The Guide to Getting a Perfect Perm

Olivia Munn with permed hair

@patrickta

The '80s called and they want their perms back. It could be because what was once the crinkly, crimped on-trend 'do decades ago has now become what's lauded as the modern-day, tailor-made perm. Nowadays, perms can be fine-tuned to give you the exact waves you're looking for, whether it be bouncy, voluminous strands (think: Jennifer Lopez) or corkscrew curls à la Emmy Rossum. Even a "straight perm," which will semi-straighten curly or wavy hair, can be created with a perm solution. To learn more about this coveted hair technique—including which hair textures it's ideal for, styling tips, as well as how long perms last—we spoke with professional hairstylist Michelle O'Connor. Keep scrolling to find her answers to all of our burning perm hair questions.

Meet the Expert

Michelle O’Connor is a professional hairstylist and the Artistic Director at Matrix.

What Is a Perm?

Short for "permanent hairstyle," the perms of the 80s meant permanently straightening, curling, or waving the hair via a chemical solution. Fast forward to present day and perms have become a recycled hair trend that now offers a sleeker way of altering the hair's texture. "Perms are most commonly associated with wrapping straight hair on hair rollers or rods and applying a perm solution on top," says O'Connor. "Then there's what's called a digital perm, which uses temperature-controlled rods and infrared heat to create loose waves and natural volume." The perm is activated by heat to break down the natural molecular structure of your hair—this results in restructured hair that mirrors the shape of the rods.

So, what exactly does the process entail? Brace yourself, because it could be a lengthy one that lasts all of two hours. "First, hair is set on rods based on the size of the curl that you desire, then a perm solution is applied over the rollers," says O'Connor. "This changes the hair structure and reshapes it to take on the curl size of the roller it’s been set on." Sounds dreamy, but how this fares on our precious locks in the long-run has us scratching our heads. "Perms can definitely cause damage, as they structurally change the hair in significant ways," says O'Connor. "But it’s usually not as harsh or drastic as bleaching, and having the right products that help to rebalance and fortify the hair will help tremendously." Phew.

What’s Different About Modern Perms?

Perms have made a major comeback in recent years, but contrary to how we're used to seeing them, they now take on a more slick, modern look. "Whereas perms in the '80s were rolled on tight rods, crunchy, and resulted in a stiff, harsh appearance, the perms of today flow more naturally and appear softer," O'Connor notes. And according to her, the rods used today mark a notable difference between old versus new. "Larger rods may be used to create beachy waves, and they can also be placed primarily at the root areas (versus the ends) to create lift and volume," she says. "I’ve also seen pipe cleaners being used on straight hair to create highly textured hair (oftentimes to mimic traditionally textured hairstyles like locs and Afros)."

How Long Does a Perm Last?

According to O'Connor, perms can last up to six months. 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 as natural-looking waves.

When it comes to perms, maintenance is key. Treat your hair as you would if your hair were naturally curly (or naturally straight, depending on the case). "Permanent hair color shouldn’t be performed immediately after a perm service," says O'Connor, noting that you should wait at least a week before dyeing. She adds that you should "Steer clear of parabens, alcohol, and sulfates in your haircare products, as these ingredients can strip your hair of moisture." Instead, opt for products that use buzzwords like replenish, moisturize, nourish, and hydrate. Below, she lays out some other noteworthy tips.

  • Avoid washing or wetting a new perm for at least two days after getting it done.
  • Limit the use of heat styling tools.
  • Use a moisturizing shampoo or one that's specifically designated for chemically-treated hair.
  • Protect hair from frizzing and tangling by pinning it up and sleeping with a satin cap.

Do Perms Work on Every Hair Texture?

"Perms work on hair types ranging from straight to wavy," says O'Connor. "When referencing perms for curly or highly-textured hair, this will translate to a permanent wave or curly perm, which involves the use of a chemical called ammonium thioglycolate." She adds that unlike perming straight hair, the process of waving textured hair involves applying the thioglycolate chemical to remove the natural curl, then rinsing it off. "The damp hair is then set in perm rods and a waving solution (also called a reshaping solution) is applied to set the hair in its new shape. This is then rinsed off and neutralized—this is considered a double processed service." 

Because perms are generally done in order to give the hair more body and bounce, O'Connor notes that you’ll have to adopt the principles that most naturally curly haired folks already contend with: taking care of your hair. "From protecting it at night to the concerted efforts you make to maintain hydration and nourishment, curls need moisture, whether they're natural or chemically-treated," she says. "Keep those things in mind and you’ll have the hair of your dreams!"

Does Hair Length Matter?

While your hair length doesn't play a role on if you can get a perm, the hair does need to be long enough to be able to wrap around the rod. "To achieve a good curl, you'll need to have hair that’s at least long enough to wrap around a rod two to two and a half times," advises O'Connor. "If you have layers, they won't affect whether you can get a perm or not, but the sizing of the rods you use may vary depending on the accommodation you need to give the assorted lengths." And just like curling your hair with a curling iron, the longer the hair you have, the more time it'll take to wrap around the perm rod.

Can You Perm Dyed Hair?

Virgin hair, or hair that has not been colored, makes the best candidate for a perm, but innovations in technology mean pretty much anyone can get a perm. O'Connor notes that while you can perm dyed hair, it’s inadvisable to perm hair that's been bleached or highlighted. Still, the last thing anyone wants is dry, brittle hair that breaks off in chunks, so consult with your stylist if you're on the fence.

How to Style Permed Hair

"The extra body that you'll get from your perm will make styling a lot easier," notes O'Connor. "Your go-to style will be a diffuser on a low heat setting—this will help encourage your curls to spring up." Or, you can also do a set at night that'll vary your texture, like doing braids on damp hair before bed that'll land you loose waves come morning. And while you can use hot tools, it's best to keep them on a low setting—no more than 300 degrees Fahrenheit—to ensure you're not frying your hair and stripping it of moisture.

The Best Products for Permed Hair

Below, find our favorite perm-enhancing styling products.

SH-RD Protein Cream
SH-RD Protein Cream $28
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Permed hair requires hydration and protection, and this protein-rich leave-in does exactly that: It locks in hydration with its silk protein complex and protects locks from chlorine, hot tools, and UV rays.

Herbal Essences Potent Aloe + Mango Shampoo
Herbal Essences Potent Aloe + Mango Shampoo $6
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Keep curls looking their very best with this curl-specific, sulfate-free shampoo that's made with aloe, antioxidants, and sea kelp extract.

Matrix Wild Boho Texturizing Air-Dry Cream
Matrix Wild Boho Texturizing Air-Dry Cream $18
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The name says it all—if your look calls for a carefree bohemian look, O'Connor recommends this air-dry cream. It'll give a tousled, textured look, sans heat.

Marc Anthony Curl Defining Lotion
Marc Anthony Curl Defining Lotion $8
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Permed hair can be prone to frizziness and flyaways. Keep both at bay with this lotion that's resistant to humidity and leaves curls feeling bouncy and silky smooth—just as they should be.

Kristin Ess Strand Strengthening Reconstructive Moisture Mask
Kristin Ess Strand Strengthening Reconstructive Moisture Mask $14
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O'Connor stresses the importance of hydration and nourishment on permed hair, and this color-safe mask delivers on all fronts. It conditions damaged hair follicles (specifically dry ends), detangles hard-to-brush locks, and drenches hair with moisture and shine.

Bounce Curl Light Creme Gel
Bounce Curl Light Creme Gel Bounce Curl Light Creme Gel $18
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This lightweight gel boasts a fragrant scent of exotic fruits and promises extra-hold for any curl shape, from beachy waves to springy curls.

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