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Guide to cosmetic surgery

10-minute read

Key facts

  • Cosmetic surgery is any procedure which aims to improve your appearance.
  • Common cosmetic surgery procedures are: tummy tuck, liposuction, breast implants, and facelift.
  • Check that the doctor doing your procedure is qualified.
  • Find out the benefits, risks and costs before you go ahead with cosmetic surgery.

What is cosmetic surgery?

Cosmetic surgery is done to re-shape or change an otherwise healthy part of the body because of how it looks, not for a medical reason.

You might choose to have a cosmetic procedure because you believe it will improve your appearance. More than 1 in 3 Australians are consider having cosmetic surgery.

Some examples of cosmetic surgery are:

Reconstructive surgery

Reconstructive surgery is different from cosmetic surgery. It is designed to restore the appearance or function of a part of the body that has been damaged.

Reconstructive surgery is useful after:

Who can perform cosmetic surgery?

Cosmetic surgery can be carried out by:

  • a specialist plastic surgeon
  • other doctors who have been trained to carry out a limited list of cosmetic procedures

Plastic surgeons can also do reconstructive surgery for people whose bodies have been damaged in some way.

What is the difference between plastic surgeons and other doctors who do cosmetic surgery?

There is a significant difference between plastic surgeons and other doctors who perform cosmetic surgery.

Both must first train and qualify as a doctor.

To become a surgeon, a doctor must do at least 3 years of general training. They can then apply to the Royal Australasian College of Surgeons (RACS) to do their specialist training. After this extra training, they can obtain a specialist qualification recognised by the Australian Government.

Plastic surgeons are just one group of surgeons. Others specialise in different types of surgery.

By contrast, any doctor can do some cosmetic procedures. They do not need to complete further formal qualifications. It is legal for any doctor to perform many cosmetic surgery procedures.

There are differences in which procedures can be done by a general doctor in the different states and territories.

Doctors are not allowed to use the title ‘surgeon’, for example ‘cosmetic surgeon', unless they have specialist registration.

Where will my cosmetic surgery be done?

Some procedures must be done in a licenced facility. Visit your state health department website to check the current list.

Should I speak to my doctor before having cosmetic surgery?

It is a good idea to speak to your doctor before having cosmetic surgery. Your doctor is best placed to help you manage your overall health.

If cosmetic surgery is an option for you, your doctor can help you to plan cosmetic surgery safely and find a suitable surgeon. You can also talk to your doctor if something goes wrong after having cosmetic surgery.

FIND A HEALTH SERVICE — The Service Finder can help you find doctors, pharmacies, hospitals and other health services.

How can I find a qualified surgeon?

The Australian Health Practitioner Regulation Agency (AHPRA) has a register of qualified medical practitioners in Australia.

You can search the AHPRA database for a particular doctor by name to see whether a doctor is a specialist plastic surgeon. If your doctor is not a specialist plastic surgeon, they may still be able to do cosmetic surgery. However, you need to understand that they do not have the same qualifications as a specialist.

The AHPRA register will also tell you if your doctor is facing any serious disciplinary action.

The Australian Society of Plastic Surgeons has a list of all qualified specialist plastic surgeons in Australia.

The Australasian College of Cosmetic Surgery also has lists of people who practise cosmetic surgery. You can search their register for someone who has had training to do the procedure you are interested in.

What questions should I ask before I have cosmetic surgery?

There are many things to consider before you decide to have surgery of any kind. Ask questions about what is involved and about the risks. You can talk to your doctor about this, as well as the surgeon who will do the procedure.

Here are some specific questions to ask if you are considering cosmetic surgery:

  • What are your qualifications?
  • How many times have you performed this procedure, and how often do you do it?
  • What are the risks of this procedure?
  • How many people have experienced complications when you have performed this procedure and what were they?
  • Are there any alternative options to this procedure?
  • What kind of anaesthetic will I be given, and who will give it? What qualifications do they have?
  • What care will I need after the procedure and who will give it?
  • What will it cost and what do those costs cover?

You can also use the Question Builder tool to create your question list for the appointment. Prepare your list, then print or email it so you remember what you want to ask.

ASK YOUR DOCTOR — Preparing for an appointment? Use the Question Builder for general tips on what to ask your GP or specialist.

Body image and cosmetic surgery

From an early age, the media and people around us help form the image we have of our bodies. There is a lot of pressure to look good. You might feel like you must be thin or have an athletic body to look good.

Images of slim women and muscular men are common. But they do not match the real bodies that most people have. Images that you see in the media may have been ‘airbrushed’ or digitally edited.

Aiming for an unrealistic ideal body shape can lead to feeling bad about yourself and low self-esteem.

Remember, you’re not defined by the way you look. Having a healthy body is more important than what shape it is.

It’s important to reflect on your reasons for wanting cosmetic surgery. Here are some things you might think about:

  • Who am I having the procedure for? Is it for myself or am I trying to make myself more attractive for someone else?
  • Have I understood what is involved? Can I speak to a person who has had the procedure rather than read about it online.
  • Have I discussed it with a friend or family member?
  • Have I been influenced by advertising or a low advertised price?
  • Have I considered alternatives to cosmetic surgery?

What are some alternatives to cosmetic surgery?

You should think carefully about other options before deciding to have cosmetic surgery.

Some alternatives you can look into are:

  • non-surgical skin treatments such as peeling or microdermabrasion
  • injectable fillers for cosmetic purposes
  • counselling to improve your self-esteem
  • lifestyle adjustments to help improve your health, such as exercise and healthy eating

What does it cost to have cosmetic surgery?

Always ask for a quote for the costs of your procedure. Cosmetic surgery is not usually covered by Medicare or private health funds.

Should I have cosmetic surgery overseas?

Some people think about having cosmetic surgery overseas because it may cost less. However, there are extra things to think about.

It can be difficult to get good information about the qualifications and experience of a doctor in another country. You will not be able to visit the clinic before you travel. You should also check the general safety of the destination country.

When researching medical tourism (having medical treatment in another country), think about:

  • the quality of care and health standards at the destination country
  • whether your travel insurance covers your plans
  • what you will do if any complications happen after surgery
  • if the clinic or hospital is accredited by the local government
  • if the practitioner is qualified and experienced
  • your chances of catching an infection that is resistant to antibiotics (difficult to treat)

Resources and support

Visit the Australian Department of Health Cosmetic Surgery resources page to find out how to have cosmetic surgery safely.

Visit the Australasian College of Cosmetic Surgery and Medicine to learn more about different types of cosmetic surgery.

If you have concerns about the quality or outcomes of your cosmetic surgery, call the Australian Health Practitioner Regulation Agency (AHPRA) Cosmetic Surgery Hotline on 1300 361 041.

You can read more about body image at the Butterfly Foundation.

You can also call the healthdirect helpline on 1800 022 222 (known as NURSE-ON-CALL in Victoria). A registered nurse is available to speak with 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

Learn more here about the development and quality assurance of healthdirect content.

Last reviewed: December 2023

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