Sauna therapy has been used for hundreds of years as a method to detoxify, relax, and improve overall well-being. In recent years, infrared saunas have become popular in the alternative and functional health world, reported to confer all the benefits of a traditional sauna and more using infrared lights instead of steam or electric heating units.
Does infrared sauna therapy live up to the hype? How does it compare to traditional sauna therapy? In this article, we’ll explore what infrared saunas are, the differences between infrared and traditional saunas, infrared sauna benefits and disadvantages, and more.
What Is an Infrared Sauna?
Infrared saunas have surged in popularity over the last several years in the functional medicine world, with users and practitioners reporting positive effects in treating conditions such as Lyme disease and chronic pain.
An infrared sauna, similar to a traditional steam sauna, uses heat in a controlled environment to promote relaxation, detoxification (through sweating), and chronic illness treatment. Regular sauna use in general has been shown to help relieve pain, improve mood, reduce risk of heart disease and Alzheimer’s disease, and support overall longevity (1, 2, 3).
However, there are several key differences between an infrared sauna and a traditional sauna:
Infrared Saunas vs. Traditional Saunas
The operational differences between infrared and traditional saunas come down to how they produce heat and how that heat is transmitted to a person in the sauna.
- Traditional saunas heat the air first to a very high temperature.
- Traditional saunas use steam, making the air inside the sauna very dense.
- Infrared saunas use infrared light to penetrate and heat the body directly.
- Infrared saunas use less heat.
These key differences in heat production make infrared saunas more tolerable to use as well as a more affordable and sustainable option for home use. On the flip side, there isn’t as much research supporting the new technology of the infrared sauna as there is for the steam sauna that has been used for centuries.
A traditional sauna heats the air up to temperatures of 176-200 degrees Fahrenheit, while infrared saunas typically stick to a range of about 113-140 degrees Fahrenheit (1). This translates to a significant difference in comfort and potentially how long you can stay in the sauna.
So, when we’re comparing the benefits of traditional vs. infrared saunas, the big question is: Does infrared light penetrating and heating the body directly equal or even outweigh the benefits of the high heat of a traditional sauna? The theory is that due to its ability to heat the body directly, even into deep tissues and organs, infrared light has more benefits with less heat.
We don’t know yet whether the lower heat of the infrared sauna significantly impacts the health benefits of sauna use, but both types of saunas have been shown to be effective and helpful for various health conditions.
Types of Infrared Saunas
There are several different types of infrared saunas, depending on the wavelength of infrared light used. The spectrum includes near-, mid-, and far-infrared light, each with different associated benefits (4).
- Far-infrared: This is the farthest penetrating wavelength through the skin and into the body, making it the most popular choice for those looking for powerful health benefits like improved cardiovascular function and immune system support
- Mid-infrared: This still penetrates the body beneath the skin, but not as much as far-infrared. It’s thought to promote blood circulation and reduce inflammation.
- Near-infrared: This is thought to provide more surface level benefits, such as skin healing.
- Full spectrum: Some infrared sauna models combine all three wavelengths with separate heating elements.
Benefits of Sauna Use
We’ve reviewed the practical benefits of an infrared sauna:
- Increased comfort due to lower temperatures than a regular sauna
- Easier to use at home
- Less expensive to purchase
But what about the health benefits of sauna use? Let’s begin:
Sweating and detoxification: Sweating is probably the first thing you think of when you think of a sauna experience. When the entire body is exposed to extreme heat, more blood is redirected to the skin to facilitate sweating, which may also allow for detoxification of toxins, chemicals, and heavy metals (5, 6, 7, 8, 9).
Chronic pain and fatigue: A few small clinical trials have seen positive results with sauna use for fatigue and chronic pain associated with fibromyalgia, rheumatoid arthritis, and chronic fatigue syndrome (10, 11, 12, 13).
Cardiovascular health: Sauna use has multiple effects on cardiovascular function, including increased heart rate and cardiac output, improved blood flow, and lowered blood pressure (14).
