International Travel For Plastic Surgery Is Getting More Common - But Is It Really Safe?

If it seems like everyone and their mom has had plastic surgery, that's because cosmetic procedures have become almost as mainstream as facials and bikini waxes. According to the American Society of Plastic Surgeons, cosmetic surgical procedures rose 22% between 2000 and 2019.

But even as these procedures become more commonplace, price is still a barrier for many who wish to get nipped, tucked, and contoured. Most surgeries are at least in the four, if not five, digit range, and health insurance companies generally offer no coverage for purely cosmetic work.

One solution: Go to another country where costs are lower. Then, you could get a Brazilian butt lift (BBL) for the price of a MacBook Pro or a nose job for just a little more than the price of admission at Coachella. That means, with a little budgeting, you could have the face or figure you always wanted. But is crossing borders for plastic surgery really a good idea? While not guaranteed to be unsafe, there are certainly a lot of risks involved that you need to be aware of.

Plastic surgery performed anywhere comes with risks

Deciding to have plastic surgery overseas is a huge decision — even deciding to have plastic surgery in your home country is a decision that requires careful thought. Regardless of where the procedure is done, no plastic surgery is free of risks. For example, liposuction, the most popular procedure as of 2022 (per the American Society of Plastic Surgeons) can lead to infection, fat embolism (a life-threatening medical emergency), and serious kidney and heart complications, according to Mayo Clinic. BBLs, another trendy surgery, have earned the status of the world's most dangerous plastic surgery after a 2017 report published in the Aesthetic Surgery Journal noted that 3% of respondents experienced a patient fatality during the procedure.

Things get extra dicey when traveling internationally. For one, you might find overseas surgeons offering procedures that are banned or rarely performed in your home country due to their health risks. Advertisements promoting these and other surgeries, and usually at a bargain, typically gloss over the real dangers patients could face. In general, it's a good idea to be wary of any medical operation that boasts about costliness over safety.

Quality and regulations vary by country

Before you decide to book your appointment with a doctor in another country — because, why not, if surgery can be risky anywhere — you might want to take note of the laws and regulations of that country and how they compare to those where you live. "What's fascinating is that plastic surgery, in general, is very similar around the world," board-certified plastic surgeon and founder of Neinstein Plastic Surgery in New York City Dr. Ryan Neinstein revealed to PopSugar. "What's different throughout the world is the regulatory environment."

Senior epidemiologist with the CDC's Travelers' Health Branch Joanna Gaines echoes this, telling Time, "You want someone who is licensed to practice in the country that they are in, but know those standards may be different from those that we have in the U.S."

Some destinations offering the best deals for cosmetic procedures lack the safety standards of other more expensive countries. Take the Dominican Republic as one example. The Caribbean nation has earned a reputation for being a plastic surgery hub, yet it was also named the most dangerous place to visit for cosmetic work after a 2018 study published in the journal Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery found a high rate of postoperative infections among patients. As the researchers of the study posited, "Unfortunately, not all procedures performed abroad adhere to strict hygienic regulations, and bacterial flora vary. As a result, it is not uncommon for consumers to return home with difficult-to-treat postoperative infections."

Long-distance travel before and after surgery ups health risks

Enduring 12-hour flights and waiting around in airports may seem like minor sacrifices for cheap cosmetic surgery, but long-distance travel can make you even more vulnerable to complications. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says that flying can increase surgery patients' risk of developing potentially life-threatening blood clots, and air travel should be avoided for seven to 10 days after getting cosmetic procedures.

The British Association of Plastic Reconstructive and Aesthetic Surgeons notes that staying hydrated and mobile (such as by walking around the plane during your flights) can boost circulation and mitigate blood clot risk, but these methods aren't fool-proof. Blood clots can develop at any time, including during the operation, meaning you could be forced to cancel your return flight to save your life — and that's only if you notice the signs that a blood clot is forming before it's too late.

Going abroad requires more steps to ensure safety

One of the appeals of traveling internationally for plastic surgery is how cheap, accessible, and quick the process can appear. In some cases, the lack of regulations can even seem like a plus for those looking to make an appointment, go under the knife, and spend a couple of restful days in a hotel before being sent on their way. "Many [people] see images on social media, and they want the cheapest, fastest route to those outcomes," Dr. Ryan Neinstein told PopSugar. "In some cases, by traveling abroad, they skip all the important but time-consuming steps."

If you try to cut corners by combining your next vacation abroad with a quick cosmetic procedure, you'll likely have to make up for it somewhere else. The steps that a doctor in your home country may already have built into their process might be up to you to organize if you head overseas. "You need to look at what kind of preoperative and postoperative care is in place," board-certified plastic surgeon Dr. Darren Smith recommended to the American Society of Plastic Surgeons. "And you need to make sure that there's a very safe system for you to be present locally after your procedure. And then there has to be a system in place for follow-up when you get back home because surgery is not just the two or three hours on the table, it's the month before and two months after the procedure."

If you decide to travel, here's how to choose a trustworthy surgeon

It's important to build a relationship with your surgeon before your appointment day, even if you're separated by hundreds or even thousands of miles. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention suggests researching the doctor and their facility to learn about their qualifications and accreditation. You can also search for a trustworthy international provider through organizations like Joint Commission International, the International Society of Aesthetic Plastic Surgery, and the American Society of Plastic Surgeons.

It's wise to have a video consultation with the surgeon — not an assistant or sales representative — to discuss the procedure and any concerns or questions before even clicking "buy now" on those flight tickets. And because the doctor can't see you in person, be sure to also book an appointment with your regular physician to make sure you don't have any illnesses or conditions that could put you at a higher risk of surgery complications.

If you have any doubts about a surgeon or clinic, listen to your gut and wait until you find another provider — or until you've saved up enough money to get the procedure done in your own country. While a new nose or snatched waist can wait, your health and safety can't.