A Simple Guide to the Differences Between Cosmetic Surgery and Plastic Surgery

There were 250,000 more cosmetic procedures conducted in 2018 than in 2017. With data from 2019 still being crunched.

The number of cosmetic procedures performed every year is growing. 

But do these millions of people getting procedures done, even know the differences between cosmetic surgery vs plastic surgery? 

Although cosmetic and plastic surgery are often used interchangeably, they are completely different things. In this blog post, we’re breaking down the important differences between cosmetic and plastic surgery.

What Is Cosmetic Surgery

Cosmetic surgery is all about enhancing appearance. Cosmetic surgery is not done to treat a life-threatening ailment. But rather to improve someone’s perception of beauty. 

Since cosmetic surgery is elective, it’s typically not covered by insurance. This part can get tricky, and even be surprising to people considering cosmetic surgery. For example, if someone wants to get breast augmentation after they had to have a breast removed because of breast cancer, the procedure will only be covered by insurance if it’s classified as “reconstructive” (not cosmetic) by a doctor. 

This is because as far as insurance is concerned, you do not “need” the breast to function and stay alive. There are some doctors, however, that will work with a patient to create a medically valid reason for needing cosmetic surgery, and getting it covered by insurance. 

For example, ptosis is a very common condition that develops in many people as they age, causing their eyes to droop. Electing to have the excess, dropping skin removed via eye lift or blepharoplasty is considered to be a cosmetic procedure. But, if a medical doctor can prove that the condition impairs a person’s vision, and ability to function in their day-to-day life, they can often get an insurance company to cover a large portion of the costs.  

Here are some more examples of different types of cosmetic surgery procedures: 

  • Fillers, Botox, laser resurfacing 
  • Rhinoplasty 
  • Breast reduction, lift, and augmentation
  • Liposuction, tummy tuck, and gynecomastia
  • Mentoplasty, genioplasty or chin implant
  • Face, neck, eye, and brow lifts

What Is Plastic Surgery 

Plastic surgery is considered to be a more serious type of surgery. While it involves the aesthetics of the body, the key difference between cosmetic and plastic surgery is the intention. 

In cosmetic surgery, procedures are done electively to simply make a patient feel better about their body. But with plastic surgery, the intention is to correct a mutation to the body caused by a medical condition or trauma like burns, birth defects, disease, and injury. 

Plastic surgery is reconstructive. Here are some examples of plastic surgery, according to the American Society of Plastic Surgeons:  

  • Migraine surgery 
  • Cleft lip and palate
  • Orthognathic surgery 
  • Craniosynostosis surgery
  • Tissue expansion
  • Gender confirmation surgeries
  • Skin cancer removal

Plastic surgery can only be performed by a plastic surgeon. This is another major difference between cosmetic and plastic surgery. A cosmetic surgeon does not have to be a Board Certified plastic surgeon, we’ll get more into that below. 

Understanding the Difference: Cosmetic Surgery vs Plastic Surgery Doctors

One of the biggest differences between cosmetic and surgeons are the different education and certification requirements. Technically speaking, all Board Certified Plastic surgeons are also cosmetic surgeons, but a doctor who is only a Certified Cosmetic Surgeon, is not a Board Certified Plastic Surgeon. 

Plastic surgeons must spend more time in residency training after they complete medical school. To be certified by the American Board of Plastic Surgery, a plastic surgeon to-be must spend at least six years, sometimes eight in training. 

There are generally two ways a doctor can earn their plastic surgery certification. The first is by completing an integrative three-year residency in general surgery, followed by three years of plastic surgery training. Or, by completing five years of independent general surgery training, followed by three years of plastic surgery training. 

To become certified by the American Board of Cosmetic Surgery, a doctor only needs to complete one year of training after medical school. This certification also has no residency requirements. 

If you’re opting for plastic surgery, it’s important to check that a surgeon is certified specifically by the American Board of Plastic Surgery when vetting surgeons. Because, as charlotte plastic surgery explains, “While there are other accreditation boards out there, this is really the one that carries the most weight, is the strictest, and requires not only an extremely high level of practice to apply but also to maintain and keep certification.” 

The Cardinal Rules for Choosing a Legitimate Doctor 

There are a lot of talented certified cosmetic surgeons out there. Some are naturally gifted in their trade, and if you’re getting something minor done like Botox or fillers, it’s generally a safe bet to go this direction. 

But when it comes to cosmetic surgery vs plastic surgery for anything that requires you to be cut open, choosing to go with a certified plastic surgeon is the safest bet. Experience in aesthetic surgery is incredibly important, especially when dealing with delicate parts of the body like the face. 

Getting beautiful results all comes from technique, and technique is only something that can really be mastered over time. 

Here are some of the key things to look for when vetting plastic surgeons. 

  • A certification from the American Board of Plastic Surgery. You can search for physicians with this certification at plasticsurgery.org.
  • Every good surgeon will want to let their work speak for itself. They will have before and after photos on their website, or images to show you during your consultation. 
  • Quality plastic surgeons are not desperate for new patients. They take their time to conduct a thorough consultation. They will give you their honest, professional opinion about your wants. 
  • Plastic surgeons know more than most how different everybody is, inside and out. Because of this, they will take individualized approaches to help you reach your goals. 
  • Good plastic surgeons will have raving reviews. Just because a surgeon pays for a ton of advertising and “best of” awards, doesn’t necessarily mean they are good. 
  • Check to make sure your surgeon conducts surgery at a state-licensed hospital or medical facility. 
  • If you want to be a super investigator, check to see what school they went to and where they completed their residencies. 
  • Trust your gut. If you feel uncomfortable, move on. 

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