Wanting what you don’t have is the biggest beauty cliché in the book, and nowhere does that ring truer than when it comes to my hair. With a head full of super thick, stick-straight, jet-black, stubborn Asian strands that won’t even hold a curl, I’ve spent most of my adult life trying anything really, that could give it a bit of style not best described as “a shapeless, greasy mess.”
For the most part, my hair treatments were limited to cuts and colors and I’ve been lucky to have had a few really great ones (shout out to Jenny Cho and Tracey Cunningham). But even the most life-changing transformation loses its luster a few days after I step out of the salon door thanks to my inability to style at home. If you haven’t noticed, all the pretty highlights and ombrés tend to look a lot better when hair has some texture and movement—mine had none.
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The answer was clear—I needed some sexy, tousled cool-girl hair—but how to achieve that was not so easy to solve. I tried every salt and texturizing spray on the market, and exactly zero of them made a (literal) dent in my hair. After years of practice, I did finally learn how to wield a curling iron, but my skill level stopped short of being able to do waves that actually looked effortless. Finally, a few of my Korean friends came to the rescue and let me in on an in-the-know Asian-girl secret: the digital perm.
The digital perm, also known as a Japanese (where it was invented) or Korean (where it’s insanely popular) perm, uses hot rods and a chemical solution to thermally recondition the hair—that is, break the bonds and then reset it into its non-straight shape. Unlike a traditional perm, a digital perm can only be applied to the mid to end of the hair and creates a looser curl that takes shape as the hair dries, giving it a soft bend (no wiry, spiral curls here). In other words, the digital perm is pretty much made for that effortless, beachy look.
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At the recommendation of a couple friends, I decided to put my hair to the test at Younghee Salon in Tribeca. To a non–New Yorker, the geography of the salon may not mean much, but digital perms are rarely performed outside of Asian salons, so to find the service in a fashion-forward downtown spot stocked with René Furterer products and frequented by Christy Turlington gave me confidence that my stylist and I were on the same page when I pulled out a photo of Emily Weiss rather than Ha Ji Won as the inspiration for my look.
The first step in the process, before any styling is done, is to clean and deeply condition the hair. After washing the hair, a treatment is applied to open the cuticles and infuse hair with conditioner. Then comes the chemicals—the same product used in Japanese thermal straightening is applied to the hair to break down the bonds and then hair is rolled into temperature-controlled rods to set it into its new shape. An anti-frizz solution is also added to the mix to help soften unruly hair and give it a smoother finish.
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After 20 minutes in hot rollers hooked up to a temperature machine, a neutralizer is applied to reform the bond and set the shape. Then, it’s all about the blow-dry. Here, a new technique is required, but it’s as easy as twisting your hair as you blast it with hot air. In fact, the hair twist becomes a signature move for those who have digital perms; wringing sections of hair into spirals refreshes curls giving it a bouncier look.
One of the biggest misconceptions about digital perms is that they’re completely effortless to maintain, letting you roll out of bed with perfectly undone Gisele waves. That is not the case; the combination of solution and heat will cause damage to the hair, so frizz becomes a real concern and it looks especially silly when only the bottom half of your hair is exploding in volume. Blow-drying after a shower is essential to keeping hair smooth, and using hydrating styling product is key (Kiehl’s Strengthening and Hydrating Hair Oil-in-Cream ($25) gets the job done without any crunch or stickiness). Am I walking around these days with Chrissy Teigen-level of hair perfection? Not quite. But my hair, even months after treatment, is still leaps and bounds prettier than it used to be. I actually get complimented on my hair these days, and it’s always fun to tell the unsuspecting person that it’s a perm.