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Do Perms Damage Your Hair? Permanently? Are They Good or Bad?

Girl with ginger highlighted hair standing near a window wearing a yellow dress shirt and black eyeglasses.

A perm, like other hair treatments, offers you the opportunity to change the natural texture of your hair. They open up your hairstyling routine to a whole new world of versatility.

But, as with all chemical hair treatments, you’ve got to wonder whether it could damage your hair. Whether you’ve had a perm in the past or are rocking a perm now, we’ll tell you for sure if a perm can damage your hair.

Serious young lady with virgin hair that been styled with a perm solution.

What Is a Perm?

Let’s start by defining the term “perm.” A perm is a treatment that utilizes potent chemicals to permanently alter the structure of your hair. The treatment can take your hair from straight to wavy, curly, coily, or kinky.

Unsurprisingly, “perm” is short for the word permanent – once your hair is permed, it will keep the shape of that new texture indefinitely. But it’s important to understand that it doesn’t change how your natural hair grows back. You’ll eventually need touch-up perms to treat your new growth for a uniform look. 

Do Perms Damage Your Hair?

Attractive white girl with balayage-colored hair looking out of a wooden window seal.

Perms can lead to damaged hair if done incorrectly due to the harsh chemical process used by most perm solutions. There is little room for error when introducing new chemicals to your delicate strands. Chemical burns, dry hair, breakage, and more are possible when you perm your hair. To understand how perms can damage your hair, you should know how modern-day perms work. 

The Damaging Perm Process

The chemicals in perm lotions and solutions work to open up the outer layer of the hair called the cuticle. Once the solution softens the outer cuticle layer enough, the chemicals make their way to the cortex and medulla, the innermost layers of the hair strands. 

Ammonium thioglycolate, the main chemical in many perming solutions, is responsible for breaking your hair’s bonds (e.g., disulfide bonds, protein bonds) to render them pliable. A neutralizer, like hydrogen peroxide, is then applied to rebuild the bonds of the hair in the shape of the rollers chosen by the hairstylist. 

The Result

Close-up of a cute white girl wearing reddish permed hair with dark-colored glasses.

Since perms are intended to literally hijack your hair strands and change them from the inside out, there is a high chance your newly textured hair may turn out damaged.

The work that ammonium thioglycolate and other chemicals in perms do to give you that authentic look can leave hair brittle, weak, and breakage-prone. Some ladies also experience hair thinning in addition to serious breakage.

This potential damage is less likely on unprocessed hair, but if your hair has been chemically “processed” previously you’re more likely to experience damage (e.g., perming highlighted hair could be problematic).

Hair damage during perms can occur when the optimal pH levels of the hair and scalp are disrupted. The natural pH of the hair is between 4.5 and 5.5. Chemicals in perms have pH levels as high as 9.6.

When these high pH chemicals come in contact with the hair and scalp, they can upset your normal pH levels. When the hair’s pH balance is thrown off, the scalp can become oily, itchy, dehydrated, and irritated. 

Thermal Perms (Heated Perms)

Some perm treatments combine the use of heat with chemicals (e.g., heated or hot perms). Stylists often use heated rods to set the curls in place and encourage your hair strands to conform to the new texture.

If your hair is exposed to the heat for too long or if the temperature is too high, your hair will suffer. This chemical and heat combination can wreak havoc on the hair, causing dryness, breakage, and even hair loss in extreme cases. 

Note: Even if your hair survives the initial perming process, it doesn’t mean you’re out of the woods. Damage can crop up weeks, months, or years after a perm. When possible we recommend that ladies avoid heat styling. Since perms are damaging we recommend cold perms over hot perms.

Curly redhead standing near a bricked wall wearing wavy bleached hair colored with Overtone.

How to Minimize Perm Damage Before and During the Perming Process

Although there is a risk of hair damage during the perming process, there are tips you can utilize to protect your curls and keep your hair healthy. Keep reading to learn how to lessen perm damage before and during the perming process.

