A few weeks ago, I was in bed with my boyfriend in Palm Springs, acting like a weird, emotional brat after our sweet time together in the pool, but not providing any explanation as to why. As we air-dried via AC, I reached for his body to rest against mine — an indication of my love for him despite my mood. That’s when I saw it: A somewhat large, extremely defined blackhead at the center of his back. We’d never talked about picking at one another’s skin before, but the next thing I knew, I was smiling ear-to-ear as the corners of my acrylic nails applied pressure to the base of his clogged pore.
My euphoria peaked the moment a thick burst of oxidized sebum (aka pus) erupted through its top. My boyfriend, on the other hand, winced in pain. “That was so close to my spine,” he said as I finished.
No longer did it matter if we were non-monogamous, stuck to a relationship schedule or adhered to any of the other relationship boundaries I’d previously tried to impose on us. Now, all that mattered was that I got to extract one of his blackheads again.
This sort of joy is hardly unique.
“I have to bribe my boyfriend with a blowjob to get him to let me pop his face,” a female redditor commented on r/popping back in 2014.
Similarly, a man on that forum bemoaned not receiving this type of grooming from his partner as one of the reasons why he wished he was in a relationship: “A couple of my ex’s used to pop for me, and oh, how I miss it. It’s an intimate, beautiful thing. I currently have a personals ad, and I wish I could be honest enough to say [I’m] looking for someone who wants to pop my zits I can’t see or reach, scrape dead skin cells off with your nails and pull stray body hairs that look out of place.”
So obviously, this habit serves a practical purpose — we might be able to reach blackheads and other skin things that our lovers simply can’t. But we could also save them money by doing extractions at home, given that a quality full-body facial costs as much as a modest beach vacation.
Admittedly, though, these aren’t the reasons that playing with my boyfriend’s blackhead got me so excited. Like the millions of Dr. Pimple Popper fans on Instagram, I find playing with skin in this way extremely relaxing. I love skincare and trying new exfoliants to avoid blackheads all together, but the satisfaction I feel from sticking to my skincare routine is nothing like the way squeezing a blackhead clean soothes me. I’m not hardcore enough to own any of these blackhead popping simulator toys, but I’m fairly obsessed with sitting in front of the mirror and removing my own as soon as I see or feel one form.
A few nights after our first blackhead extraction, I took a look at my sleeping boyfriend and noticed a blackhead on his shoulder before I stopped myself. My gaze shifted to his gentle, sleeping face and I thought to myself, What if he was the one surveying me up and down looking for imperfections to try to “fix”? I’d surely be enraged. That’s when I realized I loved him too much to keep picking without enlisting some expert advice to determine why this feels so good to me and what it could to do his skin.
And so, I recently spoke to a woman obsessed with doing extractions on everyone she dates; a psycho-dermatologist specializing in skin picking; and an esthetician who loves extracting her boyfriend’s blackheads (but doesn’t encourage you to do the same).
Brande, a thirtysomething producer who is single and open to partners who share her enthusiasm for pimple popping: I love playing with my partner’s skin and have always been this way. One of the things I liked most about my last relationship was how into this my boyfriend was. We would wake up in the mornings and do a pretty thorough facial. I even bought special equipment that would encourage exfoliation so I could get good ones to pop. The first time I told him I saw a blackhead I really wanted to get out, he was immediately like, “Yes, please get it.” He got a lot of ingrown hairs, so I bought these special tweezers that could pull the hair out from underneath the skin without damaging it too much.
This was especially great because my boyfriend before that didn’t feel the same way. He felt as though every time I wanted to pop his pimples or extract his blackheads, I was picking him apart. This made me feel bad about my obsession, even though it was all about my enjoyment of doing this more so than perceiving anything wrong about him. But the physical pain part of this bothered him a lot, too. The way it felt annoyed my recent partner as well, but he’d still ask me to “get the butter out.”
All of the women in my family are like this. We have some sort of biological urge to clean wounds or something. But for me, it’s more like seeing the joy that other people get from me doing it, and knowing that I’m not grossed out by this thing other people might be grossed out by. And so, I’ve basically extracted blackheads on any partner I’ve ever had.
I dated one girl that basically had poreless skin, but every few weeks, she’d get a big, clogged pore on her cheek. She could always tell because she would scratch her face and get the smell of a cyst — basically the smell of decay. It’s really sick, but I don’t even think of that smell as bad anymore because of how much I’ve done this.
Matt Traube, a psycho-dermatologist specializing in skin-picking and other skin issues: I help people deal with the underlying psychological aspects of skin conditions. I see people with compulsive skin-picking problems, hair-pulling problems, people with acne who have image issues and people who have inflammation issues from things like eczema and psoriasis, which can be triggered by stress.
