Cosmetic Versus Plastic Surgery: How They Differ – and What to Know Before Making a Decision

John G. Apostolides, MD, FACS

Article by
La Jolla Plastic Surgeon

What is the difference between cosmetic and plastic surgery? To many, the distinction may seem trivial – or even nonexistent; but for anyone considering an elective or reconstructive surgical procedure, the difference in training, experience and certification between cosmetic and plastic surgeons is critical – and one that should weigh heavily in the decision-making process.

According to law, any licensed physician can offer cosmetic surgery services; and while he may undergo one or more training programs in preparation for such services, the surgeon is neither required by law to do so nor is he recognized for having done so by the American Board of Medical Specialties (ABMS). Subsequently, the title of “cosmetic surgeon” does not imply board certification and can be adopted by a wide range of medical professionals including ENT surgeons, dermatologists, oral surgeons or general surgeons.

In contrast, plastic surgery certification involves a broad, rigorous training requirement that incorporates experience in the following range of procedures:

  • Cranio-facial surgery
  • Burn surgery
  • Hand/microsurgery
  • Maxilla-facial trauma
  • General and breast reconstructive surgery
  • Cosmetic surgery (such as liposuction, facelift, etc.)

A plastic surgeon’s residency period lasts from 6-8 years, and is required in addition to general medical school residency and training. Upon completing their plastic surgery training, qualified surgeons are recognized by the ABMS and subsequently free to choose a specialty, if desired.

Where does this leave potential patients in their search for a cosmetic surgeon?  In short, all plastic surgeons are educated, trained and certified to practice cosmetic surgery; however, while some cosmetic surgeons may fall into this category, the title alone bears no relation to a particular physician’s experience or certification by the ABMS.