While saunas have been around for centuries, new technology is giving people more and more ways to get their sweat on. Most recently, infrared sauna therapy has been getting a lot of hype. But are there actually any health benefits to spending some time in infrared saunas?
It stands apart from the typical humid, hot climate of traditional saunas, steam rooms, and hot springs, and instead uses far infrared (invisible) light to heat your body. To get the lowdown on this new, hot trend, we talked to Connie Zack, co-owner of Sunlighten, a company that manufactures medical-grade infrared saunas.
What Is an Infrared Sauna?
Infrared saunas are a type of sauna that uses light to create heat. They’re typically cooler than traditional saunas (running around 113 to 140 degrees Fahrenheit versus the 175 to 212 degrees Fahrenheit of traditional saunas) and there’s no additional humidity like there is with traditional saunas.
Zack also explains that while conventional saunas heat the air around you, which then heats your body, infrared saunas warm your body directly with far infrared light. “The gentle heat penetrates your skin’s surface, raising your core body temperature for a deep sweat.”
And because the heat isn’t as intense as a traditional sauna, Zack says infrared users can relax, stretch, or meditate in the sauna for a longer period of time.
What Are Infrared Sauna Benefits?
The science behind infrared sauna benefits is relatively limited. Many of the studies are small, short-term, and also include other types of saunas.
One small 2015 study found that infrared sauna treatment may help with exercise recovery. It examined 10 physically active males, who completed a 60-minute strength workout on some days and a 34- to 40-minute endurance training session on other days. The men who followed the workouts with 30 minutes in an infrared sauna saw better recovery in the form of post-workout performance tests than those who did not.
Infrared therapy may also have mental health benefits: A study on 18- to 65-year-old men and women who met criteria for a major depressive disorder found that daily exposure to infrared light had some anti-depressant effects.
And perhaps the most commonly purported benefit of infrared saunas? Detoxification. In the health and wellness world, it’s a controversial and hotly debated term, but many sauna pundits stand by the notion that saunas can help eliminate toxins. Science has yet to definitively weigh in on saunas specifically in that regard, but sweating in and of itself has been shown to potentially help remove toxic elements. That doesn’t mean you need to sweat in a sauna, though; an intense workout can do that for you.
Are Infrared Saunas Good for Losing Weight?
There aren’t loads of studies that confirm the connection between infrared saunas and weight loss. That said, some researchers have found that infrared sauna use may decrease waist circumference and reduce body fat — though it’s unclear if these results are long-lasting.
Zack explains how this may work: “Your core body temperature increases by approximately three degrees [in the sauna],” she says. “As the body works to cool down, your heart rate, cardiac output, and metabolic rate increase, burning calories.” But while it may help you burn off some calories, it shouldn’t replace your normal workouts.
Are Infrared Saunas Bad for You?
Current research suggests infrared sauna dangers are few and far between. In a comprehensive study review on saunas, eight out of 40 studies reported adverse symptoms from sauna use, none of which were severe. Most complaints were minor, such as mild heat discomfort.
Zack stresses the importance of hydrating before, during, and after using an infrared sauna, since it will make you sweat a lot. And if you are pregnant or have a preexisting medical condition, consult your doctor before using an infrared sauna.
How Often Should You Use an Infrared Sauna?
Currently, there isn’t quite enough high-quality data to determine how frequently you should use infrared saunas, and for what amount of time per session. Many proponents, such as Zack, claim the more you go, the more benefits you see. She suggests going to at least three sessions per week, and recommends starting with 10- to 15-minute sessions and then working your way up to longer, 30- to 45-minute sessions. The key is to listen to your body, heed its warnings, and do what feels right for you.
By Nicole McDermott