Help me perm my gemaw's hair
July 26, 2011 5:06 PM   Subscribe

This klutz needs tips, advice, and product recommendations for giving a home perm to an elderly woman.

Short version:

I need recommendations for easily acquirable supplies--rods, solution, etc. I think there's a Sally Beauty supply near here, but assume I'm shopping at a discount store just in case. Or that I need items arriving by saturday if shipped.

I also need tips and guidance in addition to "read the directions". Especially in terms of any tidy-up hair trimming to do first.

Long version: due to mobility issues, my grandmother is no longer comfortable with a salon. I think that having someone else out to the house would be both too expensive and too new for her. I am her comfort zone with respect to potentially aggravating projects (see also: shopping, doctor's offices, giving injections, lawyers). She asked me to give her a perm.

I do not say no to my grandmother.

Her hair is medium-short length, caucasian, bone straight, very fine, and very thin--with a bit of an elderly woman's bald bit. She likes it permed to make rolling it for church more manageable, and because that's what's she's always done. It ends up in a kind of old-lady cap-o-hair.

I suspect I'll need to trim her hair first too. It is not color processed, and I think any other perms have mostly grown out by now.

I am not a girly girl, and tend to think of blasting the vents in the car as "blow drying" my own bobbed hair. Assume you're speaking to an alien.

She doesn't expect perfection. She knows how good I am at stuff like this, and I am kind of touched that she asked. I'd like to get her decent results without burning us, messing up, or exhausting us both. Or having my hands fall off from rolling and re-rolling.

And can I wear nitrile gloves? I already have a box of those, and if they protect my skin from the solution as well as the others, it might make things easier.
posted by nita to Clothing, Beauty, & Fashion (15 answers total)
Layer of Vaseline topped with cotton batting, on the skin all around the edge of the hairline, will keep the skin protected and catch any drips. Like this. Put the Vaseline and cotton on just before you're about to dump the perming solution on, not at the very start.
posted by kmennie at 5:14 PM on July 26, 2011

I don't love Wikihow, but this advice seems pretty complete.
posted by Ideefixe at 5:37 PM on July 26, 2011

This could just be because I'm more familiar with black perms (aka relaxers, which straighten hair), but I have visions of a bald granny. That makes me sad. From the little bit I know, this is a strong likelihood when it comes to diy whether we're talking relaxers or curly perms. It's not like hair dye.

Again, this is from the perspective of black hair care, but in my experience it hasn't really been more expensive to hire someone to do hair at home. After all, in your home, they don't have to pay for rental space at a salon.

Would it be possible for you to assist a professional (or at least someone who's permed before)? Or perhaps it would make your grandmother feel more comfortable if the professional is your "assistant" while you do perm hair?
posted by lesli212 at 6:09 PM on July 26, 2011

I get what you're saying about having a professional involved. There are people and services who go to people's home that from the eldercare perspective.

However, I'm working with her comfort level with respect to expense and strangers, not mine. She's probably also concerned about her stamina of sitting in a different chair in her home.

Even if it's just a few dollars more, or I pay for it (as if she'd let me), that's not the picture in her head.
posted by nita at 6:28 PM on July 26, 2011

nita I totally understand and admire where you're coming from in trying to make your grandmother feel comfortable, but I think that you need to think a few steps ahead on this one. Perm chemicals are pretty powerful stuff and, with all due respect, it sounds like you are likely to screw up.

What about hiring the person from your grandmother's salon who had been doing her perms for all these years? Surely stylist she's comfortable with + mobility comfort of home + darling granddaughter's company = win ?
posted by telegraph at 6:31 PM on July 26, 2011 [3 favorites]

IMHO, the risks far outweigh the benefits. I'd much rather say no or offer an alternative than embalden my grandmother. (is that even a word?)

From what I know about the industry, it shouldn't be either difficult or expensive to get someone in to do a perm. At least 90% of hair-people I know do business on the side. What chair she sits in shouldn't matter. As Telegraph said above, perm chemicals can be tricky and caustic.

But damn, does that smell take me back to my grandmother's kitchen in a blink.
posted by Sphinx at 7:33 PM on July 26, 2011 [1 favorite]

Can you get someone to come over just once? It may be uncomfortable for her to have a stranger in her home, bit if this stranger is a professional who can teach you how to do it just the first time, it may be cost effective. Then you can continue perming at home without worrying you'll cause problems.
posted by skyl1n3 at 7:50 PM on July 26, 2011

Maybe start by practising putting in rollers. Way back in the day, my mom used to give my sister and I home perms. She'd done years of foam rollers so she had the technique but we'd still end up with weird kinks at the end of the hairs where the hair had been clipped in the roller. I think professionals use something like foil (or little pieces of paper?) at the ends to get a smooth roll. If you roll her hair while it's damp it may even be passable for a day or two of outtings.