Here is what you should do before getting a perm:

Assess the Wellness of Your Hair and Scalp

Before even thinking about scheduling an appointment for a perm or buying a DIY perm kit, you need to determine if your hair is healthy enough to undergo the process.

As mentioned before, perms put your hair under significant stress. If your hair is already in bad condition, a perm will only make the state of your hair and scalp worse.

If you are interested in receiving a comprehensive analysis of the health of your hair and scalp, you can visit a trichologist or a dermatologist. You can also evaluate the health of your hair and scalp right at home.

To perform a quick wellness check of your hair and scalp, use your best judgment and rely on your senses. If your hair looks and feels dry and lifeless, you should probably rethink that perm treatment.

Be sure to watch for split ends and breakage when conducting your hair and scalp wellness check, as they signify unhealthy hair. 

Steer Clear of All Chemical Treatments

Overloading your hair and scalp with chemicals is never a good idea, especially if you plan on getting a perm. It is best to start a perm with virgin hair. Introducing other chemicals before a perm can harm your hair, possibly causing irreversible damage. 

If you have recently color-treated your hair, you might want to delay getting a perm for a few weeks or until your hair has had time to recover.

Color treatments loosely mimic perms in that they break through the cuticle layer to inject color into the hair. A new color treatment can leave your cuticle layer weak and susceptible to damage. Adding a perm to the mix could destroy your hair beyond repair. 

Wavy redhead lady in the yellow-ish dress shirt with naturally straight hair that's been permed.

Avoid Excessive Heat Styling 

Many people love experimenting with heat to spice up their styling routines and nail particular looks. But if you have a perm appointment coming up, save the heat styling for another time. 

Follow these tips to minimize damage during the perming process.

Get Your Perm Done by a Professional Stylist

The DIY craze has taken the hair industry by storm. With social media and Google at our fingertips, otherwise careful people have become overly ambitious, attempting complex hair treatments at home.

However, if you want the most success and the least damage, invest in a professional perm from a local hair care professional. Because a perm is permanent, you’ll want to be as careful as possible with your delicate tresses.

For visual learners, watch the video below from Saidova Elena where she details the process for permanent waves.

Permanent Waves Tutorial For Long Hair

Do Not Leave the Perm On For Longer Than Recommended Time

No matter what perm lotion, cream, or solution you use, there will be a specified time that it can safely remain on the hair. This time is typically located on the product label.

Generally, a perm shouldn’t be on the hair any longer than 15-20 minutes. Allowing the perm to sit on the hair longer than the recommended time can cause scalp burns, hair breakage, and hair loss (i.e., hair fall in some cultures).

Adult female with blue eyes and a wavy hair type styled with a permanent wave dyed red.

Taking Care Your Hair Post-perm

Less is more when it comes to avoiding damage after a perm. Below are a few tips (for all hair types) that you can follow after your perm to keep your hair looking and feeling healthy.

  • Avoid chemical treatments like dyes, rinses, and texturizers.
  • Keep your hair moisturized to prevent breakage and split ends.
  • Limit heat styling (e.g., hair dryer, flat iron, etc.).
  • Try loose styles. Tight styles that tug at the hair and scalp will cause hair breakage.

Should You Get a Perm?

Cute Caucasian female with balayage highlighted hair styled after a deep conditioning treatment.

A perm can be a fun way to see what your hair looks like in a completely different texture. And you may thoroughly enjoy a perm if you are bored with the current texture of your hair.

Styles that look bland to you in your original hair texture will look extraordinary with the flair that a perm brings.

On the other hand, a perm is not for everyone. If you like changing the texture of your hair very frequently, you should not get a perm.

Also, if you enjoy dyeing or bleaching your hair every couple of weeks, a perm is not for you. After a perm, you should avoid hair dye and bleach-like the plague. Your hair will not be able to handle it.

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No matter what precautions you take, a perm (i.e., putting perm lotion on your hair) will inevitably cause some degree of damage to your hair structure due to the chemicals involved in the process.

But you can minimize damage and preserve the health of your hair by implementing the tips outlined in this article. We hope that we have addressed all of your concerns about perm damage.