For the naturally curly- and kinky-haired among us who prefer a sleek look, straightening is a routine struggle. Not everyone has the kind of time, expertise, or patience needed to flat-iron their hair on the regular. But if you're interested in breaking up with your iron forever, there are options for waking up with pin-straight hair every day.
Enter: the straight perm. As the name implies, a straight perm—aka Japanese hair straightening, thermal straightening, or thermal reconditioning—is a treatment that uses chemicals and heat to permanently straighten hair. If that sounds like veritable hair sorcery, you're not totally wrong—which is why straight perms require spending hours in a salon chair, not to mention hundreds of dollars.
But if you don't have plenty of leisure time and extra cash to spare, is it possible to do a straight perm at home? We asked three top hairstylists exactly how to achieve a salon-quality, DIY straight perm—here's what they said.
Read on to learn exactly how to give yourself a straight perm.
Meet the Expert
- Kim Kimble is a celebrity hairstylist based in Los Angeles whose clients include Beyoncé, Oprah, and Shakira. She is the founder of Kim Kimble Beauty.
- Sean Hogan is the hairstylist and owner of De Stijl salon in Portland, Oregon.
- Danita Hampton is a hairstylist based in Waxhaw, North Carolina, and lead educator for Covet & Mane hair extensions.
What Is a Straight Perm?
"A straight perm is a chemical treatment that straightens natural curls, similar to how a perm creates curls on naturally straight hair, but without the rollers," Hampton explains. "Heat is usually applied with a flat iron to lock in the treatment."
Straight perms differ from other types of straightening treatments—like keratin treatments and chemical relaxers—in important ways. "A keratin treatment smooths the hair but doesn’t straighten it," Hampton explains. "It’s more of a semi-permanent option to help reduce frizz and even loosen or smooth curls." Relaxers straighten curls and waves like a straight perm does, Hogan explains, but relaxers don't require heat to straighten the hair; straight perming does.
So who's a candidate for straight perming? People with curly or wavy hair can try straight perming if they want a sleeker look, Kimble says.
But if your goal is to tame frizzy texture, a straight perm isn't the service for you. "It's not like a smoothing treatment, it’s a straightening treatment," Hogan says. "If your hair is frizzy, you’re just going to have straight, frizzy hair."
Also, straight perming is a no-go if your hair is colored or bleached. "You can't do it over color and you can't do it over lightener," Hogan says. That's because processed hair is often too weak to handle the strong chemicals in the perming solution, leading to breakage and hair loss.
This brings us to the biggest downside of straight perming: Because of the serious chemicals involved here to break hair's protein bonds, permanent hair damage is a risk of this treatment, even if it's done on virgin strands. "It can damage your hair or change your curl pattern," especially if done improperly, Kimble warns.
"As a professional, I would not recommend doing an at-home chemical straightener/perm to avoid over-processing your hair and causing potential hair loss," Hampton explains. "If you do, consult a stylist to ensure you’re a candidate and even ask for recommendations. In general, if your hair has been processed or is brittle or damaged, you should avoid it."
How to Prep Hair For a Straight Perm
Depending on the perming kit you use, your hair may need to be slightly damp or fully dry, freshly washed, or a couple of days post-shampoo. This is why Hampton says it's crucial to read your kit's instruction manual thoroughly before starting the perming process.
Once you've read up on the directions and prepared your hair accordingly, gather your supplies. In addition to your perming kit—which usually contains perming solution and neutralizer—you need a tail comb, gloves, large clips (like duckbill clips), and a flat iron.
To minimize hair damage from snagging, use a flat iron with ceramic-coated plates, which glide over hair more easily than irons with uncoated metal plates, Hogan says.
Also, make sure your scalp is healthy, Kimble says; the harsh chemicals in perming products can seriously inflame existing irritation or scratches on your scalp.
How to DIY a Straight Perm
When you're all set to start perming, here's what to do:
- Brush or comb hair until it's tangle-free.
- Using your tail comb, "section [hair] in four sections, starting from the crown of your head, then work your way down to the ends," Kimble instructs. Use clips to secure each section.
- With gloved hands, apply the perm solution to your hair one section at a time. "Start about half an inch from your scalp and work your way to the ends," Kimble advises. Comb the solution through your hair so it's evenly distributed.
- Allow the solution to develop on your hair as long as your kit instructions recommend.
- Thoroughly but gently rinse out the solution in warm water; don't shampoo or condition hair unless your kit instructions explicitly advise it.
- Remove excess water from your hair by gently patting it with a towel; don't wring water from the hair or bunch it up, which can leave permanent kinks in the hair.
- Next is flat-ironing the hair; depending on what your kit instructions say, either iron the hair when it's fully dry, or iron the hair while it's wet until it's completely dry.
- If a neutralizer is in your kit, apply it to your hair, allow it to develop, and rinse as directed.
- Allow hair to air-dry.
- Avoid re-wetting or bending hair out of shape for 48 to 72 hours so as not to disturb your stick-straight new look. "Avoid buns, ponytails, and the like for a few days," Hampton says.
At-Home vs. Salon Treatment
Straight perms aren't nearly as popular as they were during their heyday in the early 2000s—"I haven't had anyone ask for one in, like, a bajillion years," Hogan says—but many salons still offer the service. Although the salon process for straight perming is more or less what you'd do at home, you're way better off in the hands of a professional, say all three of our stylists.
"I would highly recommend getting this done in a salon," Kimble insists. "It's safer and you have a professional doing it, so you know you're not going to damage your hair."
At the end of the day, a straight perm is permanent—which can be an upside or downside, depending on how much you like your results. "You’re softening the entire molecular structure of the hair and then re-hardening it into a new form, and if you go too much, there's no going back," Hogan says.
Even professional hairstylists can create unintended kinks in the hair during the straight-perming process, he explains, and any mistakes are there to stay. "There are so many variables for error and not enough for success," he adds.
"After any process, it’s important to be gentle with your hair and use proper products to help nourish and protect it," Hampton says. If your perm kit comes with specific aftercare instructions or products, use them, she urges.
When you can safely wet your hair again—your kit instructions will tell you exactly how long to wait—make sure to baby your newly straight hair. "Use moisturizing, hydrating, and hair-rebuilding conditioners," Kimble suggests. Bond-repairing hair products can help strengthen damaged hair and restore its elasticity; we like Amika The Cure Multi-Task Repair Treatment, a rinse-off mask that leaves hair feeling smoother and more manageable in 60 seconds.
Although you can expect your processed hair to be forever smooth, any regrowth at the roots—duh—won't be. "The new, untreated hair will be a different texture," Hampton explains. You can perm new hair growth in about six to eight weeks to avoid that business-on-bottom, party-on-top look. Just be careful to concentrate your application on the regrowth to avoid further damage to the treated hair.
The Final Takeaway
Doing a straight perm at home is absolutely possible if you have unprocessed wavy or curly hair, but it's risky even for the most committed DIYers. Before you perm, talk to a hairstylist to make sure you're a good candidate for the treatment. And if you're not sure you can pull off a straight perm safely at home, let a pro take charge.