Cosmetic or aesthetic surgery is a type of surgery used to change a person's appearance to achieve what they perceive to be a more desirable look.

In certain situations, cosmetic surgery may be needed for functional reasons – for example, breast reduction is sometimes used to relieve back or neck pain.

Cosmetic surgery is different from reconstructive plastic surgery, which is a type of surgery used to repair damaged tissue caused by surgery, illness, injury, or an abnormality present from birth. There are separate pages on plastic surgery.

Considering cosmetic surgery

Having cosmetic surgery is a major decision. It can be expensive, time consuming, and the results can't be guaranteed.

Sometimes people feel that having cosmetic surgery will help solve a problem in their life and will make their life better. 

It's important to ask yourself why you want to have cosmetic surgery. It's a good idea to discuss your plans with your GP before going ahead with treatment. If you decide to have surgery, be absolutely sure about your reasons for wanting to have it and don't rush into it.

Read more about whether cosmetic surgery is right for you.

Can I get cosmetic surgery on the NHS?

Cosmetic surgery is rarely available through the NHS. There must be a major physical or psychological reason for needing the surgery.  

In rare cases, a clinical commissioning group (CCG) may decide that cosmetic surgery is required to improve a person's health, although NHS resources are limited and waiting times are usually long. For this reason, most people pay to have cosmetic surgery privately.

Read more about the availability of cosmetic surgery.

Choosing a surgeon

If you decide to have cosmetic surgery, it's important that the surgeon and other healthcare professionals carrying out the procedure are fully qualified and experienced in the type of procedure you're having.

You should discuss the procedure in detail with your surgeon. Ask as many questions as you need to so you're fully aware of what the procedure involves, how it will be carried out, what the results might be, and what happens if anything goes wrong.

Read more about choosing a cosmetic surgeon and qualifications to look for in a cosmetic surgeon.

Surgical procedures

There are many different types of cosmetic surgery procedure. Some of the most common include:

  • breast augmentation – surgery to increase breast size using breast implants
  • breast reduction – surgery to reduce the weight and volume of the breasts
  • eyelid surgery (blepharoplasty) – surgery to remove excess skin from the upper and lower eyelids to get rid of hooded eyelids or eye bags
  • liposuction – surgery to remove unwanted body fat
  • ear reshaping (otoplasty or pinnaplasty) – surgery to treat protruding ears

Read more about common cosmetic surgery procedures.

Non-surgical procedures

A popular alternative to cosmetic surgery is non-surgical cosmetic procedures. These can change a person's appearance using injections and lasers, for example.

Common non-surgical procedures include:

  • botulinum toxin injections – such as the brand Botox; these help relax facial muscles and make lines and wrinkles less obvious
  • dermal fillers – injected into wrinkles or creases to fill them out
  • chemical peels – these use chemicals to remove the outer layer of skin cells
  • microdermabrasion – this uses fine crystals and a vacuum to remove dead skin cells
  • laser and intense light treatments – such as hair removal

However, there is little regulation of these procedures and many don't require the person who performs them to have any medical qualifications.

Read more about common non-surgical cosmetic procedures.

Making a complaint

As with all types of surgery, cosmetic surgery can sometimes go wrong and the results may not be what you expected.

If you've had cosmetic surgery and you're not happy with the results or you think the procedure wasn't carried out properly, take up the matter with your surgeon through the hospital or clinic where you were treated.

If you wish to take the matter further, you can contact the Care Quality Commission (CQC). The CQC is a regulatory body that all hospitals and clinics that provide cosmetic surgery must be registered with.

Page last reviewed: 09/04/2015

Next review due: 09/04/2017