Dr. Sandra Lee, a.k.a. Dr. Pimple Popper, on the Appeal of Blackhead Videos

Dr. Sandra Lee
Dr. Sandra Lee

Confession: The editors of Mental Floss are popaholics. When we need a break from editing, you can often find us watching Dr. Sandra Lee’s videos on YouTube. Lee—otherwise known as Dr. Pimple Popper—has more than 2.5 million subscribers; her channel features everything from soft pops (blackheads) and hard pops (cysts) to Mohs surgery, rhinophyma treatment, and earlobe repairs. In other words, there’s something for everyone. Lee stopped by the Mental Floss offices in late April to talk about developing her new skincare line, choosing videos for her channel, and why people love watching blackheads being popped.

Your channel started with mostly blackheads, and now you post a wide variety of videos, showing many of the different things that dermatologists do. How do you decide what you put on YouTube?

I put up almost everything that I tape. Most days I [film] at least one video but some days I get five, so I probably have about 30 days of content backed up. I try to put one video up every day. Let’s see how long this lasts, because I see all these vlogs dropping off. There was the time when you saw all these other people [posting daily] and you’re like “OK, I can do that, too.” And they’re all dropping off and I’m like, “They’re all leaving. Can I still do this, too?”

It seems like a lot of work.

It is a lot of work, but that’s why we have a team working on it. I have a little bit of a problem letting go because I feel like it’s my responsibility. They're my patients, and I try to keep them private and anonymous. If [the team leaves] something in accidentally, then I’ll feel really bad. But it's harder and harder to [do every video].

Initially, [the stuff on YouTube was] such a small percentage of what I did as a dermatologist. I say did because now, all my surgeries are cysts and lipomas. Before, I would do lipomas once a year, I’d say. Now I’m doing it on the daily. I didn’t really know how to do them that well, and now I’m a freaking expert. Now I know, “OK, they’ve been pushing on this one. This one’s going to be a pain.” That kind of thing.

The [most] highly viewed things are blackheads, which I’m getting less of now because of the fact that all these cysts and lipomas are coming in. The blackheads are usually the older gentlemen and women who don’t even know they have that huge thing on their back, so I recruit my other providers. I’m like, “You better bring me those blackheads you have!”

I try to throw in some of the things that I really do because there’s a lot of people that watch the videos and want to do what I do, and [extracting blackheads and cysts is] not exactly what I do. I guess I’m a surgeon, but that’s not what all dermatologists do. People will go, “Why are you doing this? I go to see my doctor and they won’t do any of this.” Some dermatologists won’t take a mole off on the face because it’s considered more cosmetic, but that’s just my training. That’s my bend, and I do a lot of cosmetics, too: liposuction, laser resurfacing, eye lifts, skin cancer surgery, Botox, and fillers. But I don’t really show that. There are other people [on YouTube] that show that and so sometimes I consider doing that, too. It’s just a different kind of clientele, and they’re more self-conscious.

So, I watch your extraction videos before I go to sleep. Last night I was like, “I need to prepare for this interview, and I also need to relax.”

You were actually doing research.

Yes, I was! But a lot of people find these videos satisfying and relaxing. Why do you think people like these kinds of videos?

I think it’s a strong reaction either way. Usually, people are either really obsessed with it like you are. It captivates you. And then there’s the opposite, people who cannot even stand it.

I really think that people like this because, in general, it makes them happy, for multiple reasons. Either it relaxes you, decreases your anxiety as you feel a sense of completeness. It gets rid of your compulsions. It’s like something is not there anymore that isn’t supposed to be there. It’s this ASMRYou got me addicted to these videos, so now I watch you and several others. And some of these people use needles instead of a comedone extractor to extract blackheads. What’s up with that?

I don’t know for sure, but I do believe it’s because of the different rules [that vary by state]. Aestheticians in some states can’t use a comedone extractor. They can’t use a blade. They don’t have access to numbing. Things like that. So it has to do a lot with rules.

[Some people also believe] the comedone extractor is damaging to the skin. That is B.S., but I’m not even going to start the conversation. People have different techniques, though, [and] these people find those to be superior.

It just seems like using a needle to get out blackheads must be so painful! Speaking of, here’s a fun fact: Back in the day, like in the 1600s and 1700s, people thought that blackheads were little worms in the face.

There are bugs on the face that live with us, you know. The Demodex mite lives on our face. That’s what we believe promotes rosacea. And I don’t think that it’s completely convincing, but there have been multiple studies finding that people with rosacea have more of these mites that live on their face or they react more to them and that’s why they get red, but there’s a lot more people with Celtic descent, so …

That's going to give me nightmares! So, you just started a new skin care line, SLMD. What was the inspiration behind it?