Heart disease and longevity: In addition to improving cardiovascular health, sauna use decreases risk of heart disease and all-cause mortality, as well as improves markers of chronic heart failure (15, 16, 17, 1, 18).
Stress adaptation: When faced with extreme heat (or cold) the body naturally responds with a process called hormesis, which initiates widespread cellular repair and antioxidant release (19). With repeated exposure over time to this type of stress, your body is also thought to become more resilient to future stressors, even beyond extreme temperatures.
Mental health, relaxation, and mood improvement: On its own, sitting or lying in a warm sauna may be relaxing or even meditative. But sauna therapy also causes the body to release endorphins, giving you a mood lift and sense of well-being (22).
Brain health: Frequent sauna use has been shown to help prevent neurodegenerative conditions like dementia and Alzheimer’s disease (3).
Possible Infrared Sauna Disadvantages
Infrared saunas may have some powerful benefits. However, there are some potential drawbacks too:
- Limited research: The research on infrared saunas is growing, but most studies on the benefits of sauna therapy are based on traditional Finnish sauna use.
- Possible marketing influence: Especially because of the limited amount of available research, it’s important to be cautious when evaluating the claims made by both infrared sauna companies and functional medicine or wellness influencers who may have relationships with these companies.
- Potential electromagnetic field (EMF) risks: Harmful effects from EMF exposure have not been documented in the scientific literature, but this still may be a concern for some people. Many infrared sauna companies do provide EMF testing or use methods to cancel out EMFs.
The Basics of an Infrared Sauna Session
Outside of your home, you can find infrared saunas at spas, gyms, and health centers or clinics.
Now that you know the types, potential benefits, and drawbacks of infrared saunas, here’s what you can expect from an infrared sauna session.
Saunas vary in size, shape, types of heating elements, and bonus features, but the basic experience is generally the same. If you are using a sauna at home, you’ll have to remember ahead of time to allow the sauna to heat up, usually 15-20 minutes. Inside the sauna, have a towel and perhaps a bottle of water just outside for easy access.
Using the sauna may take some time to get used to, so don’t worry if you can only handle 5 or 10 minutes to start out. A sauna session can last between 5 and 40 minutes. During that time, you might notice a number of physical changes: sweating, increased heart rate, a sense of relaxation, or even decreased pain.
Some people may practice an alternating protocol, where you might follow up your sauna session with a cold shower or plunge to immediately shock the body into a different type of positive stress, which is thought to further increase physical resilience. Either way, you’ll want to take some time to cool down after and allow your body to return to normal. You might continue to experience a sense of relaxation or improved mood hours after your sauna session concludes.
How Infrared Sauna Benefits Compare to Conventional Sauna
Most studies available have looked at the health benefits of either infrared or conventional saunas but have not compared the two. So we can’t definitively say one has more powerful effects than the other.
A 2018 systematic review of 40 studies stated that we can’t draw conclusions from existing evidence on traditional and infrared saunas benefits and disadvantages (1).
What we can do is summarize the available data for both types of saunas on key areas of health: heart disease and longevity, brain and mental health, and chronic pain and fatigue.
|Researched Health Benefits||Favors Traditional||Favors Infrared||Similar Evidence|
|Heart Disease and Longevity||✓|
|Chronic Pain and Fatigue||✓|
Heart Disease and Longevity
This category includes some of the largest participant studies available on traditional sauna use and some smaller studies on infrared sauna use.
- More than 2,000 men participated in a series of studies showing that traditional sauna use 3-7 times per week is correlated with reduced risk of fatal coronary heart disease, fatal cardiovascular disease, reduced risk of sudden cardiac death, and reduced all-cause mortality (15, 16, 17).
- Another study on 1,621 middle-aged Finnish men (ages 42-60) showed a reduced risk of high blood pressure (hypertension) with regular traditional sauna use over 25 years (24).
- Two systematic reviews of clinical trials and observational studies conducted in 2018 concluded that Waon therapy (a Japanese infrared sauna therapy) and infrared sauna use improved some markers of chronic heart failure (1, 18).
