Curly girls are often looking for new ways to enhance our curl definition. We see products, treatments and hacks that promise to make our hair curlier, but what do they actually do? Let's take a look at what perms, curl activators and curl enhancers do to your hair so you can decide which, if any, of these are right for you.
Perms have evolved tremendously since their heyday in the ‘80s. The actual definition of a perm is “a hairstyle produced by setting the hair in waves or curls and then treating it with chemicals so that the style lasts for several months.” Of all the products that I will be talking about, perms are the most long-lasting solution, as they last until the hair grows out and is cut. Unlike perms from the 80s, there are many variations now and you can customize how much curl definition and volume you want with them. Perms today also do not leave hair as frizzy as the 80s versions did. Since perming the hair is a chemical service, it will damage the hair to an extent, so it is important to treat your hair carefully, using deep conditioners and going easy with heat. Perms are also suggested to only do on previously unprocessed and uncolored hair, since using too many chemicals can result in hair breakage. If your hair is already damaged or not its healthiest, then getting a perm would likely exacerbate the issue rather than making your hair look better. It is also highly advised to go to a professional and not attempt perming your hair yourself, as this leads to too much room for error.
Curl activators help to support and enhance the curl pattern you already have. These are made for people who already have a steady curl pattern to their hair. They may increase your definition to an extent, but realistically if you have 2B hair, it will not magically turn your waves into 3C ringlets. If you have straight hair, then a curl activator will not make your hair curly. Curl activators are typically used for Type 3 Curls. Curl activators usually do not offer any hold and are meant to be layered under a holding product, such as a gel. A common ingredient in all curl activators is glycerin, a humectant which helps attract moisture to the hair. Curl activators can add shine and softness to the hair and also help prevent against breakage. When you wash your hair, if you do not reapply the curl activator, any increased definition you may have seen from the wash day when you applied a curl activating product will be gone.
Check out this list of 10 Recommended Curl Activators.
A curl definer, or curl enhancer is most commonly used by those with wavier and looser curl definition. Curl definers can increase curl definition and clumping, sometimes have hold and can also help with frizz. Many curl definers contain protein blends to help strengthen the hair and set the curls. Like curl activators, curl definers are very temporary and any increased definition you see will be lost on the next wash day if you do not re-apply the product. Magnesium sulfate, which is not a sulfate like the cleansing ingredient we avoid, is a common ingredient in a lot of curl definers. Magnesium sulfate is actually epsom salt (like we put in baths for sore muscles) and it is commonly known to enhance curl definition. Depending on what kind of hold you prefer, some can use curl definers alone, while others are better layered under a more firm holding product. Jessicurl’s Rockin’ Ringlets Styling Potion is my personal favorite curl definer but with my high porosity, very frizzy hair, I like to layer it under a firm hold gel, such as Jessicurl’s Spiralicious Gel.
Check out the Top 10 Curl Defining Products.
To sum it up, perms chemically alter the hair and can be used by any texture to increase curl definition for months. Curl activators are used by “Type 3” curlies who are looking for moisture and shine and often do not contain hold and curl definers are used by looser, “Type 2” wavies to help temporarily increase their own curl definition without any chemical damage.
Products like curl activators and curl definers will not change your hair from Type 2 to Type 3, but they can certainly assist your hair hold curl or wave pattern that you do have and prevent it from separating into undefined frizz. What you decide to use depends on whether you want to use chemicals on your hair or not, and your hair type.
Not sure what your hair type is? Take our quiz!