Plastic surgery has become a huge industry in recent years, what with the growing inundation of beautifully enhanced celebs and plastic surgery reality TV shows. The consequences are that we're seeing a dramatic increase in both the number of model-esque individuals walking the streets, and the number of medical professionals specializing in plastic surgery. The term "cosmetic surgery" is a newer concept for most, and according to a 2004 study by the University of Iowa's otolaryngology department, the term means something different to patients than plastic surgery does.
Most of us think we have a full grasp of what plastic surgery means, but in actuality, there's a lot of specialized fields included under the plastic surgery umbrella that many don't consider "plastic". The term "plastic" in plastic surgery is derived from the Greek word "plastikos," which means to mold or to shape. This is why today's plastic surgery procedures can encompass maxillofacial surgery, craniofacial surgery, microsurgery, hand surgery and reconstructive work; plastic surgery involves the replacement, repair or reconstruction of almost any external area of the body. On the other hand, "cosmetic surgery" applies only to external surgical work that is accomplished for aesthetic purposes.
That's why the term "cosmetic surgery" began to be used to more clearly identify the plastic surgery procedures that are focused on aesthetic enhancement rather than reconstructive work. More specifically, cosmetic surgery is a sub-specialty of plastic surgery that focuses on enhancing parts of the face or body that weren't previously deformed or disfigured due to illness, disease or growth abnormalities. Cosmetic surgery alters and improves our appearance for purposes of anti-aging, or to combat the effects of dramatic weight loss or weight gain, rather than for functional improvement. However, many patients are still confused about the separation, and often have their own impression of what both mean.
The 2004 University of Iowa study, which involved over 200 adults and was referenced on webmd.com, revealed that many people believe cosmetic surgery is "more temporary and less technically difficult" than plastic surgery is. Additionally, study participants said they thought "cosmetic surgeons require less specialized training than plastic or reconstructive surgeons do". To say that cosmetic surgeons undergo less medical or specialized training is inaccurate, although their training does differ slightly from that of plastic surgeons. No wonder there is still a lot of discrepancy for patients when it comes to plastic surgeons vs. cosmetic surgeons. What is the difference between the two? What credentials factor into these titles?
Before being able to choose the right surgeon, it's important to note that knowledge of cosmetic surgery techniques can come with training in plastic surgery, craniofacial surgery, general surgery, opthalmology, otolaryngology, dermatology, microsurgery, etc.
What defines cosmetic surgery isn't so much the surgical procedure itself, but the purpose and desired goal of the procedure's outcome. For instance, breast augmentation surgery can be purely aesthetic, in order to enhance the existing breasts; or it can be medical or reconstructive, to repair or reconstruct malformed breast tissue. Consequently, a surgeon with training in breast augmentation would likely be able to perform breast surgery to meet either goal, making his surgical skills qualify as both plastic and cosmetic.
The reason we associate plastic surgeons in particular with cosmetic surgery, is because of the extensive, relevant training program plastic surgeons go through. According to the American Board of Medical Specialties (ABMS) website, "cosmetic surgery is an essential component of plastic surgery," and a plastic surgeon treats "physical defects of form and function involving the skin, musculoskeletal structure, craniomaxillofacial structures, hand, extremities, breast and trunk, and external genitalia, or cosmetic enhancement of these areas of the body". In other words, surgery for the sake of cosmetic enhancement, for a majority of the body, is built right into a plastic surgeon's required training.
Since there is currently no board certification for cosmetic surgery, a plastic surgery board certification is about the closest you can get to extensive cosmetic surgery training. While it's true that a board certified opthalmologist may have some knowledge of cosmetic enhancement surgery, it will be limited to their area of specialization, namely the eyes and eyelid surgery. If you want cosmetic enhancement surgery for the breasts, the skin, or to trim excess tissue around the waistline, an opthalmologist can't help you; however, a plastic surgeon will likely be well-informed on all of these areas.
To sum up, all plastic surgeons are cosmetic surgeons, but all "cosmetic" surgeons are not plastic surgeons. An oral and maxillofacial surgeon can be a cosmetic surgeon, but only if they offer facial surgery for the purposes of cosmetic enhancement.
So, if you aren't quite sure what cosmetic procedure you're after, you might be better off seeing a qualified plastic surgeon to adequately discuss all of your options. If there's a very specific procedure you want, and a general surgeon or specialty surgeon has training in the appropriate area, they should be able to help you as well. It really comes down to your personal preferences and needs in cosmetic enhancement.