Regular Perm vs. Digital Perm: What’s the Difference?

As you may have noticed, long-lasting curls and waves have swept up the world in recent years, only indicating the return of perms. Once again, this famous curling technique is making its rounds among celebrities. From Elizabeth Olsen to Emma Stone to Kate Middleton, everyone seems excited to give it a shot.

regular perm vs digital perm

Now, you might think that having beautiful, bodied curls would be great, but what’s old is new again, right? You might remember those not-so-charming frizzy perms from the ‘80s. So, before prancing into the trend, it’s essential to know how a perm works for specific hair types.

And that brings you to the argument of regular perm vs. digital perm, the two primary perm techniques you must familiarize yourself with before anything else. Having an understanding of their differences will help you decide on the right approach for your hair. Check out our comparison below.

Based on Working Process

The main difference between regular and digital perming lies, of course, within their work process. Let’s see how.

Digital Perm

Digital perming combines heat with an acidic solution to restructure your locks, which’s why it’s more renowned as hot perms. The first step is applying an acidic solution having a pH between 4.5 and 7, which initiates the disulfide bond breakdown. It then allows the heated rod to reshape your cuticles. Your stylist controls these heated rods digitally, hence the term “digital perm.”

Here, the heat does the main job of resetting your hair’s structural proteins into your desired shape. By applying a neutralizer solution, the stylist then restores your cuticles’ pH to normal. As a result, the proteins get a re-bonding according to the altered wave pattern. With the cuticles open, your stylist then moisturizes them for better absorption. This entire procedure may take up to four hours, depending on the hair length and volume.

Regular Perm

Regular perming has been in trend since the 1930s. Unlike its digital counterpart, this traditional reconditioning technique does not use heat at all. That’s why it’s also known as “cold” perming. Instead, the process involves using alkaline solutions containing ammonium thioglycolate with a pH between 8.2 and 9.6.

The chemical disbands your hair’s disulfide bonds, altering its protein composition. Your stylist then coils your hair around the curling rods in a spiral shape. Next, he/she applies a neutralizer to rebalance the pH level, locking in the proteins along with their new style. After five minutes, the rods are undone, and your hair gets a thorough rinse with cold water. As a regular perm does not depend on heat, it takes longer to process than hot perming.

Suitability to Hair Textures

Given the differences between these two methods, one technique may be more suitable for your hair’s condition than the other. Your stylist will assess your locks by considering the following:

  • Natural texture
  • Genetics of your hair type
  • Past styling treatment you might have taken, like coloring or bleaching.

Understanding your hair’s type, texture, and endurance can help you decide which perming process is ideal for you. Your coils have a better chance of forming and retaining their shape when you’re aware of this.

Digital Perms are Designed for Fine Hair

Individuals with fine, exceptionally delicate hair should opt for digital perms. After all, this technique developed among North-East Asians (notably Koreans and Japanese) due to their hair’s inherent fine texture.

Additionally, if your hair has been bleached, colored, or styled previously, then it has already experienced some damage. Meaning your hair is not as strong as it once was. Choosing a heating treatment over an alkaline treatment would therefore provide better protection.

Regular Perms are Designed for Coarse Hair

In contrast, the regular cold treatment suits those better who have thicker, coarser hair. Here, the term ‘coarse’ generally refers to hair other than Asian in texture. The greater your strands’ thickness, the better the alkaline perming works on your hair.

Further, if you haven’t previously dyed or bleached your hair, chances are, it will endure this technique pretty well. Nevertheless, it’s essential to note that the alkaline chemicals in the cold perming will eventually weaken and fracture your hair.

End Results

The distinctness in the produced curl patterns points to another significant difference between the two perming procedures. You are likelier to attain more durable curls following a heating treatment than an alkaline perm.

Digital Perms Are for Silkier, Natural-Looking, Waves

A digital hot perm leaves your hair looking and feeling noticeably softer and smoother. In particular, it’s because both the procedure and the solutions closely resemble those employed in a straightening technique, which involves doing each strand one by one.

As a result, your waves become more pronounced after your hair dries. And when wet, they are looser and less visible. You should also remember that your stylist is most likely to do the waving a few inches up the roots. So to keep your scalp safe from burns. It’s also why the results appear more natural.

