A good sweat session is often associated with intense exercise like running, cycling, or strength training. Still, you can also warm things up while relaxing and rejuvenating in an infrared sauna.
Known for easing sore muscles, improving sleep, and general relaxation, infrared saunas are a top choice for people looking for a cooler way to heat their bodies. While considered safe for most people, there are some risks associated with using an infrared sauna.
Saunas, sweat lodges, steam rooms — we all like a good sweat. It’s relaxing and rejuvenating, not to mention that heat has long been associated with various health benefits across many cultures.
The latest trend causing temperatures to rise are infrared saunas. Not only are stand-alone infrared sauna studios popping up coast-to-coast, now fitness studios are getting in on the game, too, installing saunas in their facilities. Thanks to deep penetrating heat, celebs and wellness specialists are touting infrared as a better way to detox, relax, relieve pain and lose weight, plus a fast track to better skin.
But is there truth behind the heat, or is it just a bunch of hot air? Here’s what you need to know about the infrared sauna craze.
In the last couple of years, near-infrared saunas and “full-spectrum” saunas, which include near-infrared, have become common. With more than 20 years of experience in far infrared saunas, High Tech Health is often asked why we haven’t embraced this “new” technology? More than one company even brags about how much more power they have in the near-infrared spectrum. But is near-infrared a good idea?
What is an infrared sauna?
If you’re a fan of dry heat, there’s a good chance you’ve spent time using a traditional sauna. These saunas heat the air around you and typically operate at a temperature of 180°F to 200°F (82.2°C to 93.3°C).
According to the North American Sauna Society, the majority of saunas you see in homes, and commercial settings use electric sauna heaters.
However, the infrared sauna, which uses electromagnetic radiation from infrared lamps to warm your body directly rather than heating the air, is gaining popularity.
“Infrared saunas heat your core body temperature and only heat to about 150°F (66°C),” says Dr. Fran Cook-Bolden, MD, FAAD, with Advanced Dermatology P.C.
Cook-Bolden says this type of heat penetrates deeper into the body and is thought to impact and heal deep tissue and also detox via sweating through your pores.
Like a traditional or dry-heat sauna, an infrared sauna uses heat to help you sweat, relieve muscle soreness, rest, and relax. The difference is the method used. Traditional saunas heat the air in the room up to 150–190 degrees Fahrenheit, while infrared saunas use electromagnetic radiation.
In a dry-heat sauna, the heat is generated through electricity or wood, and some produce steam by throwing water onto heated rocks. Traditional saunas are very hot, reaching temperatures of 180–190 degrees Fahrenheit. However, they are also free of moisture, with humidity levels as low as 10 to 20 percent.
An infrared sauna works by using infrared lamps that release electromagnetic radiation to heat the body directly. The two kinds of infrared saunas, near-infrared and far-infrared, also emit small amounts of red, orange, and yellow light, considered light therapy.
One of the many reasons infrared saunas have become so popular is because the wavelengths can penetrate tissue to heat the body instead of heating the air as traditional saunas do.
An infrared sauna is a type of sauna that uses light to create heat. This type of sauna is sometimes called a far-infrared sauna — “far” describes where the infrared waves fall on the light spectrum. A traditional sauna uses heat to warm the air, which in turn warms your body. An infrared sauna heats your body directly without warming the air around you.
The appeal of saunas, in general, is that they cause reactions similar to those elicited by moderate exercises, such as vigorous sweating and increased heart rate. An infrared sauna produces these results at lower temperatures than a regular sauna, making it accessible to people who can’t tolerate the heat of a conventional sauna. But does that translate into tangible health benefits? Perhaps.
Several studies have looked at using infrared saunas to treat chronic health problems, such as high blood pressure, congestive heart failure, dementia and Alzheimer’s disease, headache, type 2 diabetes and rheumatoid arthritis, and found some evidence of benefit. However, larger and more rigorous studies are needed to confirm these results. Some of these studies were also performed with patients using the traditional sauna.
How Does an Infrared Sauna Differ from a Traditional Sauna?
Not all saunas operate in the same way. While traditional saunas rely on heat to make the air warmer, an infrared sauna utilizes light and heat to generate warmth. Infrared saunas utilize FIR (Far Infrared Radiation), not confused with the U.V. radiation in tanning beds. This infrared radiation heats your skin to approximately 100 degrees Fahrenheit, thus making you sweat and release toxins.
What the Science Says About Infrared
While you may associate saunas with a relaxing day at the spa, they’ve been used in Europe and Asia for therapeutic purposes for years.
Some studies have found that infrared saunas may be a non-invasive way to treat chronic heart problems, normalize blood pressure, protect against oxidative stress, and prevent the narrowing and hardening of your arteries. Other studies have found that infrared heat may improve the quality of life of adults with type 2 diabetes and reduce pain associated with fibromyalgia and rheumatoid arthritis. “Far-infrared may be good for pain relief and recovery after exercise, and it may have anti-inflammatory effects,” says Dr. Hamblin.
“This concept of detoxing is not based on any scientific fact.”
