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Wave Hair Sets: Chemical Dangers!


A very recent report by ABC news warned consumers about the dangers of receiving chemical perms, also known as hair waving treatments, wave hair sets, chemical waving or similar other names that all relate to creating artificial waves in the hair. The New York Post also issued dire warnings against hair perms.

My mom's baby sister, my Aunt Margie was a hairdresser for many years. She did hair for clients as well as for everyone in the family, including my beautiful unspoiled hair. At the tender age of five, my mom and Aunt Margie decided that I should have a chemical perm to create masses of Shirley Templesque curls for my First Communion. I suffered through the pungent aroma, the tugging and pulling of the rollers and the burning of the perm solutions. I absolutely hated the results which was a headful of frizz and lots of breakage.

Chemical hair perms have had a long and sometimes unfortunate history with hair consumers.

The chemical waving or perming process has been officially around since 1905 when the first treatment designed to permanently (until your hair grew out) add curls and waves to hair was created by hairdresser Karl Nessler.

Unofficially Mr. Nessler had been working with very harsh chemicals since the late 1890s in order to develop a way to form curls on wigs. From those experiments he decided to create a formula that would add curls and wave to human hair.

Chemical Dangers Of Wave Sets

In the early days Nessler's chemicals were extremely harsh and were too dangerous to be used on human scalps and near human skin. Nesslers experiments continued until 1906 when he demonstrated the first chemical waving treatment. His first attempts results in completely burning the hair off the head of his loving wife who also suffered scalp burns in the process.

Combining a heating device with sodium hydroxide, the hair to be curled or waved was carefully wrapped in a spiral direction around huge metal rods that were connected to an even bigger machine built with a special electrical heating device. The newly spiral rolled hair was then heated to 212 degrees Fahrenheit for several hours. To keep from burning the scalp, a special system of pulleys and rollers were used to keep the hair with the solution away from the head. The perm or wave machine looked like a machine that might be used for torture in a science fiction film.

Ultimately the new fangled "wave machine" which created waves in big S shapes and an array of curls, was patented in London in the year 1909. Thus began the evolution of the hair permanent or perm for short.

By far one of the biggest and earliest concerns with wave sets and perms was chemical and/or heat damage to the hair. In reality, those concerns are still in play almost 100 years later. In the early days it was extremely important to keep the scalp free of any of the sodium hydroxide formulas which could create fierce burns.

Even though chemical perms have come a long way since they were first invented, the chemicals used are still extremely harsh and can be very amaging. All hair experts stress the importance of keeping contact with the scalp and the skin to a bare minimum. Even though the more modern "perms" are considered less damaging than the earlier versions, hairdressers still must take care to avoid contact with the scalp.

A badly applied permanent wave may result in hair that loses it normal elasticity and thus becomes brittle, fragile and very prone to excessive breakage.

This can happen when the breakage of the disulfide bonds that occurs when the harsh chemicals are applied to break the hair's natural bonds are not properly reformed. The actual hair shaft can experience severe fractures right where they leave the scalp. In some cases, when this happens, simple touching or combing of the hair can cause the initiation of new breakage. In most cases hair will re-grow, although not in all cases.

Summary Of How Chemical Perm Works

A perm encompasses two key components:

1. How the hair is sectioned, rolled and the type of rollers or rolling devices used. 2. The chemicals applied.

A Perm By Any Other Name Is A Perm

To try and alleviate the concerns of consumers to sell the perming process, which is often expensive, hairdressers may claim that they have a softer, gentler waving solution. Or they might advise that they use a completely different wrapping system that will create a softer and less damaged curl and/or wave pattern.

The reality is that if chemicals are used, whether cold or hot, to break the hair's disulfide bonds, it is still a perm. This is true regardless of what type of rollers are used, whether the perm solution is mixed with essential or other oils or if special rollers are used instead of the traditional perm rods.


Even though chemical perms have come a long way since they were first invented, the chemicals used are still harsh and can be damaging. A perm that has gone bad may result in scalp burns or hair breakage that can range from severe to extremely severe. Many consumers have learned that there are so many other ways to safely and easily create waves and curls in their hair that they have abandoned the chemical perm in waves - pun intended.

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