This is something that I’ve always wanted to do, but lots of dermatologists do it. I had ideas on how to do it differently—but also, now that I have this channel, I have all these people asking me about how to take care of their own skin. I know that they trust me, and it’s important for me to maintain that trust, so I’m trying to create things that essentially bridge the gap. This is really for people who can’t see a dermatologist or don’t have the time. Their parents won’t take them. They don’t have insurance for it. These are products that I myself would give to my own patients. In a way, my videos work with this too because I want to teach people why some of these products work and what they work on specifically.

Retinol works specifically on blackheads and whiteheads. It can help to prevent them and help to soften them up to make them more easy to extract, a la the Masked Man. You hear me talking about that with that kind of thing in the videos—we cannot give Tretinoin [in these products] because it’s a prescription, but I have retinol in the Nighttime Clarifying Treatment. It’s good if you get acne hormonally. People can even use this half of the month when they feel like it gets active, but you can use it all the time. In fact, I would use the retinol all the time because it’s anti-aging.

So if you learn and you understand what the reason is [for using a product]—that Benzoyl peroxide works because it’s anti-bacterial, so that’s used if you have more active acne like the red bumps. Or that salicylic acid is great because it can help to prevent blackheads and whiteheads but also helps to lighten brown spots. If you know those things, maybe it motivates you to use it, and also you can even try to change the way you use it. If you feel like it’s too drying, it’s probably the Benzoyl peroxide, and so you’ll leave that off it and won't use that as often.

There are so many products in dermatology that are given for one purpose that can also be used for other skin conditions, and people just don’t know. So this is what we’re trying to bring to people, because I can’t give them a prescription, but if somebody doesn’t know what this rash is on them and they have to see a dermatologist, and they don’t have time and they don’t have the money, they’re fretting. If I can help them to figure out what this is and then actually tell them about something that is over-the-counter to use, then that’s amazing.

So how can people get their hands on this?

It’s all on SLMD Skin Care. And this is just the beginning. An acne line is the first thing that makes sense, but it’s going to hopefully be even bigger.

The basic kit is the SLMD Acne System. It has four products in it. It’s very simple, just three steps: treat, cleanse, and moisturize. There’s a cleanser, which is salicylic acid. It’s not really drying—people can even keep it on their skin. You can literally put it on and leave it on and do other things in your house and then go take a shower and wash it off. And then "treat" is two parts: It’s a Benzoyl Peroxide Acne Lotion, which is the one that can be potentially drying—though most people are oily when they have acne—and then the Nighttime Clarifying Treatment, which has retinol. And then there’s a facial moisturizer, which has some anti-aging vitamin C and antioxidants.

Our other products include daily moisturizer with SPF 15. I do get questions about why it’s not SPF 30, and that’s purposeful. It’s because the higher SPF, the thicker the product. It’s avobenzone, which is a great sunscreen, but it’s not going to give you that whitish look, because [when] we already have acne, we don’t want to blow it up with white powder over it. We also have a Benzoyl peroxide spot treatment and a Pimple Popper Spot Treatment that’s a roller ball, which I really like because it’s salicylic acid—you can roll it across areas that are brown from acne, and it can make those spots go away more quickly.

That’s what we’ve got right now. We’re adding some things to it, too—we have a couple acne products coming up. But there are things in here that you can use even if you don’t have acne. Like I said, the retinol. The salicylic acid—great for brown spots as well. And the sunscreen, certainly.

Yeah. I think any kind of product that has multiple things in it—that can be used for multiple purposes—is really nice.

Especially because 50 percent of people—even though women pay attention to this more, plenty of boys and men get acne, and to make it simple for them, too, is key.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

10 of the Best Indoor and Outdoor Heaters on Amazon

Mr. Heater/Amazon
Mr. Heater/Amazon

With the colder months just around the corner, you might want to start thinking about investing in an indoor or outdoor heater. Indoor heaters not only provide a boost of heat for drafty spaces, but they can also be a money-saver, allowing you to actively control the heat based on the rooms you’re using. Outdoor heaters, meanwhile, can help you take advantage of cold-weather activities like camping or tailgating without having to call it quits because your extremities have gone numb. Check out this list of some of Amazon’s highest-rated indoor and outdoor heaters so you can spend less time shivering this winter and more time enjoying what the season has to offer.

