Introduction 

Plastic surgery is the branch of surgery specialising in repairing and reconstructing missing or damaged tissue and skin, usually because of surgery, illness, injury or an abnormality present from birth.

The main aim of plastic surgery is to restore the function of tissues and skin to as close to normal as possible. Improving the appearance of body parts is an important, but secondary, aim.

Plastic surgery is different to cosmetic surgery, which is surgery carried out solely to change a healthy person’s appearance to achieve what they feel is a more desirable look. There are separate pages on cosmetic surgery.

When plastic surgery is used

Plastic surgery can be used to repair:

  • abnormalities that have existed from birth, such as a cleft lip and palate, webbed fingers and birthmarks
  • areas damaged by the removal of cancerous tissue, such as from the face or breast
  • extensive burns or other serious injuries, such as those sustained during traffic accidents

Plastic surgery can also help a person recover their self-esteem and confidence following surgery.

Read more about why plastic surgery is used.

Availability of plastic surgery

Plastic surgery for reconstructive purposes is usually carried out free of charge on the NHS. However, availability can vary around the country and is determined by local clinical commissioning groups (CCGs).

Plastic surgery is performed by plastic surgeons with extensive training who belong to professional associations, such as the British Association of Plastic Reconstructive and Aesthetic Surgeons (BAPRAS).

Most people are referred to NHS plastic surgeons by their GP or a specialist consultant they see about their condition.

Plastic surgery is also available privately, but can be very expensive. It's still a good idea to speak to your GP or specialist first if you're considering private treatment, even if a referral isn't required.

Plastic surgery techniques

Plastic surgery uses a wide range of reconstructive techniques, but the main ones are:

  • skin grafts – where parts of healthy skin from an unaffected area of the body are removed and used to replace lost or damaged skin
  • skin flap surgery  where a piece of tissue from one part of the body is transferred to another, along with the blood vessels that keep it alive; it's called flap surgery because the healthy tissue usually remains partially attached to the body while it is repositioned
  • tissue expansion – surrounding tissue is stretched to enable the body to "grow" extra skin, which can then be used to help reconstruct the nearby area

As well as these main techniques, plastic surgeons use a wide range of other methods, such as fat transfer or grafting (where fat is removed from one area and inserted in another area, usually to correct unevenness), vacuum closure (where suction is applied to a wound through a sterile piece of foam to draw out fluid and encourage healing), camouflage make-up or cream, and prosthetic devices, such as artificial limbs.

Read more about how plastic surgery is performed.

Risks of plastic surgery

As with any type of surgery, there are risks and complications associated with plastic surgery. The degree of risk will depend on a number of factors, including whether the surgery is to a small or large area of tissue and the overall health of the person having the procedure.

Some procedures carry specific risks, but general risks include:

  • pain and discomfort
  • infection
  • scarring
  • the failure of the repaired area of skin, due to a restricted blood supply

Read more about the possible complications of plastic surgery.




Page last reviewed: 08/04/2015

Next review due: 08/04/2017