A Basic Guide to Hair Perming (and knowing what to say at the salon)

Thinking of changing up your do with some curls? Here's all you need to know about getting a perm!


Do you always get confused over the different types of perms at hair salons?
Well I do.
So I put together a comprehensive guide for all of us who desperately needs one before making that big decision to spend chi-ching$$ at the salon.

Types of Perm

Really, there is only ever two ways to curl your hair. Fancy names aside, you either get a hot perm or a cold perm.

Hot perm is when an acidic solution is applied to your hair, before heating to break disulphide bonds in your hair. This allows the hair to be moulded into the desired shape/curl.

A cold perm on the other hand requires an alkaline solution containing ammonium thioglycolate to break the same disulphide bonds to change the protein structure of your hair.

A neutralizer solution is then applied afterwards to bring the pH back to normal and ‘re-bond’ the hair.

Pros and Cons

Hot perms require lower maintenance than cold perms to achieve the same level of curl. But you won’t get the same lift at your roots because of the condition that heat must be applied (and we don’t want to burn our scalp).

An alternative would be to get a root perm. A root perm is a perming technique where only the 2-4 inches of hair nearest the scalp is permed. This gives the appearance of greater volume for naturally flat hair.

Cold perms are less damaging than hot perms (the heat, duh) and more affordable. But they often come with tighter, less natural looking curls. And it might not last as long as hot perms too.

*Note that with cold perm, the curls are more prominent with wet hair, and loose when it is dry. Whereas hot perm makes the curls more prominent when hair is dry, and loose when wet.

Key Factors to the Outcome of Your Hair Perm

1. The chemical (solution applied)
Alkaline is recommended for stronger, coarser hair.
Acidic (requiring heat) is recommended for delicate, thinner hair.

2. The physical (wrapping hair)
a) Type of rod used. Generally smaller rods equal tighter curls.
b) How the hair is wrapped.
c) How end papers are used. This determines tighter or loosely curled ends.

Fancy Perm Names

Digital Perm
The modern and more popular type of hot perm, digital perms give softer curls with looser hair ends. Generally takes about 4 hours to get done.

Ceramic Perm
A type of hot perm, it requires higher heat than digital perm hence longer-lasting and more defined results. Usually tighter S-curls and more curly hair ends. Note that this reduces overall length of hair more significantly than digital perm. This is better for coarser, stronger hair because of the heat damage. Takes about 4 hours to do.

Wave/Body Perm
A type of hot perm as well which creates loose cascading waves. This is a softer look that takes about 3 hours at the salon. Better for shorter hair since it doesn’t reduce the overall hair length as much.

Classic Perm
This is the traditional cold perm. The intensity of curl is determined by perm rod used. Takes about 3 hours to do and is suitable for all hair types.

Twist/Spiral Perm
A cold perm as well. Gives tight spirals/very well-defined curls and hence, takes longer than normal perm, at about 5 hours. Can be damaging, so hair should be strong and healthy.

Re-bonding Perm
A hot perm which includes hair straightening, this is kind of a partial perm. The hair above your ears are straightened, and the lower half is curled.

Other Terms

The S Curl: Tighter curls for wavy, voluminous hair (like those from ceramic perm).
The C Curl: Soft, inward curls at the hair end, bob-like.
The J Curl: Like its alphabet, small outward curls at the end.
The Pin Curl: For all you vintage kids out there. Usually done with shorter hair.

C-curl on left, J-curl on right. Credit to thehoneycombers

Wait, What About Japanese and Korean Perms?

These two forms of Korean perms are not actual perm types but rather variations of the hot perm styles above. Where Korean perms give more defined curls for a weightier look, Japanese perms have a wavier, tousled style.


Before your perm, it is best that you deep-condition your hair to prime it for the damage in the weeks (or days) before your perming appointment. After perming, remember to condition daily and try to have weekly treatment to restore moisture levels of hair especially if you have undergone a hot perm. This is the vital key to maintaining your curls. Your hair will only keep its desired shape if it’s strong and well-nourished. Shelf other hair processing plans (e.g. colouring) for a couple of months until your hair is healthier again.

Hope this helps you better explain to your hair stylist exactly what kind of style/perming treatment you’d like, and avoid a terrible disappointment hours and hundred bucks later.

Of course, having pictures of your ideal style and a professional hair stylist to assess your hair quality can inform you on the most suitable perm for your face and hair type.

All images credit to Google.