Although this may sound like something out of a sci-fi movie or a kids’ TV show, it is a very real beauty trend that is slowly permeating it way into our culture.
Digital perming is a technique to permanently retexture hair that utilizes a computerized machine to control heat output. Compared to traditional perming methods, digi-perms are much less damaging to the hair and tend to look more natural.
Originally from Japan (ironically, the origin of a lot of sci-fi-like things and kids’ TV shows) the digi-perm remains the most popular in Asia. Even in the large metropolitan city where I live, there are only two salons offer the service. Within these salons only about 1-2 stylists are trained to do it.
The relative scarcity can be attributed to the high cost of the equipment, the training involved, and the high cost for the customer. Around here, a digi-perm goes for $180-200, depending on the length and thickness of hair. You should be skeptical of any place that does it for significantly less (even in Asia!).
Prior to getting my first digital perm, I had what my stylist calls “virgin hair”: all-natural with no color, perm, or other chemical treatment. I had known about the digital perm for years before seriously considering it. In that time, I saw many of my friends getting them, always with beautiful results.
One of the major frustrations I have with my hair is that it is very straight and flat. Each individual strand of my long Asian hair may be thick, but overall I don’t have a lot of it. The only way to add body to it was to load it up with product and curl it. And not just with any curling iron. The barrel couldn’t be too big, and the heat had to be high enough. It couldn’t be too heavy cuz my arms would tire from having to hold it in place.
Before going for the perm I had pretty good luck with my ConAir curling wand, which expedited and simplified the process immensely from a traditional clamp iron. However, I still had saturate my hair with product (especially heat protectant spray!) and the whole process would still take between 45min-1hr.
The salon that I went to offers free consultations, so I took advantage to get my questions answered. I highly recommend doing this if it is available so that your stylist can personally assess your hair for suitability.
The actual process to retexturize my long stubborn Asian hair took almost 4 hours. This a little longer than average, but is expected for my hair type as well as the fact that my hair was previously untreated. It was a long haul but most of it was idle time: waiting for something to run or set. I got out of the chair a few times to use the restroom and add more time on the parking meter. My stylist tended to other clients during that time as well.
When it was time for the final styling, my stylist took some time showing and explaining to me the proper technique. I was given a sheet of instructions to follow for the following 48-72 hours, as well as general tips and tricks. I’ve summarized them below for you:
- You are recommended to avoid washing hair for at least 2 days, 3 if possible.
- In this time, also avoid brushing/combing the hair.
- When sleeping, try to flip your hair above your head and fan it out as to not be pressing on it overnight.
- The curls will likely flatten out in this time, but be rest assured that they will come back when you next wash and style it.
Styling: After you learn the routine, you can finish styling your hair in as little as 10 minutes. Although I would still prefer a no-maintenance approach to hair, this routine is still far faster than curling hair with an iron.
- My salon recommends against using curly shampoo/conditioner because they are suited for people with that natural hair type (which is presumably not you if you are getting a perm). Using your regular products is fine.
- After washing, pat dry with a towel — don’t rub!
- Allow hair to dry about 80-90% before working with it.
- Apply volumizing and holding product all over, focusing on the ends of the hair from the ear down. I have good luck with Kevin Murphy Body Builder Mousse, but my stylist also recommended Kevin Murphy Easy Rider Styling Paste.
- Twist hair into individual sections, about a 1/2 inch in diameter. This is demonstrated well by this video from a fellow blogger.
- Blow dry hair in the twisted sections along their length. For best results it is recommended to use a diffuser to help distribute the air while maintaining the curl. The best styles are ones with a higher lip (example) so you can literally scoop the hair in and hold it bunched up, held against the head. Each section of hair should be dried for about 10 seconds at a time.
- When hair is dry, can finish styling by lightly brushing. Avoid over combing or over brushing.
How long does it last?
It’s been about a year since my first digital perm. I would say that it lost its full body after about 3 months, but remained moderately curly with little maintenance until about the 7th month mark. Nowadays, my hair still has a little bit of wave and volume from it, but I would have to do special work to get curls to show up. I’ve also had a couple haircuts so at least 4 inches of the curliest part of the hair is not currently present.
My stylist warned that the first digital perm, especially on virgin hair, is likely to last the least amount of time. After the initial treatment, regular clients have treatments about 6 months apart. More conservative ones can stretch it out to about 9 months while still maintaining a consistent effect.
This is still pretty expensive for most people, however. As a student, I don’t really have the means to spend $400 on my hair texture every year, but doing it once a year or even once every couple years is not so bad when you consider the time I save on my hair routine.
- Consider the adjustments to your routine: One thing I didn’t initially recognize about the digital perm was that, at whatever time I wanted to have my hair freshly styled, I would need to wash my hair right before. It meant having to time my showers differently and plan ahead. For some people, this could be quite a nuisance.
- Be wary of pairing a color treatment with digital perm. When I was considering the perm, I had also hoped to get balayage highlights in my hair around the same time. My stylist recommended waiting at least 2 weeks between treatments, and to do the balayage second, as the digital perming chemicals can alter the color.
- Take care of your hair: this probably goes without saying, but it is important to nourish your hair after it has undergone chemical treatments. Although my hair maintained much its health and shininess after the digital perm, it still showed more fragility and dryness, especially after the ensuing balayage treatment. Use quality products that moisturize the hair well, and consider getting a deep conditioning treatment every few months at your local salon (it’s easy to find great deals for these, especially when paired with a haircut)
For those considering perms that want a very natural look that causes minimal damage to the hair, I totally recommend spending the extra money to choose a digital perm over a traditional perm. You (and your hair) will thank me later!