Chemically-treated curls are back, but did they ever leave?
Beauty trends are like a boomerang—they always come back around. Even the ones you thought were totally done and dusted: pencil-thin brows, mullets, and most recently, the perm. Once a hallmark of the 1980s, perms (short for ‘permanent waves’) were a fixture in Hollywood. Think of Meg Ryan’s bouncy curls in When Harry Met Sally, Jennifer Beals’ shag in Flashdance and the sky-high spirals Dolly Parton sported at just about every point in her career. Iconic, yes, but does it translate 30 plus years later? Sort of. These days, the perm wears a totally new face.
“There is no question that perms are having a major comeback,” says hairstylist and Mela & Kera founder Jason Lee, who has been wearing a perm since earlier this year. “For decades, people who had curly hair would straighten their hair to feel beautiful, but now wearing your natural curl pattern is widely embraced,” he says. “That movement flipped into a new trend and now those with straighter [texture] want some movement in their hair, driving the comeback of the perm.”
But in South Korea, the perm has never really fallen out of style. K-pop idols have been sporting perms and influencing fans for decades. And as Lee points out, stars like JungKook from BTS are only contributing to the continued popularity of the trend. Even The New York Times took notice, linking its rise to the explosive growth of K-pop culture in North America and the undeniable impact of TikTok. “Korean and Japanese salons have really evolved the perm since the ‘80s,” says Lee. A digital perm, or hot perm, does exist, and if you’re aiming for a more natural or relaxed appearance, many Korean and Japanese salons offer this service. “The difference is that they saturate the hair with a thicker perming solution and then roll the hair into larger rollers. These rollers are all attached by wires to a digital machine that heats them up, allowing for a more natural look.”
Lee’s own perm was inspired by Ethan Spiller’s (played by Will Sharpe) wavy locks in season 2 of White Lotus. And that laid-back, undone look (think Timothée Chalamet) is markedly more appealing than the over-processed, frizzy creations that put off an entire generation (i.e. millennials with perm moms) from experimenting with the hairstyle. “He had this cool shag that had natural movement. I really wanted more of a surfer-sporty vibe and the perm was the only way to achieve that,” he says. For his look, Lee opted for a ‘cold wave’ perm, which is the most common perming process in the Western world. Perm rods are wrapped around the hair, perm lotion (the ammonia-smelling stuff that breaks down the bonds in your hair) is applied without heat, then rinsed out. Finally, a neutralizer is applied to lock in the perm.
It’s no surprise that social media has played a massive role in making the perm popular among Gen Z folks. Think of the familiar ‘broccoli’ haircut, which “ultimately is a permed top with tapered sides and back, giving the silhouette of broccoli,” according to Lee. And if it’s popular with the younger generation, it’s a near guarantee that the trend will eventually trickle down. At one point, perms seemed to age folks (think of TikTok’s hair theory, or how vastly different the Golden Girls look compared to J-Lo, simply as a result of their hair style). Now, the look is perceived as young and fresh again. “My hair was laying really flat on my head, which was okay for certain looks but to be honest, it felt like it was aging me,” says Lee.
If you’re thinking of going ahead with a perm, there are a few things to consider. “Unfortunately, perms aren’t great for everyone. If you have processed hair from highlights, bleaching or relaxing the hair, it’s not advisable,” says Lee. “In fact, I had bleached tips on my hair and a lot of salons turned me down because they were worried about it breaking off,” he says. “Perms break down the disulfide bonds which weaken the hair, so you really want to make sure you have healthy hair and speak to a specialist before getting a perm.” Invest in hair care products that are perm-safe (Lee recommends the Mela & Kera Touche Velours shampoo and conditioner, which hydrate curls without harsh ingredients) and remember: perms are short for ‘permanent’. “Once the hair starts to grow, your regular hair texture will still continue to come in at the roots while the ends stay permed.” Expect to refresh your roots (just as you would with colour) every 10-12 weeks to maintain your perm’s appearance.