Perm vs Relaxer: Which Is Right for You?

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Why do people with curly hair want to go straight, while people with straight hair want to go curly?

It’s natural for people to have what they don’t have. Or maybe they just want to change things up from their normal look.

a woman wearing white tank top smiling at the camera with curly hair and other side is straight

Whatever the reason, people enjoy changing their hair.

It’s a good thing that transforming your natural hair is easier now too. You can change your hair color, style, and even texture with the right treatment.

Perms and relaxers are two popular chemical treatments that can change your hair’s texture.

But when it comes to perm vs relaxer — which one is better? And are there many differences between the two?

Yes, they are quite different. Although they’re both processes that alter the hair’s structure, they use different chemicals and have polar opposite effects.

So which treatment is best for you? Read on to see if you should get a perm or relaxer.

What Is the Difference Between Perm and Relaxer?

Perms and hair relaxers use chemicals to alter the hair, and they have opposite desired results.

A perm is done when you want to curl your hair. A hair relaxer, on the other hand, straightens naturally curly hair.

There’s additionally a special kind of perm called the reverse perm which is different from the classic perm.

As the name suggests, a reverse perm has a reverse effect of a traditional perm. Instead of curling the hair, the reverse perm will straighten it.

This result is similar to what a hair relaxer does. 

a young girl posing on camera with straight hair and other side of hair is curled

Reverse Perm vs Relaxer

Even though they technically achieve the same result, which is straight hair, there is still a difference between these two processes. 

The primary difference between them is the chemicals used and how each process is done.

The reverse perm, aka straight perm, uses the same chemical as regular perms, but instead of curling rods, the stylist will use a flat iron to straighten the hair.

A hair relaxer, on the other hand, uses other types of chemicals which are much stronger. That said, it only needs to be applied to the hair without having to use tools for straightening.

Because of their strength, hair relaxers are more commonly used by people with afro-textured hair.

But even though a relaxer has a stronger effect, the reverse perm has more longevity. Reverse perms can last up to 6 months, while relaxed hair needs to be retouched after 3 months.

Hair Perm

Professional hairstylist washes client’s hair with conditioner shampoo for washing after curling hair.

The term “perm” is actually short for permanent wave. If you’re tired of using your curling wand all the time, you might consider getting a perm.

The perming process can take hair from naturally straight to bouncy and curly using chemicals and curling rods or rollers.

These chemicals get absorbed into the hair fibers and alter the structure of your hair, creating a permanent change.

Because of upgrades in the techniques in styling, perms are now not just for people with naturally straight hair. If your hair is naturally curly, you can also have it permed to enhance the curls or create neat waves.

There’s also the reverse perm that, as mentioned in the previous section, straightens the hair instead of curling it.

How Is a Perm Done?

The perm is a relatively simple process that may take a couple of hours depending on the type of perm and if it’s your first time getting one.

First, your hairstylist will wrap the hair around the perm rods.

Depending on the style you want, they may use rods, rollers, or Flexi-rods. They may also place the rods in different directions.

Next, the stylist will apply a perm lotion that contains ammonium thioglycolate.

This solution causes the hair bonds to break which allows the change in hair structure. The strands will then conform to take the shape of the curling rods.

After the chemicals are in, your hairdresser will leave the hair to process for about 15 minutes. When this is completed, they will rinse the hair with the rods on.

The next step in the perm is applying the neutralizer. The neutralizing solution helps reform the hair bonds and lock in the new shape created by the curling rods.

After 5 minutes, the stylist will remove the rods and rinse your hair revealing brand-new curls.

The final step is a gentle blow dry, and then it’s done! The process can take up to two hours depending on the length and thickness of your hair.

Types of Perm

These days, a perm is not just the big 80s springy curls from the 90s.

There are many modern types of perms that use different techniques that can result in various curl patterns.

