Find out how infrared sauna benefits compare to those of regular saunas.
You've probably heard mention of infrared saunas by now, whether your friend group is into wellness or you follow celebrities such as Lady Gaga or Maude Apatow. There's a reason they've gotten so much hype: This infrared light-based therapy could come with a ton of health benefits when used regularly, including improved sleep, muscle recovery, and healthier skin, among others. For more details on infrared sauna benefits and what to know before hitting the sauna, read on.
Here's What Infrared Saunas Are — and How They Differ From Traditional Saunas
Traditional saunas, aka rooms used as steam or dry heat baths, may provide a range of benefits including improved cardiovascular and lung health, better blood circulation, help in dealing with stress, and more. Well, infrared saunas are a slightly less intense alternative to traditional saunas, but both seem to offer very similar benefits.
A key distinction is that the infrared version is heated differently than traditional saunas and at a lower temperature. "Infrared saunas use panels that emit infrared light and heat when powered up," explains Tom Ingegno, D.A.C.M., M.S.O.M., L.Ac., a licensed acupuncturist and owner of Charm City Integrative Health. "Infrared [light] is outside the visible spectrum, further than red, and these waves penetrate the body to add heat." Traditional saunas, meanwhile, warm the air rather than directly heating the body.
As for what the difference between the two saunas looks like in practice, "since regular (Finnish) saunas operate at a higher temperature, they feel hotter when you first step in," says Ingegno. "This heat hits the superficial levels (skin) of the body, and much like being out on a hot day, you feel it on the skin and sweat quickly."
Conversely, "infrared saunas stay at a lower heat, which explains part of the reason it takes longer to sweat in infrared saunas," adds Ingegno. "Since that infrared frequency's wavelength allows it to penetrate the body (think more to a muscular level), when you do heat up, it feels 'deeper' in your body rather than just your skin feeling hot. Either way, you sweat, it may just take longer," with an infrared sauna.
Traditional saunas run at maximum temperatures of 180 to 210℉, and the ideal session is shorter (typically lasting 15 to 20 minutes) due to the high heat. By contrast, "infrared units have a maximum temperature between 140 to 160℉," explains Ingegno. "This heat is different as you warm [your body] from the inside out. Sessions generally last longer, between 30 and 60 minutes. People report taking longer to get hot, but you will also sweat with these."
If you're interested in sauna sessions, the choice between a traditional and an infrared sauna largely comes down to personal preference. "Some people prefer longer sessions at a milder temperature, and others want the quick hit of the high heat," says Ingegno. "Though each has some unique factors, the overall benefits to your health are close enough."
Benefits of Infrared Saunas
There is more research on traditional saunas than on infrared saunas specifically, but since both are "forms of passive heat therapy," experts including researchers (and Ingegno) believe that it's likely their benefits are fairly similar (even though traditional saunas will feel warmer and involve shorter sessions). Research done on Waon therapy — which consists of a 15-minute infrared sauna session, followed by 30 minutes of rest on a bed with a warm blanket, and followed by rehydration with water — may also apply to infrared saunas specifically.
"Studies show that saunas have benefits on your cardiovascular health," says Ingegno. "Regular use has positively affected blood pressure, heart rate variability, and vascular health. Research also shows that there is a boost to your lungs. Some studies even showed that it could help with asthma and chronic bronchitis."
Infrared sauna benefits may also include improved sleep, with one small study showing positive effects of Waon therapy on perceived fatigue, notes Ingegno. Infrared saunas may also help you feel more relaxed if you're prone to stress. Additionally, one study showed the possible benefits of infrared sauna therapy on sports recovery (hence their inclusion in gyms). Other potential benefits include helping your skin appear tighter, with one study finding that the skin "was more moisturized and thicker, meaning the skin looked tighter and younger," and redness was reduced, with regular sauna use, says Ingegno.
You can chalk up the potential health benefits of infrared sauna use to heat's effect on your body. Specifically, heat causes "the blood vessels to dilate," according to Ingegno. "Opening the blood vessels helps [the body] in two ways," he explains. "It allows 'old' blood with metabolic waste and inflammatory compounds to be flushed out of the tissue and recirculated to the body's core to be broken down a series of chemical changes in the liver and kidneys, then eventually excreted through sweat, exhalations, urine, and bowel movements."
"The second benefit of vasodilation is the fresh blood bathing tissue," continues Ingegno. Fresh blood delivers oxygen and nutrients throughout the body, and heat also opens the pores and allows some waste to come out in the sweat, he says.
All in all, the potential benefits of infrared saunas are plentiful, but more research is needed in order to fully verify that they apply to infrared saunas in the same way that they do to traditional saunas.
Potential Risks of Infrared Saunas
Infrared saunas appear to be overwhelmingly safe, but there are still some things to keep in mind. "I would be concerned about too much infrared light exposure or overheating for those who might be hypersensitive to those things," warns family physician Nicole Swiner, M.D. "There's not a lot of guidance in general around how to safely use infrared saunas so it comes down to avoiding infrared saunas if you know that you're extra sensitive to heat," she says. If you're unsure, it's always best to consult a medical professional for advice.
"There have been no adverse reports around infrared saunas," says Ingegno. "However, with this amount of sweating, you need to drink plenty of water to keep from dehydrating." If you use saunas frequently, you may want to consider replacing the electrolytes (i.e., trace minerals such as sodium, potassium, magnesium, and iron) you are losing through sweat with a supplement, he says.
A few disclaimers: "Even though saunas help with heart health, if you have a heart condition, talk to your primary care physician and start with shorter sessions to get used to the heat," advises Ingegno. Pregnant people should avoid saunas since research has linked using saunas early in pregnancy with birth defects, according to the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. Overall, though, infrared saunas come with many potential benefits, and appear suitable for use by a majority of people.
How to Use an Infrared Sauna
If the health benefits of infrared saunas have piqued your curiosity, your next question is likely how you can actually access the heated rooms. While traditional saunas are still the most common in gyms and spas, the tide is starting to turn, according to Ingegno. "Infrared saunas are gaining popularity in settings with multiple users as infrared kills some bacteria and makes it easier to keep [the saunas] clean and less smelly from sweat," he says. "Integrative clinics like mine are also starting to add these services, given the recent boom in popularity and studies showing health benefits." Infrared saunas for the home are less expensive than they once were, and could make a great investment if you're planning to use one regularly, notes Ingegno.
As for how often to use an infrared sauna to see optimal results, "if someone is eligible and wants to use it, it is apparently safe to use daily, but the recommendation is for three to four times weekly," says Dr. Swiner. An ideal session should last 30 minutes, and "even one to two [sessions] weekly can help with your health," says Ingegno. "Sauna sessions are usually done naked or in a towel."
While they haven't been studied as extensively as traditional saunas, infrared saunas may offer a range of health benefits. If you're down to break a sweat in the name of perks that range from better sleep to improved recovery, you may want to give the heat therapy a try.