Indoor Heaters

1. Lasko Ceramic Portable Heater; $20

Lasko/Amazon

This 1500-watt heater from Lasko may only be nine inches tall, but it can heat up to 300 square feet of space. With 11 temperature settings and three quiet settings—for high heat, low heat, and fan only—it’s a dynamic powerhouse that’ll keep you toasty all season long.

Buy it: Amazon

2. Alrocket Oscillating Space Heater; $25

Alrocket/Amazon

Alrocket’s oscillating space heater is an excellent addition to any desk or nightstand. Using energy-saving ceramic technology, this heater is made of fire-resistant material, and its special “tip-over” safety feature forces it to turn off if it falls over (making it a reliable choice for homes with kids or pets). It’s extremely quiet, too—at only 45 dB, it’s just a touch louder than a whisper. According to one reviewer, this an ideal option for a “very quiet but powerful” heater.

Buy it: Amazon

3. De’Longhi Oil-Filled Radiator Space Heather; $79

De’Longhi/Amazon

If you prefer a space heater with a more old-fashioned vibe, this radiator heater from De’Longhi gives you 2020 technology with a vintage feel. De’Longhi’s heater automatically turns itself on when the temperatures drops below 44°F, and it will also automatically turn itself off if it starts to overheat. Another smart safety feature? The oil system is permanently sealed, so you won’t have to worry about accidental spills.

Buy it: Amazon

4. Aikoper Ceramic Tower Heater; $70

Aikoper/Amazon

Whether your room needs a little extra warmth or its own heat source, Aikoper’s incredibly precise space heater has got you covered. With a range of 40-95°F, it adjusts by one-degree intervals, giving you the specific level of heat you want. It also has an option for running on an eight-hour timer, ensuring that it will only run when you need it.

Buy it: Amazon

5. Isiler Space Heater; $37

Isiler/Amazon

For a space heater that adds a fun pop of color to any room, check out this yellow unit from Isiler. Made from fire-resistant ceramic, Isiler’s heater can start warming up a space within seconds. It’s positioned on a triangular stand that creates an optimal angle for hot air to start circulating, rendering it so effective that, as one reviewer put it, “This heater needs to say ‘mighty’ in its description.”

Buy it: Amazon

Outdoor Heaters

6. Mr. Heater Portable Buddy; $104

Mr. Heater/Amazon

Make outdoor activities like camping and grilling last longer with Mr. Heater’s indoor/outdoor portable heater. This heater can connect to a propane tank or to a disposable cylinder, allowing you to keep it in one place or take it on the go. With such a versatile range of uses, this heater will—true to its name—become your best buddy when the temperature starts to drop.

Buy it: Amazon

7. Hiland Pyramid Patio Propane Heater; Various

Hiland/Amazon

The cold’s got nothing on this powerful outdoor heater. Hiland’s patio heater has a whopping 40,000 BTU output, which runs for eight to 10 hours on high heat. Simply open the heater’s bottom door to insert a propane tank, power it on, and sit back to let it warm up your backyard. The bright, contained flame from the propane doubles as an outdoor light.

Buy it: Amazon

8. Solo Stove Bonfire Pit; $345

Solo Stove/Amazon

This one is a slight cheat since it’s a bonfire pit and not a traditional outdoor heater, but the Solo Stove has a 4.7-star rating on Amazon for a reason. Everything about this portable fire pit is meticulously crafted to maximize airflow while it's lit, from its double-wall construction to its bottom air vents. These features all work together to help the logs burn more completely while emitting far less smoke than other pits. It’s the best choice for anyone who wants both warmth and ambiance on their patio.

Buy it: Amazon

9. Dr. Infrared Garage Shop Heater; $119

Dr. Infrared/Amazon

You’ll be able to use your garage or basement workshop all season long with this durable heater from Dr. Infrared. It’s unique in that it includes a built-in fan to keep warm air flowing—something that’s especially handy if you need to work without wearing gloves. The fan is overlaid with heat and finger-protectant grills, keeping you safe while it’s powered on.

Buy it: Amazon

10. Mr. Heater 540 Degree Tank Top; $86

Mr. Heater/Amazon

Mr. Heater’s clever propane tank top automatically connects to its fuel source, saving you from having to bring any extra attachments with you on the road. With three heat settings that can get up to 45,000 BTU, the top can rotate 360 degrees to give you the perfect angle of heat you need to stay cozy. According to a reviewer, for a no-fuss outdoor heater, “This baby is super easy to light, comes fully assembled … and man, does it put out the heat.”

