Popaholics in the time of pandemics

Illustration by Li Ya Wen

Story by Lily Goldberg

I’ll never forget my first time. 

Forehead pressed up against my dorm room mirror, and picking at the peeling remains of a nasty sunburn, I took my nose between thumb and forefinger and gave it a firm squeeze. An army of pores exploded forth simultaneously, propelling the sunscreen and oil and gunk buried beneath my skin to the surface of my nose. In awe of the treasure I’d just excavated, I combed my face with my fingers, prodding and squeezing in search of more buried sebum until there were no pores left to plumb.

Popaholic (noun): any person who takes thorough delight in the removal of whiteheads, blackheads, zits and cysts. I found this apt description of myself on Reddit. At r/popping, an online community of 256,000 strong, popaholics gather to share images and videos of their gnarliest pops. Many popaholics are inspired by the granddame of the popping world, Dr. Pimple Popper, the alias of Southern California dermatologist Sandra Lee. Lee posted her first extraction video to her YouTube page in December 2014; six years later, Lee now shares her videotaped procedures removing massive cysts and lipomas to more than six million YouTube subscribers. Lee’s queasy-but-satisfying pops even earned their own TLC show in 2018 – over the course of each 42 minute episode, “Dr. Pimple Popper” examines varied dermatological patients and treats viewers to the most extreme of pops. Unlike many other fetishes, popping is not sexual, although many claim the sight of a particularly good pop can feel orgasmic (as one YouTube commentator quipped on a blackhead extraction video, “More satisfying than my last boyfriend!!!”).

“Orgasmic” may seem a strange adjective to describe watching pus drain from a cyst. But “popping,” when undertaken alone at night in one’s bedroom, is indeed a secret and personal pleasure. I personally never enjoyed Dr. Pimple Popper’s graphic extractions — the extremity of Dr. Lee’s pops made me squeamish, and I felt they missed out on the essence of a good pop. My habit was self-directed, driven by satisfaction in the synchronicity of the pores erupting all at once, the intimacy of being close to one’s own face in a mirror. Popping became a comforting element of my daily routine, a way to relieve anxiety about exam grades or relationship troubles. However, my behaviors quickly transitioned from comfort to compulsion. I would excuse myself from class to use the restroom and stand in front of the mirror examining my nose for potential pops. While many teenagers rue their acne, I was upset with my skin for being too dry, since less oil inevitably meant unsatisfying extractions. Lying in bed with my then-boyfriend while he gazed lovingly into my eyes, I found myself staring straight at his nose, unable to concentrate on anything but how badly I wanted to clear out his clogged pores. After a great deal of coaxing, he finally let me apply a Biore strip. I peeled it off with unparalleled relish.

A very different corner of Reddit reflects the darker side of “popaholism” my behaviors were beginning to resemble. At r/CompulsiveSkinPicking, Redditors who suffer from dermatillomania, the clinical term for compulsive skin picking, convene to share stories, progress updates and recovery strategies. Dermatillomania is an example of a BFRB, or body-focused repetitive behavior, and is classified alongside Obsessive-Compulsive disorders in the DSM-5. Though skin picking is distinct from popping, casual popping can trigger severe bouts of dermatillomania that can leave a picker’s face scarred and raw. There is a tension then, between those for whom popping is a cathartic release and those for whom popping can lead to a relapse. While dedicated fans of Dr. Pimple Popper cheer on the use of comedone extractors in many of Dr. Lee’s videos, some on r/CompulsiveSkinPicking fear buying one of these extraction tools for themselves, lest it worsens their behavior. A Reddit thread from a year ago addresses the divide between popaholics and pickers head-on: “It makes me feel uncomfortable when non-pickers love Dr. PimplePopper so much,” grumbled one. Others write that more than anything, they just find Dr. Pimple Popper to be gross, and would always rather pick and poke at their own skin than look at anyone else’s. I was in this latter camp: though I hadn’t seen many popping videos, it seemed incredulous to me that they could be as satisfying than performing the same procedure on my own face.

