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It's Not Like a Regular Perm, It's a Cool Perm

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Those of us (blessed? cursed?) with stick-straight hair will all remember a low point of hair trends: the scrunched look. Fashion mags shilled all kinds of fun foams and beach sprays that promised "easy, relaxed waves" with the help of some good ol' fashioned hair scrunching. Reader, desperate for volume, I bought them. Many of them. Their effect if your hair truly possesses no amount of natural curl? Sticky, wet-looking, stringy clumps. 

Perms are often thought of as an unfortunate phase our mothers (and fathers!) went through in the '80s. But perms today offer a lot more variety than Shirley Temple ringlets, and as it did for writer Angela Lashbrook, the treatment might even help you achieve the tousled, effortless look of your middle school dreams. —Stephanie Talmadge

Reconsider the Perm
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Story by Angela Lashbrook

Arrojo Salon doesn’t call its permanent curling process a "perm," and it’s easy to understand why. After a decade of tight poodle curls and hours spent slathered in noxious-smelling chemicals, the fashion world recoiled (pun not initially intended), and Jennifer Aniston’s girl-next-door pin-straight layers reigned supreme for 20 years. "Perm" brings to mind either grandmas or shoulder pads, two concepts that, while they have their place in fashion, don’t quite belong in the mainstream.

It’s likely that if you ask your hairstylist for a perm, she’ll look at you funny (I know — I’ve done it). They’re smelly, difficult, and incredibly damaging. They look dated. But do they have to be? Not according to Nick Arrojo, the founder of Arrojo Salon and inventor of the American Wave — a new, gentler, more modern perming process than the old-school kind.

My healthy, luscious, breathtaking just-waved hair is proof.

The tyranny of flat irons and smoothing creams first fractured in 2012, when celebrities like Gisele Bündchen and Blake Lively popularized warm, sun-kissed skin — and the requisite look of beachy, tousled waves. Compare Vogue online in 2012 — in which there was a total of one story mentioning "beachy waves" —to 2015, during which the magazine published 49 total stories discussing "beachy waves."

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Now, of course, we’re far beyond beachy bedhead tresses. We are in full curl territory. But unlike the '80s, when curls were of a very specific, artificial, white look, curls today are more diverse, embracing everything from just-braided waves to big, shameless '70s ringlets to natural, gorgeous kinks and coils.

I’ve always loved curly hair, perhaps because my hair is medium brown, somewhat straight, and relatively lifeless (or perhaps because I was looking for an answer to a semi-permanent existential crisis). Celebrities like Lorde and Shakira, whose wild curls are a defining aspect of their public personas, gave me major hair envy. But my inclination towards laziness and childish fear of curling irons prevented me from ever fully embracing the hair I coveted.

It was this Elle editorial that finally spurred me to action. The model, whoever she is, possessed a beauty that I believed I could only achieve with her meticulous mop of curls. So when I found out about Arrojo Salon’s perm process, the aforementioned American Wave, I was convinced.

I was going to get a perm.

Arrojo Salon launched its American Wave in 2012, just as curls were creeping back into the mainstream. Traditionally, perms use a combination of harsh chemicals like ammonium thioglycolate and sodium hydroxide to break the bonds of the hair and reform them into a new shape. The American Wave’s "ionic wave lotion" — a.k.a. cysteamine and isopropanolamine, a salt and an alcohol, respectively — "softens" the bonds, making for an equally effective, but gentler, process.

I’ve bleached, highlighted, and dyed my hair plenty of times, so I’m pretty familiar with the damage that messing with the natural state of your hair can cause. But I was pleasantly surprised at how healthy my hair looks and feels, even after getting the process twice — which I’ll explain more in a bit.

While undoubtedly easier than a perm, the process isn’t painless. After an initial consultation — in which I informed master stylist Amanda that I wanted hair like model Freja Beha Erichsen’s — my hair was washed twice with a clarifying shampoo to allow the strands to better absorb the waving solution.

After shampooing, Amanda cut my hair into a gorgeous shag I could have walked out of the salon with and been happy. Next came the curlers — colored foam tubes that come in multiple sizes to make the resulting wave look natural — around which Amanda tightly wrapped strands of varying thickness.

She then applied the waving lotion to my hair. Arrojo claims it "smells like eucalyptus," but honestly was more reminiscent of burnt garlic. The self-heating liquid felt a little uncomfortable on my scalp, given how tightly my hair was wrapped in the curlers, but it wasn’t painful the way getting your hair bleached can be.

Far worse was the washing. With my hair still in curlers, my stylist led me to the salon bowl, where I sat for ten minutes as scalding hot water rinsed the disgusting chemicals from my tender scalp. The stylist told me that "the water should be as hot as you think you can handle," and, terrified that anything less than scorching would kill my new curls, I gritted my teeth.