In my work, skin-picking is its own category. About three percent of the population has skin-picking problems, but skin issues in general are underreported. We all pick a little — that’s normal — but a smaller percentage of people can’t stop. There’s a fine line between manipulating a pimple and picking your skin. I talk to endless clients who say, “When I see a pimple, I need to pop it. I need to clear it.” If they catch one sight of it in the mirror, they feel as though they must attempt to clean or purify it. But often, that becomes a bigger deal than the initial issue. They make it worse. I recommend people with these tendencies to stop popping pimples all together, because it’s a slippery slope.
A lot of the time, picking is used to control pain. People use it to relieve emotional pain in uncomfortable situations. Part of my job then becomes to figure out, “Well, what’s behind this?” For instance, I’ve talked to people who say, “When I have a tough day, or work is really stressful and I’m feeling wound up and in need of a release, I’ll go home and pick.” In these instances, we may add something that’s a little bit of a mindfulness-based strategy. Let’s do some breathing or relaxation exercises, something that involves that sense of relaxation without using your skin to find it.
But this behavior is multifactorial. Everybody I talk to has their own version of what they do and why they do it. There’s also research that indicates dopamine is released every time a pimple is popped, which means there’s definitely an addictive quality to it. And while research shows women suffer from skin-picking disorders more than men, it’s hard to determine because there’s more stigma on men that prevents us from caring for our skin and going to therapy. There’s also millions of more dollars spent on selling skin products to women than selling skin products to men.
On a somewhat related note, not too long ago, somebody told me, “My wife is always trying to pop my pimples. It drives me nuts.” For some people, skin-picking and pimple popping are vulnerable experiences. But to share these experiences can deepen a relationship. That sort of trust and transparency is appealing. For others, though — especially folks who already feel insecure about their skin issues — having their partners point out what’s going on with their skin might be the last thing they want. The most important thing here is communication. If both partners are okay with this happening, it can be okay for it become a ritual.
Keep in mind, there’s also the line of thinking that suggests this habit can be symbolic of fixing something else about your partner or the relationship. Sometimes if we don’t feel like we have control in certain aspects of our lives, we purposefully try to control other things. And if pimple popping is an area that we can control, it’s a way to a sense of control in a relationship. Psychologically we’re all just trying to get our needs met. And when our needs aren’t getting met in healthy ways, we’ll sometimes engage in other behaviors that try to get those needs met indirectly.
Andrea Amez, a twentysomething esthetician who just wants you to pick at your partner safely: My boyfriend and I have been dating for about three years. I was still in esthetics school our first year together, so I was learning how to do many fun things like extracting and facial reflexology. He never resisted — especially because I was trained, and basically, giving him under-the-table facials all the time.
Working on people’s blackheads is like my ecstasy. I love going into it knowing I’m going to remove everything I see and how that alone will make their skin look 75 percent better. Funny enough, my boyfriend has this one blackhead that’s super deep but literally oxidizes every month or so. I had all these tools, so naturally I got in there. They’re the double-ended tools, where one is a finer width and the other is thicker for pustules that are already at a head.
I had a male client this Saturday who suffers from pretty intense congestion — no acne, just really large blackheads. Plus, he shaves, so there’s extra irritation. I put the steam on him for about seven minutes; then I just went to town. He had so many blackheads that my index fingers started hurting. He was slightly embarrassed, which I understand, but it’s better to see a professional because extracting oneself usually causes more harm than good.
And trust me, while I totally get why people think it’s cute and sexy to extract a partner’s bacteria, my goal when giving facials is for clients to walk out looking they didn’t get any extractions at all, which requires some precision. Nonetheless, if you must extract at home, here are my tips…
Wash your hands. I can’t stress this enough. It’s what makes or breaks a flawless extraction. Dirty hands can cause the extraction to get infected.
Wiggle the canyon, never pinch. Pinching can cause scar tissue and damage. For us browner folks, our skin already takes a long time to fully heal because of our melanin, so this could cause more slowdowns. Instead, take two fingers and push down into the canyon of skin around a pimple. Leveraging the skin will push the blackhead out.
Use warm (not hot) water to help you. Steam is ideal for blackheads. If you have a blemish that has a fully developed head, use a hot compress and put pressure on it until you can wipe away the head.
Don’t buy the tools. It’s not worth it unless you’re trained. I’ve seen more damage than good come from them.
Cheap is better than nothing. If you don’t have funds for a full facial, find a studio that will steam you and do a quick extraction session for less money. I do that with my clients all the time. Help is always available if you ask!