I owe my hair a lot of apologies. First, for the phase in eighth grade when I vowed to wear my hair in a tight, slicked-back ponytail every single day. Second, for the time in college when I used "temporary," "28-day" dye to color my hair the darkest shade of black (that color remained for a full six months). I would also apologize for the pixie cut that I got while studying in Florence in college, but I've come to understand that the mistakes you make during a semester abroad don't actually count.
Given the traumatic history of my hair, I was afraid to vocalize that I was quickly falling in love with singer Sabrina Claudio's sexy, bouncy-yet-loose curls via Instagram. Because, as confirmed by my stylist Aura Flores, the only way I would be able to get the same texture on my stick-straight hair—which only bends when it's physically touched by humidity and sea salt—would be to get a perm. Yup, a perm. In 2019.
I was low-key terrified of being turned into a poodle based on photos I've seen of my mom with a perm in the '80s. But, I also really wanted Claudio's loose curls (her hair is so good that it practically stands alone as an outfit, as is evident above). So I decided to add one more (possible) horror story to my hair history, and I got myself a perm.
But before I went under the curlers, though, I asked maaaany questions and voiced even more concerns to both my stylist and Briana Dunning, an expert on the New Wave perm, who answered every single one of them for me—and now you, too.
Your Pre-Perm Questions:
Who should get a perm?
The best candidate for a perm is someone who has virgin hair, meaning that their hair has never been dyed or chemically treated (though Dunning says that single-processed color is fine—so nothing that involves bleach). And, obviously, you'll see the best results if your hair is already pretty straight, versus trying to perm hair that already has tight waves in it.
Of course, that's not to say you can't get a perm if you have slightly wavy, color-treated hair—you just might not get as radical or long-lasting of results. Which brings us to...
Do perms ruin your hair?
No, they don't destroy your hair, but they aren't exactly gentle either, since they use chemicals to alter the natural state of your strands. Which means they're also not a good idea for anyone with really damaged hair: If you've over-styled or -processed your hair to the point where it's chronically broken, dry, and tangled, you need to wait until your hair gets healthier to perm it, says Aura, adding, "If you do a lot of color on a regular basis and don't have a solid conditioning routine, a perm could cause considerable damage to your hair."
And make sure to tell your stylist if you've gotten a balayage or highlights—"there's a possibility that the perm could process unevenly," says Briana, since these lightened sections of hair will be more damaged and porous.
What to know before committing to a perm:
It sounds obvious, but remember that "you'll be working with a different hair texture afterward, so you'll need to learn more about it so you feel comfortable playing with it," says Aura. Which means, yes, you'll probably need to use some lightweight curl creams or sea-salt sprays to smooth and define your new waves. I, for one, discovered my normal shampoo and conditioner situation were too drying for my new, slightly frizzy waves, so I had to swap it with smoothing and moisturizing formulas (like Ogx's Liquid Pearl shampoo and conditioner).
You should also look at your calendar before you book your appointment. "For the first 48 hours after your perm, you need to avoid disturbing your hair as much as possible, which means brushing it, tying it tightly up, or washing it," Briana says. So no sweaty gym sessions, no showers, and no hair ties or clips. "You don't want to disturb the curl pattern as it sets," she says.
And, finally, know that a perm ain't free. Though the price differs wildly depending on where you live, how long your hair is, the type of perm you get, and the salon you visit, know that the average cost for a classic perm is around $120, but can run anywhere from $60 to $300. So make sure to call your salon ahead of time and find out the exact price before you make an appointment.
How should I prepare for my perm appointment?
By not washing your hair, oddly enough. Briana tells her clients to come to the salon with dirty hair, since "we don't want to disturb the natural oils on your scalp too much, because it creates a protective barrier for the stylist," she says.
Aura adds that doing your research beforehand is important, too. "Look at different textures so you can have an idea of what you do and do not want," she says. A visual reference is always the best way to go, so start checking those Instagram "perm" hashtags and saving them to your hair board.
"Also, be honest about your day-to-day hair regimen and how much time you like to spend on it, since it'll give us a better idea of how to treat your hair," says Aura.
What's the difference between a regular perm and a New Wave perm?
A regular, standard perm—which is what I got—uses tiny perm rods to give your hair a tighter, more uniform curl. The New Wave perm, however, uses squishy foam rollers that don't create a uniform wave pattern, like perm rods do. A lot of it also comes down to technique: Some stylists will wrap hair looser and more relaxed, so the finished result isn't too curly or springy. "I basically look at it like, if I was going to do your hair with an iron, how would I wrap it?" Briana says.
The Actual Perm Process:
How long does a perm usually take?
Aura says that it really varies depending on the length and density of her client's hair and how curly they want it to be. "We always allow about two-and-a-half hours, just to be safe," Briana says. So if you have short hair and only want a slight wave, expect for it to take much less time than if you wanted your butt-length hair in ringlets. I have shoulder-length hair and wanted beachy waves, and my whole perm process took about two-ish hours.
What happens during the perm process?
A lot of sitting, tbh! After shampooing my hair, Aura began the wrapping process, where she rolled small sections of hair around bendy perm rods of different thicknesses (it helps make your waves look more natural).
Then, using a ketchup-bottle-looking container, she poured the perm solution all over my head—don't worry, my hairline and eyes were protected), allowing it to sit and process for about 30 minutes. Note: If you want a tighter curl, your stylist will let your hair process for even longer than this.
When my hair had reached the ~right~ level of curl, Aura rinsed it with lukewarm water, waited five minutes, applied a neutralizer, and then rinsed again after five minutes (see? Not the most gentle process). After delicately removing the rods, she diffused my hair and... officially left me with the hair of my dreams.
Truly—she nailed the beachy texture I was after, and my straight hair was left with waves that looked like I spent the entire day playing in the ocean (or navigating a curling iron). And honestly, the whole process was way, way easier than I expected a perm would be.
The Perm Aftermath
How do you take care of your perm?
Pretty easily. After the first 72 hours passed, I was able to wash and style my hair however I wanted. Getting accustomed to a whole new washing and styling routine was a challenge at first, but after a few weeks—and talking to Cosmo's beauty team to find the right products and tools—the whole thing became an easy routine.
I now shampoo and condition my hair every three days, avoiding products with sulfates at all costs (they dry TF out of your hair and ruin your curls/waves). After I wash my hair, I gently squeeze out the moisture using an old cotton T-shirt and scrunch in a few handfuls of moisturizing, wave-enhancing mousse.
If I have the time, I'll let my hair air dry. Otherwise, I flip it over my head and blow-dry it in sections, using a diffuser. After my hair is dry and wavy, I scrunch a defining cream into my waves to help them hold their shape. In between washes, I blast my roots with dry shampoo and mist a little water over my hair to re-activate the waves, then smooth some more cream through the ends for definition. I also try to deep-condition my hair once a week to keep it moisturized, especially since perms can take their toll on your hair health.
My final thoughts:
Would I get a perm again? Abso-freaking-lutely I would. Having a perm has not only streamlined my morning hair routine, since I actually have a style to work with now, but it's also given me all the praise from my friends and co-workers, and it makes me look like I just got back from the beach even if I've been sitting in my apartment all day. If that isn't magic, I don't know what is.
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