Types of Modern Perms

Here’s a short overview of what each type of perm means:

  • Spot — curls a specific part of the hair
  • Root — lifts your roots
  • Stack — curls the middle to the end of the hair
  • Spiral — creates tight, springy curls
  • Digital — curls using heated rods
  • Pin curl — curls using pins instead of rods
  • Volumizing — creates soft waves for volume
  • Body wave — makes full, large waves
  • Beach wave — messy waves for a textured beach look
  • Multi-textured — natural-looking curls
  • Reverse or straight — makes hair smooth and straight

These techniques may either use the traditional cold perm method or hot perm, which uses heat for faster and more gentle curling.

With the numerous perming techniques and styles available, there’s an option for every hair type and length.

Hair Relaxer

a woman sitting at a salon with silky and straight hair after relaxer

On the other end of the spectrum, have you ever spent hours straightening your curly hair using a flat iron?

You’ve made such an effort to make your hair straight that you don’t want to shower for days because you want to keep it that way.

Well, if you want to keep your hair straight for longer, even after getting it wet, you can use a relaxer.

A relaxer is a lotion or cream that is used to permanently straighten curly or coily hair. It has chemicals that relax the natural texture by weakening the hair structure.

The result? Straight and smooth hair for 6 to 12 weeks.

How Do You Use a Hair Relaxer?

Hair relaxers contain strong chemicals that can irritate the scalp. That’s why the first step when using a hair relaxer is to protect your scalp with petroleum jelly. Please research the chemicals and consult a professional before using chemical hair products, as there can be adverse side effects.

Afterward, apply the relaxer cream evenly applied to your hair. The hairstylist (or you if you are doing it yourself) should not stretch the strands or reapply the relaxer on already-treated hair.

After the application, allow the straightener to process for 10 to 15 minutes. Then rinse and wash hair with a neutralizing shampoo and deep conditioner.

If you are at a salon, the hairdresser will usually finish by blow-drying and styling your hair.

Types of Hair Relaxers

There are 3 basic types of hair relaxers: lye, no-lye, and thio. The categories are based on the chemicals found in each type of cream.

1. Lye Relaxer

A lye relaxer contains sodium hydroxide, water, petroleum jelly, mineral oil, and emulsifiers.

The lye penetrates the protein structure of the hair and weakens the bonds. This causes the curls and waves to loosen and straighten.

2. No-Lye Relaxer

If you have a sensitive scalp, a no-lye relaxer is perfect for you because it has a milder chemical component, calcium hydroxide.

However, even though it’s gentler on the scalp, it has a harsher effect on the hair because it can leave calcium residue, which can dry out the strands.

3. Thio Relaxer

Thio relaxer uses ATG or ammonium thioglycolate.

You may remember us mentioning that this chemical is also used for permanent waves. But when used as a relaxer, it has a higher pH level and concentration.

This one has the mildest formula, so people with fine, color-treated, or damaged hair can use it.

Dos and Don’ts Before Hair Treatment

So back to the question — perm vs relaxer?

Now that you better understand the difference between the two, you might have an idea of what you want to get for your hair.

But before heading to the salon, here are a few things you can take note of to help you make the most out of your hair treatment.

Preparing Before a Perm

  1. Don’t get a layered haircut.

When your hair is layered it means the strands are different lengths. This would make it difficult to perm because the stylist would need different-sized curling rods.

Plus, since the lengths of the hair sections aren’t the same, the perm may not come out as expected.

  1. Keep your hair healthy.

Do you have dry and brittle hair? If so, put off a perm for now because perming your dry hair may result in frizzy curls.

Take care of your hair first. Use hydration treatments, avoid heat styling, and eat vitamin-rich food to restore your hair’s condition.

  1. Avoid other salon chemical treatments.

Salon hair services that involve chemicals like keratin treatments may improve your hair’s look and feel.

However, these treatments often leave a coating around the strands and that can affect the perm process. You might end up with limp and lifeless curls.

  1. Do not rebond your hair for at least a year.

A rebond treatment is similar to a relaxer that straightens the hair. Sometimes though, people with rebonded hair decide they want to go back to curls after a few months.

Unfortunately, you can’t have a perm that soon because rebonded hair won’t take the curls well. The curls won’t last and it will be a waste of time and money.

