The Guide to Getting a Perfect Perm

10 Rules to Live By When You Want Some Curl

Giusy Buscemi
Vittorio Zunino Celotto for Getty Images

Perms have come a long way since the 80s when people sported the very fake "crimped" perm. Today, perms can be fine-tuned to give you exactly the kind of wave you want.

You can get perms that just add body to fine, limp hair; you can get loose, sexy waves or you can go for the corkscrew curls that many straight-haired girls covet (and some curly-all-their-lives girls are sick of). You can also use perm solution to create a "straight perm," which will semi-straighten curly or wavy hair.

Is a perm right for you? How long do they last and, most importantly, how do you avoid getting the perm you don't want? The following are 10 rules to live by when it comes to perms in this day and age:

Are You a Good Candidate for a Perm?

Perms work best on hair that has not been colored or highlighted. The chemicals are too harsh for double-processed or heavily highlighted hair.

Perming hair that's already damaged from highlights or hair color can result in more damage and major frizz. Additionally, if you don't like your new hairstyle, you cannot chemically straighten it back to the way it was before. Your hair could break off near the scalp.

If you have dry hair or loads of short layers, you are not a great candidate for a perm. Perms will dry your hair out even more and a perm on short, layered hair could leave you looking like a poodle.

Not sure if your hair is a good candidate for a perm?

Ask your stylist. You'll want to tell him every chemical process your hair has been through in the past few months.

One way you can find out if your hair is damaged and can't withstand more chemical processing is to do the old float trick. Take a few strands of hair and put them in a glass of water, if they sink, this means your hair is damaged and is soaking up moisture.

If the strands float, this means your hair is healthy. 

Black hair and Asian hair can also be difficult, but not impossible, to perm. You'll want someone who specializes in your type of hair texture.

Finally, the thicker your hair, the better the perm will take.

How Long Does a Perm Last?

The process of getting a perm can take one to two hours, depending on how long your hair is and how fast your stylist is. Your stylist will apply a single chemical solution to break the structural bonds in your hair, and another called a "neutralizer." Also, keep in mind, a perm takes 28 hours to relax. Give it some time before you get too worried about the end result.

Most perms generally last about six months. Unlike some hair color, a perm won't wash out, it has to grow out.

Can I Use a Perm to Straighten My Hair?

There are many ways to chemically straighten hair, and perm solutions are one of them. These are called "straight perms." It's recommended to get them done in a salon, but you can do them at home with perm solution and a wide-toothed comb.

For straight hair, a professional will apply the perm solution to curly hair, combing it out until it's straight and then rinsing out the solution. You have to keep combing hair so it doesn't naturally curl up.

A neutralizer is then applied and rinsed out.

To tone down super curly, out-of-control hair into more manageable waves or fatter curls, the stylist may wind your hair onto large rods. This leaves the hair at the roots straighter and frizz-free while leaving your hair will curls that are pretty manageable. Unfortunately, however, the hair that grows in will be curly.

Head to a salon to find your best options for chemically straightening your hair. You might be a better candidate for thermal reconditioning (also called Japanese straightening) or Brazilian straightening.

As for trying this at home, many people do this, but it's best to do plenty of research before deciding if it's something you want to take on. Not everyone is a good candidate for it and you'll want proper directions for giving yourself a straight perm.

Are Perms Bad for Your Hair?

Perms, done by a professional on virgin hair (meaning no previous hair color, dye or bleach), won't damage the hair any more than typical hair coloring or hair straightening does.

“Coloring, perming, or straightening the hair is fine as long as the treatment isn’t painful,” says George Cotsarelis, director of the Hair and Scalp Clinic at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania to Allure Magazine. “When there is pain, that indicates follicle damage.”

If your hair seems damaged after a perm, make sure to condition it regularly. You could also take biotin, which is a vitamin that will make any new hair growth stronger.

The Size of the Rod Matters

The tightness of your curl depends on the size of the rod and the length of time the solution stays in. If you're worried you'll end up with too-tight curls, ask your stylist to show you the types of rods she is using.

How to Find a Great Stylist

Not all stylists today s do perms and you don't want one who doesn't do them on a semi-regular basis. It's recommended that you call salons and ask if they have someone who specializes in perms. You may have to call around a bit to find a specialist. Even in New York City, most salons I've consulted don't have a perm specialist.

What to Bring to Your Appointment

When you show up at the salon, be sure to take pictures of the type of wave you want. Simply telling your stylist what kind of curl you have your heart set on leaves you in jeopardy of getting super-duper tight ringlets. Stylists can control the amount of wave they give you as well as the part of the hair they want to perm. Knowing what you expect will help her choose the right rods.

To prepare your hair for a perm, you'll want to use a moisturizing conditioner after you shampoo. Avoid deep-conditioning your hair for at least 24 hours before the perm, otherwise, it may not take.

Book a Consultation

You can also book a consultation into your appointment. So many stylists will whisk you off to wet your hair without sitting down face-to-face for a good talk.

Tell your stylist not only what you want (show the pictures) but what you don't want (e.g., the crimp-like curls of the 80s).

Maintain Your New Perm

To maintain your perm, treat your hair as you would if you had naturally curly hair. Use shampoos and conditioners formulated especially for curly or permed hair. Make sure to condition your new curls regularly, blow-dry it with a diffuser, and use styling products that intensify or smooth curls. Avoid styling products that contain alcohol, which can cause frizz.

Before you leave the salon, be sure to get tips from your stylist. That advice for your particular hair and new style will save you a lot of guesswork when you get home.