- A 2016 clinical trial of 149 patients with congestive heart failure showed that just two weeks of Waon infrared sauna therapy improved disease status, including walking distances and heart sizes (14).
Chronic Pain and Fatigue
When it comes to chronic pain and fatigue, more research has been done on infrared sauna use. For example:
- In a small clinical trial, 44 female patients with fibromyalgia tried infrared sauna therapy combined with underwater exercises over 12 weeks, leading to significantly reduced pain scores (10).
- Patients with chronic fatigue syndrome had improvements in both fatigue and general well-being with Waon infrared sauna therapy over four weeks (12, 13).
- A small study on patients with rheumatoid arthritis and ankylosing spondylitis (inflammatory arthritis of the spine) found that four weeks of infrared sauna use led to significantly reduced pain and stiffness (11).
- Four weeks of infrared sauna therapy helped patients with ankylosing spondylitis (a chronic condition involving inflammation and fusion of the spine) and rheumatoid arthritis, showing clinical improvements in fatigue, stiffness, and pain (11).
Brain and Mental Health
Finally, some promising research has been done on the effects of both types of saunas on brain health and mental health.
- Published in 2017, 2,300 Finnish men participated in a 20-year study that associated regular sauna use with a reduced risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease and dementia (3).
- The study found that more frequent sauna use strengthened these benefits. Compared to those who used the sauna only once per week, those who used the sauna 4-7 times a week were found to have up to a 66% lower risk of developing Alzheimer’s or dementia.
- Another study published in 2018 followed 2,138 Finnish men over 20 years. It found that frequent traditional sauna use was correlated with a reduced risk of psychotic disorders (serious mental disorders) (2).
- One clinical trial of 93 adults with non-medicated major depressive disorder (but otherwise healthy) found that just one session of whole-body hyperthermia via infrared sauna reduced depression for six weeks (25).
Possible Risks and Side Effects of Sauna Use
In general, sauna use is safe and well-tolerated, but some side effects have been reported. Typically, these side effects don’t last long and occur either during the sauna session or shortly afterward. They may include:
- Lightheadedness or low blood pressure (1)
- Heat discomfort or intolerance (11)
- Temporary pain (26)
- Irritated breathing (1)
- Temporarily reduced sperm count and motility (27)
Men who are concerned about fertility or trying to conceive may want to avoid or reduce sauna use temporarily. Avoiding saunas for six months has been shown to reverse the negative effects on sperm (27).
Other risk factors for experiencing side effects during sauna use include:
- Heart conditions
- Known heat sensitivity
- Chronic pain conditions including rheumatoid arthritis, chronic fatigue syndrome, and ankylosing spondylitis (1)
- Use of certain medications
Always consult your healthcare provider before beginning sauna therapy, especially if any of these risk factors apply to you.
How to Prepare for a Sauna Session
There are steps you can take to prevent side effects from occurring with sauna therapy:
- Hydrate: Make sure to drink water before and after your sauna session, and during the session if you need to. You’re going to lose a lot of fluids through sweat, and you may even find that you sweat more with repeated sauna use.
- Avoid alcohol: Never consume alcohol immediately before or after a sauna session. This can lead to severe adverse effects, including death (28, 29).
- Don’t sauna if you’re sick: This is especially true if you already have a fever, your body is already heating itself to fight off the illness. Adding more heat will put too much stress on the body.
- Build up your tolerance: With sauna therapy, it may take some time to get used to the high temperatures. You can start with as little as five minutes in the sauna and build up slowly over time.
- Listen to your body: If you feel uncomfortable being in a hot, enclosed space, there’s no need to force yourself to undergo a sauna session. You know your body best!
Use Sauna Therapy If It’s Right for You
Infrared sauna benefits and disadvantages are still being investigated, but many people are finding it useful for detox, addressing chronic conditions, and pain relief. Both types of saunas have their uses, and which type is right for you might come down to personal preference, cost, and practicality.
You can learn more about sauna therapy and how it might fit into your personalized healing plan through a consultation with one of our practitioners at the Ruscio Institute for Functional Medicine.