Advice + Ask The Edit, + Hairstyles

Ask Belle: To Perm, or Not to Perm

Hi Belle,

I started reading your blog a few months ago.  Love it.

My question is about hair.  Ever since I read this NYT article, I’ve been contemplating the once-unthinkable perm.  A friend of mine got a digital perm, and she ended up with gorgeous loose waves.  My hair is fine, but there’s a lot of it, and it barely holds a curl.  Like you, I prefer big, voluminous hair.  I’m tempted to take the perm plunge.  Do you have any experience with or opinions about the new generation of perms?

Thanks! Jill

This may shock some of you, but I used to perm my hair.  I found that light wave really pumped up the volume when I straightened it, and I could leave it curly and get a nicer undo.  I only stopped perming it because after my last hairdresser retired, I couldn’t find anyone in D.C. who knew how to perm my hair without a) frying it or b) making me look like I was wearing a clown wig.

I’m not sure that there is anything particularly “new” about these perms.  But I’m not averse to adding a bit of chemically created wave to my hair, provided you heed some ground rules.

Size Matters.  If you’re going in for a perm, make sure that your stylist uses a rod that will give you medium-size or larger curls.  The size of the rod depends on the hair length.  I also recommend using two sizes to get a more natural looking waves.

Care for Your Hair.  If you color your hair (and who doesn’t these days), especially if you lighten your hair, you need to have a long chat with your stylist about which type of perm to use to prevent ruining your color and damaging your hair.  Some damage is unavoidable, but lower ammonia perms and other formulas are available that will minimize the issue.

For some women, a perm isn’t a good option because their hair is too fine, too processed or too damaged.  Only your stylist can tell you for sure if a perm is right for you and your hair type.

Curly Hair Takes Work.  The biggest misconception about permed hair is that it’s so easy to care for and style.  It’s certainly easier than blow-drying, straightening and curling our hair every day, but that doesn’t mean it’s maintenance free.

First, you need to find a shampoo and conditioner that will moisturize your curls without weighing them down.  I like the Ouidad product line, but if you need a drugstore brand, try L’Oreal Ever Curl.

Then, you need to find styling products that will enhance and hold your curls.  Creams are a bad idea because they will weigh down the hair, and gels will give you a crunchy 80s perm that will have zero movement.

I recommend a volumizing and curl defining mousse  like L’Oreal Everstyle or Pantene Curl Mousse.  I also use a curl enhancing spray like Frizz Ease Dream Curl or Bumble & Bumble Surf Spray for looser, beachier waves.

Lastly, you need to dry it.  For that, you need a decent blow dryer and a diffuser.  A number of curly-haired friends have purchased the special DevaCurl hairdryer and diffuser set, but since my curls are temporary, I just buy a Conair diffuser cuff for $8.

Conditioned.  When my hair is curly, I like to do a deep condition every week or every couple of weeks.  This is especially important if you are straightening your waved hair on a regular basis.  Aussie 3-Minute Miracle is inexpensive and works well enough.

Like I said, if you put a lot of work into your straight hair and you’re looking for a break from straightening it every day, try a perm.  But be sure to find a stylist who gives perms regularly, this is not a time for a newbie.  If you don’t like it, you can always straighten it.

So have you permed your hair in modern times?  Know if a DC-area stylist who does a good job? Or do any curly girls have tips on products to use?



  1. Capitol Hill SE says:

    Curly hair care varies so much from person to person. Mousse, and every Ouidad product I’ve ever tried, is way too drying for my (naturally curly) hair. Normally I apply a shea butter cream after washing, and style with basic gel once it’s dry. Maybe it’s just my hair type, but I could put a whole bottle of gel on my hair and not have it get crunchy. Oh, and the DevaCurl hairdryer is awful– hard to use and the results are worse than a regular hairdryer/diffuser. I air dry whenever I can, but I have a bonnet dryer I sometimes use in the winter.

    July 23, 2013/Reply
  2. Chelsea says:

    Real curly girl here. I seem to constantly change my mind about which products I want to use (season makes a huge difference, too), but my routine is similar to CapHillSE’s, I think. I wash twice a week, and follow it with a light curl cream or Moroccan oil and basic gel (Pantene’s curl gel is my current fave.)
    I never straighten and rarely style with heat, so I “plop” my hair on top of my head with a microfiber towel. This keeps the weight of water from stretching out the curl and keeps the wet hair out of my way while I get ready. After about 20 minutes, I let my hair out of the towel and dry sections it upwards a few times.
    The most important part of my routine is visiting Beth at Fiddleheads quartlerly – she’s a curly hair guru!

    July 23, 2013/Reply
    • Capitol Hill SE says:

      Huh, I tried Beth at Fiddleheads a million years ago and it wasn’t a great experience. I thought someone with curly hair experience would at least be able to dry my hair so it didn’t turn into a puffy afro!

