When thinking about perms, the images that come to mind span from ’80s Jheri curl mullets to Carrie Bradshaw's infamous curls in the early ’90s. But these permed styles are not just a thing of the past. Permanent solutions are back on the scene, making waves of all shapes and sizes and catering to every hair type. Whether you have limp, fine strands that crave body and volume, or are simply looking to avoid a plethora of product buildup to keep your hair's movement intact, there is a perm out there to solve your hair woes.
"Most perms work best on virgin or healthy hair, however, you can perm pretty much any hair type as long as the hair is not compromised from bleaching, previous perms, or the use of other harsh chemicals such as relaxers and so on," says hairstylist Mateo Lara.
We tapped Lara and hairstylist Briana Dunning to explain every type of perm there is.
Meet the Expert
Keep reading to learn what the experts have to say about the various perms available and which one may be best for you.
Body Wave Perm
For individuals who want to achieve body and texture to the hair, a body wave is the perm for you, according to Lara. "Body waves offer a softer, more natural-looking wave," adds Dunning. "It can also provide added texture and longer-lasting blowouts."
To create these effortless, natural-looking waves, "normally larger rods are used to create the look, giving it less of a curl," Lara explains. Larger rods and a more mild solution are the keys to this perm giving you that loose, desirable movement. The ideal hair type for this treatment? "Anyone with straight hair or inconsistent waves who wants to have more texture or wants to get a soft, natural wave," says Dunning.
"Depending on the density of the hair, spiral perms with their spiral-shaped curls are going to give medium-maximum volume," Dunning explains. The rods used for spiral perms are usually on the smaller side and applied vertically rather than horizontally. "The curls are normally tighter and last longer due to the thinner perm rods used," says Lara. "This will give a fuller, longer look to the hair."
If you're considering an all-over, voluminous curl pattern à la Sarah Jessica Parker circa 1990, the spiral is the perm for you.
Dunning tells us that if you're someone with straight or wavy hair and you're looking for movement that's less uniform, with more of a natural-looking curl, you're likely striving to get the look of a multi-textured perm. Inconsistency in the curl size is what makes it look so effortless and natural.
"Multi-textured perms are my absolute favorite," says Lara, who specializes in the look. "These perms use a combination of different-size rods to create that more believable, natural-looking curl." The results are a very perfectly imperfect, natural type of movement.
Not all perms are curly. The catch that differs a straight perm from other straightening treatments? Well, it's permanent. (Hence its name).
"This isn’t something people normally ask for anymore," says Lara. "They tend to do a keratin treatment or Brazilian blowout instead." While a keratin treatment or a Brazilian blowout is a semi-permanent option with a shorter lifespan that smoothes over the cuticle, a straight perm is actually entering the hair shaft and altering the bonds of the hair for a longer-lasting effect. "A straight perm is great for someone with curly or frizzy hair who wants it to be straight and smooth," says Dunning.
"There are two main types of straight perms," she says, noting that their differences lie in the type of chemical formula that's used. One formula that's "thio"-based, "is ideal for those with type 2a (wavy/curly) to 3c (curly/coily) hair," Dunning explains. "Then there's a sodium hydroxide formula, which is the better option for types 3b (curly/coily) to 4c (kinky/coily)."
Once you've tried either one of these solutions to get the straightened hair you've always longed for, Dunning warns you should never try the other formula. "Even if it’s just on the ends or you feel that it’s been a 'long time,' those chemicals are still in there and can have devastating effects, basically making the hair melt—think Nair hair removal," says Dunning. No thank you. Even the decision to do a straight perm is solidified in permanence, so be sure you're ready to commit to this look for the long haul.
Stack perms typically bring to mind a very '70s look. "This is a technique in which you use different perm rod sizes and focus on the middle and lower area of the head," says Lara. Straighter and smoother at the root, a stack perm lets the party live at the ends, like Lara explains, where along with the right haircut, it provides an effortless shape to the hair.
"This used to be a popular style method for graduated bobs," says Dunning, "giving them that stacked look." This is also how the rods are applied, stacked one on top of the other, and graduating away from the scalp as they move their way up. If you have a straight bob and are looking to add a lot of volume to your ends, Dunning suggests the stack perm as your best bet. Lara, in full support, notes a stack perm will "create fullness and a layered appearance to your hair."
Root perms are on the rise, and as you can imagine, this treatment gets applied to only the roots of the hair, matching the texture of your mid-shaft and ends. The main goal of a root perm is to create volume at the roots, and it can do this on curled or straightened hair. It's particularly great for anyone who usually blow-dries their hair, Dunning notes, saying that the bump from the rod application may be more visible if you typically air-dry.
While a root perm can also be done as a touch-up to the pre-existing perm that's grown out (similar to the touch-ups you'd get with your hair color), a pre-existing perm is not required. "The root perm is for someone who has limp hair and needs volume near the base," Lara explains. "It’s also great for frizz control, and can give the hair a bouncy appearance."
Partial perms, as you'd likely guess by their name, are not applied to the entire head of hair but only to designated areas. According to Lara, partial perms work best with shorter haircuts. "It’s one of my favorites perms for shorter hair, especially on men," he explains, because of its ability to add movement and texture to the top while the sides of the hair, around the ears, and the hairline remain short and tapered.
When looking for products to maintain your perm, reach for a sulfate-free, high moisture shampoo and conditioner. "I also recommend hair oil and a deep conditioning mask from time to time, as perms sometimes create dryness," says Lara.
According to Dunning, a spot perm is commonly used to create uniformity for curly-haired strands. "Often people with curls have multiple textures to their hair, including entire sections that can be entirely straight." A partial perm provides the ability to balance out those stubborn areas and better blend in with the rest of the hair's natural movement.
When it comes to rod size and placement, "you'll end up using whatever your stylist sees to be fit for the hair type," says Lara. The spot perm is all about meeting specific, individual needs.
According to Lara, a digital perm is created with a "salon styling stand device machine, which uses a solution that isn’t as harsh as a classic perm and also infrared heat." The machine has detachable rods that come in different sizes and achieves a natural wave or soft curls.
Dunning adds that a digital perm is "great for more coarse/resistant textures of hair to create a soft, springy wave or curl." This updated version is also more gentle on the hair but the heat element helps to give a defined wave on more resistant hair.
"A volumizing perm is great for individuals who don’t want curly hair necessarily but want a wave, body, and bounce to their hair," says Lara. To achieve this look, do the same steps as a classic perm minus the neutralizing, which will be done after removing the rods.
Pin Curl Perm
Usually seen on bobs and shorter hairstyles, a pin curl perm is when hair is wrapped in paper, creating the desired curl pattern, and holding it in place with a flat clip. Lara says that this technique creates soft waves and gives light volume to the hair.
Beach Wave Perm
"I love doing these types of perms," says Lara of the beach wave-style perm. "I achieve this look by using longer, medium-sized foam rollers and wrapping the hair loose and in a parallel placement." For an extra beachy vibe, leave the ends out when curling.
Dunning adds that flexi-rods are used to create an effortless, natural looking wave in hair. "This is not a springy curl, it's more of a relaxed wave. The rod size determines if there is more or less movement," she says.