Plastic surgeryOverview

Plastic surgery is used to repair and reconstruct missing or damaged tissue and skin.

Plastic surgery is used to repair and reconstruct missing or damaged tissue and skin.

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 from 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.

Read more about 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

Plastic surgery can often help improve a person's self-esteem, confidence and overall quality of life.

Availability of plastic surgery

Reconstructive plastic surgery is usually carried out free of charge on the NHS. But availability varies around the country and is determined by local clinical commissioning groups (CCGs).

Plastic surgeons have extensive training and belong to professional associations, such as the British Association of Plastic Reconstructive and Aesthetic Surgeons (BAPRAS).

Check whether a particular surgeon belongs to 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 it 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

The main techniques used during plastic surgery are:

  • skin grafts – where healthy skin from an unaffected area of the body is 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's repositioned
  • tissue expansion – where 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 techniques, plastic surgeons also use many 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
  • prosthetic devices, such as artificial limbs

Read more about how plastic surgery is performed.

Risks of plastic surgery

As with any type of surgery, plastic surgery has associated risks.

The degree of risk depends on the size of the affected area, the surgeon's level of experience, and the overall health of the person having the procedure.

Some procedures carry specific risks, but general risks include:

  • pain and discomfort
  • bleeding
  • infection
  • scarring

Contact your surgeon, healthcare team or GP immediately if you have any concerns after surgery, such as unexpected pain, swelling, discharge, or other side effects.

Page last reviewed: 07/06/2018
Next review due: 07/06/2021