Not to mention, subjecting your hair to harsh chemicals one after the other.

  1. Consult with a hairstylist.

After you’ve decided which perm to have, ask your hairdresser if it’s a good choice for your hair type and condition.

Your stylist will let you know if your desired look can be achieved, and they’ll figure out the technique they need to use to do it.

  1. Schedule your perm appointment.

A perm isn’t something you should get at the spur of the moment. The process would take 4 or more hours if you have long and thick hair.

Set aside ample time for your perm appointment on your day off from work. You can also bring a book or watch Netflix on your device while waiting.

Preparing Before Using a Relaxer

  1. Do not shampoo.

A relaxer contains chemicals that can irritate the scalp. So, it’s recommended to keep the hair’s natural oil in for added protection. 

Additionally, don’t wash your hair for at least 3 days before applying the relaxer to allow your hair’s natural oil to accumulate.

  1. Detangle your hair.

Use a wide-tooth comb or your fingers to gently detangle your hair. When you do this, it’s easier to spread the lotion evenly throughout the hair.

  1. Deep condition your hair.

A week prior to relaxing, you can use a deep conditioner to restore your hair’s healthy condition. This will make the strands stronger and the relaxer chemicals will cause less breakage and damage.

  1. Be honest about your hair’s history.

It’s very important to tell your stylist if your hair has gone through any chemical treatments, including perms or hair dyes when you consult with them.

This will help your hair experts assess if your hair can go through chemical straightening and allow them to see the whole picture before making a recommendation for you.

close-up image of perm hair touch up with a hair stylist

Caring for Treated Hair

After getting a hair relaxer or perm, you’ve got a gorgeous new hairstyle. To ensure that you enjoy it for a long time, be sure to care for it properly.

Here are some essential tips for maintaining chemically treated locks.

Maintaining Permed Hair

Maintaining Relaxed Hair

  • Avoid heat-styling tools.
  • Trim the split ends.
  • Use nourishing oils.
  • Avoid a tight hairdo.
  • Get protein treatments.
  • Touch-up only when needed.
  • Condition your hair regularly. We recommend Davines Nounou conditioner.

Frequently Asked Questions

Is a perm damaging to the hair?

Perms can make your hair look beautiful, but yes, they can also damage your hair. This treatment works by going into your hair follicles and breaking the hair bonds.

When these bonds break, it not only changes the shape of your hair. It also weakens the strands and makes them prone to split ends and breakage.

Can you use a hair relaxer at home?

Hair relaxing is easier than a permanent wave. It can be done at home as long as you’re careful, use the right product, and follow the instructions carefully.

Do your research before using a relaxer on your own.

Remember that even if it’s deemed safe, you’re still dealing with chemicals; one wrong move can damage your hair or scalp.

Hair relaxer vs perm: which is better?

The answer to that question depends on what kinds of hair you have and what kind of hair you want. If you want to have smooth straight hair, a relaxer is better for you.

But if you want to have curls or textured waves, go for a perm.

Both treatments can alter your hair structure and both give equally amazing results, especially when done properly. However, both can also damage your hair a little.

And when it comes to longevity, a perm can last up to 6 months, while the effects of a relaxer only last from 6 to 12 weeks. 

Perm vs Relaxer: The Bottom Line

Both the chemicals in perms and relaxers break your hair bonds to change its texture. One is not better than the other because they are two completely different procedures with different results. 

You now know the difference between the two treatments. Now the question is one you can answer for yourself — which one should you get?

Whether you opt for going curly or straight, be sure to consider your hair’s natural texture and your ability to commit to maintenance. That will help you decide which treatment is best for you.

Want to learn more about hair care methods?

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  • Rachelle Velasco

    Rachelle, is a sought-after freelance hair and makeup artist, shines particularly in the world of hair color. From subtle ombres and balayages to vibrant hues and intricate root work, she crafts unique styles tailored to individual preferences. Beyond her artistic talents, Rachelle also holds a Bachelor's degree in Elementary Education, showcasing her diverse skill set and dedication to learning.

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