Ask a Hairstylist: Are Perms Bad for Your Hair?

a woman with curly hair

Stocksy / Design by Camden Dechert

In case you missed it, long-lasting curls and body waves are springing up all over the place. Which, in this case, means one thing: Perms are back. Now, you're probably thinking that, yeah, it would be great to have beautiful body and curls galore, but let's not forget about the frizzy perms of the 1980s. Before jumping on the bandwagon, it's important to consider how a perm will work for your specific hair type.

Let's be honest: Although perms have been greatly improved over the past five to 10 years, they are can still cause some damage to your hair. While perms are safe for some hair types, some should think twice before undergoing the curling treatment. To help you identify where you stand on the styling spectrum, we chatted with a couple of stylists to uncover the four red flags to be aware of before getting a perm. Keep reading to learn whether or not a perm is right for you.

What Is a Perm?

First things first, let's have a little refresher on what a perm is. Stylist Mariel Falla explains that a permanent wave (aka a perm) is a thermal or chemical service that is done to restructure the hair. "It allows a person to wear their hair with waves or curls more often without having to use a wand daily," she explains. "A perm can also enhance the look of having body and texture on flat, pin-straight hair."

Meet the Expert

Mariel Falla is a hairstylist in Brooklyn.

How Long Do Perms Last?

While perms are considered a permanent hair treatment, the curl pattern created actually lasts anywhere from a few months to a year—not forever. Of course, the actual duration of the perm depends on your hair type. According to mizu salon educational director Damian Santiago, a variety of hair types are all good candidates for a perm. "I recommend a consultation with a perm specialist so that safety concerns and texture questions can be properly addressed," he says. Falla adds on to this, noting that damaged, dry, chemically processed, and colored hair should proceed with caution when considering a perm. Find out why below.

Meet the Expert

Damian Santiago is the educational director at mizu salon.

Are Perms Safe?

When done correctly—with your specific hair type in mind (more on that below)—Santiago says there's little to worry about in terms of the health of your hair. However, it's worth noting that the chemicals used to create perms can be dangerous. According to the California Board of Barbering and Cosmetology, exposure to the chemicals found in some perming solutions can cause everything from headaches and nausea to redness, itching, and even burning. And, while it should go without saying, ingesting the chemicals—which include alcohol, ammonium thioglycolate, boric acid, hydrogen peroxide, and more—can exacerbate nausea and lead to more severe side effects. So, while the technology is there to ensure that perms are safe for your hair, you still want to be careful about coming into contact with the solutions.

Now that we've covered the perm basics, let's talk about specific hair types.

Highlighted Hair

If your hair is more than 30-40 percent highlighted, you may want to think twice before perming. In fact, if your hair is highlighted at all, you might want to think again. Highlighting is damaging to your hair, so perming over-bleached hair that probably has some damage to the hair's cuticle already will likely cause big-time frizz. Plus, you'll have to touch up your highlights as you usually do, causing more potential damage.

While frizz can be smoothed with product, it can also be a sign of serious breakage caused by frayed cuticles. Your hairstylist can help you decide if your hair has too much color processing for a perm.

Dry Hair

Is your hair already dry, brittle, or frizzy? If so, Santiago and Falla point out that a perm will dry it out even more. You may consider reconditioning treatments and/or daily treatments to get your hair in shape and moisturized before considering a perm. The bottom line is, if your hair is frizzy before a perm, it will be drier and frizzier after a perm.

Lots and Lots of Short Layers

All those short layers look great with a sassy straight style, but how will curls look with all those layers? Remember, curls equal volume, so if your layers hit around your ears and jawline, you'll get volume there. Maybe that's a good thing if you have a very narrow face, but perhaps your head will resemble a mushroom with too much volume at that part of your face. Wait until after a perm to cut layers, or grow them out a bit before you get a perm.

Colored Hair

Although not as dangerous as perming overly bleached and highlighted hair, if your hair is colored, you may want to give more thought to a perm. It will be in your best interest to allow two to three weeks before and after your perm to color your hair. Also, keep in mind that a perm will likely lighten your color. As I said, perming over colored hair is safer than perming over highlighted hair, but anytime your hair has been previously chemically treated, a perm may cause unwanted damage.

The Final Takeaway

Perms are great, but they are not for everyone. It's important to discuss your hair type, maintenance, and type of curl desired with your hairstylist prior to getting a perm. They will also be able to help you determine what type of perm solution, perm wrap, and cut will be best for your desired results. Now, please re-read that and commit it to memory so that, under no circumstances, will you try to do this yourself at home with a box kit (because, yes, those exist).

Last but not least, like most beauty treatments, the life of your perm depends largely on the way you take care of it at home. "Curly hair is thirsty hair," says Falla. "Your home care after a perm should include a shampoo and conditioner intended to give your hair moisture. It is also important to incorporate a mask into your hair routine. A mask is used to replace your conditioner and is left on for at least five minutes once a week."

Up next: Discover how to use hot rollers for long, cascading waves.

Article Sources
Byrdie takes every opportunity to use high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial guidelines to learn more about how we keep our content accurate, reliable and trustworthy.
  1. Zhang Y, Alsop RJ, Soomro A, Yang FC, Rheinstädter MC. Effect of shampoo, conditioner and permanent waving on the molecular structure of human hairPeerJ. 2015;3:e1296. doi:10.7717/peerj.1296

  2. California Board of Barbering and Cosmetology. Permanent waving. Updated February, 2017.

  3. Gavazzoni Dias MF. Hair cosmetics: an overviewInt J Trichology. 2015;7(1):2-15. doi:10.4103/0974-7753.153450

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