Cosmetic Surgeons vs. Plastic Surgeons

What’s the Difference?

There are many questions and misconceptions about Cosmetic Surgery today. To help patients make educated choices about cosmetic surgery, the American Academy of Cosmetic Surgery (AACS) has designed a special patient education brochure. This brochure explains the difference between Cosmetic Surgery and Plastic Surgery, the criteria to use when choosing your Cosmetic Surgeon, the truth about messages in the media, questions about board-certification and the multi-disciplinary nature of Cosmetic Surgery. AACS encourages patients to view the entire brochure before making decisions about healthcare providers.

What is the difference between cosmetic and plastic surgery?
Cosmetic Surgery is a unique discipline of medicine focused on enhancing appearance through surgical and medical techniques. Cosmetic Surgery can be performed on all areas of the head, neck, breast and body. Because treated areas function properly but lack aesthetic appeal, Cosmetic Surgery is elective.

Plastic Surgery is defined as a surgical specialty dedicated to reconstruction of facial and body defects due to birth disorders, trauma, burns, and disease. Plastic Surgery is intended to correct dysfunctional areas of the body and is reconstructive in nature.

AACS has designed a special patient education brochure explaining the difference between Cosmetic Surgery and Plastic Surgery, and how to choose your Cosmetic Surgeon. This brochure clears up misconceptions in the media, issues about board-certification and the multi-disciplinary nature of cosmetic surgery.

How does the education differ between a cosmetic surgeon and a  plastic surgeon?
As there is no residency program specifically focused on Cosmetic Surgery, physicians who wish to pursue Cosmetic Surgery have different backgrounds. First, a physician must go through medical school and a residency program, preferably in a surgical specialty such as General Surgery, Otolaryngology (head and neck surgery), Dermatologic Surgery or Plastic Surgery. After proving competent in anatomy, physiology, pathology and basic sciences, a physician may attain board certification in their specialty and then continue their post-residency training specifically in Cosmetic Surgery. This can be done through a fellowship program (a one-on-one observational and training program with an experienced Cosmetic Surgeon), as well as through workshops, seminars and lectures. Physicians with enough experience in Cosmetic Surgery may choose to become certified by the American Board of Cosmetic Surgery.

Plastic Surgeons follow the same educational timeline as many Cosmetic Surgeons. After finishing medical school they complete a residency in Plastic Surgery, learning to treat defects of the face and body including tumors, cleft palates, deformities, hand repair and burn injuries. A physician may then become certified by the American Board of Plastic Surgery. At this point, a Plastic Surgeon may take the same steps as a General Surgeon or Dermatologic Surgeon to gain experience in Cosmetic Surgery — through a fellowship training program, workshops, seminars and lectures, and then become certified by the American Board of Cosmetic Surgery after gaining more experience.

What does it meant to be “Board Certified”?
Board certification is one of the many yardsticks in determining a surgeon’s qualifications. It is important to ask your doctor about his or her credentials and study them carefully. Each certifying board has different requirements and measures a physician’s education and experience in different fields. Check your doctor’s board certification and professional society affiliation(s) and call the board or society to find out what the requirements are for membership.

All Fellows of the American Academy of Cosmetic Surgery are certified by the American Board of Cosmetic Surgery and/or have their initial board certification by one of the member boards of the American Board of Medical Specialties (ABMS) such as the American Boards of Dermatology, Otolaryngology, Ophthalmology, Oral and Maxillofacial Surgery and Plastic Surgery. This provides some assurance of formal training in the fundamentals of Cosmetic Surgery. All of these specialty boards require at least four years of residency training in plastic and/or cosmetic surgical procedures and provide a solid base for the doctor’s skills.

Many of these board-certified physicians will then go on to complete the requirements to undergo the rigorous oral and written testing and scrutiny to become board-certified by the American Board of Cosmetic Surgery, which has established a strict set of criteria to ensure experience and proficiency specifically in Cosmetic Surgery.

What is the American Board of Cosmetic Surgery?
The American Board of Cosmetic Surgery is the only certifying board exam devoted to examining a surgeon’s skill in Cosmetic Surgery of the face, breast and body. It is an independent sub-specialty board that examines and certifies physicians in general, facial and dermatological Cosmetic Surgery.

Eligibility requirements include:

  • Being certified in one of several ABMS Boards (including the American Board of Plastic Surgery, American Board of Surgery, American Board of Dermatologic Surgery, or the American Board of Oral and Maxillofacial Su.rgery)
  • Completing an AACS-approved fellowship,


  • Being in practice a minimum of six years and having performed at least 1000 Cosmetic Surgery cases
  • Passing a stringent two-day oral and written examination
  • Being of good moral character

You can learn more about the ABCS and find physicians board-certified in Cosmetic Surgery at

What does it mean to be a Fellow/Associate member?
Fellow members of the American Academy of Cosmetic Surgery must be board certified by an ABMS-approved surgical specialty or the American Board of Cosmetic Surgery, be actively involved in Cosmetic Surgery by performing at least 100 cases per year, and provide a letter of recommendation from a current AACS Fellow member or hospital Chief of Staff.

Associate membership in AACS is for medical and dental professionals who have not yet met all of the requirements for Fellow membership, and want to pursue their interest in Cosmetic Surgery. Once Associate members become eligible, they may choose to upgrade their membership to Fellow.

All applicants for membership are reviewed by the Academy’s Board of Trustees.