Then, a pandemic came.

In light of the stock market tanking, entire cities placed on lockdown, college dorms being converted to makeshift hospitals and cases of COVID-19 multiplying by the day, it is understandable that the online community built around pimple popping may sit low on the list of social institutions disrupted by the pandemic. But seeing that health professionals fighting that same pandemic have all but accepted “Don’t Touch Your Face” as their rallying cry, it certainly seems worth investigating. 

As a popaholic, I touch my face frequently throughout the day. And as a hypochondriac, my nerves have risen steadily alongside the numbers of reported coronavirus cases. But in this particular moment, popping and picking is not a release from anxiety but an instigator of it. What happens when the way I cope with anxiety actually increases my chance of contracting the very thing making me anxious?

Many of the pickers on r/CompulsiveSkinPicking are dealing with the exact same problem. In a r/CompulsiveSkinPicking thread from two weeks ago, one Redditor posted “I feel like I’m definitely gonna catch it because I can’t stop touching my face and I’m preparing to self quarantine for real.” Another commented “I was just thinking today about how this is the most dangerous time to be a picker. :/ .” And yet another wrote “And all the anxiety around covid is making the compulsions so much worse.” Yet some are finding a silver lining in the grim atmosphere of late: the fear of germs has caused some pickers to cut back on touching their face. “COVID’s gonna clear my skin,” posted one commenter. 

If these fearful pickers are anything like me, they may find themselves finally turning to the filmed popping videos they had previously avoided just to vicariously ease their pop cravings. The demand for popping content, after all, is higher than ever. In a video update last week, Dr. PimplePopper promised viewers she’d post more extraction footage on her YouTube channel to help them through self-isolation. The top comment on a Dr. Pimple Popper video posted on March 23 reads “these videos are keeping me from going crazy during quarantine.” Posting for the first time on the thread r/PoppingPimples, I asked whether my fellow popaholics were watching more content than usual. The answer? “Yes.” “Yes.” “Oh my god yes.”

I could never quite stomach the bloody and grotesque dermatological anomalies that Dr. Pimple Popper videos often feature (the thumbnail on one video titled “It’s Like Ground Beans!” made me nauseous before I even hit play), so I opted for a softcore popping alternative: the gentler videos of Enilsa Skin Essentials Acne Clinic. Enilsa uses good old-fashioned Q-tips rather than metal extractors, and her videos often feature returning clients who are now familiar characters to her 561,000 subscribers. Since my personal popping habits are mostly localized to my nose, I opted to watch “Extracting Filaments on the Nose” as my first foray into the online popping world. Clicking onto the video nervously, I felt as shy as if I was watching pornography for the first time. And judging from my involuntary gasps of pleasure when the patient’s sebum shot its way out of the pore and curled lovingly on Enilsa’s firmly pressing Q-tip, a listener outside my closed bedroom door might have thought I was.

As stringent social distancing measures convert more real-life events into digital alternatives, I often feel pangs of loss when human interactions do not transition smoothly to Zoom calls or FaceTimes. Dance parties, late night conversations, and college courses — my sophomore year at Williams College will be completed remotely — conducted over the internet will naturally not feel the same as their in-person counterparts. But in discovering virtual alternatives to harmful real-life behaviors during this pandemic, I unlocked a reprieve from my compulsion I did not know could exist. Though Enilsa had to cease her operations due to the virus, I’ve busied myself watching her previous uploads hungrily, intaking breaths at the satisfying pops. I recently watched my favorite video, “Christmas Compilation of Nose Extraction,” which sets several particularly satisfying pops to the “Waltz of the Flowers” from The Nutcracker, in the wee hours of the morning while my computer was on perilously low battery. When Enilsa was swabbing the patient’s nose with gauze, and the battery finally died, I found myself staring at my reflection in the black mirror of my computer screen: a weirdo watching acne clinic videos at three in the morning, sure, but a weirdo with clearer skin.

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