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An Overview of Plastic and Cosmetic Surgery in the UK


Since 2000, cosmetic procedures alone have increased by a startling 132%, with almost 15.5 million procedures being performed worldwide in 2016. While the results for 2017 have not yet been calculated, that figure is only expected to rise.

Plastic and Cosmetic Surgery

As there are a wide variety of surgical procedures available, it’s easy to confuse the different terms that specific surgical techniques refer to. The most common being the difference between plastic surgery and cosmetic surgery. While they may appear similar practices, closer inspection finds that the two are, in fact, very different.

A common reason why the two medical disciplines are often confused is because both surgical techniques focus on changing the appearance of particular areas of the body. However, this is where the similarities end. Below is a guide to clarify the major differences between plastic and cosmetic surgery and shed light on the surgical techniques used in each.

The History of Plastic and Cosmetic Surgery   

Plastic and cosmetic surgery has seen astonishing growth and transformation over the last 60 years. Of course, plastic and cosmetic surgery dates back as far as 2000 B.C. However, it was only during the 1940s when plastic surgery had become a trusted alternative to living with physical disfigurements.

The History of Sir Archibald McIndoe

Born in New Zealand but trained in the UK, Sir Archibald McIndoe has become a household name in the world of plastic surgery. McIndoe went on to specialise in the treatment of burns victims and became the consultant surgeon to the Royal Air Force in the Second World War.

Although plastic surgery had established itself in the First World War, only three experienced plastic surgeons were based in Britain once the Second World War broke out in 1939. McIndoe was based in East Grinstead during this time and wanted his hospital to specialise and treat ‘airman’s burn’ which was caused when a plane’s fuel tank exploded, usually causing severe burns to the pilots. The most vulnerable areas were the pilot’s hands and face, as these were often left exposed. McIndoe successfully treated several hundred airman, giving them new faces and hands, with many being able to fly once again. 

These patients became known as the ‘Guinea Pig Club’, because much of the work McIndoe performed was experimental and had never been done before. As these surgical techniques were new, operations were often painful. Some patients’ surgeries also took several years before their hands and faces were completely reconstructed.

McIndoe made extra effort to inform the staff and wider community alike not to treat the pilots any differently. East Grinstead became known as the town ‘that did not stare’ and the pilots integrated back into ‘normal’ life.

The Development of Plastic Surgery Throughout Time

Since then, plastic surgery has experienced tremendous progress. One year after the Second World War saw the publication of the first medical journal for plastic surgery. The journal increased communication about new developments in the medical and surgical community. Plastic surgery began to grow so quickly and was becoming more accepted and trusted by the public and medical professionals alike.

Since then, virtually all types of plastic and cosmetic surgery have undergone considerable technological advancements. During the mid-2000s, the plastic and cosmetic surgery market rocketed as the media became more aware of its presence and shows such as Extreme Makeover and Nip/Tuck gave plastic and cosmetic surgery a global platform.

Plastic and cosmetic surgery has now become a multi-billion-pound industry. The demand for plastic and cosmetic surgery has never been higher, with over 17 million successful procedures performed in 2016. Breast augmentation, facelift, liposuction and rhinoplasty continue to hold their place in the top ten as some of the most popular procedures.

Today, modern technology continues to expand the horizons of plastic surgery and outdated surgical techniques are now becoming a thing of the past. The advancement of technology has not only yielded greater results, but has seen drastic improvements in the safety and efficiency of surgical techniques. From its earliest beginnings to its most recent developments, the world and history of plastic surgery continues to evolve.

What is Plastic Surgery?

Plastic surgery is a term used to describe a wide range of surgical techniques that are specifically dedicated to repair damages to facial and body defects. This can be due to disorders from birth, severe injuries, burns and even disease. Plastic surgery is reconstructive in nature, meaning that this form of surgery is primarily to repair, not to enhance. Some common examples of plastic surgery include: 

  • Breast reconstruction after a mastectomy.
  • Repairing damage from an accident, such as skin grafts to treat burns.
  • Correcting cleft palates.

What is Reconstructive Surgery?

Reconstructive surgery is essentially the mainstay of a plastic surgeon’s work. Many people are often confused by the three terms; plastic, cosmetic and reconstructive surgery but let this serve as a general rule:

The vast majority of plastic surgery procedures carried out in the UK are, in fact reconstructive.

Reconstructive surgery is used to treat a wide range of conditions and focuses on repairing an affected area of the patient’s body in order to restore function. Similar to plastic surgery, it is performed to reconstruct bodily structures affected by defects at birth, trauma, injuries, disease, infections and tumours. 

What is Cosmetic Surgery?

Cosmetic surgery primarily focuses on enhancing a person’s appearance. The procedures seek to improve aesthetic appeal and achieve proportion. Cosmetic surgery is able to be performed on almost all areas of the head, neck and body. Additionally, cosmetic surgery is elective, meaning that patients are able to pinpoint the areas of their body they’d like to ‘improve’ in order to achieve their desired results.

