Fashions come and go, and the ‘fashion’ of hair perming is not as popular now as it once was. The main reason, it seems, is that the curly look, most fashionable perhaps in the late 1970s, is at present considered passe. This is not to say that it won’t eventually return. Another reason is hair styling products. It is only during the past ten to fifteen years that new ingredients have allowed the formulation of styling products that give the hair ‘body’ and apparently more thickness and control. One of the prime purposes of ‘perms’ in women over forty, when the hair loses body and volume, was to mask its thinning by making it wavy or curly and to swell the hair strands so that the hair looked and felt thicker. Nowadays, women in their fifties and sixties are more likely to have their hair permed -and if the hair is straight and limp, younger women may also be tempted by what are termed ‘body waves’.
You may be surprised to hear that, historically, hair waving was used in the mid-seventeenth century to curl wigs. The hair was rolled on cylinder-shaped baked clay and heated with hot water for many hours and then allowed to dry.
The underlying principle of waving hair is its elasticity. When hair is wet, it stretches and swells – in a way becomes deformed -and its disulphide bonds are disrupted. Yet the hair goes back to its original shape as it dries. If the hair is rolled up before it dries, it will dry into the shape it is put, i.e. waves or curls. Heat accelerates this. The shape the hair dries into will remain until it is wet or dampened or absorbs atmospheric moisture. ‘Permanent’ waves carried this a stage further by using chemicals instead of water. At first this was done by applying heat to alkaline chemicals, then in the 1940s ‘cold waves’ were introduced, whereby the hair was wetted with the waving solution, rolled up (the size of the curls depending on the roller size), left to process for a specified time, then ‘fixed’ in its curly shape by a ‘neutralizer’ lotion.
This method revolutionized perming by its ease and relative comfort. It reached its peak by the marketing of ‘home perms’, enabling the whole process to be done by the individual herself.
The market in home perms now is much smaller, the preference being (if required) to have it done in a salon. Because the solutions used are strongly alkaline, there is the possibility of severe damage unless great care is taken. The common ingredients used are ammonium thioglycollate to ‘reduce’ the bonds, and an oxidizing agent such as hydrogen peroxide to ‘fix’ the shape.
Skin is a similar structure to hair, so the scalp may become tender or a little sore after all the waving solutions are washed out.
The damage to hair is minimal when applied correctly. However, problems can occur quite easily by leaving the solutions on the hair for too long, rolling too tighdy or failing to thoroughly neutralize.