What is cosmetic surgery?

Cosmetic surgery is an elective operation that alters or enhances a part of your face or body that you want to change. If you're considering cosmetic surgery, make sure you know what's involved before you decide.

"Cosmetic surgery changes a person's unwanted, normal appearance," says Professor Simon Kay, consultant plastic surgeon and member of the British Association of Plastic, Reconstructive and Aesthetic Surgeons (BAPRAS).

"If someone is born with a large nose, this is still normal, but they might feel it is undesirable." 

Surgery to change your appearance carries the same risks as any surgery. It's important to think carefully before deciding to have it. Read our guide to considering whether cosmetic surgery is right for you.

"The most common cosmetic surgery procedure in the UK is breast augmentation [enlargement or enhancement]," says Professor Kay. "After that, I would say the most popular procedure is eyelid surgery, or some form of facial rejuvenation [making the face look younger]."

Other procedures include rhinoplasty (nose job), liposuction (removal of unwanted fat by surgical vacuum), abdominoplasty (removing skin and fat from the abdomen, also known as a tummy tuck) and labiaplasty (reshaping of the labia that surround the vagina).

Cosmetic surgery or plastic surgery?

Despite often being referred to interchangeably, cosmetic surgery and plastic surgery are not the same thing.

Plastic surgery focuses on repairing and reconstructing abnormal structures of the body caused by birth defects, developmental abnormalities, trauma, infection, tumours or disease. 

Although cosmetic surgery is a type of plastic surgery that alters someone's appearance, it is carried out to change a healthy person's appearance to achieve what they feel is a more desirable look. While this can have a positive impact on your self-esteem, there is no physical or medical reason to have the procedure.

Can I benefit from cosmetic surgery?

A recent market research report found that fewer than 10% of cosmetic interventions were carried out primarily for health reasons. "It is a lifestyle choice for many people," says Simon Kay.

Anyone who is having surgery for cosmetic reasons must understand that surgery won't solve life's problems. However, according to Professor Kay, some people find that cosmetic surgery benefits their health by improving their self-esteem.

"Some people can become very troubled by their natural and normal appearance," he says. "We know that it can contribute to depression or low self-esteem, so there are health benefits of surgery for people like this."

Is cosmetic surgery safe?

Cosmetic surgery is not risk-free, and carries the same general risks as all surgery, including infection and blood clots, as well as risks associated with the specific procedure. "There's also the risk of wound infection, bleeding and scarring, but these are rarely life-threatening or long-term," says Professor Kay.

After cosmetic surgery, there will be bruising and swelling, which can take weeks or months to go down, depending on the procedure. Some procedures for example, anything involving an implant will require antibiotics.

A responsible surgeon will make sure that you have appropriate follow-up care. This might include a wound inspection a week after the operation and a check-up at six weeks.

BAPRAS warns that not everyone carrying out cosmetic surgery has been trained as a plastic surgeon. Read more about choosing a properly qualified surgeon.

Worries over PIP breast implants

French-made PIP breast implants were banned in 2010, after it was revealed they contained industrial silicone rather than medical-grade fillers, and that they are far more prone to rupturing (splitting).

About 47,000 women in the UK are believed to have had the implants. The NHS will remove PIP implants without charge, whether they were fitted on the NHS or privately. Normally, the NHS won't replace PIP implants with another brand, unless they were originally fitted on the NHS.

Read more about what to do if you are affected by PIP implants.

Is cosmetic surgery painful?

Surgery is carried out under general anaesthetic. Patients might need morphine for pain relief after some procedures, and will probably be prescribed painkillers to take for a few days afterwards. 

"A lot of the operations aren't painful," says Professor Kay. "With rhinoplasty it's very unusual to have pain. Breast or abdominal surgery has a bit more pain."

Is cosmetic surgery available on the NHS? 

Cosmetic surgery is sometimes provided on the NHS, but only for psychological and other health reasons. For example:

  • breast implants for severe underdevelopment or asymmetry
  • nose reshaping for breathing problems
  • tummy tucks for excess fat or skin after weight loss or pregnancy

The NHS might pay for a breast reduction operation if the weight of a woman's breasts is causing her back problems.  

Reconstructive or plastic surgery can be available on the NHS. This is surgery to restore a person's normal appearance after illness, accident or a birth anomaly.

It includes procedures such as rebuilding breasts after a mastectomy, or repairing a cleft palate (when the two sides of the roof of the mouth don't join properly).

Research suggests that most patients who have plastic surgery for cosmetic reasons pay to have the operation performed privately.

Article provided by NHS Choices

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Page last reviewed: 06/03/2017

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