s one constant among all of these videos—people don’t want to see normal stuff get popped, they want to see the biggest, baddest, and meanest skin conditions.
There’s an entire industry set up to cater to your pimple popping obsession.
If you’re one of those people who doesn’t shy away from blackheads and pus, we’ve got more good news: You can safely experience those pops without actually encountering the real thing.
Amazon has a number of pimple popping “toys,” which are…well, exactly what they sound like. One of the most popular is the Pop It Pal, a silicone product with an “all-natural pus that simulates the popping of a huge pimple.” Each toy comes with 16 pimples, and you can fill your Pop It Pal with fake pus for a more realistic experience.
The Pop It Pal is billed as a “stress-relief toy,” but we could see it causing a great deal of stress for some people. Nevertheless, it’s available for less than $20, which is much cheaper than a visit to the dermatologist.
We should note that most pimple popping toys don’t come with pus; you have to buy that separately. Pop It Pal’s Pimple Pus is available in 30-milliliter bottles. The manufacturer cheerfully notes that it’s made in the U.S.A. with “all natural ingredients including oils and beeswax,” which should come as a relief for anyone tired of all of those synthetic fake pus products.
That’s the realistic stuff. If you love pus but wish that it could somehow incorporate glitter—maybe because you want it to be even more hellish—the Pimple Plus crew has you covered. For about $6, you can get a tiny bottle of blue glittering pus sent right to your door. This time, the product description notes that it’s made with all-natural ingredients “including oils, beeswax, and glitter,” presumably taken from organic glitter trees.
There are even products for kids. Pimple Pete, a disgusting “family” game from Spin Master Games, tasks kids with popping each pimple without making the titular character (a giant plastic head named Pete) pop the “mega-zit” on his nose. Pull any of the pimples too hard, and you’ll shower your fellow players with water (or whatever else you use to fill up Pimple Pete). It’s pretty disgusting stuff.
This game actually looks like a ton of fun, though the Amazon reviews are lackluster—some of the reviewers don’t have a very positive attitude towards popping.
Then there are Zits Pop-and-Play Pimples, a set of fillable plastic zits that kids can stick all over their faces. Fill them up with the aforementioned fake pus, and they provide hours (or at least minutes) of entertainment. The product description invites children to “feel the pop.”
We feel like this is encouraging bad habits, somehow. Still, if your kids just can’t stop popping, this is at least a safe way for them to do it.
And if you’re just into the pimple popping videos because you like gross stuff, you might consider this nose-shaped soap dispenser. It lets you pretend that your hand soap is snot, because, well, you like to live on the edge, don’t you?
It attaches to any flat surface via the included suction cups, or you could just nail it into the wall if you’re feeling particularly sadistic.
Unfortunately, there’s a downside to pimple popping.
Dermatologists recommend against popping your own pimples. That doesn’t stop us, of course—when you’ve got a big zit on your face, sometimes the temptation is too great. By popping our own skin, however, we’re taking serious risks.
“If you push some of the contents inside the pimple deeper into the skin, which often happens, you increase inflammation,” the American Academy of Dermatology notes on its website. “This can lead to more-noticeable acne. Some people develop acne scars and pain.”
In fact, “some people” is something of an understatement. One study found that nearly 80 percent of acne patients have some scarring, while 50 percent have clinically relevant scarring. Your chances of developing scars vary depending on your skin type and the extent, duration, and intensity of your acne inflammation, but by picking and poking, you’re certainly increasing your chances.
If you’re dealing with frequent acne, there are steps you can take.
Inflammation increases your chances of scarring since it prevents your body from effectively healing damaged tissues. One way to combat inflammation is to keep your face cool during outbreaks.
A gel eye/face mask can be particularly beneficial. Keep it in your refrigerator, then wear it at night when you’re dealing with especially nasty pimples. A cold mask might also help to open your pores, preventing future outbreaks, although you should discuss your treatment plan with your dermatologist for the best possible results.
If you’re dead set on popping your own pimples, you can also buy dermatologist tools on Amazon. They’re highly rated by zit busters, although we should note that they’re not perfectly safe; dermatologists use sanitized tools, and unless you really know what you’re doing, you’re still taking a risk. With that said, if you’re gonna pop, you might as well use the right tools for the job.
To get your gross-out kicks without risking so much skin damage, your best bet is a simple blackhead remover mask. One of the highest rated options is Essy’s Blackhead Extractor, which uses activated charcoal to draw oil and impurities out of your pores. It also comes with a tool for easy application.
Simply apply, let it dry, then pull it off your face and marvel at all of the little blackheads that were plaguing your skin. That’s almost as good as popping, isn’t it?
