From May next year, advertisements for cosmetic procedures designed to change a person’s physical appearance are to be banned to safeguard younger generations struggling with body image pressures. 

In 2019, more than 27 thousand surgeries were carried out in the UK alone; but alongside that, mental health figures are on the rise. Statistics from 2021 show that 1 in 4 people in the UK have been diagnosed with a mental health ailment, and 21% of those are aged between 10 and 19. 

Hagen Schumacher, a leading Plastic Surgeon from Adore Life in London explores how unachievable aspirations have become toxic, and why mental health cannot go ignored in the cosmetics industry. 

In October of this year, a law was enforced to prohibit practitioners from carrying out Botox and facial filler procedures on anybody under the age of 18. Hagen believes that social media has ultimately changed the perception of cosmetic procedures, making it crucial for practitioners to acknowledge the undeniable correlation between plastic surgery and mental health.  

“Previously, cosmetic procedures have been perceived as vanity, it is much more widely accepted. One of the main contributing factors to this wider acceptance is social media, which has painted a false and unattainable body image. I believe aspirations to fit the social media narrative is one of the main driving forces behind the sharp rise in mental health cases, particularly among the younger generation. 

Now, there is an undeniable link between cosmetic surgery and mental health. This puts a lot of emphasis on practitioners to understand and identify the psychological reasons behind patients opting for surgery.”

Studies show that the unrealistic expectations and beauty standards created by social media are the driving force behind patient insecurities. On average, 91% of 16 – 19-year-olds are heavily active on social media, spending around 136 minutes per day on any given platform, and multiple studies have shown that there is a very strong correlation between depression and social media use. 

Hagen adds: “I am not a mental health expert, but my feeling is that there is more focus on appearance within younger generations. They have grown up in a world heavily dominated by social media; and the constant comparisons, have distorted reality, making people feel insecure and therefore more vulnerable.

It is important for young people to realise that certain parts of the body continue to change into adulthood. Whilst cosmetic surgery has come a long way, it is still a serious medical procedure that carries significant risks and severe complications including infection, nerve, and organ damage, scarring, and anaesthesia complications, which could lead to strokes, heart attacks or death in extreme circumstances.

Legally, young people from the age of 16 can consent to medical procedures without the express permission of parents or carers. My personal preference is to wait until the patient is 18 years of age unless the patient’s concern poses a significant problem that is unlikely to improve on its own. 

Before agreeing or carrying out a procedure on somebody under the age of 18, I would first seek the support of parents, and the patient’s GP, and I would ensure each party fully understands the procedure and any risks. Furthermore, I will have an open discussion with the patient to find out exactly how their concern affects them, what they are hoping to achieve with surgery, and explain all risks and complications that may arise”. 

Hagen believes that the initial consultation process is crucial for practitioners to understand a patient’s concerns and identify any potential mental health ailments that may be influencing the decision. 

“When seeing a patient for the first time, I will ask several questions to help me identify any deep rooted mental health issues that may need addressing including medical history, body dysmorphia, and bipolar disease.

In instances where I believe surgery would benefit the patient, but there is a history of mental health issues I would seek opinions from the patient’s mental team, and GP to find out if they feel that patient can firstly make an informed decision about surgery, and secondly, if they feel that patient could cope with any adverse outcome or complication. If there is any doubt in my mind, I will not operate.”

The new regulations will place a ban on ads, including aspirational ads across all media including social media sites, billboards, and posters, newspapers, magazines, and radio as well as influencer marketing aimed, or likely to appeal to under 18’s.

Hagen explains that whilst this move will help to safeguard young people against unrealistic body image pressures, it will not stop patients seeking procedures.

“For years, professional bodies, including The Committee of Advertising Practice (CAP) 

have tried regulating this sector, but it has proven very difficult. These regulations may help alleviate anxieties around body image by providing patients with professional and realistic advice based on their needs rather than on business considerations. It will however not stop and should not stop people seeking surgeries for serious concerns that impact the overall quality of life. 

I urge all practitioners to understand why mental health cannot go ignored, and set out to give patients clear, concise, and honest information about the procedure. There also needs to be more education around industry titles and descriptions, so patients can make an informed decision on the best practitioner to help them and their individual needs, I think there is a lot of confusion around plastic surgeons, and cosmetic surgeons differ, and the specific training programs and requirements needed in each field.”