Salons say they’re doing more perms than they have done since the 1980s — the decade of Dynasty and big hair.
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.