The decision to get a perm in early 2022 was a spontaneous one for 19-year-old Charles Chen.
He wanted a simple hairstyle for his naturally straight hair.
However, what started as a one-time experiment has now become a regular part of Chen's beauty routine, along with skincare and grooming.
Every time he visits his barber in downtown Manhattan, he gets a perm. While perms have been a part of American culture since the late 19th century and were popular in the 1970s and 1980s, they fell out of fashion in the early '90s.
However, they have recently gained a new audience, thanks to innovative products and their popularity among K-Pop stars and TikTok influencers. Today's perms are different from the ones worn by celebrities like Cher and Stevie Nicks, thanks to gentler products and digitized heat technology.
The clientele for perms has also changed, with more young people, especially men, embracing the hairstyle. Despite a decline in popularity, there is still an opportunity for hair care brands and stylists due to a growing number of new converts and advancements in product technology. Wella Professional, for example, has focused on creating gentler formulations that cause less damage to the hair and offer customized curl sizes.
The term "perm" has been rebranded as the "new wave" by Gen-Z, distancing itself from the outdated perception of the hairstyle. This modern version aims to mimic the effect of a permanent salt spray in the hair. The process of getting a perm involves shampooing, washing, and setting the hair in curling rods. A perming solution is then applied to chemically alter the hair's structure and create curls. After allowing the solution to set and applying a neutralizing lotion, the hair is washed again to reveal fresh curls.
The "new wave" technique uses curling rods, but they are designed to create more natural-looking curls. Stylists like Briana Dunning at Striiike in Los Angeles curl the hair in larger sections, following its natural movement and direction, and using gentler perming solutions.
Digital perms, which use a chemical solution and digitized heat technology, have also gained popularity. The rise of the Korean Wave, a global phenomenon that promotes South Korean culture, has influenced young people, especially men, to get their hair chemically curled. The Korean perm creates natural-looking curls that are subtle and gentle.
K-Pop musicians like BTS's V and actors like Gong Yoo have helped popularize this trend. Hair stylists, such as Lydia Wolfe at Jack and the Wolfe in London, have noticed an increase in young men seeking perms, attributing the hairstyle's comeback to its easy styling. Wella's Roland Munz hopes that the resurgence of perms will encourage brands to better cater to multicultural consumers.
Overall, there has been a shift in recent years, with more people embracing their natural curls, and perms can be a part of that.