Is Our Pimple Extraction Obsession A Good Thing?


Or is it ruining our skin?

Unpopular opinion: Extractions—when an aesthetician takes a tool, or uses their fingers, to prod at your pores—are the worst part of getting a facial. Its purpose is to release the debris, bacteria, and oil that’s clogging your skin, and its target is whiteheads, blackheads, and blemishes with pus. (Cysts should never be an extraction target.) When extractions are done properly, you'll experience a mild discomfort; when done improperly, soreness will ensue. And for those who think that beauty is pain, extractions hold a real allure, since the discomfort involved is assumed to elevate you to Beyoncé levels of stunning. Which is why, lately, people have been as obsessed with extractions as they are with Queen Bey herself. Meaning, very.

If there's one person out there who's responsible for the recent uptick in extraction obsession, we'd have to say that it's dermatologist Sandra Lee, aka Dr. Pimple Popper. Lee is the skin-care professional who’s racked up over 2.7 million followers on Instagram and a loyal fandom of people who enjoy seeing blackheads, pus, and comedones (and more—so, so much more) picked out of patients' skin. It’s definitely a very specific visual fetish, but it's theorized to incite “euphoria” and “excitement” in those people who just love to see a pimple popped. And there's little doubt that the recent extraction craze is partly driven by the visuals—which isn't a new thing. 

“It used to be Bioré strips, and now it’s gotten to the next level,” Kristyn Smith, a medical aesthetician and co-founder of Smith & Brit, says, referencing the best part of slapping on a Bioré strip: seeing the gunk that ends up stuck to it. People love it because they want to witness, or at least feel like they're witnessing, tangible results. It’s the same reason people are so drawn to products that tingle when applied (though this isn’t always a good thing): instant gratification. Smith says people’s love for extractions runs so deep, she’s had patients get upset because she doesn’t perform enough of them.

“It’s important to remember that I only have so much time to work with and sometimes I see other issues besides extractions,” she explains. But, she’s also not going to force something out of a patient’s skin that may not be ready, because that can lead to other issues. “Your skin is an organ, you have to treat it with respect.”

Smith recalls a time in the ‘90s when a chain of spas called Face Place opened in California with a focus on extractions. “They would take everything out of your skin, but, with time and education, people realized that, in the long run, you can get things like broken capillaries and excess inflammation,” she says. “You can get left with scars, you can get left with pigmentation, you can get left with a worse breakout. The worst thing is to have your skin be damaged.” 

Although damaged skin is a worst-case scenario, it’s also a pretty common one, which is why some places are wary of performing extractions at all. Ask anyone in the U.S., and they’ll likely stand by extractions until their legs give out, but the fascination isn’t nearly as extreme elsewhere. Smith worked with Asian skin-care powerhouse brand Shiseido for a while and says extractions weren’t part of the facial process. “We were really about rehydrating the skin, and we weren't big on aggressive exfoliation, either,” she says. “We were really big on healing and repairing tissue.” She said a big reason for this may be because Asian skin is more delicate and sensitive, “so they’re a little bit more reserved about 'injuring' the skin.” But it can also be chalked up to the specific desire of the American consumer. “I do think the extraction craze is more of an American thing than anything,” she says. “We're the ultimate consumer, we want everything perfect.”

Spas like Paul Labrecque in New York City, that have adopted a more European approach to beauty, also don't love doing extractions. Aesthetician Micheline Reboh says that she’ll perform them, but only when she deems it absolutely necessary. The overall philosophy, though, is that the products used during treatments are supposed to do the work of exfoliating and toning and purifying for you. It’s preventative, to stop your skin from ever getting to a point where you need to have extractions done. 

Whether or not the process is good for you has always been up for debate. And you’ll get a different answer depending on who you ask. Celebrity aesthetician Graceanne Svendsen at RealSelf contributor Dr. David Shafer's practice doesn’t think it’s a black and white issue. She’s pro-extractions but also recognizes the importance of finding someone who knows what they’re doing and who will take the time to get to know your skin. “I think it’s the same as injectables, it all depends on the shooter,” she says. “It's not a simple one-size-fits-all, it needs to be customized to the patient's desires and the patient's skin condition. It also needs to be done by an experienced professional, someone who's willing to prep the skin properly and understands what different lesions are, who uses the right tools and the right sanitation method.”

And if you wouldn’t categorize yourself as an “experienced professional,” you shouldn’t play doctor on your skin, either. All of the skin-care professionals I spoke to advise against doing extractions at home. It can be tempting, given the number of tools readily available, but many DIYers don’t take the proper precautions, Smith has noticed. “There’s this whole process that’s usually skipped when we’re in front of the mirror late at night, picking at our faces,” she says. “People don’t prep the skin before or properly sanitize or use an antibacterial product afterward.” These are all necessary steps in the extraction process. Sure, you can try to do them yourself, but your skin might end up worse than before, so proceed with caution. 

If you absolutely must—like, job-interview-the-next-day must—extract something like a pimple, Smith recommends taking two Q-Tips and applying pressure to the blemish after having sanitized the area. “That's a good way to extract it without injuring the skin,” Smith recommends. “Because cotton can't injure the skin and you can't apply enough pressure with a Q-Tip to actually break the skin.” If you can hold off, though, she recommends using a spot treatment in lieu of breaking the skin. Her favorites are Indie Lee’s Blemish Lotion and Environ’s Sebuspot

But when in doubt, leave the dirty work to the experts. 

Nail polish is for novices

Fashion label The Blonds is known for its high-intensity looks that you'd only wear if you wanted to stand out (and who doesn't?). For its runway shows, wild press-on nails are the beauty step that can't be missed. So, since the brand has partnered with CND since it was founded, we thought it best to get prepped for the show with Jan Arnold, CND's co-founder.

