Millennials and Gen Z Want Greener Cosmetic Procedures

Millennials and Gen Z are most ready to avoid plastic and opt for a less wasteful procedure.

In the world of cosmetic surgery right now, fat is where it’s at, doctors say.

Some patients, tired of regular filler appointments, are gravitating toward fat injections that last longer than nonorganic injections. Others are opting for fat injections because they just want to avoid plastic.

“There’s a huge population that is anxious about putting foreign materials into their body,” said Dr. Benjamin Caughlin, a Chicago-based plastic surgeon who posts on TikTok as @manyfacesofchicago. “It doesn’t get more natural than using your own fat.”

Much has been written about “Zoom dysmorphia” and constant camera-on working environments affecting body image. Caughlin speculates that is playing a part in the boom at his practice: Business is up 40% over last year.

For people who struggle with their body image, video calls can exacerbate those issues even further. Insider reporter Anna Medaris says there needs to be a larger conversation about which meetings need to be camera-on and which don't to protect employees' mental health.

And plastic surgeons say their youngest patients — Millennials and Gen Z — are most ready to avoid plastic and opt for a less wasteful procedure.

“That population is more and more involved in the greenness of the world. They're open to changing their looks and they care about the environment,” Caughlin said.

Doctor calls for more change, less waste

Dr. Clifton Meals grew more interested and concerned about the climate and the medical field’s impact following the birth of his son, now 7 years old.

Meals, an orthopedic surgeon who also teaches plastic surgery at Emory University School of Medicine in Georgia, co-authored the 2020 paper “Four Ways Plastic Surgeons Can Fight Climate Change.” 

He says in the operating room, doctors are not thinking about using less materials, or what can be reused.

“It’s impossible to ignore how incredibly wasteful those environments are,” Meals said. “Someone like me can point to something on the shelf without any idea of where it came from, or how much it cost, or what it might have taken to put it there,” he added. “And then just say, ‘bring me that,’ or ‘oh shoot, I dropped it! Bring me another one.’”

Plastic surgeons do a lot more than just vanity procedures. They help people recovering from an amputation and burns, for example.

A plastic surgery case that lasts eight hours could easily cost a six-figure dollar amount, Meals said. And a lot of plastic could be used.

“Big waste, big expenditures, ignorance about cost and environmental effects is the norm, unfortunately,” Meals said.

He estimated an eight-hour procedure could produce 10 full-size trash bags of waste that goes straight to a landfill. And while some surgeons are becoming more cognizant of their waste, Meals said “we’ve only begun to make a dent.”

For hand surgeons like Meals, increased sustainability could mean sterilizing and reusing some equipment, like the blades used in a carpal tunnel surgery, which tend to get thrown out after just one use.

The paper Meals worked on made four big recommendations for making cosmetic surgery more climate-friendly:

  • Better use of material - Surgeons should wash, sterilize or reuse what can they can. And use less material overall. For example, Meals said it’s not uncommon for surgeons to cover a hand surgery patient in paper to create a sterile environment. But do a patient’s feet really need to be covered to have a safe hand surgery?
  • Energy efficiency - The lights in the room could be dimmed or turned off in favor of the operating room lights. And lights could be switched out for more energy-efficient LEDs.
  • Better techniques - The paper urged “effective minimalism” where possible — like avoiding full-body anesthesia when a patient is having a local procedure. Surgeons can also prepare “green sets” — in other words, pre-selecting only the necessary medical equipment needed for a procedure, instead of grabbing more and more supplies throughout the process. 
  • Spreading awareness - This could be charts on the wall of the operating room ranking the climate impact of each medical supply. If surgeons were constantly faced with a reminder of the cost and impact of the supplies they used, they could be incentivized to use less, the paper suggests.

Meals says insurance companies and financial incentives could be the path to making surgeries greener in the future.

“Insurance companies, who pay for a lot of our health care, may tell a patient that the insurance company would rather not pay their bill at a hospital they know to be wasteful,” he said. “As soon as it becomes a financial incentive, it will become trendy.”