I Finally Got A Beach Wave Perm & Have Zero Regrets

I don’t know why I waited so long.

For the past decade or so, as summer approaches and I start to visualize 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 contemplate whether or not to get a perm. Yet, every beauty editor I consulted with over the years all had a visceral reaction to the thought of me getting one, and categorically persuaded me against it. But my beach-minded self has always wondered what my hair would look like wavy and loosely textured without the need for salt from an ocean plunge or hot tools and styling product. It’s been a lingering thought for some time now, and with the support of TZR’s deputy beauty editor Hannah Baxter, I decided that this summer was the summer to get the beach wave hair I’ve always desired.

Now hear me out. I know that at first sound of the word “perm” conjures up references to the ‘80s when tightly coiled ringlets, aka the spiral perm, gained popularity 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 opted to get the American Wave, a process originated by Nick Arrojo of ARROJO NYC, at its Brooklyn location. 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.

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What Hair Type Works With The American Wave?

I have naturally straight hair with the slightest texture when styling with salt spray, and besides a biannual permanent dye to amp up my naturally black hue, I don’t do much to my hair. I air dry almost all year round, and am quite good about going in for periodic trims to rid of those pesky split ends.

Courtesy of Kathy Lee

But, don’t fret if you’ve done more to your tresses than I have. It also works for those with colored and previously permed hair. However, it may not be suitable for heavily highlighted or bleached manes. Not sure if you fall into the category of “heavily?” No problem.

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.

Courtesy of 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).

Courtesy of 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.