The perm is about as iconic of a hairstyle as it gets. But today’s permed hair is a much more natural version than yesterday’s. These curls and waves are loose and vary in size like naturally curly hair — think beachy haphazard waves versus tight, uniform curls. And if you’re wondering how to give you hair volume, a perm is a great way to add texture to flat or limp strands. But like coloring your hair, getting a perm is a chemical process and requires a different set of hair care rules. If you’re thinking about getting a perm, consider this your guide to everything you need to know: we’re breaking down styling tricks and product picks for permed hair.
What exactly is a perm?
The term perm is short for "permanent" because it permanently changes the structure of the hair. It’s a chemical treatment that breaks down the protein bonds of the hair, giving it a new texture. The perm process has undergone a major transformation since the ’80s; the techniques being used today limit damage both from the chemicals and the heat required. Today’s perm is looser, wavier, and makes the perfect hairstyle for those with thin hair. A perm can last anywhere from four to six months. Because you're changing the hair's texture, a perm has to grow out. But perms aren't only for transforming straight hair into wavy or curly — the treatment works the other way too. Because the chemicals in a perm alter the structure of the hair it can also be used to straighten curly or natural hair.
If you’re considering a perm, you should know...
If the perm is a hairstyle you’re considering, the first thing you should do is talk to your hairstylist. They know your hair type, texture, porosity, past treatments, and color history and will let you know if you’re a good candidate. Then arm yourself with these tips for permed hair. After that, there are some general rules and tips to prolong the life of your perm and to keep your hair healthy.
photo by Cassell Ferere
Styling tips and tricks for permed hair
- Prep your strands for the perm by hydrating and strengthening them with a conditioner and hair mask treatments leading up to your appointment.
- Be gentle with your newly permed hair the first few days because the chemicals used continue to form new bonds for two or three days.
- Avoid washing and wetting your newly permed hair for at least two days. Washing your hair too early can interrupt the perm process before it’s finished.
- Don’t use a flat iron or other heat styling tools before your first wash. This can also affect the bond re-forming process.
- Wait at least three days before swimming in chlorinated water. The chemicals in swimming pools can be very harsh to your perm.
- Avoid combing your hair in the first 24 hours. Use your fingers to gently style the hair and to twirl the curls around your face.
- When you do comb, use your fingers or a wide-tooth comb to gently detangle your wet hair while it’s covered with the conditioner. Use gentle strokes to avoid breakage.
- And whatever you do, avoid using a hairbrush at all costs. Brushing can break up curls and make them look frizzy and messy.
- Avoid putting your hair in a ponytail or a bun and avoid using hair elastics and tight clips. Leave your hair loose for the first two days to maintain the proper shape of your new texture
- When you do wash your hair, make sure it’s with a sulfate-free shampoo and gently massage your scalp while shampooing. Wondering how often you should wash your hair with a perm? Aim for every 2-3 days. Always follow with a conditioner. This makes combing easier and infuses your thirsty strands with moisture. Use lukewarm water when you rinse and gently squeeze with a microfiber towel to dry.
- Invest in a silk pillowcase to protect your curly permed hair from friction, tangles, and frizz while you toss and turn.
- For at least two weeks following your perm don't be tempted to color or highlight your hair. Additional chemical treatments can stress and break your hair.
- Let your hair air dry whenever possible. If you absolutely must use a blow dryer use a blow dry primer and only blow-dry 85 to 90 percent and use a diffuser on low heat.
photo by @goldandglowco
Must have styling products for permed hair
Use styling products designed for curly hair. These will keep your curls smooth and frizz-free. And be sure to avoid products with alcohol (which can dry hair out) and silicone (which can weigh your curls down). These are the best styling products for permed hair.
- A curling mousse will keep your hair hydrated and protect fragile permed strands. It also helps control static and frizz and makes your curls soft and bouncy.
- A curl defining cream contains moisturizing ingredients to smooth and define curls. Apply your cream to clean, towel-dried hair for perfectly defined curls.
- A serum for curly hair will help tame frizz and make your curls shine. You can apply your serum on towel-dried hair or dry hair.
- A strong hairspray gives the hair a humidity-resistant structure without weighing it down. And it’s easy to work with when styling your curls.
The best-permed hairstyles
Whether you want something soft and beachy, or more classic and curly, there’s a perm look for you. Below are our favorite hairstyles for permed hair
Curly hair perm
A perm can be used to enhance your natural curl pattern, making it more defined. Alternatively, if you have tight curls, a perm can relax your curl pattern into waves. It’s all in the technique your stylist uses to create your new texture.
Long hair perm
If a long head of cascading curls is your hair dream, perm your straight strands. Both tight curls, loose waves, or a mixture of both work well on long hair. But keep in mind that the longer your locks, the longer the perm process will take.
photo by Cassell Ferere
Short hair perm
A perm is a great way to add movement and texture to short hair. But, because there’s less hair to work with, your stylist will need to use smaller rods to set the curls. The smaller the curl, the tighter the pattern.
Medium length perm
You have options when it comes to the curl pattern for medium length hair. Your length gives you the option of tight or loose curls. And your medium length means you don’t have to worry about them being too heavy around your face.
Fine hair perm
Beachy waves are the best option when it comes to perming fine hair. The final hair look depends on the final result you want to achieve. Beach waves look casual and effortless while adding major texture to limp strands.
Natural hair perm
If you have tight ringlets or natural hair, a perm can loosen or straighten your curl pattern. A straight hair perm is known as a relaxer and can give you silky smooth strands. But, like all chemical processes a perm causes damage to your hair, so keep your hair hydrated to avoid breakage.
A spiral perm gives you a defined, corkscrew curl. It instantly adds volume to fine hair and makes it look thicker. The spiral perm was one of the most popular in the ’80s and looks super retro in an updo.
If you’re looking for a less harsh way of perming your hair, an acid perm may be for you. It gives you loose s-shaped waves with less damage to hair than with an alkaline perm.
Alkaline perms vs. acid perms: what’s the difference?
There are two chemicals used for a perm, alkaline, and acid. Alkaline perms are the most commonly used of the two. Alkaline perms use ammonia as the main ingredient. No heat is used to activate the ammonia, but it’s very strong, with a pH balance of between 8.2 and 9.6. This gives a stronger curl that lasts longer. It is more damaging to the hair though. Acid perms are less harsh on the hair, using a chemical called glyceryl monothioglycolate, with a pH balance of between 4.5 and 6.5. Heat is needed to activate this chemical, and it takes longer for the hair to set. An acid perm is gentler on the hair and produces a looser curl that doesn’t last as long. Most people prefer alkaline perms to acid perms because of the quicker process and longer-lasting results.
Final thoughts on permed hair
The perm is back and it’s better than it was before. Today’s perm is much more natural, mimicking the pattern of natural curls. And getting a perm is a low-maintenance option for adding texture and volume to otherwise limp strands. But getting a perm is a chemical process that requires a different set of hair care rules. No matter what your hair texture or hair color is, there’a a perm for you. Whether you want tighter curls, or boho beachy waves, we’ve got the best types of perms, styling tricks and hair products you need for permed hair.
by Jaclyn LaBadia, featured contributor
cover photo by Cassell Ferere
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