A Look into Plastic Surgery

Plastic surgery has helped transform millions of lives for the better and with new medical discoveries being made every day, the future of plastic surgery looks bright.

Who is Plastic Surgery For? 

Candidates for plastic surgery are commonly those who: 

  • Are born with birth defects
  • Have been involved in a serious accident (injuries)
  • Suffer with severe burns
  • Have undergone major surgery

For example, if you have had a cleft pallet since birth, the surgery will not only repair the affected area, but also reconstruct it in an aesthetically pleasing way. In some cases, patients may require more than one visit to a plastic surgeon. This is because the area where your surgery was performed may simply require further surgical attention. 

The Physical and Emotional Benefits of Plastic Surgery:

Similar to cosmetic surgery, plastic surgery has the chance to restore a patient’s confidence following a procedure. For example, if a patient has suffered from third-degree burns, they may experience low self-esteem, anxiety over their physical appearance and severe physical discomfort. Plastic surgery is able to remodel areas of the affected skin to disguise any disfiguration caused by the burns or scars. Not only will this surgery grant better mobility to the affected areas but it has the ability to drastically improve the appearance of a patient’s skin. This will also help them live every day with more confidence. 

Who is Cosmetic Surgery For? 

As a general rule, anyone can have cosmetic surgery, providing that the patient is healthy enough (both physically and mentally) to undergo the surgery and that they meet the requirements of the surgeon performing it. A common reason patients opt for cosmetic surgery is because they are unhappy with a particular area or feature of their body. This can be anything from breast augmentation surgery to thread vein removal.

In some cases, a patient may be refused cosmetic surgery because they do not meet the criteria. For example, if a patient required a hair transplant but their surgeon believed their hair loss was not severe enough, or they were simply too young to have the procedure, the patient may be refused surgery. 

Cosmetic Surgery for Men

While cosmetic surgery is extremely popular among women, men are now realising the benefits. Procedures such as liposuction, hair transplantation and rhinoplasty are becoming increasingly popular among men. The stigma of plastic surgery for men is slowly being lifted and with celebrities such as Wayne Rooney and James Nesbitt proudly supporting and discussing their surgical experiences, more men are beginning to feel confident regarding their decision to undergo cosmetic procedures.

The Physical and Emotional Benefits of Cosmetic Surgery

The physical benefits of cosmetic surgery merit the emotional benefits. For example, some women may opt for breast augmentation surgery due to post-pregnancy physical changes in order to restore their breasts to their former, youthful appearance. However, some patients may have always been unhappy with their breasts and simply want to change the shape, size or general appearance of them.

Many patients who have undergone cosmetic surgery have expressed feelings of renewed confidence and self-esteem. Some of whom have even benefited psychologically because of their new and ‘improved’ look.

Who Performs Plastic and Cosmetic Surgery?

Plastic surgeons can perform both types of surgery (cosmetic and plastic). Although, many cosmetic surgeons will not be able to perform plastic surgery. The reason for this is because the two are so different and plastic surgery requires a different (usually higher) qualification level. Cosmetic surgeons, however, do not necessarily have to undertake such extensive medical training. They do however, still have to be highly qualified in order to perform surgery.

When considering cosmetic surgery, it is absolutely essential that you check your chosen surgeon’s qualifications. As cosmetic surgery is becoming more popular, there are a number of under-qualified surgeons operating within the business, many with just a basic medical degree.

Paying for Cosmetic and Plastic Surgery

Due to the vast majority of plastic surgery cases being essential, you may find that that your surgery will be covered by the NHS. Although, certain procedures are no longer covered by the NHS – such as breast reduction and varicose vein removal (it is recommended that you check what procedures are covered). Additionally, waiting lists for certain surgeries (carpel tunnel syndrome, for example) are becoming longer. It is advised that if you are looking to reduce the waiting time for your selected surgery, consider speaking to one of our consultant surgeons at The McIndoe Centre to see what they can arrange. 

However, cosmetic surgery is very rarely covered by the NHS, as it is considered elective surgery. Unless the patient is in serious physical or emotional discomfort, then they may be a candidate. It’s important to remember, however, that these situations are incredibly rare and are ultimately down to the discretion of the medical professional(s) assessing the condition.

Choosing your Plastic or Cosmetic Surgeon at The McIndoe Centre  

Our consultants have been handpicked because of their surgical skill and experience within the fields of plastic and reconstructive surgery. We recommend that you always seek a surgeon who is registered on the GMC register and belongs to either BAAPS or BAPRAS (British Association of Plastic and Reconstructive Aesthetic Surgeons). 

At The McIndoe Centre, all surgeons are GMC registered and belong to BAAPS and/or BAPRAS. Additionally, they all follow the Professional Standards for Cosmetic Surgery set by The Royal College of Surgeons. 

For all Plastic and Cosmetic Surgery Enquiries

If you have any concerns about undergoing plastic or cosmetic surgery, you can always call The McIndoe Centre Helpline on 0800 917 4922. Or, if you’d like a consultation with one of our top surgeons, feel free to fill out our contact form and we shall get back to you as soon as possible.

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