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Cosmetic Surgery vs. Plastic Surgery

Cosmetic surgery is a unique discipline of medicine focused on enhancing appearance through surgical and medical techniques. Cosmetic surgery can be performed on all areas of the head, neck and body. Because treated areas function properly but lack aesthetic appeal, cosmetic surgery is elective.

Plastic surgery is defined as a surgical specialty dedicated to reconstruction of facial and body defects due to birth disorders, trauma, burns, and disease. Plastic surgery is intended to correct dysfunctional areas of the body and is reconstructive in nature.

Understanding the difference between “cosmetic” and “plastic” surgery.

Cosmetic surgery and plastic surgery are not the same thing:

  • Cosmetic surgery procedures enhance a person's appearance toward some aesthetic ideal.
  • Cosmetic surgery is practiced by doctors from a variety of medical fields including dermatologists, facial plastic surgeons, general surgeons, gynecologists, oral and maxillofacial surgeons, ophthalmologists, otolaryngologists, plastic surgeons, as well as doctors from other fields.
  • Unlike cosmetic surgery, plastic surgery focuses on repairing and reconstructing abnormal structures of the body caused by birth defects, developmental abnormalities, trauma, infection, tumors or disease.

How Cosmetic Surgeons are Trained

There are currently no residency programs in the United States devoted exclusively to cosmetic surgery.

Therefore, doctors seeking to learn cosmetic surgery primarily obtain training and experience after completing their residency training. Knowing this fact is necessary to understanding the difference between “cosmetic surgery” and “plastic surgery.”

Residency programs in dermatology, general surgery, obstetrics and gynecology, oral and maxillofacial surgery, ophthalmology, otolaryngology, and plastic surgery do not include training on every cosmetic procedure.

How to Find a Qualified Cosmetic Surgeon

To find the most qualified doctor for a specific cosmetic procedure, you must compare doctors’ overall (residency and post-residency) training, experience and proven competence with respect to that specific cosmetic procedure.

Know that the residency training required to become board certified in plastic surgery may not include training with respect to many common cosmetic procedures.*

Therefore the title “board certified plastic surgeon” may indicate certain training and experience with respect to plastic surgery, it does not indicate the same thing with respect to cosmetic surgery, nor does it tell you that the doctor has more or less cosmetic surgery training than a board certified dermatologist, facial plastic surgeon, general surgeon, gynecologist, oral and maxillofacial surgeon, ophthalmologist, otolaryngologist, or other doctor.

More Information

The AACS has designed a special patient education brochure explaining the difference between cosmetic surgery and plastic surgery, and how to choose your cosmetic surgeon. This brochure clears up misconceptions in the media, issues about board-certification and the multi-disciplinary nature of cosmetic surgery.

* See Morrison, M.Sc., Colin, A Survey of Cosmetic Surgery Training in Plastic Surgery Programs in the United States, Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery – Journal of the American Society of Plastic Surgeons, pp.1570-1578, 2008.