The Difference Between Cosmetic Surgery and Plastic Surgery: Why It Matters

In their Spring 2015 issue, NewBeauty magazine published a story featuring inaccurate information about the field of cosmetic surgery. So inaccurate, in fact, that the American Board of Cosmetic Surgery was compelled to respond to NewBeauty magazine to set the record straight. While we prefer to keep our field controversy-free and focus on patients, this incident does give us an opportunity to address an issue that many find confusing: the difference between plastic surgery and cosmetic surgery.
When choosing a surgeon for a cosmetic surgery procedure, many patients are confused about whether to choose a plastic surgeon or a cosmetic surgeon. Many do not know the difference between the two, or even that there is a difference. This is understandable, because surgeons in both fields may perform some of the same procedures. However, there is a difference, and it’s an important one.

Plastic surgery is a surgical specialty that concentrates on reconstruction during training. A plastic surgeon must handle cases that require specialized skill in correcting defects that patients may be born with or are a result of trauma, burns, cancer, etc. A plastic surgeon is also trained to perform procedures that minimize disfigurement, for example, removing a skin cancer as unobtrusively as possible while still removing all cancerous cells and carefully repairing the wound. Plastic surgeons must also complete a residency and pass an exam to achieve American Board of Plastic Surgery certification.

While most plastic surgeons do receive cosmetic surgery training during their residencies, it is not nearly as comprehensive, or as intensive as what a cosmetic surgeon receives. Many plastic surgeons do not have significant experience and training in cosmetic procedures. In fact, plastic surgeons are required to perform only 55 aesthetic cases to achieve plastic surgery certification. Some surgeons do recognize the need for additional training and complete aesthetic fellowships that do not have a board, or they learn “on the job” during their first years in practice.

In contrast, a cosmetic surgeon’s entire fellowship training is dedicated specifically to improving the aesthetic appearance of a patient. In a typical cosmetic surgery practice, a surgeon will perform procedures including breast augmentation, eye and face lifts, mommy makeovers, nose reshaping, and more. While reconstructive surgery is not stressed during cosmetic training, cosmetic surgeons must have a background in another surgical specialty like general surgery, facial plastic surgery, or even general plastic surgery.

The results of cosmetic surgery tend to be highly visible, so a great deal of artistry is required to achieve the look the patient desires. And, as with any field of surgery, a cosmetic surgeon is expected to produce consistent, safe results with a low incidence of complications.

Requirements to qualify for certification by the American Board of Cosmetic Surgery include completing a full year of fellowship training after one of several surgical residencies. Surgeons must also perform a minimum of 300 major cosmetic procedures, as well as pass a difficult oral and written exam. This is no easy task and demonstrates significant dedication to education in the field.

In conclusion, when seeking any type of surgical procedure, you want the best surgeon for the job. That means choosing one who is a specialist in that field—a surgeon who is board certified, fellowship trained, with experience performing hundreds (or thousands) of procedures just like yours, and who has the surgical skill and artistry to produce the best outcome. Patients should expect and demand excellence from their cosmetic surgeons as they do from practitioners of any other field of surgery.

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