See why you should take your nail look from a zero to a 10, in the video above.

Shot by Charlotte Prager
Edited by Gretta Wilson
Produced by Alexandra Hsie
Production Assistant: Polina Buchak
Featuring Jan Arnold of CND Nails and The Blonds



Photo courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures.

It would've been nice if someone said the word "fat"

Back in November, Rebel Wilson claimed to be the first plus-sized lead in a romantic comedy when she appeared on Ellen to talk about her role in Isn't It Romantic. Wilson was not only wrong, but she was—even if inadvertently—erasing the work of Black plus-size actresses like Queen Latifah and Mo'Nique, both of whom have expansive resumes that include romantic comedies.

Wilson's comment isn't the first example of white women taking up a little too much space in the fat acceptance ethos. It's actually quite common. But there is a reason why women like Wilson—women who are blonde, pretty, successful, and white—get put front and center in calls for body positivity. In the same way that feminism—the movement from which body positivity was born—has often failed to address how gender intersects with other identities like race and class; so, too, has body positivity been championed as a cause for otherwise privileged women. And that's why it's no surprise that Isn't It Romantic, which aspires to be both a spot-on mockery of rom-coms and a celebration of body positivity, is actually a perfect example of how very white both the movie genre and the body positivity movement tend to be.

In the film, Wilson plays Natalie, an architect based in New York, who is single and plus-sized—the archetypal rom-com underdog. Very early on in the movie, she endures the double humiliation of both being hit by a runaway food cart and then accosted by its owner for not stopping it with her "cement truck"-like body. At work, Natalie is similarly disrespected: The office manager hands off troubleshooting tasks to Natalie; another colleague always tasks Natalie to throw out his trash; her assistant Whitney (Betty Gilpin) won't stop watching movies (rom-coms, naturally) while in the office; and Natalie is so afraid to present her ideas for more innovative parking garage designs that she isn't even widely known in the firm as an architect, and is treated like an intern.

But is Natalie just a doormat? Or is it that she isn't asking for what she wants? And isn't very nice about not getting it? If Natalie's life is any example, the bar on suffering is set pretty low for white women. In her personal life, Natalie lives alone with her dog, and seems to be pretty well-off, financially; her best friend is actually her slacker assistant, Whitney, and she's close with another coworker, Josh (Adam Devine), who gives Natalie constant emotional support. She's decidedly anti-romantic, having been told by her mother from a young age that there's no such thing as real-life fairy tales; she's level-headed and practical. But also, she's filled with self-loathing. This leads her to be crass, sarcastic, and disconnected from people. And it was this last part that was hard for me. As a fat Black woman who grew up broke, does not have an assistant, and would get fired if I didn't do my job well, it was hard, if not impossible, to root for her.

For Natalie, though, everything changes when she bangs her head while fighting off a mugger. Her mundane life is tinted through rosy rom-com glasses. Suddenly, all the things that sucked about her life are gone, and everything is beautiful and perfect. But was her life so bad before? It didn't really seem to be.

And yet, looking around the theater at the mostly white, female audience, I accepted that my feelings didn't seem to be shared. But that almost seems to be by design; this feels like a movie for a white, female audience. There is only one person of color in the movie who even has a name: It's Isabelle (Priyanka Chopra), who shows up about halfway through the film—after everything has been rom-com filtered—as a yoga ambassador and swimsuit model. But a name is all Isabella has. A supporting character at best, she doesn't have any connection to anyone other than her white boyfriend, and is sketchily drawn. We learn nothing of her familial or ethnic background, and, even when she is shown at her wedding, there is nobody from her family celebrating with her. This huge oversight is particularly bizarre, given that Natalie has already bemoaned the lack of diversity in romantic films.

Another huge oversight? The presence of the word "fat." I don't think I heard it used a single time. Natalie only references her weight indirectly, by commenting on the appearance of straight-sized women; when talking about her own body, the word "fat" is replaced with "girl like me." But by ignoring this aspect of herself, and refusing to address it head-on, Natalie is succumbing to the same fatphobia that shapes her world, whether she identifies it as being a problem or not.

Before her life becomes a rom-com, Natalie feels invisible at work and in the world. Some of this is certainly her fault, but fatphobia is also at play. Fatphobia chips away at the humanity of fat people from different angles. It means that Natalie gets used to being dehumanized; she doesn't expect others to have empathy for her when she's physically hurt, because they don't value her body. And it's no coincidence that Natalie's fantasy world includes a magically bigger apartment with unlimited clothing options, because discrimination against fat people isn't just a matter aesthetics and preferences—it affects everything from our ability to dress ourselves to our ability to make and save money, since there's a price to pay for being fat, even if it's just having to pay more to travel. Just as much as gender and race intersect with fat bodies, so, too, do economics and class.

I knew I could count on a plus-sized white comedian to take down a genre of films that prioritized thin women. But I ventured to see if Wilson could go further than that, and challenge what it means to be white and well-off and fat in the process; it isn't just about taking down rom-coms but about doing so in a way that isn't just a mouthpiece for white feminist values. But, in the end, that isn't what happened. Isn't It Romantic is fine, but it needed to do more than target an audience of girls who are 10 to 30 pounds overweight and still too jolted by the word "fat" to ever apply it to themselves, so they go for acceptable alternatives, like curvy, plus-sized—or thicc, if they're hip. But I'm not afraid to say I'm fat, I'm just disappointed I will be waiting even longer to see a realistic reflection of that experience onscreen.

Isn't It Romantic is in theaters now.