Sandra Lee was practically preprogrammed to get into the skin-care business. With a live-in dermatologist in her dad, Dr. Lee grew up with a rare understanding of her atopic dermatitis — a skin condition that manifests as dry, itchy rashes — and access to prescription lotions and treatments.
“When you’re a teenager and you become more conscious about your presentation to the world, I stopped wearing shorts and skirts because I had these scars all over my legs,” she told POPSUGAR. “I tried a few different things, and finally, something worked, and that's the first time I realized that I was responsible for my own treatment. Nobody can pin me down and put moisturizer on me. I realized that I had the control to keep my skin in order.”
That moment only cemented her fate in skin care as a career path. Now, it’s hard to imagine a world in which Dr. Pimple Popper and YouTube didn’t coexist. What you might not know, though, is that they almost didn’t.
“The first time I thought about giving up is when I didn't get into dermatology after graduating from med school,” she said. “You know Match Day in medicine, where everybody around the world opens up an envelope and finds out where they're going? I didn’t have an envelope. I was one of three or four people in my class who didn’t get one, and everybody knows about it when that happens, so it was devastating. Everybody is waiting for this moment, celebrating with Champagne, asking, ‘where are you going?’ and you have nothing. You don't know where you're going. You don't know what you're doing. You have no job. It’s scary.”
Of course, she persevered, and instead lived in Pittsburgh for a year, doing an internship in a hospital until she could reapply for her dermatology residency. When she did, she got matched with a “wonderful and supportive program” in “this middle of nowhere town” in Illinois. Dr. Lee had a year off before getting to work — living in NYC and working as a bartender for a Greek restaurant.“That in-between period, that really challenged me,” she said. “It made me reevaluate and realize how much I wanted this. I had to fight for it, and I think that’s made me a better doctor and dermatologist because I appreciate where I am now and how far I’ve come.”
More than 14 years later, in between working at her private practice with her husband in Upland, CA, Dr. Lee stumbled upon an insatiable market of pimple popping enthusiasts hiding in the depths of the internet.
“I didn’t know how huge the community was in the beginning. I originally uploaded an extraction clip to Instagram and put hashtags like #blackheads and #pimples, just to see the reaction. It was huge. So I decided to post the full video on YouTube. I realized I had to use a fake name there, so I came up with Dr. Pimple Popper. When I went to tag it, all of a sudden these other videos popped up. Then somebody mentioned in the comments, ‘You might want to check out Reddit.’”
There, she discovered a world of 30,000 underground pimple-popping fans — a community she lovingly calls “Popaholics” — that thrilled at every link she’d drop to her latest excavation clips. Dr. Lee had built a steady fanbase that was relatively low-key . . . until BuzzFeed released a reaction video to her pimple popping in early 2015 — and just like that, everything changed.
“That's when it went crazy,” she said. “I couldn’t even get on my phone, because I had my notifications on, and people were joining and liking my videos. I got tens of thousands of followers in just a few hours. That was pretty cool.”
From there, “I just kept doing it and building it and building it. Now, here we are — this is what happened. I mean, what the frick? What is going on?”
By “this,” we can only imagine Dr. Lee means her pimple-popping empire. Beyond the explosive, can’t-look-away nature of her excavation videos, her uncanny ability to capture the humanity behind each person sitting in her patient chair has garnered national attention. Soon, she landed a hit series called Dr. Pimple Popper on TLC and created her own product line called SLMD Skincare. And yet, that was somehow only the beginning.
“I keep pinching myself,” she said. “When I was on Jimmy Kimmel, that was insane. When I got a TV show, that was insane. When I got to attend, let alone won a Critics' Choice Award, that was insane. Honestly, when I extracted the biggest, longest blackhead I've ever seen and I could probably be in The Guinness Book of World Records because of it, that was insane.”
Most importantly, Dr. Lee gets to do what she loves — which, beyond actually popping the pimples, is bringing other people joy.
“It’s so cool that I’ve gotten to watch something I do grow because of how it’s made people feel,” she said. “Whether they hate it or they love it, people feel for my patients and their stories. It’s something that's so not in the mainstream but yet can make people so happy. How lucky is that?”