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Why is Dr. Pimple Popper a hit? The psychology behind the gross videos

The dermatologist's graphic videos showing acne-zapping and other skin procedures have countless fans. What's the attraction?
/ Source: TODAY

Dr. Pimple Popper” is the ultimate co-star of gross online videos, sharing the spotlight with cysts, blackheads and other skin conditions she treats on camera.

Dr. Sandra Lee, a dermatologist based in California whose popular TLC show showcases the procedures in graphic detail, visited TODAY on Tuesday, enjoying a bit of acne trivia with the hosts. Lee is such a big hit on social media that her videos get 5 million views a day and have been watched almost 3 billion times on YouTube.

Below is a link to one of her Instagram posts. Warning: The link depicts a minor surgical procedure removing a pimple from a patient’s back. Viewer discretion is advised:

See an example of @DrPimplePopper at work

What's the attraction?

Why would anyone want to watch such close-up, graphic images many people would find nauseating?

The videos can give some viewers vicarious pleasure and even produce a little rush, said Dr. Amy Wechsler, a New York physician who is board-certified in both dermatology and psychiatry.

“There are so many people out there who like to pop their own pimples — they’re usually smaller than the ones that are on these videos — and they get satisfaction out of seeing something come out from the body that they feel like doesn’t belong,” Wechsler told TODAY.

“There’s a good number of people who think that is the coolest thing ever… and they’re excited by things that are a little bit gross. Those might be the same people who like horror movies.”

Gross sells, plain and simple, added Dr. Adam Friedman, professor of dermatology at the George Washington School of Medicine and Health Sciences in Washington, D.C.

“P.T. Barnum had it right — we want a taste of the other side. We want to see, not be, that which is abnormal, grotesque or just plain different. Inherently we are curious creatures, and Dr. Lee offers a window into a new world for the viewing public,” Friedman said.

Getting pleasure out of watching things that are disgusting, such as pimple popping, is an example of “benign masochism,” where human beings actually enjoy their physiological reactions to innately negative experiences, one study found.

People also like to share gross tales and images with family and friends, preferring to pass along stories that produce the highest level of disgust, another study reported.

A deep-rooted link to our furry ancestors may be a factor in the attraction, too. Primates often groom each other in rituals that play an important role in bonding and intimacy, so pimple-popping may be a human variation of this, Robin Dunbar, an evolutionary psychologist at the University of Oxford, told The Economist.

What to know about pimple popping:

People who do it themselves inevitably make things worse, causing skin trauma, infections and scarring, so it’s best to leave it to a doctor using sterile instruments who can do it properly, Wechsler said.

If you just can’t resist, she tells patients the only safe way to do it is with Q-tips — never your fingers — because the cotton swabs are soft and will break if you push too hard. Your nails, on the other hand, are tough, sharp and can traumatize the skin.

If the pimple doesn’t pop while being squeezed with the Q-tips, stop and move on, Wechsler advised.

What do dermatologists think of 'Dr. Pimple Popper'?

If watching the show can stop people from squeezing their own blemishes and consult a doctor instead, that’s a positive, Wechsler noted.

But Friedman was more critical of Lee and her series, noting dermatology is more than popping pimples.

“Dr. Lee's stage name and show taps into a mere fraction of what we contribute, and in the house of medicine where dermatology is constantly fighting an uphill battle to define its value, she unfortunately undermines said value,” Friedman said.

“We as dermatologists save lives through skin cancer prevention, detection and treatment. We manage complex, debilitating, chronic diseases with cutting edge therapies…. We underscore that everything is connected — that chronic skin diseases like psoriasis, eczema, rosacea increase the risk of enumerable medical problems… I think she missed the messaging behind the famed ‘Seinfeld’ episode from which she derives her stage name.”

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