If you prefer taking out those blackheads one at a time, a better option is the Srocker Comedo, a vacuum-suction acne tool that draws out blackheads with an assortment of probe nozzles. It charges via USB, and it offers five power levels, so you’ll be able to clear out the toughest dug-in blackheads with ease (at which point you can photograph them to post on social media, you total freak).
You can also treat the cause of acne, further reducing the likelihood of breakouts.
Not to sound like a broken record, but for people with serious acne, a visit to the dermatologist’s office is the safest first step to creating a successful treatment plan. Your physician will grade your acne on a scale from 1 to 4; grade 1 acne is mild, while grade 4 is severe. A typical course of treatment includes a prescription for a product with salicylic acid or benzoyl peroxide, per the American Academy of Dermatology.
If your acne is mild, a good skincare routine will help you keep it under control. Ideally, you should wash your skin twice a day and after you’ve exercised. Gentle, non-abrasive cleaners can help to eliminate excess sebum without irritating your skin.
Keep your skin pH balanced to avoid clogging pores.
The chemistry isn’t exactly complicated; all you need is an all-natural skin toner, like this one from Teddie Organics. There’s nothing in this bottle but pure organic rose water, a reliable balm for the face. It simultaneously hydrates the skin while absorbing excess oil, preventing it from accumulating and blocking your pores. It’s also useful for washing hair—just add a small amount to your everyday shampoo and wash normally.
There’s no substitute for a good old-fashioned scrubbing. That’s not to say that harsh exfoliants are good for the skin, but some amount of exfoliation can be helpful. To remove impurities without damaging skin cells, you need to find a balance.
That’s where this multi-functioning electric brush comes into play. It features seven unique brush heads with two-speed operation, essentially bringing the skincare prowess of a top spa to your very own shower. Start with a sponge head to remove makeup and excess skin oils, then pop on a bristle brush to clean deep with mild exfoliation. Oh, and did we mention it’s also a massager?
Zits start with impurities, and you know what’s great at drawing out gunk? Charcoal. This pore-cleanser from the skincare experts at Bioré uses natural charcoal powder to reach deep into pores, pulling out the pollutants that can hijack your complexion.
According to the manufactures, this product cleans twice as deep than a cleanser without charcoal. That’s twice the cleaning power, which we can only assume will lead to half the pimples. You might want to double-check that math, but if you want a deep clean for oily skin, Bioré has you covered.
When acne scars are an issue, you’ve still got options.
We’d like to go on record as saying that acne scars are not always a terrible thing. Look at Edward James Olmos, who remains almost the best actor out there. Or think of Tommy Lee Jones—acne scars can give the face character. If you’re not a Hollywood star, though, odds are you’d rather just be done with the scarring once and for all.
The American Academy of Dermatology assures us that acne scarring is totally treatable. Start with a visit to your dermatologist, say the experts; the most effective treatments may involve laser treatments, chemical peeling, or corticosteroid injections. While you wait for your next appointment with the dermatologist, you can give some of these self-care remedies a try.
Wisdompark Acne Scar Removal Cream relies on the principles of traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) to stimulate collagen production. Manufacturers say this stuff helps skin cells to regenerate, reducing the appearance of acne scarring and other skin damage.
The Amazon reviews are pretty mixed, so take this with a grain of salt. If you’re a fan of TCM, though, there are enough buyers swearing by this cream’s scar-removing powers to make it worth a try.
You may know the compound retinol by its more common name, vitamin A. This compound is essential for the healthy function of cells and all sorts of body processes, but it may also be an effective treatment for acne scarring.
Unfortunately, the latest study on vitamin A and acne lesions is still in the works. We know that some vitamin A treatments can help mitigate wrinkles and other effects of sun damage. Until the scientists figure out exactly what’s going on with vitamin A and acne, then, you can conduct your own tests at home.
LilyAna Naturals Retinol Cream blends vitamin A with well-known moisturizers, including shea butter, jojoba oil, and green tea extracts. The result is a hydrating formula that can bring out the best your skin has to offer—acne scars or no acne scars. The manufacturers even say that it has anti-aging properties, and Amazon reviewers tend to take them at their word. The product has a 5-star rating of nearly 70 percent on the e-commerce platform.
Scar treatment gels can also reduce the appearance of dark patches over time. Mederma Advanced Scar Gel is one of Amazon’s highest-rated products for this purpose, and per the before-and-after pictures from the review section, it seems remarkably effective.
The active ingredient is allantoin, a synthetic chemical that hydrates skin while desquamating (removing layers of skin). Over time, regular applications allow your skin to heal naturally, although the effects are limited; while this product can be useful for mild scars, it’s not going to be as effective as pharmaceutical dermatological treatments.