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what is a perm

What Is A Perm: Everything You Need To Know

February 18, 2021

7 Min read

The modern perm isn’t your grandma’s tightly coiled and quaffed ‘do. You know the one. The one she gets touched up once a week and covers with a plastic hood when it rains. It’s also not that big, bushy, Cher-in-the-80s perm either. The 2021 perm is way cooler. It’s more of a loose California beach wave that boasts both style and styling ease. 

However, a perm is still a harsh chemical process, and you shouldn’t jump into it without doing your homework first. Below we will cover everything you need to know about the perm.

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What is a perm? And how does it work?

Believe it or not, perms have been around for over 100 years. Perms are a chemical treatment used to alter your hair’s natural texture. Taking straight hair and adding a curl or wave. “Perm” is short for “permanent hairstyle” because they are—well—permanent. The chemical process permanently alters your hair’s structure from straight to curly. 

Traditionally, perms are a process in which straight hair is wrapped around rollers or rods, and a perm solution is applied to the hair—this is what is known as a cold perm. There is also a method where straight hair is wrapped around rods, a perm solution is applied, and the rods heat up to activate the perm—restructuring your hair’s follicles with heat. This is called a digital perm

Cold or digital, a perm is a chemical solution applied to the hair to make one styling session last for months. But be warned, a perm takes a heck of a lot longer than your typical blowout. If you do decide to get one, expect to spend two or more hours at the salon. 

What makes the modern perm different?

The grandma perm and the perms of the 70s and 80s were all about tight rings of curls teased up to new heights. The perms of the past were often stiff and crunchy. The modern perm is a bit softer and more relaxed. Where hairdressers used to wrap your hair around tiny uniform rods, they now use a variant of roller sizes to give your perm a more natural look—sort of a So-Cal, beachy vibe. Sometimes hairdressers will even wrap your hair around cloth to give your perm a super-soft wave.

Perms work best on healthy hair

If you are considering taking the plunge and committing to a perm, you should first do an assessment of your hair’s current health. Perms can wreak havoc on hair that is already damaged. So make sure your hair is in tip-top shape. 

Perms work best on virgin hair—hair that has never been dyed or chemically treated in any other way. If you have dry hair, hair that has been damaged from styling tools, or color-treated hair that is fed up—we would suggest that you avoid getting a perm; it will only cause further damage and even possibly breakage.

Hair coloring and perms

Modern technology has made it possible for people who dye their hair to get perms. Unfortunately, if you’re someone with highlights or bleached hair, a perm is definitely inadvisable. Because a perm is a chemical process, it can be very harsh on your hair. If your hair has already endured another damaging chemical process, such as highlighting or bleaching, a perm is simply not a good idea. We all love curls, but getting a perm could lead to dry straw-like hair that breaks off in chunks—yikes.  

Even if you don’t bleach or highlight your hair, it should be noted that you can’t dye your hair seven to ten days after getting a perm. Dying your hair involves opening up the outer layer of the hair follicle (also known as the “cuticle”) and depositing color inside. If dyed too soon, you run the risk of washing out the perm you just got. This will leave you with a new color but no perm, essentially washing money and time straight down the drain.

Water exposure and perms

Your grandma wore that silly plastic hood in the rain for a reason. Just like with dying your hair too soon after a perm, shampooing or getting your hair wet in a chlorine pool too often will cause your perm to wash away faster. Both over-washing and too much pool time will open the cuticle of your hair follicles, allowing the perm chemicals that gave you that fabulous wave to wash away.

Hair length and perms

When it comes to whether or not you can get a perm, hair length isn’t a huge factor. That being said, your hair still needs to be long enough to wrap around a rod or roller. If your hair is long enough to curl with a curling iron, it’s long enough to get a perm.

One thing to consider, however, is that once permed, your hair will lose some length. How much length you lose will depend on how tight of a curl you are going for. If you are looking for loose beachy waves, the length loss will be minimal. But, if you’re going for tight ringlets, you want to make sure you have enough length to support it—otherwise, you’ll end up looking like Shirley Temple.

Perm upkeep

How long does a perm last? According to professionals, perms can last up to six months. However, “permanents” are just that, permanent. They can’t be chemically reversed, and once the perm is set in your hair, it’s going to stay there. But keep in mind, your hair will grow out the same as before. So if you have a beachy, modern perm, your hair should blend naturally as it grows out straighter. It will just be a bit wavier at the ends. 

However, if you are going for tighter curls, beware. You will have to get perm root touch-ups if you want to maintain your curly tresses and avoid an awkward change in hair texture from root to tip. Or, you can blow out your ‘permed hair’ as your new hair grows in.

Styling your perm

If you are going to commit to a perm, then you should be ready for a bit of a learning curve as you learn to style your new locks. All the hair products you have for straight hair will have to be replaced with ones appropriate for textured and curly hair. After all, you didn’t go to all the trouble of getting a perm just to fall short on the styling end! Without proper aftercare, you’ll be left with an unmanageable frizzy mess. You will need to use products that are designed to promote bouncy, shiny-looking curls. 

Side note: you shouldn’t use heat styling tools too soon after getting a perm, or you will run the risk of major damage. For similar reasons, it’s also important to use a highly moisturizing shampoo and conditioner. One that’s meant to protect and fortify chemically treated hair. Taking extra good care of your hair is as fundamental as the perm itself. 

To perm or not to perm?

It’s a difficult decision. If you’re not someone who bleaches their hair and you’re totally crazy for those blowout beach waves, a modern perm could be a great option for you. But if you are not into upkeep and are wary of using chemicals on your hair—you should probably rethink committing to a perm. Either way, hopefully, you learned a bit more about the ins and outs of perms. 

At the end of the day, if you love a soft curl, but you’re not ready to commit to a perm, try these curling tips and tricks, with or without heat. It’s a great easy way to achieve your hairstyle goals without damaging or permanently altering your hair.


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