Why is it called plastic surgery?

One of the most common questions heard by plastic surgeons is “Why is it called plastic surgery?” This is a great question, especially when considering that modern procedures such as silicone breast implants do not contain any plastic. The terms plastic surgery and cosmetic surgery are often used interchangeably to describe the same thing.

Origin of the Term Plastic Surgery

Like many words in the English language, the origin of the word plastic comes from the Greek language. It is derived from the term plastikos, which means to mold or shape something. Therefore, the term plastic surgery has no correlation with the synthetic polymer that Americans know as plastic.

The term plastic surgery goes back nearly 200 years to 1818. This is when German doctor Carl Ferdinand von Graefe coined it to describe the process of doctors who molded or reshaped body tissues. Although it was not called plastic surgery at the time, the first instance of it can be traced back to the year 2000 B.C. At that time, people in India could have their nose cut off as punishment for a crime or during an act of war. Pre-historic surgeons reconstructed the nose by creating a wax replica and holding it in place with skin from the cheek or forehead.

What is Plastic Surgery?

Plastic surgery is sometimes confused with reconstructive surgery, but they are two different things. A simplistic definition is that plastic surgery is for aesthetic purposes and reconstructive surgery is to correct some type of deformity. For example, people who are unhappy with the appearance of facial sagging can have a facelift to tighten the skin. Someone whose face became disfigured due to skin cancer would be a good candidate for reconstructive surgery.

The Growth of Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery

This medical specialty really took off after World Wars I and II when soldiers required surgery for burns, missing limbs, and facial reconstruction. As the field continued to evolve, surgeons formed sub-specialties such as craniofacial surgery. When most people refer to plastic surgery today, they are talking about the elective type that enhances appearance.

Common Reasons for Desiring Plastic Surgery

While every patient has different reasons for desiring plastic surgery, the following are some of the most typical according to Cosmetic Procedure Guide:

  • Genetics: Perhaps a patient inherited the genes for a crooked nose or abnormally large ears that have made him or her feel self-conscious for years. Plastic surgery can make these features blend in better.
  • Anti-Aging: Skin care creams and eating a healthy diet only keep the signs of aging away for so long. A plastic surgery procedure such as a facelift can smooth out wrinkles and neck skin sag.
  • Sun Damage: In previous generations, people didn’t know as much about how the sun damages skin as they do know. That means many people have problems such as age spots, sagging skin, and unwanted freckling. A facelift or chemical peel procedure are two common plastic surgery procedures to correct these problems.
  • Scars: A scar on the face or another visible part of the body can have a devastating effect on self-esteem. This is true whether the scar is from acne, some type of assault or accident, or as the result of surgery. Examples of possible plastic surgery fixes include dermal fillers, laser skin resurfacing, and microdermabrasion.
  • Career Advancement: Some careers, particularly those in the performing arts or with constant public contact, require a more youthful and attractive appearance than others.


No matter what the reason for plastic surgery, the first step is to schedule a consultation with a plastic surgeon to find out if you are a good candidate for the desired procedure.

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