The Perm Is Back


Hair is like grass. You trim it, make sure it doesn’t get dry, and everyone else’s is better than yours. When you have curly hair, you try to extend blowouts as long as possible. When it’s straight, you become a wizard with the curling iron. When it’s short, you dream about growing it long. And when it’s long, nothing’s more appealing than cutting it all off. Brunettes get highlights, and blondes get highlights. Everyone is getting highlights!

My personal grass is fine, with medium density, and straighter than straight. The bombshell hair of my dreams has eluded me for more than 20 years—though not for lack of trying. In elementary school, my grandma would set my wet hair in a headful of pincurls—little spirals of hair secured to my scalp with bobby pins—that I’d sleep in, uncomfortable yet full of glee knowing that in the morning when she took them down I’d have little springy ringlets. The whole ordeal took at least an hour and I credit my uncanny ability to fall asleep on any and all surfaces to it. Left to my own devices, I’ve tried every variety of rollers, from hot to spongy to the ones that feel like the scratchy side of velcro, plus irons and curling wands. Non-heat options vary from simple (a bun) to the more complicated of-the-internet-tutorial variety. I worked in beach wave spray and Elnett and this mousse. I wanted body! Movement! Hair that looked effortless, yet purposeful. You remember women with curly hair. But no matter what method I tried, I’d look like a country music star in the morning and limp by lunchtime. With only the memories of curls. Which is how, in search of a more permanent solution, I ended up in Nylza Yepez’s chair at Ion Studio. She was going to give me a perm.

OK don’t freak out. If you’re old enough to remember the ‘80s, your perm associations are probably bad. Or this scene, which is iconic but still not pro-perm. And on top of all that, all my friends with enviably curly hair (but also: keratin treatments) scolded me for wanting to swap my supposedly user-friendly hair for something they work so hard to “tame.” Didn’t I know how lucky I was?! Curls are work, they assured me. While straight hair is a fact, curly hair is a routine. I had hair-related butterflies for the first time in a long time. Still, I let Nylza do her thing. I needed to know for myself.

Nylza assured me the damage wouldn’t be major. Most perms use thioglycolic acid to break and reshape the bonds of your hair, but the solution she uses is thio-free—instead, it uses a chemical called cysteamine, which is gentler and smells less like rotten eggs. And she didn’t use heat, so technically it’s called a cold wave. Still, Nylza warns that it isn’t safe to do on colored or bleached hair (the inch-or-so of grown out highlights on my ends would probably be burnt and have to be cut off). She set my wet hair in rollers, alternating the directions of the curls and sizes of the rods to simulate a natural curl pattern. Then she brought me to the sink and poured on the perm solution, eventually followed by the neutralizer, and then finally a good rinse. The whole process took about three hours for my long hair—including a trim to chop off any frizzled ends.

But at the end of those three hours? I had curly hair! To level set, my curls are a little closer to good-day-at-the-beach than the full-on Julia Roberts. Which is fine—my reference photo was Botticelli’s "Birth of Venus." It’s a less immediately thrilling effect, but one that is more sustainable. A perm is, for all intents and purposes, permanent—you can touch it up, but you want to minimize the frequency with which perm solution comes in contact with your hair. This way, when my straight hair continues to grow in straight, the line of demarcation will be less noticeable. (And I’ll theoretically be able to wait longer between touch-ups.)

After the appointment, I met up with a friend for pizza. They very quickly called me out for staring, mesmerized, into every reflective surface. How could I stop? If I looked close enough into the top of the parmesan cheese shaker, there was me! But with curly hair! A dream!

As the mandatory 24-hour no-wash period came to a close, the panic set in. Would the curls wash away? They have not, but I do have to mind my products. My shampoo is from Playa, which is gentle and sulfate-free and smells amazing to boot. I follow that with the Wake-Up Circle Mask from Davines, comb it through, wait 10 minutes, and rinse again. I towel dry with my Aquis towel turban, and when that’s done I scrunch in the Virtue mousse that my hair loved even when it was straight. If I was using “some” before, now I’m using "a lot." Nylza showed me. A good sized dollop—for each side. Curly hair don’t skimp. Then I use a spritz of either the Love Curl Primer or the All In One Milk, and wait for it to air dry. Now I can go three or four days in between washes, though after a full eight hours of sleep, sometimes I hit pieces that need a little boost with a little curling iron, pulling them out when they’re still hot so they don’t look like ringlets. What I can’t do: just hit my head with a blow dryer when I want to head out without wet hair. I need a diffuser! It’ll turn straight without it. It’s OK—I’ve fought tougher battles. The real war was the curls, and guess who won that one? Nylza! But also me.

—Ali Oshinsky

Photos via the author and Ion Studios.