Plastic Surgery vs. Cosmetic Surgery: The Basics

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plastic surgery Plastic Surgery vs. Cosmetic Surgery: The Basics

Have you ever considered having a cosmetic procedure done? If so, you are one of many individuals who have contemplated this decision. However, you may also be one of many individuals who do not understand the difference between plastic surgery and cosmetic surgery. In fact, you may use those terms interchangeably – but you shouldn’t!

Plastic surgery and cosmetic surgery are incredibly different – they handle very different procedures that occur for very different reasons. Plastic surgeons and cosmetic surgeons also receive very different medical training and therefore perform very separate procedures.

Because there is still a lot of confusion surrounding these two terms, we are going to break down the basic differences so that you can have a more complete understanding, especially if you ever decide to have a procedure done yourself.

Reasoning For Treatment

One of the main differences that you need to understand with these two types of procedures is the reasoning for the treatment – namely if it is elective or not. In the majority of cases, plastic surgery is seen as a medically necessary treatment to repair or reconstruct parts of the body that were damaged in an accident, are part of a birth disorder, or result from a disease of some sort. This could include treatment after being in a car accident, being a burn victim, or a victim of some other type of trauma. In many cases, these procedures are at least partially covered by medical insurance.

On the opposite side of things, cosmetic surgery is seen as an elective procedure that is done to enhance a person’s physical appearance. These procedures are not medically necessary, and therefore are not covered by medical insurance.  

A good way to keep this difference in mind is that plastic surgery is reconstructive, where as cosmetic surgery is elective. With plastic surgery, the goal is to restore part of the body to how it formerly was before. With cosmetic surgery, nothing is wrong with the body, except that the patient believes it lacks visual appeal. The elective procedure simply enhances the part of the body being worked on.


plastic or comsetic surgery

As you can imagine, the procedures that are performed will vary greatly based on whether it is a plastic or cosmetic surgical procedure. Something to keep in mind is that plastic surgeons may perform cosmetic surgical procedures, but that does not mean that they are also plastic surgery. This is part of the reason the two terms get confused, but the differences are very significant.

Common types of cosmetic surgeries include:

  • Breast augmentation
  • Facelift
  • Liposuction
  • Botox
  • Lip or facial filler treatments

Common types of plastic surgeries include:

  • Breast reconstruction
  • Scar surgery
  • Birth defect repair- such as cleft palate surgery
  • Burn repair

As you can tell, the types of procedures are very different in nature. Even if you are having your procedure done by a board certified plastic surgeon, if the procedure is elective, it is considered cosmetic surgery, not plastic surgery.


plastic surgeonThe education process may start out the same for people wanting to become either a plastic surgeon or cosmetic surgeon, but there are distinct differences between the two programs. Both plastic and cosmetic surgeons will attend medical school and will then enter into a residency program.

People who wish to become a plastic surgeon will complete their two year residency program and will then follow up with two additional years that are entirely devoted to plastic surgery. Part of this program may include certain cosmetic type procedures, but the main focus is on plastic surgery (ie reconstructive) procedures.

The situation for a cosmetic surgeon is different, as there is no specific residency program dedicated to cosmetic surgery. Instead, individuals wanting to become a cosmetic surgeon will complete their residency and then follow up with a post-residency fellowship.

Board Certification

Both plastic surgeons and cosmetic surgeons can become board certified, but the board certification looks different. Both will complete programs specific to their line of work – either plastic surgery or cosmetic surgery. Again, a plastic surgeon may focus some time on cosmetic procedures, but the main focus is reconstructive procedures.

Therefore, if you are looking to have a cosmetic surgical procedure done and you see that a doctor is board certified for plastic surgery, that does not necessarily mean that they are qualified to perform your cosmetic surgical procedure, as they may not have received any training during their plastic surgery residency and certification.

Some plastic surgeons may choose to also complete a cosmetic surgery fellowship program or become certified for cosmetic surgery in order to also perform cosmetic procedures in addition to plastic surgery procedures, but this is not required and completely up to the doctor.

Making the Right Decision

It is in your best interest to see what certifications your doctor has before making a decision. Without understanding the differences between plastic and cosmetic surgery, you may accidentally choose a plastic surgeon to perform your liposuction (for example). This could potentially result in a botched procedure if the doctor does not have experience with this type of procedure. Even if a doctor says they have experience and show you they are board certified, always do your research to ensure what they are saying is true, and that their certification is relevant to the procedure you want to have done.

Additionally, be sure to research your doctor and see if there are any complaints or malpractice suits against them. You want to have a complete understanding of your doctor and their knowledge before agreeing to a procedure, and sadly you cannot always trust a doctor to be completely honest. Again, they may tell you the truth (I am board certified!) but upon further research, you see it is not for the type of procedure you want.

The more research you can conduct on your own, the better off you will be. Hopefully with this knowledge of the difference between cosmetic and plastic surgery, you will be well prepared to find the right doctor to perform any procedure you are considering getting.