Smell After Perm Doesn't Go Away

Permed lock of hair
Q: This question concerns a permanent I recently had. I have had perms for 20+ years so I am familiar with just about every aspect of them. After not having a perm for over a year and a half I got one about 4 weeks ago. I went to a different stylist than I usually go to. Everything seems to be pretty good, my hair seems like it might be a little dryer than I like and the curl a little tighter than usual. But the real problem is the smell; it is not the usual perm smell that goes away after a shampoo or two.
This smell is still very present 4 weeks later. It is especially strong when my hair gets wet - i.e., sweating at the gym or showering. The best I can describe it is that it smells like epoxy glue or as my spouse described it, burnt popcorn. I consulted the stylist and she claimed to have never heard of this problem before, she did mention she uses a natural perm product. In the past couple of weeks I have tried various shampoos but they don't seem to make any difference. Can you shed some light on my problem and what I can do about it short of shaving my head or walking around the gym with a box of popcorn?

A: I've never experienced such a reaction (or after-perm odor) from a perm service personally - either in giving or getting a perm. However, I did some research on the topic and found out a few few things you might want to try.
The only reports of bad after-perm odors that didn't fade after a few days or a couple of shampoos were caused by interactions between the chemicals in the perm and other products or services in the hair. Specifically, if the hair has been color-treated the perm could result in a reaction that leaves a lasting odor.
Given that the smell is lingering so long, and the smell is characterized as "burnt" odor, I suspect that the perm used had a reaction with something already present in the hair. This could be anything from haircolor to residue left by medications.
Treating the problem of the lingering smell is relatively simple and there are two suggestions I have found mentioned repeatedly. First, is a deep conditioning treatment with baking soda. Use a conditioner that is acidic, such as Apple Pectin conditioner and combine 2 ounces of conditioner with 2-3 tablespoons of baking soda.
Apply the mixture to wet hair and comb through with a wide-tooth comb. Cover the hair with a plastic cap and leave in place for 20-30 minutes. If desired, you can wrap the hair in warmed towels or sit under a hooded dryer to add head to the conditioning.
The baking soda will absorb the odors in the hair and the acidic conditioner will help to contract the cuticle layer of the hair and seal the hair shaft.
The second idea in removing the odor is to use tomato juice. Now, rather than applying straight tomato juice to the hair and running the risk of staining the hair. Strain the tomato juice through a coffee filter and use the filtered liquid applied straight to the hair. Leave it in place for 15-20 minutes and follow up with an acidic shampoo and conditioner (like Apple Pectin).
Photo: JL-Pfeifer/Shutterstock
See also:
Perms and perming
Hair deodorizer
How to remove perm smell
The difference between an acid perm and an alkaline perm