Cosmetic surgery v plastic surgery – understanding the difference

Posted: 16/05/2016


If you’ve always thought cosmetic surgery and plastic surgery were one in the same, you can be forgiven. A significant number of plastic surgeons choose to focus their practice on cosmetic surgery, and, as such, the terms are often used interchangeably. While cosmetic surgery and plastic surgery are closely related specialties, this is not technically correct.

Plastic surgery is defined as a surgical specialty dedicated to reconstruction of facial and body defects due to birth disorders, trauma, burns, and disease. It is intended to correct dysfunctional areas of the body and is reconstructive in nature. While many plastic surgeons choose to complete additional training and perform cosmetic surgery as well, the basis of their surgical training remains reconstructive plastic surgery. In fact, in 1999, the American Society of Plastic and Reconstructive Surgeons changed its name to the American Society of Plastic Surgeons to more strongly communicate the message that “plastic and reconstructive surgeons are one in the same”. 

Cosmetic surgery, however, is a branch of medicine where the procedures, techniques and principles are focused on enhancing the appearance. Improving aesthetic appeal, symmetry, and proportion are the key goals. Cosmetic surgery can be performed on all areas of the head, neck, and body. By definition, as the treated areas function properly, cosmetic surgery is elective. It is practised by doctors from a variety of medical fields, including plastic surgeons. 

Reconstructive surgery is, in its broadest sense, the use of surgery to restore the form and function of the body; maxillofacial surgeons, plastic surgeons and otolaryngologists carry out reconstructive surgery on faces after trauma and to reconstruct the head and neck after cancer. 

At Penningtons Manches, we have considerable expertise in dealing with claims arising from all forms of plastic surgery, including those where the patient concerned has required reconstructive plastic surgery to correct a cosmetic disability regrettably caused by the negligence of another medical practitioner. 

In one recent case, we represented a lady who recovered damages from her GP for a negligent delay in the diagnosis of a basal cell carcinoma, a form of skin cancer. That delay resulted in the need for aggressive facial surgery where an earlier diagnosis would have caused little or no cosmetic deficit. The case was based on the allegation that the GP had many opportunities and should have made a referral to a dermatologist but failed to do so. Instead, the GP repeatedly prescribed antibiotics and creams and falsely reassured our client that everything was fine, despite her concerns. Our client eventually saw a dermatologist who suspected basal cell carcinoma and ordered an urgent biopsy which confirmed the suspicions. She underwent surgical removal of the basal cell carcinoma from her nose. Thankfully the treatment was successful. We negotiated a settlement and the claimant received £17,500 in damages. 

If you are concerned that you may have received substandard care following any form of plastic surgery or cosmetic surgery, we would be happy to talk matters through with you to see how we can help.


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Penningtons Manches Cooper LLP

Penningtons Manches Cooper LLP is a limited liability partnership registered in England and Wales with registered number OC311575 and is authorised and regulated by the Solicitors Regulation Authority.

Penningtons Manches Cooper LLP