If you’ve ever read an article about aesthetic procedures on The AEDITION, you know we always encourage you to look for or ask to see before and after photos during the research and consultation process. Why? Because they offer the chance to visualize a provider’s experience and aesthetic, in addition to being a great way to better understand what kind of results are possible.
With the rise of social media (specifically, Instagram and TikTok), images and videos of patients before and after a procedure have become an indispensable educational and marketing tool for aesthetic providers. But how do you know if you can trust what you see? From what to look for to best practices, we’re breaking down everything you need to know about before and after photos in aesthetic medicine.
The Value of Before & After Photos in Aesthetic Medicine
As it turns out, before and after photos are as much for the provider as they are for the patient. “Photos are critical in plastic surgery,” says Jason Roostaeian, MD, a board certified plastic and reconstructive surgeon in Los Angeles. “They show the result in part so we can see it but also so we can be better surgeons.” As he explains, plastic surgery is a “visual art,” and before and afters give providers a chance to critically view their work and their technique across patients.
And then there is the patient component. The imagery allows patients to get a sense of how often a provider performs the procedure(s) they are interested in, if they operate on people who share similar traits, and what their overall aesthetic is. In some cases, these photos — especially the ones featured on social media or a provider’s website — may serve as the patient’s first impression of the provider. They are looked at during the research and discovery phase (i.e. before a consultation is scheduled). The commercial value of these photos means there could be pressure to make results look as optimal as possible. Balancing business interests with transparency and ethics is, needless to say, crucial.
Are Before & After Photos Regulated?
There are rules that govern patient photos, including before and after images. Firstly, patient confidentiality means that the provider must ask the patient for permission before sharing any photos. The gray space existis in how the photos are taken and where they can be shared once patients sign off.
In a 2018 article in the AMA Journal of Ethics, the authors examine the issues of social media advertising for plastic surgeons in particular. The current lack of regulation surrounding the promotion of before and after photos on social media means that the onus is on the providers to represent their work honestly. In turn, it’s up to patients to look at the images with a level of caution. While there have been varying efforts to regulate the practice, no formal guidelines have been enacted to standardize the practice of taking and sharing before and after photos of cosmetic surgery results.
With that said, many providers take great care to ensure their photos are as accurate as possible. Practicing so-called ‘photographic hygiene’ is a good start. This includes:
- Setting up a dedicated photo space
- Using a standardized backdrop
- Having controlled lighting
- Maintaining consistent space between the patient and camera
- Taking and sharing multiple angles
These steps go a long way toward allowing prospective patients to look at a provider’s work in a more complete manner.
How to Look at Before & After Photos
If you are wondering whether or not you can trust the before and after photos you see on social media, the answer is not simply yes or no. Instead, you should look at the images critically, and Dr. Roostaeian recommends the following:
1. Be Mindful of Editing
“As a doctor, you know when people use photoshop,” he says. But how is a patient to know? Try to compare several different photos of the same procedure; it can often help you spot which ones have been manipulated. Natural skin texture is a good indicator, too. If skin appears unnaturally smooth, it could be an indicator that the photo has been edited.
2. Look for Multiple Angles
Best practices indicate that providers will take multiple photos from multiple angles of the same patient. “Look for six angles, including side views,” Dr. Roostaeian notes. “And make sure the photos are taken straight, not crooked.” While providers may only post a single angle on social media, they often feature more on their website. If you are interested in seeing more, message them or call their office.
3. Be Wary of the Zoom Effect
We’re not talking about the Zoom effect from our increased time on video calls, but rather the impact zooming in or out can have on how the before and after will present. As Dr. Roostaeian explains, using zoom can distort features, making them look bigger. On the flip side, zooming out can make features look smaller. A good rule of thumb is to observe whether all the photos of a particular procedure have been taken from the same distance.
4. Value Video
“Video tends to be lower quality, so it’s more difficult for the patient to see results than in a still photo,” Dr. Roostaeian says. So while videos should not replace before and after photos, they can complement them. Even if you might not be able to see the patient in the same level of detail, you may be able to get a better sense of proportion and perspective.
5. No Makeup Makeup
Is the patient wearing makeup in some photos but not others? The reality is that it isn’t always possible for providers to get makeup-free before and after photos of every patient (and it may not even be necessary to). It is, however, worth keeping in mind that the results of some procedures may be affected by makeup.
When viewing before and after photos on social media or on a provider’s website, it’s important to do so with an informed eye. While the imagery is undoubtedly important, there is another important factor to consider when choosing a plastic surgeon or cosmetic dermatologist: recommendations. Dr. Roostaeian suggests reaching out to your network for referrals and to hear directly from patients about their experience.
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