Stephen McCulley, Reconstructive and Aesthetic Surgeon. MBChb, FCS(SA)Plast, FRCS(plast)

Cosmetic Surgery and Plastic Surgery – What Is The Difference?

With the vast array of different types of weird and wonderful medical procedures that we are lucky enough to benefit from, it is easy confuse the different terms that particular techniques are referred to. One common area for confusion is the world of cosmetic surgery and plastic surgery. The two procedures seem pretty much the same, however, in medical terms, the two medical disciplines are very different.

The main reason that cosmetic and plastic surgery get confused, is that both involve surgery to change the appearance of particular areas of the body. But this is where the similarities end. This guide will help clarify the differences between the two procedures, and illustrate when each surgical approach would be used.

The difference in a nutshell

There are many differences between the two procedures, but the defining factor is that plastic surgery is essential surgery, whereas cosmetic surgery is non-essential.

See the table below for a general comparison between the two types of surgery, and then read on for further information.

 

Plastic surgery

Cosmetic surgery

Definition

Surgery that’s essential, for example to repair damage

Surgery that’s non-essential and for cosmetic reasons

Who has it?

People who have suffered an accident, undergone major surgery or have been born with a disfiguration

Anyone, providing their mental and physical health meets the surgeon’s requirements

Examples of surgery

Breast reconstruction, skin grafts, correcting cleft palates

Tummy tucks, breast augmentation, face lifts, liposuction

Who performs it?

Plastic surgeon

Plastic or cosmetic surgeon

Do you pay?

Usually covered by the NHS

Not usually covered by the NHS

What is plastic surgery?

Plastic surgery is an essential procedure, undertaken by highly qualified surgeons to repair damages to skin and tissue that may have resulted from congenital diseases or injuries for example.

As this type of surgery is used to repair damage, aesthetics aren’t the primary consideration. Naturally, every measure will be taken by surgeons to ensure that appearance is taken into account. However, the main objective of plastic surgery is in returning the skin or tissue to a normal state, rather than looking to improve, reshape or re-mould it in any way.

Examples of plastic surgery include:

  • Breast reconstruction after a mastectomy.
  • Repairing damage from an accident, such as skin grafts to treat burns.
  • Correcting cleft palates.

pre-surgery

Who would have plastic surgery?

Individuals who have undergone major surgery or who have suffered in an accident would be most likely to receive plastic surgery. The surgery is often performed at the time of the initial treatment, however it is common for patients to have additional operations to further improve the area in need of attention over time.

In the instance of a condition such as a cleft palate, which the patient is likely to be born with, plastic surgery will be scheduled in accordance to the individual person’s situation. Plastic surgery is performed on both men and women and it is usually a necessity rather than a considered choice.

The benefits of plastic surgery

  • Physical benefits – Plastic surgery is designed to restore and heal the patient’s skin and tissue so that it functions and looks as natural as possible. Plastic surgery will remodel areas of skin to try to disguise any disfiguration that may have been caused in an accident or fire, or which someone may have been born with for example.
  • Emotional benefits – Plastic surgery also works to help improve a patient’s self-esteem, such as with post mastectomy breast reconstruction, where the patient may feel that the operation has had a negative effect on their femininity. As this type of surgery aims to restore the body to its original state, it can have huge emotional benefits with patients who have received injuries as a result of an accident.

What is cosmetic surgery?

facial cosmetic surgery

Cosmetic surgery is elective surgery that is undertaken by the patient in order to improve their physical appearance solely for aesthetic purposes. Although cosmetic surgery isn’t considered to be essential in medical terms, for many people who choose to undergo this type of surgery, the emotional benefits are huge. Cosmetic surgery can visually improve areas that the individual may be unhappy with, which may have previously caused them stress or embarrassment.

Popular examples of cosmetic surgery include:

Less common examples of cosmetic surgery include:

  • Hair replacement
  • Buttock augmentation
  • Arm lifts

Who would have cosmetic surgery?

Anyone can have cosmetic surgery, assuming that their health (both physical and mental) meets the requirements specified by the surgeon. Often people who choose to undergo cosmetic surgery have been unhappy with a particular area of their body for some time and finally decide to take action to get it improved. It is also commonly used to tackle the tell-tale signs of ageing, breast lift surgery for example is used to reposition drooping breasts and many facial procedures such as facelifts and fillers are designed to reduce wrinkles and sagging skin.

Cosmetic surgery is very popular amongst women, however it is by no means exclusively females who choose to ‘go under the knife’. Liposuction, breast reduction, eyelid surgery and rhinoplasty are equally popular amongst both men and women, whereas breast enlargements and tummy tucks tend to be more in the female domain.

  • Physical benefits – Cosmetic surgery aesthetically enhances areas of the body that the patient is unhappy with. Some women may have experienced changes in their breasts and stomach area after having children or after losing a lot of weight and, as a result, wish to have surgery to restore their body back to its original state. Other patients have areas of their body that they have always been unhappy with, such as the shape, size or overall appearance of their nose or breasts.
  • Emotional benefits – Many people who have undergone cosmetic surgery have expressed feelings of increased confidence and have benefited psychologically from their new improved body.

Who performs each type of surgery?

As a general rule, a plastic surgeon can perform both types of surgery, however most cosmetic surgeons cannot perform plastic surgery. This is because the level of qualification for a plastic surgeon is very high, whereas a cosmetic surgeon is not required to go through such extensive medical training, although they still have to be highly qualified to perform cosmetic surgery.

cosmetic surgery

When considering cosmetic surgery it is absolutely essential that you check your chosen surgeon’s qualifications. As cosmetic surgery is becoming more popular, and as a result, more mainstream, there are a number of under-qualified surgeons operating within the business, many with just a basic medical degree.

Do you have to pay for both types of surgery?

As the majority of plastic surgery cases are essential, the surgery is highly likely to be covered under the NHS, although some patients may choose to go on to have additional treatment privately. Cosmetic surgery, however, is not covered under the NHS as it is considered to be elective surgery. There are occasions where cosmetic surgery is required to rectify medical matters where the patient is in serious discomfort, however these situations are unusual, and down to the discretion of the medical professional assessing the condition.

Further advice

When choosing your clinic and the surgeon who will be performing the operation, you will find that there is a vast range of prices on offer. Whilst it may be tempting to go for the cheapest option, it is important to remember the price will reflect the experience and seniority of the surgeon. Ultimately, cosmetic surgery is an investment on your body, and by choosing an experienced surgeon you are less likely to experience any problems.

For more information on the plastic surgery Stephen McCulley offers contact the clinic on 0115 962 4535.

Also see: Frequently asked questions about all types of plastic & cosmetic surgery

About Stephen McCulley and the team