Regular Perms are for Tighter and Voluminous Curls

Those seeking tighter, firmer, and more defined coils may benefit from the regular cold technique. You can also expect your tresses to appear fuller and better moisturized. Since the curls can start forming near the roots without burning, it’s by far a more imposing style. The waves behave in the opposite direction, too. For coils are created with the alkaline treatment, your tresses are a lot more noticeable when wet and loose than when they’re dry.

Required Aftercare

With each perming technique differing in procedures, texture suitability, and outcomes, the after-care will vary accordingly.

In general, however, the more moisture your curls retain, the more likely they will remain wavy and luscious.  In the absence of proper nourishment, your hair may become dry and frizzy rather than defined. So, you must invest in appropriate conditioners (both after-wash and leave-in) and masks.

Digital Perms Requires Relatively Less Attention

Thermal reconditioning makes sense for those with hectic schedules. In contrast to alkaline reconditioning techniques, this technique typically has lesser maintenance requirements for retaining the same wave pattern levels. At home, your usual conditioning habits will suffice for your newfound waves so long you’re using the right products.

Regular Perms Requires More Attention

The alkaline method may yield fuller, more defined, and voluminous curls, but it also requires intensive aftercare. For those tight coils to remain in shape, you may need to put more effort into your beauty routine and condition them daily. Then you should prepare for the purchases of conditioning lotions, herbal masks, and sulfate-free moisturizing shampoos.

Furthermore, your waves should only be air-dried and never heated. It’s even advisable to try and stay in lower temperatures to make sure you don’t shock your cuticles, causing your hair to become dry and cracked.


In a general sense, digital perms tend to last longer than regular perms because of the thoroughness and the intense nature of the process. A year can go by with the former compared to five months or so for the latter. However, several factors can affect the longevity of either of the techniques.

Your commitment to perm maintenance can play the most significant role, just as we’ve said previously. While your correct use of products and regular care can prolong the effect, your carelessness can cut it short considerably. Also, heat styling, gym bunnies, summer swimming, humidity can even wreak havoc in between that period.

Hair Damage

The new technologies and the digital perm solutions used are far more gentle on your hair. So there is less risk of breakage and split ends, resulting in healthier-looking locks overall.

Fine or damaged hair tends to look stringy when permed with the cold method. The hot technique, on the other hand, can give it body and movement without making it appear frizzy.

You can get a digital perm even if your strands have been chemically treated before as the process uses only low levels of heat. In comparison, regular perms are not recommended for dyed hair as the chemicals can cause further damage, making your locks appear dry and brittle.


The main aim of a perm is to add texture and volume to your tresses while creating a definition. But depending on the type of perm you choose, you can also achieve different styles and looks.

For instance, if you have fine, straight hair, you can go for a loose perm to add body and bounce. If you have thick, unruly hair, then a tight perm will give you the desired effect of taming your mane while adding definition to your curls.

As digital perms use a machine with rollers of different sizes, it gives you more control over the kind of waves or curls you want. On the other hand, regular perms yield less consistent results as the stylist has to wrap your hair around rods manually. The end result can be either too tight or too loose coils, which might not be the look you were going for.


When it comes to digital perms, the stylist has greater control over the machine, and as a result, can better customize the perm according to your hair type and desired results. They can also choose from a range of solutions with different pH levels to match your scalp and hair condition. With regular perms, the stylist has to work with what they have, which might not always be ideal for your hair type. For instance, if you have colored hair, the perm solution might cause further damage, making your locks appear dry and brittle.


Although neither of the treatments usually comes cheap, regular perms (starting at around 80$) are somewhat less costly than digital perms (starting at about 150$). The state you’re living in and the salon you choose can also affect the price ranges in some cases. For instance, an expensive cold perm session in Florida costs around 300$, whereas the typical cost of hot perms in California can be anywhere between 400-600$.

Related: Natural Curly Hair Vs Perm

Final Thoughts

No doubt, hair perms are an excellent way to upgrade your hair’s look, whether you choose regular or digital. But with the possible caveats involving damages, it’s always wise to seek personalized expert advice before opting for one.

Besides, each of these techniques has dozens of versions, making it even more confusing. Only with a professional consultation will you know which suits you most and which chemical solution your tresses will need for achieving a perfect freshen-up look.

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