Your No-Bullshit Guide To Getting A Perm

Curls? Good. Frizz? Not always.

Brit McGinnis
Apr 18, 2018 · 7 min read

As I once did with cannabis, I must now do with perms.

Because we all have that friend, right?

The friend who does The One Thing.

The iPhone Friend. The Improv Friend. The Unironic GOOP Fan Friend.

Me, I’m the Perm Friend.

My hair is naturally bone straight. So straight that it would kill perfect Shirley Temple curls in one hour no matter how much hair spray was employed.

Worse, it was limp. No volume at all. I learned how to backbrush my hair at Bible Camp and my hair was hardly un-frizzy again. Brushes and bobby pins alike died in the attempt to give my hair volume.

Until I finally caved. On Halloween of 2016, I got my first perm.

It took about a year before I nailed my look and found the perfect cycle, stylist, and routine for my hair. But here I am at last. One perfectly happy, content curly-haired woman.

Now? It’s my duty to pass on what I’ve learned. Take the lessons I did not learn until later. Go forth to beauty!

Before you perm: Ask yourself why you want a perm.

I’m serious. I know you wouldn’t be reading this if you weren’t at least perm-curious.

But (and my CEO side is coming out as I say this): You need a Why before you get a perm.

A perm involves literally dousing your hair in chemicals. More than once.

Also, a perm isn’t as temporary as we’ve been led to believe (thank you, 90s sitcoms). Your hair will grow out, sure. But you’ll be growing straight roots into curly locks. Straightening your hair for consistency is adding damage on top of damage.

This isn’t meant to discourage you from getting a perm. But please, know what you’re getting into.

You won’t grow out of that thing by next Friday’s episode. But it also probably won’t look like a giant, frizzy mess if you properly care for it.

Before you perm: Research your look.

God, Tracee. Even to my white ass, you are #hairgoals.

But anyway. A quick vocabulary lesson:

Rods: These are the curling iron-thingies that will actually go into your hair. They come in 3–5 sizes depending on the salon. The narrower the width of the rod, the tighter the curl. If you want multifaceted, natural-looking curls, you’ll want rods of different sizes all over your head.

Solution: The first round of chemical goop they will put in your hair. If it burns, SAY SOMETHING.

Neutralizer: The second round of chemical goop. It usually doesn’t set as long, and “finishes” the curl-setting process started by the solution.

Acid perm: A special type of perm that produces gentle, more natural-looking curls. Very similar to a body wave. But keep in mind, this perm is not meant to last as long as a standard perm. This probably isn’t the best choice for people with super-thin hair.

Spiral perm: Lots of thin, super-coily curls. You’ll get a lot of very narrow rods put in, and it may look more unnatural and wig-like. But hey: Uniformity!

Root perm: These are hardly ever done anymore. But it’s possible! The chemicals and whatnot are only applied to the roots of the hair, essentially waving the strands from the inside out.

Gentle Wave/Body Wave/Partial Perm: These are all variations on the same thing. Perm only part of the hair, usually very gently. Insta-volume.

There’s several different types of curly hair, and different types of perms. Before you even head to a consultation, you should know what you want as much as possible.

There’s the obvious choice: Make a Pinterest board of all your curly inspirations. Do that!

But also: Look to the people in your family with curly hair, if there are any. Even wavy-haired folks will be great inspiration and sources of knowledge on what may work for you.

Before you perm: Arm yourself with the proper hair supplies.

I’m totally aware that this is a white dude messing with two non-white dudes. Stay classy and just buy the products, everyone.

Something that hardly anyone thinks about with perms is that you’re not just curling your hair. You’re taking on an entirely new hair texture.

That is to say: You probably can’t use most of your old hair shit. Keep your gel, aerosol hair spray, and sooooome of your pomades. The thinner, the better.

But throw your non-boar bristle brushes away. Say goodbye to most things with a pump-action bottle. Shampoo will become only an occasional visitor. Your hair worries will no longer be “volume” or “texture.” They will instead be “frizz,” “damage” and “shine” (which is another way of saying “not looking like a fucking hobo”).

