What is the Difference Between a “Cosmetic surgeon” and a “Plastic Surgeon”?

What is the Difference Between a “Cosmetic surgeon” and a “Plastic Surgeon”?

Posted on October 29, 2021 by Dr. Susan MacLennan
Plastic Surgery

If you’re new to plastic surgery, understanding different terms can be confusing. Many people mistakenly believe that a “cosmetic surgeon” and a “plastic surgeon” are the same, for example. While they are somewhat similar, there are some differences in training and the procedures performed for cosmetic surgeons vs. plastic surgeons.

Cosmetic Surgery vs. Plastic Surgery

Plastic surgery is a general term that encompasses both cosmetic surgery and reconstructive surgery. Plastic surgeons have broad training and perform a wide variety of cosmetic and reconstructive procedures on all areas of the body.

Cosmetic surgery (or “aesthetic surgery”) is specifically focused on improving appearance and can be performed on any area of your body. Examples are body contouring, face and neck rejuvenation, and breast surgery. These procedures are always elective because they are solely intended to improve the appearance of body parts that are completely functional.

Reconstructive plastic surgery, on the other hand, can improve the function as well as the appearance of the face or body. Plastic surgeons repair issues caused by birth defects, trauma, burns, or disease, with the goal of restoring both normal function and normal appearance.

Education and Training for Cosmetic Surgeons and Plastic Surgeons

Both “cosmetic surgeons” and “plastic surgeons” must complete medical school before attending residencies and fellowship programs to learn more about their specialties. There are no residencies in cosmetic surgery, which means that cosmetic surgeons typically pursue a residency in a different specialty, sometimes non-surgical, and then learn more about cosmetic surgery later through workshops, seminars, and cosmetic surgery fellowships. They are only required to complete one year of surgical training and 300 surgical procedures. Then they can earn board certification through the American Board of Cosmetic Surgery (ABCS).

Plastic surgeons, like myself and Dr. MacLennan, are required to complete at least 6 years of surgical training. While some complete 5-7 years of general surgery residency then 3 years of plastic surgery residency, I completed a 6-year integrated plastic surgery residency where the focus was on cosmetic and reconstructive surgery from day one. In order to graduate from residency, I was required to perform thousands of procedures. Following my residency at Washington University in St. Louis, I then completed an Aesthetic Society-endorsed fellowship in cosmetic surgery where I performed an additional 1500 procedures. I then earned board certification from the American Board of Plastic Surgery by passing rigorous written and oral examinations.

As a board-certified plastic surgeon, I am qualified to perform purely cosmetic procedures, like breast augmentation or liposuction, as well as reconstructive procedures, like breast reconstruction. I am also required to complete continuing medical education to stay up to date on best practices and techniques to deliver the best outcomes for my patients.

What Does Board Certification Mean?

The American Board of Medical Specialties (ABMS) sets the professional standards for board certification. The American Board of Plastic Surgery (ABPS) is the only board recognized by the ABMS for plastic or cosmetic surgery of the face and body. Certification by ABPS shows dedication to safety, quality, and education.

All boards have varying requirements for certification, but generally speaking, they each require relevant and approved training, experience, and passing some type of exam. To earn my board certification through the ABPS, I was required to take a written exam following my residency training, practice for two years, and then complete an oral exam. Dr. MacLennan serves as an examiner for the oral exam for new plastic surgeons because she believes that certification and education are crucial.

You may see some plastic surgeons who are certified by other boards or have double- or triple-board certifications. This largely depends on the specifics of their training and background. In addition to ABPS certification, some plastic surgeons may be certified by the American Board of Surgery or the American Board of Otolaryngology.

The importance of membership in ASPS and The Aesthetic Society

The American Society of Plastic Surgeons (ASPS) is the largest organization of plastic surgeons in the world. Their mission is to advance quality care to patients by maintaining a high standard of training, ethics, practice, and research in its members. They are committed to patient education and safety.

The Aesthetic Society supports the medical education of surgeons as well as patient education and advocacy. The organization has stringent membership requirements and a strict code of ethics and is comprised of members who are dedicated to the art, science, and safe practice of surgical and non-surgical aesthetic treatments. Only one-quarter of American Board Certified plastic surgeons have been accepted as members of the society.

Dr. MacLennan and I are both active members of ASPS and The Aesthetic Society.

Schedule a Consultation

To learn more about my credentials or to discuss a procedure that interests you, schedule a consultation. We can answer any questions you have about plastic surgery or a specific procedure and help you understand your best options. Call (802) 231-4284 or contact us online.