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Plastic Surgery vs. Cosmetic Surgery vs. Reconstructive Surgery: What’s the Difference?

Posted in Cosmetic Procedures

woman in bandage posing with needles

If you typically use cosmetic surgery and plastic surgery interchangeably you’re not alone. Many people who hear the terms plastic, reconstructive, or cosmetic surgery assume the three are the same. There are fine distinctions, however, between the different types of surgery. It’s critical that you know these differences when looking for a surgeon.

Cosmetic Surgery

This is what most people think of when you say “plastic surgery.” But “plastic surgery” is not synonymous with “cosmetic surgery.” The term “cosmetic” refers to what is also called aesthetic surgery—it focuses on the appearance of the patient.

The American Board of Cosmetic Surgery defines cosmetic surgery as “entirely focused on enhancing a patient’s appearance. Improving symmetry, proportion and aesthetic appeal are the primary goals.”

As none of the procedures are meant to improve the function of the body, cosmetic surgery is considered completely elective.

Here are categories of surgery that fall under the cosmetic umbrella, plus a few examples:

  • Facial Contouring: Nose jobs or cheek implants
  • Facial Rejuvenation: Facelifts, eyelifts or neck lifts
  • Body Contouring: Tummy tucks or liposuction
  • Skin Rejuvenation: BOTOXâ, laser resurfacing or fillers and injections

Reconstructive Surgery

Reconstructive surgery is the opposite of cosmetic surgery. It is focused totally on reconstructing the form of the body after trauma or defect. It can also include body enhancement procedures designed to correct or improve the body’s function or overall health.

What many think of as cosmetic surgery could actually be classified as reconstructive procedures. A breast reduction, for example, might be seen as an entirely elective procedure, but as the reduction alleviates conditions such as back or mobility problems, it is actually considered reconstructive.

Similarly, surgery on the eyelids may be thought of as a cosmetic or elective procedure. But if it is done in order to improve eyesight, then it is a reconstructive procedure.

Reconstructive surgery deals both with defects the patient is born with, as well as those acquired through trauma or illness.

Some of the procedures considered reconstructive are:

  • Cleft lip and palate
  • Congenital facial deformities
  • Breast reconstruction
  • Ear reconstruction
  • Burn repairs
  • Scar revisions
  • Hand surgery

Plastic Surgery

Plastic surgery is a catchall term and where things can get a little murky when it comes to definitions. The American Board of Plastic Surgery defines the practice as:

“[The] repair, reconstruction, or replacement of physical defects of form or function involving the skin, musculoskeletal system, craniomaxillofacial structures, hand, extremities, breast and trunk, external genitalia or cosmetic enhancement of these areas of the body.”

The definition continues to define cosmetic surgery as a practice that falls within plastic surgery, as an essential component to their field of medicine.

The Difference Between Surgeons
You might think surgery is surgery, and all surgeons must be trained alike. But there are major differences between surgeons who specialize in cosmetic, plastic, or reconstructive surgery.