Cosmetic disease

In the December 28 Science Times in the NYT, an interview by Claudia Dreyfus with Angela Christiano, associate professor of dermatology and genetics at Columbia University Medical Center, noting that

Last summer, she announced the discovery of the genes implicated in alopecia areata, the hair-loss disease that she herself suffers from.

Christiano reports speaking at the patient conference of the National Aleopecia Areata Foundation, after which many in the audience said

“We wouldn’t wish this on you, but we’re glad you got this disease.”

I understood what they meant. Without it, a serious geneticist might never have given their attention to what was thought of as a cosmetic disease.

That’s cosmetic disease ‘disease affecting only appearance’ (that is, a condition that is embarrassing, even disfiguring, but harmless, causing no physical pain or disability), with the non-predicating adjective cosmetic also seen in cosmetic surgery, cosmetic device (like breast and testicle replacements), cosmetic treatment (like teeth-whitening), and some other composites.

The line between cosmetic diseases and other conditions is none too clear. Female hirsutism and seborrhea (seborrheic dermatitis, or dandruff) seem mostly to be classified as cosmetic diseases, as is the rare uncombable hair syndrome (“spun glass hair”) and the more common leucoderma (acquired white patches on the skin), but there seems to be some disagreement about the status of acne, rosacea, and some types of psoriasis.

These categorizations are of practical significance, of course, since cosmetic diseases are likely to be treated as insignificant and inconsequential in comparison to other diseases — despite the often very considerable psychological distress than accompanies them.

There are also cosmetic diseases of animals and, in fact, of plants.


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