How Is Getting Cosmetic Surgery Different From Buying a New Car?

The American Society for Aesthetic Cosmetic Surgery released its annual statistical report this week. It makes for surprisingly interesting reading.

The headline is that total procedures (surgical and non-surgical) fell by 12 percent between 2007 and 2008. If anything, that decline strikes me as small. In economic terms, cosmetic surgery would be thought of as a luxury durable good that is a discretionary purchase. When the economy temporarily turns south, durable-good purchases plunge (e.g. automobiles) as consumers delay buying. Luxury goods are also hurt especially badly when the economy tanks. My guess is that the overall 12 percent decline in cosmetic procedures masks an automobile-industry-like decline in the last few months of 2008.

There is a key difference between the auto and cosmetic surgery industries, however. If you delay the purchase of a new car, your current car gets older and more rundown until you finally have no choice but to purchase a new one. Your body also gets older and more rundown, but unlike with a car, when things get too far gone, you just give up and never have the cosmetic fix-ups done.

Here are the statistics. People who are 35 to 50 years old get the most cosmetic work done, accounting for roughly 45 percent of the business. People in the 51- to 64-year-old range represent 26 percent of the procedures. People 65 and over, however, are responsible for only 6 percent of all the procedures.

Within procedures, there are further strong age patterns. Breast augmentation and nose jobs are heavily tilted toward the young. Tummy tucks are for 35- to 50-year-olds. People between 51 and 64 get facelifts.

Unlike the auto industry (although maybe not American automakers), which presumably will come back extremely strong, people might permanently skip their cosmetic procedures. Moreover, cosmetic procedures are complements with each other; if you never get that breast augmentation when you are young, or the tummy tuck in your forties, the value of a facelift when you are 60 is probably dramatically reduced.

How much longer can the Obama administration turn a deaf ear to the needs of the cosmetic surgery industry? It is long past time for a bailout.


The answer is anthropological. 'Beauty' has always been admired in society. As the old rules of survival of the fittest are changing people have less ability to differentiate themselves from their peers (apart from keeping up with and exceeding the Jones' in terms of ridiculous 'wealth' - an option open to fewer and fewer people) therefore they look to other means - particularly with the brainwashing and lack of original thought that is prevalant in the (western) world today. Luxury good? As the following article on the blog seems to suggest, cosmetic surgery is merely becoming what people have to do to retain their status in a sick society - and maybe even get or keep a job. Why don't you guys talk about marginal utility? Too simple? Your schools are showing through...

Giovanni Ciriani

My guess is that the slowdown was concentrated in the 3-4 months of the year. That would translate an annual 12% decline, to a more plausible 36%-48% period over period, which would be in line with the decline for large ticket items, like cars, or luxury goods.


if there were a cosmic rule that you have to spend it before you die or reach nirvana, I would say aesthetic consultation and manipulation surgery is a means to continued consumption in a mind framework of

never grow old, never ever die young

needs an overhaul

Rather than the decline in the number of procedures, I'd like to see the decline in revenue. I suspect the procedures being done are lower cost ones and that revenue is down greater than 12%.

Meagan B Call

There's a difference you don't mention: there is a certain ammount of "elective," "cosmetic," sugery that isn't purely vanity. If a teen has a lower jaw that needs to be reshaped to avoid catastrophic oral problems in later life, that's still considered cosmetic. I can't think of other examples off the top of my head, but I know there is a percentage of cosmetic surgery that isn't really elective.


How Is Getting Cosmetic Surgery Different From Buying a New Car?

$0 resale value

Clifton Ealy

Isn't another big difference that people traditionally use car loans to buy cars, and "facelift loans" are not traditional? So the fall in plastic surgery surgery is only a function of a fall in disposable income, while the fall in car sales in a function of both the fall in disposable income and the tightening of the credit markets.

Ray Ray

I suspect that many non-elective procedures are classified by HMOs as elective.

I am preparing to have a mole "cosmetically" removed from my face. For the past 34 years, the mole has been small and unnoticeable. Just recently it began abnormally growing yet my HMO (Kaiser) considers the procedure elective.

Letting an old car wear out and letting a cancerous looking growth continue to thrive on your face have very different risk factors.


Couple of comments:

A lot of new car purchases are "vanity" purchases, i.e. people buying a new car before they actually need one, or upgrading from one brand to another to acquire higher status. As such, these are actually fairly discretionary purchases.

For example, my wife and I have a combined 150,000 miles on our two cars, and have talked on and off about buying a new car to replace one of the them for several years, but we never have because both still run just fine and have plenty of miles still left in them.

Cosmetic procedures, I'm guessing, are primarily purchased by the rich, and although they may be a lot less rich than they were a year ago, most are still so rich that they will think nothing of blowing 5-10K to look prettier.

After all, even if your net worth has declined from 100 million to 50 million, or from 10 million to 5 million, you're not exactly hurting for money.



I disagree with your supposition that "if you never get that breast augmentation when you are young, or the tummy tuck in your forties, the value of a facelift when you are 60 is probably dramatically reduced."

You may be born with adequate cleavage, eliminating the need for the first procedure, and keep fit enough to avoid the second, but anyone lucky enough to reach 60 has had to deal with the force of gravity on the face. Don't see how skipping the first two procedures diminishes the value of the third.


I echo #5 Meagan B. Call's comments and can add a very good contrast:

Burn victim = elective cosmetic for quality of life.

Entertainer = elective cosmetic for career advancement.

So which has slowed down?


Recession spurs gold-digging, which could explain the low 12%.


Maybe they need to extend incentives and warranties. You know, so if your face gets hit on the way to work, can you call for a truck to haul off your broken nose.

And they could consider installing the "OnStar" hardware directly under peoples' cheekbones as a standard package. You get a look to match your chic heroin addiction, emergency "crash" assistance, and 100 talk minutes for a low, low introductory price of $14.99.


Pretty easy.

A new car last 7.5 years and gets you to work and back.

New burn/scar facial correction, breast implants/reductions, liposuction, rhinoplasty etc etc. last much longer than 7.5 years (possible liposuction exception).
Co-wokers like you more, give you rides to work, bosses see you are liked and like you more, get a raise.

Also, seeing a major improvement to your body puts a bigger smile on your face than looking out you window to see your salt encrusted, bird stained vehicle being keyed by the neighbors kids.

Pierce Randall

You can't put lipstick on pigs (apparently), but you can dump money in Chrysler and GM.

David Isenbergh

People --especially young people-- tend to be insecure about their looks, often more than is warranted. In an era characterized by suddenly massive insecurity, there may be a greater incentive than ever to invest in a make-over.


Facelifts are for older, laid-off people desperately trying to get a job. The other procedures are for middle-aged people who want to get/maintain relationships.


Does anyone know the male/female percentage breakdown on plastic surgery spending? I ask because I've seen statistics suggesting that this downturn is on average hurting male workers more than female workers.


You not only buy a new car, you buy a much smarter car. You not only get a new body, you get the profits of ego without the sweat.

i once surmised that as cars get smarter and smarter in taking care of themselves and moving about, and people get more inactive in caring for themselves and just sit about: the two will merge to form a new creation

under the theory of god created man so that man could create a god, which I read from a book of observation (i think they call those philosophies in higher places) of a central American native woodcarver.

that or i saw it in a 3D animated movie.


some plastic surgery is for repair of damage and is not discretionary. For instance:: breast repair after mastectomy for breast cancer or repair of unfused lips.