Zit-Popping: The Love That Dare Not Speak Its Name

I can’t tell if my zit-poppin’ passion is biological or psychological or what -- or if it’s something I should be ashamed about.
Publish date:
October 24, 2012
gross, love, zit popping

I love popping zits. There, I said it.

Don't worry: I'm not into your zits, unless you're me or my husband, who asked me to keep him out of this article because "gross." He’s right, of course: Zits are gross. But I still love popping them.

Picking my favorite kind of zit, if you'll pardon the pun, is like picking amongst my children.

There's the upper-arm perma-goosebumps, yielding with a barely audible "snap." Then the clogged pores on the nose, giving up under the slightest pressure. Or the nostril-base whitehead, sudden yet predictable in the hour of its coming. Even Amorphous Painful Red Thing, that much-maligned premenstrual lurker, has its charms: with a hot compress and some patience, the endgame usually appears.

If pressed, I guess I'd have to pick a well-aged blackhead for the win. How could you not: one gentle squeeze for the clog, one more for the innards, no swelling, no inflammation, no blood, and just a nice clean pore at the end.

Would that every unpleasantness under your skin were so easy -- or fun -- to extract.

Popping zits is bad, bad, bad. I could have called my dermatologist to get a quote about why, but I suspect you all know. It makes zits worse. It causes scarring. It pushes the nastiness deeper into your skin. It is also mortifying to talk about, even for the extroverted among us. Few sinful behaviors remain unbaptized by the waters of our no-longer-quite-so-Puritan culture, but this is one of them.

So why is it so goddamn satisfying?

"I am obsessed with zit popping," wrote one friend of mine, a 27-year-old childcare professional, in response to my not-at-all-awkward Gmail solicitation for commentary.

Another friend, a consummate WASP, replied, "I am at times one to succumb to the temptation of 'dealing with' my own blemishes.”

"Loooove popping zits," wrote a third, a friend of a friend, after someone forwarded my message to her. “Well not zits really, but I love clearing out white/blackheads.” Oh, honey, that’s like saying you’re not into candy because you only eat chocolate bars.

She was the first woman brave enough to address the second question I asked in my GBlast: “Have you ever popped -- or been tempted to pop -- a romantic partner’s zits?” This is something I am curious about because Hugo Schwyzer and Anna Holmes have written about it as a social phenomenon and not for any personal reason whatsoever I swear.

“I routinely clear out John’s pores, and he doesn’t flinch about it anymore,” she wrote, referring to her husband.

Forwarding this response back to me, our mutual friend chimed in: “In high school, I sometimes popped my boyfriend’s backne…once while he was asleep.”

These two responses were a relief to me, but here’s one that came as a surprise: a story of platonic friends popping each other’s zits. My personal boundary of disgust falls somewhere south of the image of my girlfriends’ sebum splatting onto my thumbnails. Apparently, however, other women are okay with that.

Witness the continued testimony of my WASP friend, who went to my high school:

“There was a room in the back corner of the library, which was an excellent place for studying, gossiping and apparently, group zit-popping sessions. I was truly disgusted on one occasion to observe three friends assisting each other in the act of zit-popping (this included an upper-thigh cyst, uggh, just writing about this is difficult).”

If that image makes your inner Darwin alarm go off, I’m way ahead of you. Of course! Zit popping is fun because we’re apes and we love social grooming with the other members of our tribe. It is like trust-building exercises at summer camp, only with more pus.

To see if my Darwinian epiphany was correct, I emailed my unflappable friend Dr. Ogi Ogas, a neuroscientist, bestselling author, and former “Who Wants to be a Millionaire” contestant.

“This is exactly what it is,” he replied. “Like all primates, we are still wired for grooming. This is a powerful, deep-rooted instinct. Grooming consists of carefully examining one another's skin and fur for parasites -- and removing them. We are truly wired to enjoy popping zits -- to finding a blemish or bump on our skin and squeezing it, digging it out, or even -- yikes -- biting it.”

I asked him if females enjoyed social grooming more than men, since by my observation, zit-popping was mostly a women’s passion. “Female primates groom (one another) more than males,” he wrote back, “but that would be as far as my knowledge goes!”

Ogi’s insight explained the zit-popping sisterhood (cysterhood?) that was apparently a thing at my high school. But for some reason, after I read it, I was nagged by a sensation of there being more to the story, much the same way I am nagged when I have popped a zit but there are clearly more poppables lurking in the deep.

Yes, zit-popping can induce the same bonding sensation you get during a good backrub or pillow talk. (This feeling is created by the neurochemical oxytocin.) But those of you who love to pop will know that there’s something else that happens in your brain when you get a really good one on the line. You feel so alert, so focused. So ALIVE. Hello, dopamine. Hello, addiction.

One needs only watch a few zit-popping videos on YouTube to understand the excitement -- the bloodlust -- millions of people bring to this activity. Ever since I was introduced to this cinematic genre by “The Taxonomy of Zits,” an epic 2011 Jezebel piece by Tracie Egan Morrissey, I have been fascinated by these.

One example: “The Best Pimple Pop Ever,” a short film that has enjoyed 6.7 million views in the year since its release. Thousands of people still comment on the video every day, including “theuncanspan,” who recently had this to say: “YEA! POP THAT BITCH.”

I’m no evolutionary biologist, but that sounds rather aggressive for mere social grooming.

Hoping for more insight, I reached out to another neuroscientist friend, a respected fellow at a world-famous foreign university. (I’m not going to tell you which one, because he does not want to be remotely identifiable.)

My friend told me he knew of no research to back up the idea that there was anything innately pleasurable about zit popping.

But then he added, “There are some recognized compulsive disorders which might have parallels. One is trichotillomania, which is basically a compulsive pulling-out of hairs. The act of pulling out is described as pleasurable or providing some sort of relief. ...It seems that the difference to zit-popping would be that the latter is usually under better control.”

Sometimes, of course, the impulse is not under control. I’ve known women who compulsively pick at their faces long after the white head is gone and the blood has started to flow. I’ve read about people who go after themselves with tweezers and knives when fingers won’t do.

Perhaps our neuroses run deeper than we think.

“Zit picking is a physical manifestation of the nit picking inside my head," another friend wrote from her NGO job in the Third World. "And there is something deeply satisfying about the term ‘extracting.’ What is that? Extracting is just another word for detoxing, purging, shedding, sloughing."

“There is a lot of satisfaction through the act of purging -- it allows you to wrap your arms around the thing inside you that is bothering you, and then toss it away.”

It’s a compelling explanation. But then again, so is my anonymous neuroscientist friend’s. So is Ogi’s. I can’t tell if my zit-poppin’ passion is biological or psychological or what -- or if it’s something I should be ashamed about.

Science! Why haven’t you figured this out yet?

Tell me: Why do YOU think humanity yearns to pop its zits? Or does the very question strike you as bizarre? Such was the case for at least one of the friends I emailed. She wrote this in reply: “I have never understood the appeal of popping zits because that hurts like a motherfucker BUT if you ever write an article about the borderline-erotic pleasure of peeling off strips of sunburn skin, I’ll be there.”

Then, after a pause, there was one more note: “Oh good I’m really glad I clicked ‘reply all.’ Hi, people I’ve never met. Sorry I’m a monster.”