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The Return of the Perm: A Primer for Getting Curls Without the Crunch

Perms are back! No, they seriously are. And they won't make you look like Jennifer Beals in Flashdance. Here's everything you need to know about the modern perm.

We’re all about that natural, artfully mussed, beach wave hair that you see on every red carpet and that hair stylists re-create every season backstage. And what if you could get that undone, I-just-woke-up-with-wavy-hair-this-perfect 'do, with minimal effort?

We have the answer. Get ready for it: It’s the perm.

I already know the adjectives and images popping into your head: crunchy, Justin Timberlake-circa-1999, ramen-like, poufy, fried, '80s, chia pet, production of Annie (I took those last two from this week’s episode of Modern Family) Texas State Fair, crispy. Those descriptors belong to the perms of yesteryear. It's better this time. (It's so different this time around that salons were advocating a name change--"body wave"--when the New York Times wrote about the return of the perm two years ago--but it's still just called a perm.)

The perms of today are smooth, effortless, volumizing, require almost no blow drying and can give you beautiful, wavy hair for up to a year.

“Perms now have more of a modern feel to them. They’re not the old Flashdance fuzzbomb,” Damian Santiago, the co-owner and perm specialist at Mizu Salon in NYC, told us. Santiago is a man so sought after that he can actually afford to turn down perms if he thinks clients have unrealistic expectations for “Diana Ross or Honey Boo Boo hair.” His perms are so good that some get perms from him strictly for volume--meaning that he has clients who get a perm and straighten their hair everyday because they love the body it brings (yes, mind blowing.)

Amanda Harding, 24, who lives in Boston and works for Apple, had had three perms in the last five years (she's not a Mizu client). "I was looking for a change. My hair was pretty long and I didn't want to commit to cutting it, so I figured I'd give a perm a try," she told me. "I've always loved big curly hair!" Pros of the procedure according to Amanda? It's really easy to style and maintain. Cons? "It takes about a month before it looks how you want it to and the chemical makes your hair smell funny for a few weeks," she said.

Anyone worth their repeated viewings of Legally Blonde knows that ammonium thioglycolate is the active ingredient in a perm that breaks down hair bonds, and that's still the case. Neutralizer applied after the ammonium thioglycolate locks in the curl. The secret to getting that elusive modern wave via a perm lies largely with the technique of the stylist and the condition of the hair.

“In the old days, you threw rollers in the hair, [and] applied solution, [without] a lot of thought put into it,” Santiago told us. Today, stylists (if they’re doing it correctly) should be asking the right questions. Like: What kind of look is the customer going for? Does the customer bleach her hair? Color? Texture? Does the client swim, is there chlorine in the hair? Is the hair very fine? What is the length and shape of the haircut? “All these things [used to be] secondary thoughts. Now, we’ve learned that it’s vitally important,” Santiago said. Your chances of smooth, natural results are instantly better depending upon your answer to these questions.

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When I received my first perm, side-by-side with my mom (nothing says quality bonding time like three immovable hours, breathing in bromade together), almost 20 years ago, all perms were hot perms, meaning you sat under a dryer for what seemed like an eternity. But cold perms are the perm-du-jour. Daman says, “I haven’t used [a heat-activated perm] in over 25 years. My reason is if you take hair and apply perm solution to open up the cuticle of the hair and then put heat on the hair, it’s the equivalent of a nuclear explosion. Boom!”

There’s been some chatter on online beauty forums about digital perms, which are gaining popularity stateside after being used in Asia. These perms are technically hot perms, in which the temperature is digitally regulated via the curlers, and treated with a similar solution seen in Japanese straightening treatments. While the aesthetic differences between digital and cold perms are minor, only about half the length of your hair is treated in a digital perm, so those looking for a root lift should look instead at cold perms.

How do you up your chances of making sure you’re getting a good perm? “The thing I’ve learned is important is to make sure the hair is cleansed properly—styling products, mousse, build up on your hair and close the cuticle. If you apply perm solution over that, you get that crunchy feel," Santiago told us. Here are some other tips:

• The number one rule for any major hair change: Have a consultation. Bring in pictures to make sure you and the stylist are on the same page.

• Make sure your hairstylist chooses the right size roller. “If you’re looking for a soft, beachy wave, it has to be a medium to large roller. If you see a small roller, thinner than your finger, in the hands of your hairstylist—run.”

• Take care of your hair. Having good quality hair is like priming your skin before applying makeup, the base is just as important.

• Get a haircut with layers. “If you have all the same length, you’re going to have a pyramid on your head.”

• Perform proper post-perm maintenance. “You can make even the nicest perm look like a big fuzz bomb [with a blowdryer.] Any perm is going to look great if you air-dry it. [And] wash it with moisturizing shampoo!”

Have you had a perm or would you get one now? Tell us your stories!