Is There a Difference Between a Plastic Surgeon & a Cosmetic Surgeon?

Posted on June 21, 2013 by Cynthia M. Poulos, M.D.

If you’re thinking about a cosmetic procedure in the Boston area, such as a breast augmentationliposuctionface lift or other aesthetic surgery, it’s a big deal. The surgeon you select not only takes your body into his or her hands; he or she takes your life. Because this is such a big deal, it’s smart to take time to thoroughly evaluate your local options.

Who Can Perform Aesthetic Surgery in the US?

US law states that any licensed medical doctor can perform any procedure, including a breast augmentation, tummy tuck, face lift or other. Consider this: just because a surgeon is allowed to, does that mean they should? For example, if you or a loved one needed open heart surgery, would you be comfortable having your family doctor or gynecologist perform this procedure? While they might be a great family physician, would you assume they are skilled in heart surgery? I believe you would not feel comfortable and would want a heart specialist.

How is a Plastic Surgeon Like/Unlike a Cosmetic Surgeon?

A plastic surgeon specializes in plastic surgery only. A plastic surgeon can also be called a cosmetic surgeon. However, a cosmetic surgeon might not also be called a plastic surgeon. Why not? Training. Confusing? Yes.

plastic surgeon graduates from medical school and then enrolls in a residency program in general surgery for 5-6 years. This is then followed by a 2-3 year fellowship in plastic surgery. This training includes both reconstructive and cosmetic procedures: for example, trauma repair and cancer reconstruction as well as face lifts, tummy tucks, etc. The plastic surgeon must also pass rigorous exams and demonstrate skill in all the areas of plastic surgery; reconstructive as well as cosmetic. Similarly, facial plastic surgeons (who usually specialize in Otolaryngology) spend approximately 5-6 years after medical school to be trained to treat the head and neck.

While a cosmetic surgeon also graduated from medical school, he or she might or might not have enrolled in a residency program. It’s possible to graduate medical school, do a one-year residency rotation through all the possible specialties, and then begin practicing. Although many “cosmetic” surgeons do complete a residency, it’s might not be in plastic surgery but in another specialty: OB/GYN, family practice, internal medicine, emergency medicine, etc. Bottom line:  they either didn’t specialize or they specialized in something other than plastic surgery. Therefore, no plastic surgeon exams were taken and 6-8 years were not performed in a plastic surgery residency. In fact, it’s possible for a physician to learn how to perform liposuction in a weekend or two.

Why Does it Matter?

While it’s true that a surgeon who isn’t a “plastic” surgeon might create satisfactory cosmetic surgery results, if something goes wrong, that surgeon does not have a complete background in reconstruction, which is essential if complications arise.

The Bottom Line

You have only one body. Because that’s the case, consider whether or not you wish to put that body, along with your health and your life, in the hands of a physician who is not thoroughly and specifically trained to perform cosmetic procedures. It can make a huge difference in the quality of care that you receive.

To your health & beauty,
Cynthia Poulos, MD