I Finally Got A Beach Wave Perm & Have Zero Regrets

I don’t know why I waited so long.

Originally Published: 
Courtesy of Kathy Lee
beach wave perm

For the past decade or so, as summer approaches and I start to envision what the season will look like — where to go on vacation, what to wear, and how to manage my hair in the heat — I always consider whether or not to get a beach wave perm. I take screenshots of inspiration, look at before and after pictures at hair salons, and consult with beauty editors. Yet, not knowing anyone who’s actually gotten it done made me too nervous to go through the long process required of perms (or so I thought), and possibly again if I was unhappy with the results.

But, after almost two decades of wondering what my hair would look like wavy and loosely textured without the need for salt from an ocean plunge or hot tools and styling products, I finally took the plunge and got the perm.

Now hear me out. I know at first sound of the word “perm” conjures up images of tightly coiled ringlets from the ‘80s, aka the spiral perm, and countless hours sitting at the salon with funky smelling formula seeping into one’s hair. I know — I had this done multiple times, starting from the tender age of six. But to my surprise, and relief, I discovered that perms have come a long way since the days of my poodle-like mane.

To achieve my ideal “natural” looking, soft tousled curls, I went with the American Wave at the Brooklyn location of Nick Arrojo’s salon ARROJO NYC. I loved the results so much that once the waves grew out, I tried a new perm called Curl Cult, a proprietary new perm created by celebrity hairstylist and owner of LA-based Hairroin Salon Janine Jarman. While both perms produced the bouncy, loose waves I desired, the process and formula used quite differs.

Curl Cult Perm

Over seven years in the making, this is the first ever Protein Perm which utilizes a Pisum-Protex technology that shapes the hair from the inside out. Paraben- and sulfate surfactant-free, the two notable and significant differences with Jarman’s formula is that it takes almost half the time — in and out of the chair in about two hours for my long hair— and the smell is drastically less offensive than the standard perm. Ninety percent of the service is done at the chair, skipping the step of rinsing the perming solution and blotting the hair at the sink and applying the neutralizer right on top — also a formula Jarman created that processes in as little as ten minutes, at most twenty, depending on the hair type and desired results.

What Hair Type Works With The Curl Cult Perm?

While you can get a Curl Cult perm with dyed or bleached hair, like other perms, it depends on how damaged your hair may be. Jarman notes that, “anyone with metallic hair color such as henna and had Thio-based services done previously should not get a perm.”

If you are looking to redefine your curl patterns, create S bends, relax your curls with a reformation perm, or a get a simple root lift, you can achieve this with the Curl Cult demi-perm solution.

In regards to my hair condition at the time of service, it had been ten months since I last permed my hair at Arrojo Salon for the American Wave perm. I dye it black about three to four times a year and I almost always air dry my hair.

Kathy Lee

What Is The Process?

First, I informed Jarman of the type of curls I was looking for — loose, wavy, and soft — and the type of maintenance I could manage — air dry and minimal styling products. Since she can see the texture from last year’s perm still very loosely in place, she then determined the size of rods for my hair. After shampooing and conditioning, she sectioned my hair and rolled on rods of two different sizes. Since my hair is long and heavy, Jarman notes that she “used smaller rods above the occipital bone to compensate for the amount the curl gets pulled out with the length and weight. For the underside, I went a size down to maintain as much length as possible all while getting it to blend and look like you grew it yourself.”

Thereafter, she applied the perming solution, checked the strands after ten minutes, and left the solution on for another ten. When two to three strands had the pull of a rubber band, Jarman then applied the neutralizer. After about fifteen minutes, Jarman removed the rods and rinsed my hair, she then conditioned it using the Curl Cult Magic Spell Conditioning Leave-In spray and detangled with a wide tooth comb. After applying the Curl Cult Enhance Moisturizing Curl Cream and scrunching my hair with a microfiber towel to remove the water, Jarman diffused my hair.

Kathy Lee

How Much Maintenance Does It Require?

Like any other perm, it’s advised not to wash your hair for 48 hours. I also avoid tying it in a tight ponytail or bun as I don’t want to compromise the curl pattern.

I personally don’t like the look of very defined curls so I simply spritz on leave-in conditioner and apply the occasional oil in the morning. I do try and avoid wrapping my hair in a towel but, most often, it’s not very practical as I need to speed up the drying process to get myself out the door.

To keep up the moisture in my hair, on days I don’t wash my hair I spritz on water to open up the cuticles, and then leave-in conditioner. I shampoo my hair about every four days and use a cowash on day two.

The great thing about this perm and the American Wave perm is that there is no distinct demarcation because the curls are loose, and by the time there is significant growth from when you had the perm, the curls are much looser so it all looks very natural.

