Why You Should Seriously Consider Getting A Perm

If you picture perms as tight, crunchy late-'80s curls, you haven't seen my hair.
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If you picture perms as tight, crunchy late-'80s curls, you haven't seen my hair.

I’m just going to put this out there and say that I get compliments on my hair quite a bit. After the initial flattery, however, I have a bit of guilt over the fact that this is not how my hair grows out of my head naturally. I’ve pretty much doused it in chemicals to do that whole mermaid-y wavy thing. Part of me wants to say, “Thanks! But you should really be complimenting the stylist who permed my hair!”

After 14 months, much snipping, and… a fair amount of washing, my hair’s still got it! The perm, I mean.

After 14 months, much snipping, and… a fair amount of washing, my hair’s still got it! The perm, I mean.

I get a lot of trout-mouthed expressions followed by “Shut up!” and “Get out!” when I tell people that I have a perm in my hair because they’re like “Really? But it looks so natural! It’s not all cork-screwy and kinky at all!” 

The amount of people I come in contact with who have intrinsic knowledge of the results of horrible perms floors me. It’s 2014 and I’m already starting to make references that people don’t know, my perm being one of them. Hairstyling technology has surpassed that of Raggedy Ann and can now offer you the ability to change your hair’s texture, almost any way you want. Ain’t living in the future just the best?

I’ve had a perm in my hair since about 2010. Naturally, my hair is really thick, a little coarse, and indecisively straight or wavy. Basically, if I keep it long, my hair will appear mostly straight with some wonky bend at the bottom. If I keep it short, the ends will kick out, all soccer-mommy-like. Seriously, even if I flat-iron it, my hair will defy all the ceramic heat devices in the world to still bend slightly at the ends in some infuriating way. Why won’t you OBEY ME, hair? 

Once I realized that there are processes that can alter hair’s texture permanently to do what I want, I thought, “I’ll show you, hair!”

On top of being thick and stubborn, my hair can take a lot of thrashing. She’s a tough old bird, that mop on my dome. It grows rather quickly, so I’m never too afraid to try extreme processes on my hair. Worse comes to worst, it’ll grow out, right?

Well, one professional perm later and I wished it wouldn’t. 

This is definitely NOT something I recommend doing at home ever. Those store-bought kits have pretty crude chemicals that do the trick, but are awfully damaging. I mean, either way you’re still damaging your hair, being that you’re literally restructuring their natural pattern, but it makes a huge difference using the high quality professional-grade chemicals. Not only are they gentler on your hair, they don’t smell quite as toxic either. Anyone who’s been victim to an at-home perm knows that breathing those fumes in feels like chemical warfare. Also, the kinds of rods or curlers you use will effect how cork-screwy or wavy your perm turns out.

I was lucky enough to have my friend at Arrojo perm me (I know, I know, I’m always name-dropping Arrojo, but it’s like literally the only beauty hookup I have, so you better believe I’m going to milk that. They’ve never disappointed yet!), using their American Wave formula. I’m not sure if that’s a salon-branding thing, the “American-ness” of it, but the process claims that it’s the gentlest way to perm hair to achieve soft, natural-looking waves. This is probably the most patriotic thing I’ve done to my hair and honestly, I can’t complain.

I was in the salon for maybe three hours tops. I happen to have a LOT of hair, so it required more rods and more hair-rolling. It’s the hair-rolling that is the most time-consuming, I think. They use flexi-rods in varying thickness to achieve waves. Then I sat there, looking like some cyber-Medusa for about 20 to 30 minutes, and it’s rinse and dry. So simple for forever-waves!

All the Medusa and none of the turning-men-into-stone. Boo-urns.

All the Medusa and none of the turning-men-into-stone. Boo-urns.

As I’m sure you’ve learned from Elle Woods, you’re not supposed to get your hair wet for two to three days (or longer, if you can stand it--I enjoy a good challenge), and then wash with color-safe shampoos and conditioners. I’ll admit, when my hair met its first perm, it did seem a bit “shocked,” appearing to be waved at attention at all times. After the first wash, though, it calmed a bit and the waves softened to be more natural-looking and less of an intentionally styled texture.

You would give awkward-face too if you had just been inhaling protein-bond breaking chemicals for two whole hours.

You would give awkward-face too if you had just been inhaling protein-bond breaking chemicals for two whole hours.

Perms are, for the most part, permanent. They do kind of fade after eight to 12 months, loosening after much washing and heat-styling, no doubt. I’d get my hair re-waved after about a year, but if I hadn’t, I don’t think it would’ve been a huge let-down. I could still towel-dry my hair, add a little curl cream and air-dry for perfect mermaid-y hair. Let me tell you, once you go wash-and-go, it’s realllly hard to go back to vigorous styling after every wash.

So, how exactly does a perm work? 

In layman’s terms, you put chemicals/acid on your hair, fry the crap out of it and scare it into shape… said no salon ever. But really, not to scare you from doing the tattoo of hair-modification, it’s not as frightening as that. 

Your hair is a tri-layered tube, pretty much. The cortex is the center, surrounded by the medulla, and encased by the cuticle. All of these are made up of proteins. The medulla contains the side bonds of the hair, which is what determines its texture. There’s salt, hydrogen and disulfide bonds. 

The salt and hydrogen bonds, while most plentiful, are also the weakest bonds. The disulfide bonds are the ones that get changed in a perm. You know how wet hair seems to have the same “wet” texture? Well, water breaks those bonds pretty damn easily. When you perm it, the chemicals break down those side bonds on already-wet hair, then you wrap it around a thing (like a flexi-rod, for instance) and the bonds physically reset to retain the shape of that object. It loosens with the weight of hair, and that’s how you get waves rather than tight curls. Not so scary, right?

This process isn’t recommended for those with double-processed or extremely heat-damaged hair. Virgin hair works best, of course, but I had some color in my hair from a dye job about a year before my first pro perm, and it was totally fine.

The last perm I had happened about 14 months ago, and after a couple trims and some long-layering, much of the perm has been grown out or chopped off. However, while the top six inches of my hair are on the straighter side, the ends now form a lovely wave that’s easily manipulated by finger-styling with a little curl cream and hairspray. 

Life is struggly enough without having to worry about how your hair is going to look every time you wash it.