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Plastic Surgery vs Cosmetic Surgery

Although the two terms are often used interchangeably, there is a crucial difference between plastic surgery and cosmetic surgery.

Plastic surgery is generally used to correct, restore, or repair skin and tissue problems caused by congenital defects, illness or injury, especially where the defect seriously affects health or quality of life.

This article is written by Jackie Griffiths, a freelance journalist who writes health, medical, biological, and pharmaceutical articles for national and international journals, newsletters and web sites.


Cosmetic surgery, on the other hand, is usually used to improve the patient’s appearance, for purely aesthetic reasons. Unlike plastic surgery, most cosmetic surgery is elective surgery – that is, the patient chooses to undergo the procedure even though it is not essential for their health.

However, these definitions are flexible, and there are often cases where surgery that would normally be considered cosmetic, such as breast reduction, can also be essential for health if it is causing back or shoulder problems.

This flexibility is important since most plastic surgery is covered by the NHS, whereas purely cosmetic surgery is not and can cost many thousands of pounds. Your GP will be able to advise you whether the cosmetic plastic surgery treatment you would like is covered by the NHS or not.

Plastic Surgery

Plastic surgery is used in a wide range of circumstances, including:

  • Skin repair of badly burnt or scarred tissue
  • Facial reconstruction or congenital disfigurement
  • Prosthetic reconstruction after breast or testicular cancer surgery
  • Nose, ear, or eye reshaping where their function is impaired

One of the most common plastic surgery procedures is the skin graft, where healthy sheets of skin from the thigh or back are used to repair or replace skin lost elsewhere. This vastly improves healing and reduces the impact of long-term scarring. These techniques have been advancing rapidly in recent years, culminating in a successful full-face transplant in France.

Plastic surgery will usually be carried out free of charge on the NHS where there is a health issue involved.

Cosmetic Surgery

Cosmetic surgery can be chosen to enhance, augment, or improve almost any area of the body, including:

  • The removal of unsightly marks such as moles, birthmarks, and tattoos
  • Breast enhancement by the use of implants (augmentation mammoplasty)
  • Breast reduction through skin and fat removal (reduction mammoplasty)
  • Nose reshaping (rhinoplasty)
  • Tummy tuck (abdominoplasty)
  • Pinning back prominent ears (otoplasty)
  • Facelift (rhytidectomy)
  • Liposuction

Over 70,000 people have cosmetic surgery in the UK each year, and its popularity is growing all the time with treatments up 50% over the last five years.

Unlike plastic surgery, which usually involves considerable invasive procedures, cosmetic surgery can range from simple, non-surgical techniques, such as Botox or collagen injections, to major surgery such as a tummy tuck. Naturally, the price rises in line with the complexity of the operation and the length of stay at your chosen clinic.

Why choose plastic or cosmetic surgery?

In cases where plastic surgery is necessary for your health or well-being, the decision to have surgery is quite straightforward. The risks in these cases are generally far out-weighed by the rewards.

For cosmetic surgery, however, the process is more complex. It’s important that you have the surgery for the right reasons and that you have realistic expectations of the results. For example, there can be many reasons for a lack of self-esteem, and cosmetic surgery will not necessarily put any of these right. That said, many patients benefit immensely from increased confidence as a result of surgery, and consider it worth every penny.

Your GP and surgeon may well ask you to undergo a psychological assessment or counselling before they agree to your treatment, to be sure that surgery is the right course of action. Since the effects are often dramatic and permanent, it’s vital you give informed consent, fully understanding the implications of your treatment.

The next step

It is important to consult your GP, even if you’re having your cosmetic surgery done privately. Not only do they know you and your medical history, and can therefore offer you the best advice, but a GP referral also gives your surgeon full access to your medical records.

There are many factors that will affect you choice of surgeon, including location, experience, and of course, price. However, there are certain checks you should always apply to be sure of a safe, successful procedure:

  • Make sure your surgeon is registered with the General Medical Council
  • They should also be a member of the British Association of Aesthetic Plastic Surgeons
  • The clinic should be registered with the Healthcare Commission
  • The clinic should allow you access to their inspection reports

Given the importance and lasting nature of cosmetic / plastic surgery, it’s well worth spending time comparing clinics both through brochures and websites as well as in person, before making your choice. Remember, cost is not the only factor you should consider.


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