The whole process was, despite being slightly tedious, also hilarious — the funniest part being when the stylist blotted my hair, still wrapped around the multicolored curling horns, with paper towels. Not only did I have a helmet of tubes on my head, but also bright white, public bathroom-style paper towels sprouting from my scalp like ugly little wings. It was as if I’d been turned into a tree, only to be promptly TP’d.

Once my hair was dry-ish, a "neutralizer" was applied to my strands, which reformed the cuticle of the hair and sealed in the curl. After five minutes or so, I was led once more to the washing station to endure the mild torture that was the rinsing.

And that was it. I was done.

"But unlike the '80s, when curls were of a very specific, artificial, white look, curls today are more diverse, embracing everything from just-braided waves to big, shameless '70s ringlets to natural, gorgeous kinks and coils."

"Never, ever brush your hair," my stylist told me. "That’s over. Comb it in the shower and let it rest."

I’ve never been a 100-strokes-a-night person, but the thought of not being able to run my fingers smoothly through my hair gave me some anxiety. Would my head continue to look more and more undone and wild as my week of unwashed hair went on? Would product, which I had previously never touched, make my hair gunky and gross after lingering for days?

Curly hair, I’ve discovered, comes with a lot of don’ts. These include:

  • No brushing
  • No towel-drying
  • No blow-drying without a diffuser
  • No bleaching
  • No sulfates
  • No washing more than twice a week
  • No touching

It also comes with a lot of do’s, such as:

  • Use a silk pillowcase
  • Deep condition once a week
  • Apply product when wet
  • Curls will only be properly defined with product

I’d gone and gotten an American Wave because I was too lazy to style my hair; now I have double the responsibility and rules I ever thought I’d have to follow. Not to mention, my hair didn’t turn out quite as I’d planned.

I had shown up at the salon with a picture of Freja Beha Erichsen, who, to be honest, doesn’t really have curly hair. It’s more tousled in a sexy, perfect bedhead way. So my stylist went easy on the curlers, applying them on the "exterior" region of the head in order to achieve a looser, informal wave.This wasn’t what I wanted. I wanted curls — but not Shirley Temple curls; I wanted ELLE magazine-in-New-Orleans curls. But I was afraid, with my round face, round eyes, and chubby cheeks, of looking like a brown beach ball instead of a glamorous model in a white lace Chanel dress, price on request.

After a couple of days of hair that reverted increasingly to its sad straight roots, I sent the salon the picture on the right.

My hair, while considerably more bodacious than it’d been previously, had become straight again. After consulting to make sure I’d done nothing wrong — I’d not washed my hair for 36 hours; I’d not laid a single brush bristle upon it — we agreed to have me come in again for a second go at looking like the glamazon of my dreams.

I returned two weeks later. Instead of wavy-haired Freja, I showed my stylist a picture of my NOLA beauty heroine.

"We’re going to apply curlers to the interior of the head," said my stylist. "That way, the hair will have a more voluminous curl, instead of the gentle waves you had before."

I emerged from the salon three hours later, big-haired and American Waved. To keep my curls intact, I was instructed to wash infrequently and style with a soft curl cream, bunching irregularly-sized strands in my hands for a few seconds and releasing to define an easy curl. To refresh, I had only to spritz my hair with a bit of salt spray, add a small amount of addition curl enhancer, bunch, and go.

So. Am I a bit more Texan than New Orleanian? Sure was. But would I do it again? Absolutely.

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It’s called the American Wave, not the American Curl (which is actually the name of an odd-looking cat breed), for a reason. Unlike the traditional perm, Arrojo’s process produces loose, natural-looking waves with a healthy amount of body and movement — so if you’re on the prowl for a head of Shirley Temple curls, go the traditional route.

Upkeep is paramount to guaranteeing happy, shiny waves. I’m using a sulfate-free shampoo and conditioner from ColorWow, a deep conditioning protein treatment from Aveda, and an assortment of styling products from Arrojo to ensure my hair is as healthy and frizz-free as possible. And as anyone who had dyed their hair will know, the less you shampoo, the better.

So if you can handle the cost ($550 plus tip with a master stylist at Arrojo Salon) and the upkeep (which doesn’t even daunt your lazy-ass correspondent), the American Wave is a fantastic method for obtaining six months worth of volume and texture.

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When I met Meg He, one of the brand’s cofounders, at ADAY’s New York showroom last week, we spent most of our time talking about two things: what everything’s made of, and each piece’s intended function. For example, a tank top with a mesh back allows for ventilation (without veering into “club clothes” territory), and sports bras with stretchy armholes prevent your skin from getting pinched in the wrong places.

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