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Many curlies now are wondering whether a perm might help make their hair more manageable, giving them looser curls or more uniform ringlets? The answer, say curl experts, is yes and no.

"The theory works on paper," says Jonathan Torch, who recently opened the Curly Hair Institute in Toronto. "But technically speaking, it doesn't work as well as it should work. The idea of perming the hair to loosen the curl is a fallacy. I haven't seen it work in all the years I've done perms."

The chemistry of permanent waves is pretty straightforward. Hair is largely made of keratin, a protein that contains a lot of the amino acid cystine. Typically ammonium thioglycolate is used as a reducing agent to break down the hairshaft and reshape it. The oxidizing agent in the neutralizer halts the chemical process when the hair has taken the desired shape.

Hairdressers stress that a perm swells the hairshaft, which can cause already-porous curly hair to become dry and frizzy, the opposite effect of what a curly intended.

"You need to decide if you want to get rid of frizz or you want to get rid of curl," says long-time hairdresser Jane Carter, creator of The Jane Carter Solution line of natural products for curly hair. "If you want to get rid of frizz, wash and wet your hair every day. If you want to get rid of curl, you really have to relax it."

While a whole-head perm might not be the solution for somebody with curly hair, spot perms serve an important purpose for those with straight or wavy areas. A perm can deepen the 'S' formation of wavy hair, giving more bounce, especially in the winter months, Torch says.

Christo of Christo Fifth Avenue and Curlisto line of curly hair products says he has a client who has consistent curls everywhere except on the top of her head, which is flat and wavy. He does a spot perm to blend the top layer with the bottom layer.

"A likely candidate for a perm at Ouidad would be someone with curly and straight hair," says Ouidad. "Most heads of hair have three to four different textures. The benefit of a spot perm is that you can achieve a uniform curl pattern on a head of hair that naturally has three or four curl patterns."

For spot perms, Torch says he uses different-sized rods to get a more natural look that will blend more naturally with the rest of the curls.

"It blends like normal, healthy curly hair would," Torch says. "If it's the same, it looks like a wig." Curl Master Amie Zimmerman of Dirty Little Secret Salon in Portland, Ore., said she has only permed a curly's hair once to match the curl pattern on the rest of the head. She wasn't thrilled with the results.

"The curls turned out great, but the texture of the hair left something to be desired because it was extremely tangly and dare I say, damaged by the end of it," Zimmerman says. "It's an option, but one I only choose if the client has been highly educated about the compromise in integrity that the hair will have."

In many cases, a relaxer or softener is the solution to loosening curls, not a perm. When talking to a stylist, the client must be clear about exactly what it is they want to achieve.

"You need to evaluate the hair to detremine what they need to do," Christo says. "If they have tighter curls, it can be handled with a Biosoftener, which takes out frizziness and dryness."

For those who want straight hair, a thermal reconditioning treatment may be the best choice.

For those with straight hair who want a curly look, perms are an ideal option -- especially with new perm technology that provides a more natural look and is gentler to the hair. Perms now are available that automatically 'shut off' so that the perm cannot be overprocessed.

In many cases, different-sized rods are used to mimic the look of naturally curly hair.

Perm diva Dawn Ramsay-Hiller of the Cutler Salon in New York alternates between larger and smaller rods, sometimes leaving pieces unrolled altogether. This ensures the hair doesn't have the stereotypical poodle perm look.

For those with straight or wavy hair planning to get a perm, there are some important things to consider before undergoing the process. First of all, make sure there's no silicone buildup on the hair, which can act as a barrier to the perm solution. It is good to use a clarifying shampoo before perming to get rid of any chemicals or buildup that may interfere with the perm.

And the client must be prepared for the realities of having curly hair. With their straight hair, they might have been able to pop out of bed, brush their hair and head out the door. Curly hair takes a few extra steps.

"All of a sudden, they have curly hair and don't know how to deal with it," Christo says. "People with a perm have to do everything a person with curly hair does. They need to learn the rules. It's all news to them."

Those rules include applying styling products when the hair is wet, never brushing the hair when it's dry and using a diffuser on the dryer. Never shampoo every day and make sure to deep condition on a regular basis. The cuticle protecting the cortex has been altered, causing the hair to be dryer.

"You need to educate the clients on how to deal with it," Christo says. "Not only will they love it, they'll love it so much they'll bring in more people."

After any perm, the hair must be left alone for at least two days until the hydrogen bonds readjust themselves -- no shampooing, brushing or braiding.

"Even though you've neutralized it, the air will help restructure those bonds," Torch said.

Always wait at least two weeks before cutting it.

"When you first perm the hair, it is so curly and tight," Torch said. "It's not exactly how your hair will fall. Wait two weeks for the hair to calm down. Then you're dealing with reality."

A typical perm lasts three months.

Ultimately, Torch says, the success of a perm lies with the person doing the perming. The way the rods are rolled, how long the perm solution is left in and how the neutralizer is rinsed out all affect the outcome. If the hair is wrapped too tight it can cause breakage when the hair shaft expands. The ends of the hair must be protected from the solution or they can get dry and damaged. The ph of the perm must be matched to an individual's hair type.

"These are all the difference between failure and success," Torch says. "I love perms. You can get a lot of wonderful results if they're done properly."

How to take care of a perm

  • Never shampoo everyday. Always use perm-friendly shampoos and conditioners.
  • When you dry hair, use a diffuser or air dry it.
  • Product application is key. Make sure to apply in sections. Gels create a tighter curls, while lotions and mousses tend to produce a looser curl.
  • Never brush your hair when it it's dry. Comb it with a wide-toothed comb.
  • When you go to sleep, clip up the hair so it doesn't get messed up.
  • Wrap hair VERY LOOSELY in a towel to remove excess water before styling but DO NOT RUB.

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