July 2021

What is Plastic Surgery?

Plastic surgery is a medical specialism devoted to the reconstruction of damaged parts of the body, perhaps damage sustained during an accident. It also treats birth defects, trauma, and the effects of certain types of disease. It is essentially a reconstructive, or restorative set of procedures.


Confusion between plastic and cosmetic surgery is widespread, and ‘plastic surgeon’ and ‘cosmetic surgeon’ are often used interchangeably. But there is a difference. Cosmetic surgery, as the name suggests, is solely concerned with enhancing, reshaping, beautifying particular parts of the body. As such, cosmetic surgery is elective, that is, it's a personal choice, while plastic surgery is mostly undergone because of medical necessity.


But there is a crossover between the two types of surgery. For example, having a breast reconstructed after an operation for breast cancer is a reconstructive procedure that only a plastic surgeon should perform, while having a breast lift is one that either a plastic or cosmetic surgeon could perform. So public confusion between the two is understandable. But it’s important to realise that plastic and cosmetic surgeons differ in significant ways.



Differences Between Plastic and Cosmetic Surgeons

The main difference lies in the fact that the training route for each specialism is different. Though both fields have areas in common, there may be procedures a plastic surgeon is not as well-versed in as a cosmetic surgeon, and vice versa. And the problem is that, in many countries, the US in particular, there are no regulations in place which prevent anyone with any kind of medical experience - a dentist or gynaecologist for example - from calling themselves a cosmetic surgeon. The result of being treated by someone without the proper training or accreditation can obviously be physically and mentally devastating.


The good news is that, in the US, and in an increasing number of other countries, there are accrediting boards for plastic and cosmetic surgeons which try to ensure that practitioners have all the training and skills they should have to be effective in their respective fields. The American Board of Plastic Surgery (ABS) is the only organisation approved by the National Board of Medical Specialities, its members rigorously monitored to ensure they adhere to the highest standards of their profession. As yet there’s no equivalent organisation in cosmetic surgery, in the US, which has been approved by the NBMS, but there are still boards of cosmetic surgery, which, despite lack of official approval, take maintenance of surgical standards very seriously.


plastic surgeon


Beware ‘Cosmetic Doctors’

Still, it’s rather shocking that, currently in the US, “any physician with a valid medical license can perform cosmetic procedures, regardless of their training” (1). Such ‘cosmetic doctors’ as they often style themselves, though they may still be professionals, can’t offer the full range of options a certified cosmetic surgeon can supply, which can result, at best, in poor cosmetic results, at worst, permanent damage which might then need to be corrected with reconstructive plastic surgery.


The best way to avoid such a scenario, and not just in the US, but anywhere in the world, is to make sure anyone, even a certified doctor offering cosmetic procedures, is accredited by an official body to do so. According to the American Society of Plastic Surgeons “no surgeon should perform a procedure on you if they don’t have privileges to perform that same procedure at a reputable hospital" (2).


Plastic and cosmetic surgery both have long and overlapping histories, but the ‘surgery of appearance’ is an obsession of our age, and we should all be at least minimally aware of the differences between the two related types.






'About Cosmetic Surgery' 



(1)  Dr. Rod J. Rohrich, quoted in:  https://www.healthline.com/health-news/whats-the-difference-between-a-cosmetic-and-plastic-surgeon

15th August 2019, viewed February 29th 2020


(2) 'Is a Cosmetic Surgeon a Plastic Surgeon' Marcel Malek MD, Scottsdale AZ.


30th May 2013, viewed February 29th 2020