Jarman advises that “If you have no natural texture to your hair, you will need [the perm] more frequently (approximately four to six months) because it won’t blend in as much when your natural hair starts to grow in. With short hair, you will need a perm every three to four months because you end up cutting off the perm ... some clients with long hair and a natural texture come in every eight to twelve months because they love how it looks when it’s grown out and enjoy the different version of it as it softens.”

The cost of the Curl Cult perm starts at $150 for short lengths, $350 for average, and then $500-$700 for very long. For reference, my hair length costs around $400-$600.

American Wave Perm

As opposed to the traditional perm, which tend to leave the hair dry and damaged, and in effect frizzy, the American Wave — which is Thio (sulfur), formaldehyde, and ammonia-free — includes cysteamine as the active ingredient, potassium as a cuticle softener in the waving lotion, and utilizes ionic technology. As a result, the American Wave 'softens' the hair bonds in the cortex as opposed to breaking it, as done during a traditional perm.

The specific look I requested was the Beach Wave Wrap, which combines straight and wavy textures to create tousled waves, and can be customized to your liking. It’s not a one-size fits all technique, but instead one where you can work with the stylist to specify the tightness of how much hair per wave.

What Hair Type Works With The American Wave?

Similar to Curl Cult, those with colored and previously permed hair can get the American Wave. But it may not be suitable for heavily highlighted or bleached manes. Not sure if you fall into the category of “heavily?”

Kathy Lee

At Arrojo NYC, the stylist will do a porosity strand test by taking one strand of your hair and putting it in the waving lotion to see how it reacts. If it breaks or becomes distressed by becoming gummy or stringy, the stylist will instead suggest a series of conditioning treatments to strengthen and repair the hair before reconsidering the service.

In terms of hair thickness, the American Wave is good for someone with thinner density hair as the wave will give them volume, bounce, and thickness. But if you are looking for big cascading C shaped curls with naturally fine hair, this perm won’t be able to give those results.

What Is The Process?

From start to finish, the whole process took a little over three hours. First, my stylist Kat Rohan shampooed my hair twice before wet cutting to create the slightest layers. This allows room for the waves to take place and for the hair to not be too overpowering, especially at the ends. From thereon, six sections were made with a zigzag parting, and Rohan continued this sectioning in between each individual soft rod that resembles a foam-like tube, which the hair was wrapped around, so that the waves sit naturally and there is less of a harsh part line.

Rohan selected the largest size coil for the loosest curl, but if you prefer a tighter pattern, there are multiple options to choose from. Those with shorter hair may consider tighter rods as the ones used on my long hair may not be able to create any curls on shorter hair.

Kathy Lee

Thereafter, my stylist applied a warm perming solution and left it on for 25 minutes (the maximum time, which can vary depending on hair thickness and strands per rod). My hair was then rinsed under hot water for ten minutes and neutralized for five minutes using a solution which closes up the cuticle of the hair and secures the change in texture — it basically locks everything in. Lastly, Rohan rinsed out the neutralizer, removed the rods, and conditioned my hair using the American Wave Submerge conditioner.

How Much Maintenance Does It Require?

In terms of styling, Rohan scrunched my hair with a towel after conditioning, combed it out using a wide-tooth comb, applied the American Wave Structure hair cream and Wave mist, and a light serum to rehydrate the hair. I was then placed under a dryer to remove excess water, and after, Rohan used a diffuser to further dry each curl. If you are looking for a more natural look, you can air dry instead and forego the products (as I did with my hair in the lead image).

Kathy Lee

For 48 hours after the perm, I was advised to not wash my hair or work out (due to sweat) or expose my hair to the rain. Basically, avoid getting it wet in any way in order to not deactivate the perm chemicals. If you need to pull back your locks, do so gently, but try to avoid tying or clipping your hair altogether for at least one week.

For products, Rohan instructs me to use only sulfate- and sodium chloride-free shampoo and conditioner, and only comb through when my hair is wet. Do not brush your hair when wet or dry.

The wave falls out naturally over time, usually lasting between two to five months. The great thing about this perm is that it’s so subtle, the grow out process isn’t severe, no matter how straight your natural hair may be. And, if you love this new look, you can continue to receive the perm, depending on the condition of your hair at that time and if you’re willing to shell out $400 minimum (depending on hair length) each time.

I’m all for sitting in a salon chair for a few hours if it means my daily routine is shortened by a good chunk of time. I now have soft, textured waves which were previously only possible after a dip in the sea or styling with heat. I’m happy to say that after three weeks since my visit, my heart is fully content with finally taking the plunge and getting the beach wave perm I’ve so long thought about.

This article was originally published on