What else do I remember? Pay attention to the layout of the rollers - straight back from the forehead with the rollers running perpendicular to the ears. Then for the sides they go the other direction. The smell is horrible so make sure all the windows are open. Definitely Vaseline and cotton batting around the head. Gloves (nitrile are fine) and old clothes for you and a garbage bag with a head hole cut in it for her.

Probably I'd lean towards getting someone to come in but, eh, it's just hair, it grows (until then a pretty scarf if it goes really poorly). It seems like it could be a fun bonding activity for you and your grandmother.
posted by hydrobatidae at 7:51 PM on July 26, 2011 [1 favorite]

I just thought of something else - if you have a hair dresser yourself, maybe you could ask them if they have any upcoming perms at their salon, and if so, if you could watch? That way you'd get familiar with the technique and your grandmother wouldn't be made uncomfortable.
posted by hydrobatidae at 7:53 PM on July 26, 2011

My mom did this for her sister and mother for years (well, and me as a young 80s perm victim). I believe Ogilve was her brand. Every time I need to do a hair thing, I look to youtube, you can probably find videos for the rolling pattern there, though there will also likely be instructions in the box. It's Old Lady Helmet Head, it's not extremely complicated.

Yes to gloves. You don't need them for long, just for the brief period of taking the rollers out.

But, if your geemaw had a salon she always went to, you might swing by and chat. For a pair of $20s you can probably get one of them to come out. It might be okay with her if she's seen the stylist before.
posted by Lyn Never at 7:59 PM on July 26, 2011

I notice Wikipedia says "A number of brands of home permanent kits are available, but their numbers have decreased as permanent waves are not as popular as they were in the 1980s," and I wonder if the skittishness here is from the whole thing just being less familiar than it used to be. Every other girl I went to school with tried a "Toni" or a "Lilt" at some point; there were some frizzes, but nobody went bald.

One thing that would help if you're able to do it is to call her old salon and ask what size rollers they were using. (And it may be a combination of sizes, and perhaps they can tell you other things; some places keep meticulous notes on these things.) Do not overprocess; time it very carefully according to the instructions, and when it's time for the rollers to come out that should be a rapid operation. You do want the papers hydrobatidae mentions. One thing you can do to keep the rollers in a straight row is to thread something akin to a coffee stirrer through the tops of them once they're in, but I can't elaborate on that as it was just a technique observed once, during the most expensive and most spectacular of the four perms I've had in my life.
posted by kmennie at 8:08 PM on July 26, 2011

Form experience, always trim after the perm. That way if the ends frizz, you can cut them off without leaving your grandmother with super short hair.
Call Sally's and make sure you can buy perm solution. It's been a long time since I've messed with a perm but it use to be they'd sell you everything else but you needed a beautician's license to buy a perm.
posted by stray thoughts at 9:31 PM on July 26, 2011

I don´t know how much patience your grandma might have for this, but I would do at least one trial run setting her hair with the rollers BEFORE using the perm solution. It´ll give you both an idea what you´re in for without the full committment. It´s lovely that you´re doing this and I hope it turns out.
posted by Space Kitty at 9:41 PM on July 26, 2011

I agree with others who think this may be a generational thing. I think of catastrophic home perm outcomes as really being a 50s and 60s thing; I think more modern home perming kits have largely mitigated against disaster in their chemical makeup. Oh, you can still royally screw this up, but you're not going to make anyone bald.

I totally second Space Kitty's advice about setting her hair before you actually perm it. There is a mechanical skill to rolling hair and it is a LOT easier to learn the technique, especially with the papers, on a trial run. You're going to need about 30 rods, I imagine.
posted by DarlingBri at 11:31 PM on July 26, 2011

Thanks for the help guys. There aren't too many home perm kits on the market, so I chose an Ogillvie one for thin/fine hair. The vaseline advice helped a lot--it was included in the instructions, but kind of buried, and I might not have had any on hand.

My aunt trimmed her hair (badly) before I got there, so it turned out to be moot. I killed split ends as a I found them and then tidied after.

As it turns out, you roll and set the hair before the perm solution. And rolling on perm rods is strangely dissimilar to regular hair rolling--a lot more rods in there, to do it the way she likes.

I am sure had I gotten the wrong kit--especially a kit for straightening non-caucasian hair--I could have burned her. This stuff worked out ok.

tl;dr version--it took a while to get it on the rods, but I didn't aquit myself terribly timewise, and it all worked out fine.
posted by nita at 2:52 PM on July 30, 2011

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