If you tend to associate perms with lycra leggings and poodle curls, you’re probably not alone. But forget the 80s – modern perms create a range of styles, from corkscrew curls, to loose, natural-looking waves.
Despite sliding into fashion oblivion in the 90s, the last few years have seen a major curl comeback. So, with this in mind, it’s probably time to put down the flat irons and get perm savvy. After all, a botched perm can turn a healthy head of hair into a dry, frizzy mess.
First, the basics
A perm is a chemical treatment designed to produce curls or waves. This process causes “permanent” results, in that curls last until the hair grows out.
How does it work?
The process consists of two parts – winding the hair around rollers or rods and then applying the chemical solutions. Generally the whole process will take between one and two hours, depending on the thickness of your hair.
After wet hair has been wrapped in rollers (the smaller the rollers the tighter the curls) a chemical solution containing either sodium thioglycolate (alkaline perm) or glycerol monothioglycolate (acid perm) is applied. This chemical solution breaks down the bonds that give the hair its usual shape (disulfide bonds).
The solution is then washed off, and the hair is blotted dry with a towel. Thereafter, a neutraliser is applied to close the disulfide bonds again and reform the hair. After a period of time the neutraliser is washed off and the rollers are removed. Voila, curls!
Although these are the most commonly used chemicals, some modern perms may involve chemical solutions that do not contain thioglycolate. Ingredients may also include herbs and conditioning oils, which supposedly reduce hair damage.
What’s the difference between an acid perm and an alkaline perm?
An acid perm is designed to produce soft, loose-looking curls, and is suitable for delicate or thin hair. Generally, an acid perm has a pH ranging from 6.5 to 8.0. This is milder than an alkaline perm, and is usually less damaging to the hair.
An alkaline perm on the other hand has a pH ranging from 7.5 to 10. These harsher, stronger perms are designed to produce firm, tight curls and are suitable for coarser hair types.
Is it for you?
Unfortunately, damaged hair does not react well to perms. If your hair has been coloured recently, or is in bad condition, the end result is likely to look more frazzled than fabulous.
“You really need an expert to have a look and see what the condition of your hair is,” advises experienced Cape Town-based hairstylist Jennifer Steyn. “If the hair has colourants on it, it reacts differently to perm lotion. You need a professional to identify what kind of perm lotion to use, and what strength to use.”
What can go wrong?
Because specialised products are developed for different hair types, using a product that’s too harsh for your hair could be disastrous. “If your hair is in bad condition, it could break off. Or it could be too frizzy,” cautions Jennifer.
What should you do to ensure that you get the results you’re after? “You can treat it and condition it so it’s in the best possible condition before you start putting chemicals on it,” Jennifer explains. “It’s also not a good idea to colour and perm your hair on the same day!”
Home perm kits
So you’re tempted to buy that handy home perm kit, after all, what could go wrong? According to the experts – a lot. Using a home perm kit seriously ups your risk of ending up with fried hair, as home perm lotions aren’t tailor made for specific hair types. Jennifer suggests sticking to salon perms, as “professionals always know best.”
But what if you’ve already gone the home perm route, and aren’t looking quite as Leona Lewis as you’d hoped? The best solution is to head off to the nearest hair salon in a hurry – perm fixes are best left to the pros.
“I’d have to use hot oil treatments and conditioning treatments to fix it,” explains Jennifer. And although hairstylists may be able to reperm the hair, sometimes the hair is so badly damaged that there’s only one option: cut it off and let it grow out.
After the treatment
Hairstylists disagree on exactly how long you should delay washing your hair after a perm. Some say one day, some say more. In theory this shouldn’t be necessary, as the perm lotion has already been neutralised. But, given the lack of consensus, and stylists’ insistence that this will wreck the perm, it’s probably best to wait a few days.
If you’ve decided that it’s not worth the risk, why not try another artificial curling option?
Hair extensions – clip on some curled hair extensions. This looks just as effective, and is far less damaging to your hair.
Hot iron – If your hair is too fragile for a perm, let your hairdresser create a curly masterpiece using hot irons and rollers. This may not last more than a few days, but it’s a great way to spruce up your look for special occasions.
Get a new do – sometimes a good cut combined with mousses and gels can create and enhance natural waves.
Whatever you decide, rushing into any harsh chemical treatment is never a good idea. Speak to your stylist, and remember – you’re going to have to live with the results for the next few months. So take your time, and choose carefully.
Sources: Hairstylecity.com; Wikipedia; Hairboutique.com; Encyclopaedia Britannica; Jennifer Steyn
(Donna Warnett, Health24, January 2009)