As a beauty editor, I attend multiple industry events per week, including founder Q&As, dermatologist debunking sessions, celebrity hairstylist hot takes, and new product launches. Just yesterday, I was on a Zoom call watching a skin-care founder apply the brand's latest formulas onto her face. I sat there glued to the screen as she rubbed a cleansing oil over her eyes, magically bringing all her mascara and eyeliner to the surface until it was gone. I couldn't look away.
The journey of her face going from makeup-ready to bare was just so satisfying and fulfiling to me. My feelings of awe are in many ways similar to those of "popaholics," a term coined by dermatologist Sandra Lee, MD, aka Dr. Pimple Popper, when watching extraction videos, which are where a licenced aesthetician or dermatologist get rid of clogged pores on the face or body with either a special tool or their fingers.
When watching one of these clips, you'll see experts extract cysts, pimples, blackheads, whiteheads, and so much more. Because these gooey videos tend to fall under a category called "gross-out," you either love them or can't stop watching — but the number of people in the latter hits the millions.
While pimple-popping videos are not a new phenomenon — Dr. Pimple Popper's TLC show of the same name first aired in 2018 — after a year of stress and uncertainty, they have definitely seen a greater resurgence online these last few months. It left us wondering: what is the psychology behind these oddly satisfying videos, and why are they serving as a form of escape from reality for so many people right now?
The Appeal of Extraction Videos
In some cases, picking at your skin can release dopamine, the feel-good hormone. When people watch extraction videos of other people's skin, it brings a cathartic rush of satisfaction. "People are fascinated by other people's distress or difficulties, and as gross as pimple popping is, they get a dopamine rush every time they see the intensity of someone else's problems," said Roseann Capanna-Hodge, psychologist and integrative mental health expert. "Watching pimple-popping videos can stimulate a range of emotions and sensations in people, including arousal, love of the grotesque, disgust, shame, and voyeurism. It's sort of like watching a runaway train; you can't peel your eyes away from the drama because it is a rush of dopamine."
That said, because popping and picking at the skin is so often discouraged by the medical industry (the most common reason being potential for acne scars), some people feel guilty when they pop their own at home. Yet watching someone else do it can help them feel better as they see someone taking action against their acne, said Amy Morin, LCSW and psychotherapist. It's this sense of community, visually seeing you are not the only human dealing with acne, that can make you feel more comfortable in your own skin and, ultimately, empowered. Not to mention, watching someone else pop pimples knowing there will be no ramifications for your own skin can add to the pleasure experienced while watching.
Other viewers tune in because they have a higher threshold for oozy content and they experience a sort of "morbid curiosity" while watching. "Circumstances that elicit emotion like disgust vary from person to person," Morin said. "Someone might feel slightly disgusted and mostly curious, while someone else viewing the same image may feel incredibly disgusted and not curious at all. Our brains all react a little differently based on our life experiences and personalities." For some, watching pimple-popping videos may gross them out, but the push of boundaries on their negative reactions keeps their attention.
The Popularity of Pimple-Popping Videos Amid the Pandemic
With everyone forced inside during stay-home orders for months at a time in the last year, it goes without saying that people picked up an array of hobbies to stay entertained. This, it seems, was merely one of them. According to Dr. Capanna-Hodge, "Sheer boredom and a lack of stimulation during the pandemic is driving people to watch 'gross' and 'dramatic' reality television," like pimple popping.
On the other hand, watching videos of people popping pimples may provide some with a sense of relief and control in a pandemic world where there has been very little of that. "They see someone gaining a sense of control over something they couldn't control in the first place, like having acne," Morin said. "They may view the person as gaining a sense of relief as they rid themselves of something unwanted."
Now, with access to vaccinations and the world slowly emerging back to "normal," will the urge to watch extraction videos remain postpandemic? Our guess? If Dr. Pimple Popper's 4.3 million Instagram followers are any indication, yes. Dr. Capanna-Hodge predicts that as more people move away from outdoor activities and cling to their devices and binge shows, reality television shows that have high drama, are grotesque, or have any level of intensity will continue to trend as people aren't getting the dopamine hit from their own lives.
And for those who are easily grossed out by extraction videos, Morin points out that people may become desensitized to the content and find it less offencive with more exposure. As with most things, only time will tell.