Cosmetic Surgeon vs. Plastic Surgeon: What is the difference?

The term Plastic Surgery can be confusing for most people.  One must understand that the word Plastic is derived from the Greek word Plastikos.  The term is actually a verb which means to mold or shape. Plastic Surgery is a field that is composed of two main sub-specialties including reconstructive plastic surgery, which involves the restoration of body function that has been damaged by trauma, disease or birth defect, and aesthetic (cosmetic) surgery, which is a reshaping of the body to improve appearance only.  Therefore reconstructive Plastic Surgery is often covered by insurance and cosmetic plastic surgery is not.

Training: Now in order to fully understand the difference between a Cosmetic Surgeon and a Board Certified Plastic Surgeon we should look at the training required for each. A physician referring to themselves as a cosmetic surgeon might belong to any medical specialty including dermatology, gynecology or a family practice and they then decide that they would like to perform cosmetic procedures.  The training can be anywhere from a one year of training to a series of short weekend courses.  

The training for a board-certified plastic surgeon is much more extensive.  Following a completion of medical school, a board-certified plastic surgeon serves first a surgical residency for at least 3 years and sometimes five years.  During this residency they are trained in all aspects of surgery followed by a 3 year residency which is focused on plastic surgery training. This process can take 6 to 9 years and many further their training in fellowships including hand, micro-vascular pediatric and cosmetic surgery. Therefore the amount of and the wide scope of training is the key differentiator between a Plastic Surgeon and a cosmetic surgeon.

Board certification is another major difference between a cosmetic surgeon and a Plastic Surgeon. 
Cosmetic surgeons who claim to be board-certified may have received their certificate from the American Board of Cosmetic Surgery, this board is not recognized by the American Board of Medical Specialties. Alternatively, they may be certified by their specialty board which may not even be a surgical specialty, such as internal medicine. Cosmetic surgeons referring to themselves as board-certified can be misleading if you don’t know the right questions to ask.

It is always important to confirm that a plastic surgeon has been certified by the American Board of Plastic Surgery (ABPS) – the only Board recognized by the American Board of Medical Specialties (ABMS) to certify doctors in the specialty of Plastic Surgery. Only ABPS diplomates can call themselves a Plastic Surgeon. In Canada, a patient should look for certification by the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons of Canada (RCSC). International plastic surgeons should be board-certified in their country of origin.

In conclusion, if you are considering any type of aesthetic/cosmetic procedure, it is prudent to be aware of the education and training of the surgeon you’re considering for your procedure. You can verify the credentials of a doctor by checking with your state medical board or verify you are seeing a board-certified plastic surgeon whose practice focuses on aesthetic surgery by visiting  to select a Surgeon. Choose Well.

Joseph W. Rucker M.D. 



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