      Plopping doesn’t do much for me, but I do twist locks of wet hair near the roots to encourage the formation of chunky spiral curls when it dries.

      July 23, 2013/Reply
      • Chelsea says:

        Agree, when she dries it – it really puffs & fluffs it out. I’ve tried to give her some feedback about that but I usually just ask for a bonnet-dry/air dry.

        July 23, 2013/Reply
    • TFTF says:

      Another vote for Beth!

      July 23, 2013/Reply
  3. Virginia says:

    I’m a huge fan of everything Ouidad — they work wonders on my natural curls and help keep my unavoidable frizz to a minimum. My stylist (Chris at Parlour on U Street — lovelovelove him!) uses the Bumble & Bumble line of curly products on my hair, and I’m quite fond of that as well.

    The only products I’ve ever truly loathed are the Miss Jessie’s samples I get in my Birchbox. Leaves a definite crunch, weighs my hair down, and feels generally disgusting. At least, that’s my experience. 🙂

    July 23, 2013/Reply
  4. Sienna says:

    I’ve been getting a perm for a couple of years and completely agree with Belle’s suggestions that it’s important to get bigger rods/curls and even more important to go to a stylist that knows what he/she is doing. I have stick straight, fine Asian hair that is super flat without a perm, so this perm has been great for giving me a lot of body and volume. I’ve gotten a steam perm and a digital perm, and my hair isn’t curly now – it is just wavy and has some volume. Another important thing that many people seem to forget is to never, ever, EVER brush permed/curly hair. You can brush it when you’re straight out of the shower, but brushing your permed hair after it is dried will make you look like Electrocuted Bozo the Clown.

    With permed hair, my hair generally looks best after a morning shower (when I give is sufficient time to dry while I’m getting dressed/putting on makeup) because sleeping in permed hair can make it look a little too… voluminous. And by voluminous, I mean knotty and disheveled. That’s just a little something to think about if you’re an night showerer. I wish I could recommend a great person in DC, but I get my hair re-permed about once a year by a stylist in New York when I’m visiting friends. Best of luck to you and your first perm!

    July 23, 2013/Reply
    • Elina says:

      Dear Sienna,
      I am desperately looking for a good perm specialist in NY… Could you please share the name of your person? Thank you so much! Lina

      October 11, 2016/Reply
  5. Lynn says:

    Do you have to blow dry with curly hair, or can you air dry? Trying a perm might be fun, but blow drying is a deal breaker for me.

    July 23, 2013/Reply
    • Capitol Hill SE says:

      Air drying is really bad for curly hair and should be avoided whenever possible.

      July 23, 2013/Reply
      • Valerie says:

        @Capitol Hill SE I think you mean “blow drying is really bad for curly hair” from your previous comment?

        In my experience, blow drying with a diffuser creates a really weird texture in my hair. Air drying is usually the best way to go, but I know in really extreme weather (like summer humidity in DC or winter cold) it’s harder to go outside with wet hair.

        July 23, 2013/Reply
        • Capitol Hill SE says:

          Whoops. Yeah, I meant avoid blow-drying!

          July 23, 2013/Reply
    • Belle says:

      I guess you can air dry, I know some women do, but for me without the diffuser the curls don’t get the bounce I’m looking for.

      July 23, 2013/Reply
    • Sienna says:

      I do both. Air drying gives me looser waves. Blow drying lets me kind of twist and manipulate my hair more so it gives me more curls.

      July 23, 2013/Reply
  6. A.J. says:

    Real wavy-girl here. I use a t-shirt to dry my hair (is that plopping??) and that alone makes a big difference vs. terrycloth. Also, I’m not as impressed by the L’Oreal mousse you mention as I am by a) Deva Curl’s light defining gel and b) Miss Jessie’s Jelly Soft Curls. As I said, my hair is more wavy than curly, and while some gels do give you that crunchy look, the ones I just mentioned definitely do not. They just have more hold than any mousse I’ve tried.

    I got the Deva Curl collection sample (no-poo, conditioner, light defining gel) in my June Birchbox and OMG…my curls were so happy! I’d not been able to achieve such volume/ringlet-ness since high school. I haven’t made the splurge for full size yet since I’m trying to use up old product but yeah. It made a huge difference.

    July 23, 2013/Reply
  7. Lady Lawyer says:

    Natural wavy-curly headed me uses the Remington T-Studio Ceramic hair dryer:

    I’ve been using it since college, and just bought a new one when my old one finally died. It’s inexpensive, but does a great job. In fact, several of my curly haired friends also purchased it after I did and enjoy it as well.

    As for drug store product purchases, I like the Tresseme curly hair line. Especially the mousse– its my go to.

    I have heard the rave reviews about Deva Curl line. I haven’t tried it yet because it is so expensive, but if you are willing to splurge, I hear it’s the best.