What straight hair lacks in volume, it makes up for with a damage-resistant nature most people don’t appreciate until it’s gone. Curly hair will stay put in a ponytail longer. But then you don’t notice half your strands have broken until later the next week.

Do yourself a favor: Get a diffuser for your hair dryer. You just stick it on the end and you’re free to blow dry your hair with way less chance of damage. Even for non-curly folks, it’s awesome.

If you learn nothing else from this article, learn this: Products geared toward Black hair are the best for curly hair.

They’re made with natural ingredients. They often have no sulfates. These brands give a shit about different types of curly hair and their individual needs. Deep conditioning and hair masks are regular occurrences in these lines, not a specialty. Shea Moisture and Miss Jessie’s will set you in the right direction.

Did I mention they also smell amazing? Sweet Jesus.

The Day Of: Bring a book.

Not your cell phone. Not your tablet. A fucking book.

Because your perm will take, at minimum, two and a half hours.

Ha! I knew y’all wouldn’t read through this far if I’d sprung it on you at the beginning. But this is the part of perms no one talks about: They take a long time. Longer than most hair procedures anyone will ever have outside of an event like a wedding.

Plan for your cell phone battery to be unreliable. Plan on running out of battery. It’s all part of the deal.

The Day Of: Speak up if your stylist is incompetent.

The 80s and 90s ruined perms. Not just in terms of public perception, but in terms of stylists giving a shit.

Stylists who do perms in the 20-oughts fall into two categories: Superfans and Had To Learn This For Beauty School.

The first group tends to be older. They’re usually mom types who like giving perms because they’re intense appointments that let them get to know the person. They also provide a special kind of chemistry challenge for the stylist. Can they do this fun, vintage rite of passage for stylists?

You want someone from this group. You don’t want someone who Had To Learn This For Beauty School.

If you feel like your stylist isn’t taking this seriously OR isn’t doing what you asked them to do, speak up. If you’re worried about a roll not being tight enough or a lock being too short, say something. If they’re offended by you asking too many questions, demand another stylist.

You can’t be subtle about this. You’re entrusting your entire hair’s texture to someone. The best perm stylists are eager and willing to put you at ease because they realize how much you’re trusting them.

The Day Of: Schedule your next appointment.

Just do it. You’ll forget otherwise. Trust me.

Also, this is the time when you decide how frequently you want to have your perms. This is important!

Your cycle hinges on how long you can go without restoring your curls at the root. The typical rotation cycles are: 3 months, 4 months, 6 months.

If your hair is thicker and can hold a curl for a long time, try 6months. If it’s thinner, try 3 months. But of course, ask your stylist. It sucks to have straight roots, yes. But your hair can also suffer serious damage from being permed too frequently. You should also get trims to keep your hair looking at it’s best even if it’s unpermed.

Aftercare: Don’t touch it for 48 hours.

I don’t care what your stylist says. 48 hours.

Though I should say: Perm solution chemistry really has come a long way since Legally Blonde. This rule mostly speaks to the fact that you shouldn’t shampoo your hair for a certain amount of time after getting a perm. The chemicals will interact poorly and you’ll either lose your perm, destroy your hair, or both.

When it comes time to wash it out, your shower will smell like perm solution. Don’t worry.

Going forward: Moisturize, moisturize, moisturize.

Yay, you’ve survived your first perm!

You’ve also effectively drowned your hair in chemicals. Over and over.

This is where all your delicious-smelling new products come into play. You baby the shit out of your hair until your next appointment. Me, I deep condition twice a week. Seriously.

But yay, you’ve made it! You’ve joined the family of Perm Enthusiasts. Play around with your new locks. Experiment. Enjoy the increased body and play around with all the new looks open to you.

Most of all: Enjoy it. This is your hair now, at least for a few months. You can always go back to straight hair someday. In the meantime, enjoy the curly goodness!

Brit McGinnis

Written by

Copywriter and CEO of Black Bow Communications. Author of several books. Host of the You’re Not Helping podcast. Tips and leads: @BritMcGinnis