Cosmetic procedures: ethical issues


Published 22/06/2017

Report cover cosmetic procedures
Surgery tools

Emerging ethical concerns

Having a cosmetic procedure, like other ways of changing or managing appearance, can be experienced as positive and enabling. However their prevalence also offers scope for harm for both individuals and society. A number of significant concerns about such harms emerged early in the project (see our analysis of their ethical implications).

The social and economic pressures described on this page can encourage people to feel they have to conform to particular expectations about appearance. Cosmetic procedures are not simply a matter of personal choice.

The anxiety associated with pressures to conform to particular appearance ideals, and their potential impact on mental health, is a matter of public health concern.

The social expectations and ideals people are encouraged to conform and aspire to are not necessarily ethically neutral. Many cosmetic procedures reflect and promote existing gender, disability, and racial norms: for example encouraging women to feel that it is unacceptable to look their age; or strengthening preferences for whiter skin. This may reinforce existing inequalities, despite competing shifts in social attitudes towards diversity and inclusion.

Teenagers may be particularly sensitive to peer pressures. They are also at a vulnerable stage of development with respect to their sense of their own identity. Their access to cosmetic procedures raises specific ethical concerns.

Smart phone resized

The cosmetic procedures industry both exploits and generates these appearance insecurities by marketing invasive cosmetic procedures as ‘solutions’. These are offered in environments that are, or feel, medical – and that are therefore associated with relationships of trust and concern for patient welfare. These associations raise further ethical concerns with respect to practitioners’ responsibilities towards users / patients.