Popping off | Pocketmags.com

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Popping off

With social media becoming a hotspot for pimple-popping videos, Lollie Hancock finds out more about the world of beauty ASMR and how beauty professionals are building brands through alternative content

Every night, I find myself scrolling through my “For You” page (FYP) on TikTok until the algorithm gives me a sign to close the app and shut my eyes in favour of sleep – that sign normally shows itself through a 30-second clip of an ingrown hair being extracted, or the satisfying pop of a whitehead, which always seem to appear just as my eyes begin to feel heavy.

The first reaction when feeling like this should be “phone off, alarm on”, but, for some reason, I, like many others, find myself scrolling endlessly through these accounts as I convince myself to watch “just one more”, almost unable to look away.

I’m not alone in this obsession, as these beauty ASMR (autonomous sensory meridian response) videos, which when described to those who have never experienced them can often be met with disgust and looks of horror, are amassing millions of views, likes and comments from users sharing how satisfying they find the clips, or complaining about poor angles and incomplete extracts. But what is it about the content subcategory that gets users so riled up?

In the beginning

The popularity of this content can’t be spoken about without mention of the woman who kickstarted the global phenomenon: Dr Sandra Lee, or, as she’s better known to her almost five million Instagram followers and fans of her hit TLC show, Dr Pimple Popper.

Telling us about her success, Dr Lee shares, “The social media phenomenon was one of those ‘happy accidents’, in my case. One day in late 2014, I just decided to post a blackhead extraction video on Instagram, and it got a lot of attention. I recognised that this could be something, so I decided to do it again... and again, and it grew from there!”

Dr Lee’s lucky break has led to millions of similar posts and over 20.1bn views on TikTok videos tagged with #pimplepopping, as she paved the way for this new wave of beauty content, and for content creators like Sarah Maxwell.

Maxwell, founder of Alberta-based Max & Well Skincare in Canada, began posting ASMR facials to Instagram and TikTok in 2022, and has already hit almost a quarter of a million followers on the latter. ASMR content stimulates the senses through audio or visuals, leading to relaxation and, for some, even a tingling sensation as they consume the content.

For Maxwell, the idea to begin sharing content came from an appointment. “I had a client once tell me that she loved the little noises during a facial. Whether it be a bottle opening, the Velcro clasping from a headband, or the sound of cleanser bubbling on the skin, she found it very satisfying,” she explains.

“This was at a time where ASMR eating videos were taking the TikTok world by storm, and I thought it might be cool to film an ASMR-style facial… I’ve been doing it ever since!”

Capturing content

As the content developed and their followings grew, both Dr Lee and Maxwell made changes to the ways they capture their content, investing in the right equipment and, in Dr Lee’s case, a dedicated team.

“I remember my initial filming set up was so awful,” says Maxwell. “I had a cardboard box, a chair and a bendable tripod arm that I would carefully put together and pray it all stayed up as I filmed. I’ve come a long way since then and now have proper filming equipment.”

For those who can’t commit to investing in equipment, Dr Lee says a fancy camera, tripod and lighting doesn’t automatically equal millions of views, and that you don’t need to put aside time from other treatments specifically for filming content. “All you really need to create content is a smartphone and some knowledge about simple video editing,” she adds.

Making opportunities

“I didn’t have to search for patients or cases because they were just people I would see in the office, usually for other dermatology-related skin concerns, and I’d notice they had something to ‘pop’. I would offer to extract (and film with permission), and my patients were happy to have the skin issue handled as an additional add-on to their appointment.”

One of the hardest things to get right when sharing content and growing a social media following is ensuring you have the time and capacity to commit to posting. Maxwell knows that balancing creating content with a full-time job can be difficult, admitting that “it can be exhausting and often my entire lunch breaks and such are spent filming and editing so that I can consistently post content.

“I find that I have had to cut Netflix, mindless scrolling, and other less productive hobbies to fit everything into my day. This way, once my workday is over and my filming and editing is done, I can completely unwind and get to bed early – I find doing this has been the best way to stay productive while still having my sanity.”

Despite thousands now sharing DIY and at-home attempts, Dr Lee and Maxwell both focus on an education-first approach and encourage anyone in need of an extraction to seek professional help.

“There are a lot of copycats out there now, but I think it’s important to remind people I’m a board-certified dermatologist – medical dermatology, cosmetic, surgical and laser dermatology as well,” says Lee. “It is important the content remains entertaining but most importantly, educational.”

Maxwell tries to be mindful not to encourage at-home extractions, adding, “Whenever I share pimple-popping videos, I try to add a disclaimer encouraging the viewer to not extract their skin at home. That being said, people in the comments will often say that they are frequent pickers at home. Unfortunately, I think skin picking is such a hard habit to kick and is usually psychological.

“This is one reason why I refrain from sharing very many extractions videos, as I don’t want to feed into anything that isn’t positively serving my audience.”

Beyond social media

The power of social media is no secret, and Dr Lee’s success is a testament to the support and stardom that can grow from creating an online community, with a pimple-popping video ultimately leading to a follower count in the millions, nine seasons of her own TLC show, and her own acne-focused skincare line.

Reflecting on her success, Dr Lee says, “Those initial extraction videos have led to a book, speaking engagements, an active online community and Dr Pimple Popper merchandise. Plus, SLMD Skincare which is my medical dermatology skincare line.

“I founded the brand because I wanted to democratise dermatology, and make high-quality, effective skincare available to everyone. Think of it as bridging the gap from the drugstore aisle and the derm’s office!

Professional opinion

“We really focus on providing information and education about what skin conditions someone may have and providing products that work, using ingredients we as dermatologists recommend to our own patients, to really give people control over their own skin conditions, especially providing treatment options for people who aren’t able to see a dermatologist.” For Maxwell, while she is unable to monetise her content through TikTok, her following as a result of her in-depth facial videos has led to other opportunities.

“Because I am a Canadian content creator, we don’t have access to TikTok’s creator fund, so unfortunately, we can’t monetise videos based on views and likes,” she says. “I do, however, take part in brand deals, which are a great way to work with brands I love and monetise my content.”

This article appears in April 2024

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