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How A Perm Works – The Ultimate Beginners Guide to Perming

Sarah Oglesby - July 28, 2017 Hair Perming

How A Perm Works – The Ultimate Beginners Guide to Perming

The bohemian wave hair trend is still going strong! And for some straight haired beauties, no amount of curling and setting provides longevity to their curls. Experienced technicians have the skills and knowledge to solve this age-old dilemma. They give their clients “waves for days” using their perming skills.

Of course, we’re not talking about the iconic perms of the 1980s, fantastic as it was. We’re referring to that soft s-bend that helps straight hair with a compacted cuticle become more voluminous. This allows the newly-waved hair to hold a boho wave from first light right through to the last call at the hottest night club in town.

Long Straight To Wavy Blow Dry

Long Straight To Wavy Blow Dry

Permanent waving has been dragged through the mud for decades. Many formal hairdressing training qualifications have removed perming from the essential curriculum. This leaves us to speculate whether there are generations of hairdressers that have never picked up an end paper and rod!

That’s why MHD is here to redress the balance. Our beginner’s guide to perming tells you how a perm works. It’s the perfect place to develop your understanding of perming. Let’s get started!

What are the different types of perms?

There are two types of perms, one step perms or single actions perms and two step perms or dual action perms. The active chemical found in most perm lotions is ammonium thioglycolate.

Ammonium thioglycolate is the active chemical found in most perm lotions. Learn more in the ultimate beginners guide to perming.

Ammonium thioglycolate is the active chemical found in most perm lotions.

Single action perms

Let’s jump straight in with a few scientific details you can use to develop your understanding of single action perms – and of course impress clients.

Single action perms are generally used for straighter European and Asian hair types. They come in a range of strengths, ensuring you get the best result for your client’s hair type. You can choose from:

  • Mild
  • Normal
  • Colour treated
  • Highlighted
  • Resistant

Single action perm products include alkaline perms, acid perms and exothermic perms. It’s crucial to understand the key differences to ensure you select the right product for your client.

Acid perm lotion is gentle with a pH value of approximately 6 to 7, similar to hair in its normal state. Acid perms are most suited to hair that’s had previous chemical services or is compromised from environmental factors. Glyceryl monothioglycolate – the chemical used in an acid perm – breaks fewer disulphide bonds. Acid perms contain activators that need heat to open the cuticle layers of the hair shaft.

Acid perm lotion is gentler and has a pH value of approximately 6 to 7. Learn more in the ultimate beginners guide to perming.

Acid perm lotion is gentler and has a pH value of approximately 6 to 7.

Alkaline perm lotions have a stronger pH value of approximately 9.5. They use ammonium thioglyocolate, which can be more damaging if used on the wrong hair texture. Alkaline perm lotions are best suited for normal or resistant hair types.

Alkaline perm lotions are best suited for normal or resistant hair types. Learn more in the ultimate beginners guide to perming.

Alkaline perm lotions are best suited for normal or resistant hair types.

Exothermic perm lotions are self-heating. They have activators that are added to the perm lotion which helps the cuticle layers of the hair shaft to open. Exothermic perms can be either acid or alkaline.

Exothermic perms can be either acid or alkaline. Learn more in the ultimate beginners guide to perming.

Exothermic perms can be either acid or alkaline.

Dual action perms

Dual action perms are kinder to the hair and are mostly used on African type hair for relaxing or chemical rearranging.

They consist of two steps. The first step softens and smooths the natural hair texture.

The first step of a dual action perm softens and smooths the natural hair texture. Learn more in the ultimate beginners guide to perming.

The first step of a dual action perm softens and smooths the natural hair texture.

The second step is where the hair is wound on perm rods with a weaker solution of ammonium thioglycate.

The second step of a dual action perm is winding the hair on perm rods. Learn more in the ultimate beginners guide to perming.

The second step of a dual action perm is winding the hair on perm rods.

What is Perm Neutraliser?

Both single action perms and dual action perms need a neutraliser to complete the chemical change of the hair shape. This final stage is called neutralisation – It’s the process of oxidisation.

During this process, oxygen is added to the hair using either hydrogen peroxide or sodium bromate.

Both single action perms and dual action perms need a neutraliser to complete the chemical change of the hair shape. Learn more in the ultimate beginners guide to perming.

Both single action perms and dual action perms need a neutraliser to complete the chemical change of the hair shape.

What Are the Different Stages of Perming?

During the perming process, the hair structure goes through three stages to take on its new shape. It’s helpful to have an understanding of the different stages, so we’ve outlined them below:

1 – Softening

Once the perm lotion is applied, the perm lotion swells the hair cuticle layers and enters the cortex.

The softening phase of the perming process. Learn more in the ultimate beginners guide to perming.

The softening phase of the perming process.

2 – Moulding

The perm lotion deposits hydrogen, which attaches itself to the hair structure’s disulphide bonds. The bonds are broken and become sulphide bonds. Once this happens the hair is in a state to change to the new shape of the perming rod.

During the moulding phase of the perming process the disulphide bonds are broken. Learn more in the ultimate beginners guide to perming.

During the moulding phase of the perming process the disulphide bonds are broken.

3 – Fixing

This is the final stage of the perming process. Once the processing is complete and the perm lotion has been removed, a neutralising product is applied. The neutraliser removes the hydrogen created during the softening and moulding stage and adds oxygen. The broken disulphide bonds reform and the hair is fixed in the new shape.

During the fixing stage of perming process the broken disulphide bonds reformed.

During the fixing stage of perming process the broken disulphide bonds reformed. Learn more in the ultimate beginners guide to perming.

We’re committed to ensuring that you give your clients (or students) the best possible experience. That’s why our website is packed with useful content on perming hair, giving you the chance to learn new skills or refresh old ones.

Perm Story Part 1 - How to Perm Hair

Perm Story Part 1 – How to Perm Hair

Happy perming!

Not an MHD member yet? Whether you’re a stylist, a barber, a salon owner or hairdressing educator, our world-class education gives you a competitive advantage – supercharging your career, boosting salon profitability or improving results for every student.



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