    July 23, 2013/Reply
  8. CW says:

    I go to Keiko at Ozuki in Georgetown. I have straight, insanely thick, Asian hair and she’s managed to cut and perm it without turning me into a poodle. In fact, it’s so good that when I first started getting it done, my friends and co-workers (who’ve known me for over 4 years) told me that I should stop straightening my hair and wear it au natural more often. Ha!

    July 23, 2013/Reply
  9. Addison says:

    I inherited my mom’s curls but my dad’s fine hair, so getting volume is a challenge. Even so, I’ve had great luck with a regular old Conair hair dryer with a diffuser attachment (Belle actually featured it in a post awhile back). I see no reason to spend a bunch of money on a Devacurl hair dryer. I tried the Devacurl product line and wasn’t impressed. It didn’t do enough to warrant the crazy price and I can’t stand hair products that are fruity smelling. I use both Organix teatree mint shampoo and conditioner and the L’Oreal Evercurl line. I know a lot of hair experts swear its a myth that your hair “adjusts” to products after continual use, but I feel like it works for me, even if it is my imagination. Haha. I get my hair cut by Kathyana at Bang’s Metropole location.

    July 23, 2013/Reply
  10. Yellowrose says:

    I live in Houston with a sizeable amount of straight, fine hair. Can someone who has “experience” with the body wave post pics? I have been debating taking this leap for awhile.

    July 23, 2013/Reply
  11. ~M says:

    The Miss Jessie’s line is really good. Apparently it’s for African American hair, but it’s been fantastic on my fine, blonde, frizzy hair. I highly recommend the curl cream. The gel is a little crunchy though.

    July 24, 2013/Reply
  12. SG says:

    I have a lot of naturally curly hair (a little looser than Keri Russell’s, for example) that is fine and porous and thus frizz-prone. My recommendation for someone with dry-tending or porous hair who is considering a perm and curly-hair products is that the DevaCurl line hasn’t been utterly fantastic. It works for my friend who doesn’t have as much of a problem with dryness, but not for me – not moisturizing enough. I used the DevaCurl No-Poo and One Condition for a few months along with their gels and mousse, but the combination didn’t leave my hair soft by the end of the day.

    I agree with Belle that the Ouidad line is best. Ouidad makes my hair shiny and soft without being crunchy and dry to the touch (which is not sexy); basically all of their gels and creams are great. Some of the Ouidad shampoos are sulfate and paraben-free as well (they have a new one that I’m about to try, the Curl Recovery Cleansing Oil). For deep-conditioning, I like Neutrogena’s Triple Moisture Deep Recovery hair mask.

    For blow-drying straight, I use a crazy amount of stuff. Beforehand, Moroccan Oil, then Bumble and Bumble Straight, then a heat-protectant spray from Rusk. After, to set it, I use the Rusk W8less spray, which prevents frizz and “curl regression” in humidity – it’s the only hairspray that’s worked for me after straightening.

    I use a BaByLiss Pro TT 5000 dryer, haven’t gotten around to getting a diffuser attachment for it yet (ordered one but it didn’t fit) so I just use it on the low-blow, high-heat setting for setting my curly hair. I looove that hairdryer for every possible style.

    July 24, 2013/Reply
  13. Clara says:

    I have naturally curly/wavy hair. I go to Vicky at Fiddleheads and she is amazing. She finally ended my 6 year search for a stylist.
    I’ve found that the timing of putting products in my hair is actually more important than what products I use. As soon as I get out of the shower (no towel, it’s still sopping wet), I flip my hair over and work a quarter sized amount of gel into my hair and scrunch it. Then I use a Dream Curls all over my hair, scrunch it, then use an old tshirt to scrunch it again. About 20 minutes later, I add some mousse and scrunch it in. I don’t blow dry/diffuse, but if you need to, that would be the next step. I’ve shared my “method” with several friends and they’ve found curls they never knew they had.

    July 24, 2013/Reply
  14. Lindsay says:

    I have this exact same hair type – fine but a ton of it. My hair is stick straight and never holds a curl. I had been contemplating getting a digi perm for almost 2 years, and about a months ago I took the plunge. WORST MISTAKE EVER. My hair turned out horribly – the top 1/3 has a tight weave, almost crimp-looking, and the bottom part is still completely straight – as if nothing was done to it. Really disappointing. The thing is, I went in for a consult beforehand and the stylist told me I had the perfect hair for this procedure. After it was done though, her tuned changed really fast to “well, it doesn’t take to everyone’s hair…”

    My best advice would be to get multiple consults done before deciding. After my botched-job, I went to see two different stylists to find out what my options would be for fixing it. They both said that my hair type is not ideal for this type of procedure, and that my best bet would be to give my hair a break and just deal with it until my hair gets back to a healthy state (in case you don’t know, getting a perm is super damaging – my hair feels worse now than when I used to be platinum blonde – it’s really bad). After that, they said I can try doing a chemical relaxer on the top of my head, but both discouraged me from doing a perm again.

    July 25, 2013/Reply