Less Chutney from Legally Blonde and more SS20 Gucci or Celine – Jaime King and Jourdan Dunn are among those perming their hair wavy rather than curly
The first thing that comes to mind when thinking about perms is that iconic final courtroom scene in Legally Blonde. Reese Witherspoon’s character Elle Woods cracks her first legal case when she realised the defendant is lying about showering directly after getting her hair permed. “Isn't it the first cardinal rule of perm maintenance that you are forbidden to wet your hair for at least 24 hours… at the risk of deactivating the ammonium thioglycolate?” she says. Linda Cardellini’s Chutney, with her curls still intact, stands no chance.
Perms, along with sister ‘bad’ 80s hairstyle, the mullet, have returned, thanks to a new wave of treatments making their way from Japan to Europe. The digital perm uses a combination of infrared heat and less-damaging chemicals to create looser waves and natural volume over tight, uniform ringlets, a gentler, more natural approach to the hair style. Think less Coronation Street’s Deidre Barlow, and more SS20 Gucci or Celine. Fans include Jaime King, Bella Hadid, Jourdan Dunn, and Emma Stone.
“A digital perm is a new technique of creating a shiny and bouncy wave to your hair,” explains Kenji Nishimura, founder of My Snug Room, a salon in London that specialises in the treatment, which lasts between five and ten months. “It uses temperature-controlled rods that are all powered by a machine with a digital display.” Unlike a traditional perm, where dry hair is soaked in alkaline and set in curlers, a digital perm is activated by heat to break down the molecules of your hair and rebuild them to mimic the shape of the rods.
While the idea of subjecting your hair to those levels of heat might seem scary initially, the chemical used in the treatment (by Tokyo-based brand Momoko) contains proteins that recondition and repair the hair molecules by creating moisture when heat is applied. It sounds counterintuitive, but, speaking from personal experience, it works. The biggest difference between an 80s perm and a digital perm, Nishimura says, is the shape and the texture of the wave created. “A digital perm creates the wave as if you’ve used a curling iron and makes the wave more prominent when the hair is dry against a normal perm.”
“A digital perm creates the wave as if you’ve used a curling iron and makes the wave more prominent when the hair is dry against a normal perm” – Kenji Nishimura, founder, My Snug Room
For many, digital perms are an easy way to navigate life without the constant struggle of styling and maintaining your hair on a day-to-day basis.“My hair’s very straight and doesn’t have much texture, which is why I decided to have big, loose waves. It makes it really easy to style or even to dry naturally,” Kentaro Kondo, a London-based makeup artist tells us. Semi Han, 23, agrees: “I first got one because I thought growing out my hair would be easier and less effort in the mornings.”
There are, however, downsides to the treatment: “It takes (up to) five hours and costs a fortune,” says Augusta Powell, a London-based design editor. The digital perm is also tailored towards those with straight hair wanting curls, rather than those with thicker and more textured hair to begin with (it’s harder to combat frizz and unwanted volume). Nishimura says to overcome this, some customers get a straightening treatment and a digital perm to “create a smooth texture and then add bouncy curls”.
In Asia, hair salons offering digital perms are as widespread as hairdressers themselves, and while the prices vary from place to place, it’s still significantly cheaper than London, where a single session can cost up to £400. “They’re so common in Asia, it’s not really a new thing like it is in London,” says Nishimura, who attributes its popularity down to Asian people wanting more texture and volume in their hair, like westerners. Flicking through multiple Japanese magazines showcasing different options and styles: the possibilities, he assures me, are endless. Outside of Asia, however, salons offering the treatment are more sparse – there are fewer than ten salons in London in total.
Digital perms are still a relatively new addition in the west but the popularity and variations of the treatment in Asia speaks volumes. Interestingly, the step towards customisable perms marks a step away from fad hairstyles, such as hair extensions and cold perms, instead focusing on creating a gentler look, characterised by looser waves and natural volume. Admittedly, the price can be eye-watering, and the prospect of sitting for up to five hours in a salon, daunting, but if it could save a solid half-hour in the mornings, what’s not to love?