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Ah, the ringlet. It's a classic symbol of a childlike innocence that, when done with an adult approach, can look sexy and sophisticated. To get the look with a perm, you have to pick the right rod size. This is not a black and white game of just looking at and comparing your rods. You also have to look at your hair and the chemicals in the perm you're using.
To get the gist of what rods will produce loose ringlets in your hair, you have to understand the different sizes of rods. Rods come in half a dozen sizes that are coded by color. The tiniest rods are red. These are used only for gals with super short hair, such as women with cute pixie cuts or really short, tapered bobs. The largest rods most stylists use are purple rods. These often are called body rods because they are so big they generally produce waves instead of true curls. Once in a while, you might come across some even bigger peach rods, but salons won't pull these out unless they've got clients who want ultra-loose wave or whose hair is extremely long. Because purple and peach rods are "wave" rods and the red rods really are too tiny to produce anything but a tight curl, you usually have to use blue, pink, gray or white rods for a loose curl or ringlet, with white rods giving the loosest ringlet you can get.
Hair and Rods
Typically, you use blue rods when your hair is 2 to 3.5 inches long; this produces nice, tight curls. For hair 3 to 4 inches long, tight curls need pink rods. Gray rods give tight curls to hair when it's 3 to 5 inches long. White rods are the right choice for tight curls in hair 4.5 to 6.5 inches in length. Because you're looking for something a little looser, the general rule is that you need to move up one rod size than what you'd normally use. For example, if your hair is between 3 and 5 inches, use white rods instead of gray. If you want even looser ringlets, you can move up two sizes, but the farther you go from your ideal tight curl size, the more you risk coming closer to waves instead of ringlets. Let the diameter of the rod serve as your guide.
Take your hair type into consideration when perming for ringlets. Perm chemicals are designed to lift the cuticle, or outermost layer of your hair, and enter the inner parts of your locks. The chemicals don't have to work as hard and can go more readily into the hair if your cuticles already are raised. This means that when you size your rods, you have to think about how well the hair will "take" the perm. The more raised your cuticles are and the more easily your hair takes on chemicals, the easier it will be for the hair to conform to the rod and the tighter the curl likely will be. The potential for damage also is greater when the hair is able to take on lots of chemical. If your hair is virgin -- hasn't been chemically processed -- trust your stylist to guide you on what hair like yours typically does, but understand the stylist can only make a best guess based on her experience.
Type of Perm
Manufacturers create different types of perms. These contain various chemicals such as ammonium thioglycolate and glyceryl monothioglycollate. The chemicals have varying pH levels and strengths and therefore are not suitable for all hair types. Generally, acid perms, which usually have glyceryl monothioglycollate, are gentler and produce softer curls; they're safer for fine hair that isn't large enough in diameter to take a lot of chemical abuse. Alkaline perms, which have a higher pH level and which contain ammonium thioglycolate, will produce tighter curls and are a little more harsh on hair. They're better for thicker hair or hair that is hard to perm. The gentler your perm chemicals are, the looser you can expect the perm to come out, so you might be able to get a looser ringlet by sticking with your ideal perm rod size but going for the gentlest perm option you can get.