Buy it: Amazon

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Meet Ice Cream Scientist Dr. Maya Warren

Maya Warren
Maya Warren

Most people don’t think about the chemistry in their cone when enjoying a scoop of ice cream, but as a professional ice cream scientist, Dr. Maya Warren can’t stop thinking about it. A lot of complex science goes into every pint of ice cream, and it’s her job to share that knowledge with the people who make it—and to use that information to develop some innovative flavors of her own.

Unlike many people’s idea of a typical scientist, Warren isn’t stuck in a lab all day. Her role as senior director for international research and development for Cold Stone Creamery takes her to countries around the world. And after winning the 25th season of The Amazing Race in 2014, she’s now back in front of the camera to host Ice Cream Sundays with Dr. Maya on Instagram. In honor of National Ice Cream Month this July, we spoke with Dr. Warren about her sweet job.

How did you get involved in food science?

I fell in love with science at a really young age. I got Gak as a kid, you know the Nickelodeon stuff? And I remember wanting to make my own Gak. I remember getting a little kit and putting together the glue and all the coloring and whatever else I needed to make it. I also had make-your-own gummy candy sets. So I was always into making things myself.

I didn't really connect that to chemistry until later on in life. When I was in high school, I fell in love with chemistry. I decided at that point I should go to college to become a high school chemistry teacher. One day I was over at my best friend's house in college, and she had the TV on in her apartment. I remember watching the Food Network and there was a show on called Unwrapped, and they go in and show you how food is made on a manufacturing, production scale. In that particular episode, they went into a flavor chemistry lab. It was basically a wall full of vials with clear liquid inside them. They were about to flavor soda to make it taste like different parts of a traditional Thanksgiving meal. So you had green bean casserole-flavored soda, you had turkey and gravy-flavored soda, cranberry sauce soda. And I was like, "Oh my gosh, like how disgusting is this? But how cool is this! I could do this. I'm a chemist."

I love the science of food and how intriguing it is, and I had to ask myself, "Maya, what do you love?" And I was like, "I love ice cream! I’m going to become one of the world’s experts in frozen aerated deserts." I found a professor at UW Madison [where I earned my Ph.D. in food science], Dr. Richard Hartel, and he took me under his wing. Six and half years later, I’ve become an expert in ice cream and all its close cousins.

How did you arrive at your current position?

I didn't actually apply for the job. Six years ago, I was running The Amazing Race, the television show on CBS. After I was on it, a lot of publications reached out wanting to interview me. I did a couple of interviews and someone from Cold Stone found my interview. They noticed that I’m a scientist, and they were looking for someone with my background, so they reached out to me. I was actually writing my dissertation, and I was like, "I'm not looking for a job right now. I just want to go home and sleep."

I originally told myself I wasn't going to work for a year because I was so exhausted after graduate school and I needed some time off. But I ended up going to their office in Scottsdale for an interview. At that time, I still wasn't sure if was going to do it or not because I didn't want to move to Arizona. It's just so incredibly hot. I ended up being able to work something out with them where I didn't have to move Arizona. I came on board back in 2016. I started as a consultant at first because I didn't want to move. But then I proved I could make this work from afar.

What does your job at Cold Stone Creamery entail?

I'm the senior director for international research and development for Cold Stone Creamery. A lot of what I do is establishing dairies and building ice cream mixes for countries all across the globe. Dairy is a very expensive commodity. Milk fat is quite pricey. Cold Stone has locations all over the world, and they all need ice cream mixes. But sometimes bringing that ice cream from the United States into that country is extremely expensive, because of conflicts, because of taxes, different importation laws. A lot of what I do is helping those countries figure out how they can build their own dairies, or how can they work with local dairies to make ice cream mixes more affordable.

The other part of what I do is create new ice cream flavors for these places. I look at a local ingredient and say, "I see people in this country eating a lot of blank. Why don’t we turn that into ice cream? How would people feel about that?" I try to get these places to realize that ice cream is so much more than a scoop. In the States, we have ice cream bars, ice cream floats, ice cream sandwiches. But many countries don’t see ice cream like that. So getting these places to come on board with different ideas and platforms to grow their business is a big part of my job.

Maya Warren

What’s your favorite ice cream flavor you made on the job?

I made a product called honey cornbread and blackberry jam ice cream. Ice cream to me is a blank canvas. You can throw all kinds of paint at it—blue and red and yellow and orange and metallic and glitter and whatever else you want—and it becomes this masterpiece. That's how I look at ice cream.

