The Guide to Getting a Perfect Perm

Updated 05/08/19
Vittorio Zunino Celotto for Getty Images

When you hear the word "perm," it's easy to think of the crinkly, crimped perm of the 80s. Thankfully for all of us, technology has far surpassed that. Today, perms can be fine-tuned to give you exactly the kind of wave you want—whatever that may be. You can simply add body to fine, limp hair; you can get loose, sexy waves; or you can go for the corkscrew curls that many straight-haired girls covet (and curly-all-their-lives girls tend to be sick of). Even a "straight perm," which will semi-straighten curly or wavy hair, can be created with perm solution.

So what should one consider when getting a perm?

Virgin hair, or that has not been colored, makes the best candidate for a perm, but innovations in the technology mean pretty much anyone can get a perm. Still, the last thing anyone wants is frizzy, brittle hair that breaks off in chunks, so consult with your stylist if you're on the fence. Nonetheless, gone are the days that hair type dictated whether you could get a perm or not. It's important to keep in mind that not all stylists today do perms, and because the process is so intensive, you don't want a technician who doesn't do them on a semi-regular basis. Call salons beforehand and ask if they have a perm specialist, book a consultation, and bring pictures of the type of hair you want. 

The process of getting a perm can take one to two hours, depending on how long your hair is, how thick it is, and how fast your stylist is. Avoid deep-conditioning your hair for at least 24 hours before the perm, because otherwise it may not take. During your treatment, your stylist will apply a single chemical solution to break the structural bonds in your hair, and later, another called a "neutralizer." The tightness of your curl depends on the size of the rod your stylist uses and the length of time the initial solution stays in. If you're worried you'll end up with too-tight curls, ask your stylist to show you the types of rods she is using, and if something doesn't look right, speak up! Afterwards, keep in mind that a perm takes 28 hours to relax, so you should give your hair a bit of time before you get too worried about the end result.

To straighten hair, a professional will apply the perm solution to curly hair, combing it out until it's straight and then rinsing out the solution. The hair has to be combed thoroughly and repeatedly so it doesn't re-curl, then a neutralizer is applied and rinsed out. To morph super curly hair into more waves or fatter curls, and keep it frizz-free and straight at the root, the stylist may wind your hair onto large rods. If you're not sure you should use perm solution to straighten, consider your other options: thermal reconditioning (also called Japanese straightening) and Brazilian straightening are both popular alternatives.

To maintain your perm, treat your hair as you would if your hair was naturally curly (or naturally straight, depending on the case.) Use hydrating shampoos and conditioners formulated for curly or permed hair, and condition regularly. Avoid styling products that contain alcohol, which can cause frizz. Before you leave the salon, be sure to get tips and product recommendations from your stylist. Advice for your particular hair and new style can save you a lot of time and money after the fact. 

Generally, perms tend to last about six months, and they're roughly as bad for your hair as coloring it would be. Unlike hair color, though, a perm won't wash out and can't be chemically reversed. A perm always has to grow out, but thankfully, they typically grow out to natural-looking waves.

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