Ice cream starts out with a white base that's full of milk fat and sugar and nonfat dry milk. It’s plain, it’s simple. For this flavor, I thought, "Why don’t I throw cornbread in ice cream mix?" I put in some honey, because that’s a good sweetener, and a little sea salt, because salt elevates taste, especially in sweeter desserts. And why don’t I use blackberry jam? When you’re eating it, you feel the gritty texture of cornbread, which is quite interesting. You get that pop of the berry flavor. There’s a complexity to the flavors, which is what I enjoy about what you can do with ice cream.

What is the most rewarding part of your job?

One of the most rewarding things is being able to produce a product and see people eat it. The other part of it is being able to have a hand in helping people in different countries get on their feet. Ice cream isn’t a luxury for many people in America, but there are people in other countries that would look at it that way. Being able to introduce ice cream to these countries is fascinating to me. And being able to provide job opportunities for people, that sincerely touches my heart.

The last part is the fact that when I tell people I’m an ice cream scientist, it doesn’t matter how old the person is, they can’t believe it. I’m like, "I know, could you imagine doing what you love every day?" And that’s what I do. I love ice cream.

What are some misconceptions about being an ice cream scientist?

When I tell people what I do, they automatically think I just put flavors in ice cream. They don’t know that there’s a whole other part of it before you get to adding flavor. They don't think about the balancing of a mix, the chemistry that goes into ice cream, the microbiology part that goes into ice cream, the flavor science that goes into ice cream. There’s so much hardcore science that goes into being an ice cream scientist. Ice cream, believe it or not, is one of the most complex foods known to man (and woman). It is a solid, it’s a gas, and it’s also a liquid all in one. So the solid phase comes in via the ice crystals and partially coalesced fat globules. The gas phase comes in via the air cells. Ice cream usually ranges from 27 to 30 percent overrun, which is the measurement of aeration in ice cream. You also have your liquid phase. There’s a semi-liquid to component to ice cream that we don’t see, but there’s a little bit of liquid in there.

People don’t think about ice crystals and air cells when they think about ice cream. They really don’t think partially coalesced fat globules. But it’s really fun to connect the science of ice cream to the common knowledge people have about this product they eat so much.

If you weren't doing this, what would you be doing?

If I wasn’t an ice cream scientist, I think that I would have been a motivational speaker. When I was a kid, my parents would send me to camp, and I remember having a lot of motivational speakers that would come in and talk to us. I always wanted to do that as a kid. So it’s either between that or a sport medicine doctor, because that was the track I was on in college. So if I didn’t figure out food science, I probably would have gone back to sports medicine. But I’m glad I didn’t go down that path, because I think I have one of the coolest and sweetest jobs—pun intended—that exists on planet Earth.

You’ve been hosting Ice Cream Sundays on Instagram Live since May. What inspired this?

At the beginning of quarantine, I was like, "What am I going to do? I can't travel anywhere. What am I going to do with all this extra time?" I was on Instagram, and I started seeing people at the very beginning of this make all this bread. And I was like, "I need to start talking about ice cream more. Ice cream can’t be left out of this conversation."

I started making ice cream and posting here and there, and people would ask me about it, and I would ask them, "Do you have an ice cream maker?" I put a poll up and 70, 80 percent of people who replied did not have ice cream makers. So I was like, "How am I going to make people happy with ice cream if all I do is show photos and they can’t make it?" Then I decided to make a no-churn ice cream. That’s not how you make it in the industry, but it’s how you make it at home if you don’t have an ice cream machine. I think it was around May 3, I decided I was going to do an Instagram Live. I’m going to call it Ice Cream Sundays with Dr. Maya, and I’ll just see where it goes from there.

I did one, and from the beginning, people were so in love with it. Then I thought, "Whoa, I guess I should continue doing this." I’ve made a calendar. People really attend. People make the ice cream. People watch me on Live. I’ve always wanted to have a television show on ice cream. I figured, if I can’t do a show on ice cream right now on a major network, I might as well start a show on Instagram.

What advice do you give to young people interested in becoming ice cream scientists?

My advice is: If you want to do it, do it. Don’t forget to work hard, but have fun along the way. And if ice cream isn’t necessarily the realm for you, make sure whatever you do makes your heart flutter. My heart flutters when I think about ice cream. I am so intrigued with it. So if you find something that makes your heart flutter, no one can ever take away your desire for it. If it is ice cream, we can get down and dirty with it. I can tell them about the science behind it, the biology, the microbiology that goes into ice cream itself. But I just encourage people to follow their heart and have fun with whatever they do.

What’s your favorite ice cream flavor?

If we’re talking just general flavors, I love a good cookies and cream. I’m an Oreo fan. I also make a double butter candy pecan that is my absolute jam.