However, despite the potential benefits of infrared sauna use, most human studies are small and offer inconclusive evidence, including its long-term effects. In addition, scientists aren’t sure exactly how it works and what changes it makes in the body. Plus, it’s unclear that infrared heat is any better than traditional therapies.
Take pain management, for example. According to Dr Houman Danesh, Director of Integrative Pain Management at Mount Sinai Hospital, infrared heat can be helpful for joint pain. “Heat and ice are pretty superficial, and they don’t get into the joint as much as infrared therapy,” he says, which a physical therapist can apply through pads placed over the intended area. “That being said, heat and ice usually give adequate relief.” For most aches and pains, Dr Danesh recommends sticking with tried-and-true heat and ice treatment, stretching, and visiting the physical therapist instead of infrared therapy.
What Are the Dangers of Infrared Saunas?
Are you concerned about the risks involved with using infrared saunas? Good news! Researchers say there are minimal dangers associated with infrared saunas.
Men who are looking to start a family may want to avoid using saunas, and hot tubs as the heat can impact sperm motility. In addition, saunas appear to lower blood pressure, so those with low blood pressure or cardiovascular issues may want to discuss the use of saunas with their healthcare provider before considering them a part of their treatment protocol.
Sweating induced by an infrared sauna may also help remove toxic metals; however, too much sweating and an increased heart rate could be risky for those with a heart condition.
The International Commission on Non-Ionizing Radiation Protection (ICNIRP) released a statement on Far Infrared Exposure in 2006. The ICNIRP statement on the biological effects of infrared radiation (I.R.) indicates that thermal injury (heat) is the dominant risk. Thermal (heat) injuries will depend on the wavelength (or colour, if it could be seen). I.R. light may cause thermal injury even if you do not feel pain for certain types of I.R. light exposure.
Hyperpigmentation, scaling, and telangiectasias (erythema ab igne) may occur from repeated I.R. exposures of elevated temperatures, even if the skin is not burned. Skin cancer is not expected from exposure to I.R. However, and increased skin temperature can reduce DNA repair efficiency and promote skin cancer initiated by other agents. Skin thickness may also increase due to repeated I.R. exposures. Ultraviolet light is associated with skin photoaging, and it is not specifically reported in association with I.R. light.
If the I.R. light is >1,500 nm, it is unlikely there will be any effects on the retina, but damage to the cornea due to thermal heating could occur. In addition, the lens of the eye could accrue damage due to elevated temperatures, leading to cataracts.
Additionally, one must be careful not to overcome the thermoregulatory mechanism of your body. It is possible to cause serious injury to a person by overheating when exposed to I.R.
The ICNIRP does not address “I.R. saunas” but does address I.R. cabins. They note that there have been no reported cases of erythema ab igne from typical use but caution that there have been no controlled studies of saunas or I.R. cabins.
Overall, if the facility complies with ICNIRP limits, one would expect that no injuries would occur. However, the ICNIRP recommendations are rather complex to those unfamiliar with nonionizing radiation, and a person with expertise in this field should be consulted for compliance.
Although infrared saunas are generally considered safe with no side effects, there are still some potential risks.
As with any sauna, the dangers of infrared saunas include the risk of becoming overheated, dehydrated, or dizzy. You can generally avoid this by drinking enough fluids before and after. And, of course, avoid using any drugs or alcohol when trying a sauna.
Some individuals need to use an infrared sauna with caution. Although considered safe and even beneficial for those with heart disease, anyone who has had a recent heart attack or has unstable angina (a condition limiting the amount of blood flow to the heart) should avoid using infrared saunas.
Numerous papers show that near-infrared exposure causes photoaging of the skin, similar to exposure to ultraviolet light. Photoaging is the formation of coarse wrinkles, uneven skin pigmentation, loss of skin elasticity, and a disturbance of skin barrier functions.
When to avoid infrared saunas
In general, infrared saunas are considered safe for most people.
However, if you’re on medications, have implanted medical devices, or have a medical condition — whether acute or chronic — you should be cautious.
Cook-Bolden says you should speak to your healthcare provider before encountering any form of intense heat exposure.
Cook-Bolden says these conditions make people more prone to dehydration and overheating:
- having low blood pressure
- having kidney disease
- taking medications such as diuretics, other blood pressure-lowering drugs, or medications that can cause dizziness
While not an exhaustive list, the conditions listed in this section warrant avoiding infrared sauna use or getting clearance from a healthcare provider.
- Nerve and motor function conditions. If you have neurological deficits, Cook-Bolden says your ability to sense and respond to heat intensity might put you at risk for heat or burn injuries.
- Pregnancy considerations. If you’re pregnant, avoid using the sauna unless you’ve received clearance from your doctor.
- Age considerations. If you have an age-related limitation, avoid using a sauna. This includes older adults who are more prone to dehydration and dizziness with dry heat, leading to falls. For children, discuss infrared sauna use with their doctor before trying it out.
- Weak or compromised immune system. If you have a weakened immune system, Cook-Bolden says you should contact the facility to make sure it’s well-kept and that it has strict cleaning protocols and procedures in place that meet industry standards. Afterwards, talk with your healthcare provider to get clearance to use the facility.
- Unhealed wounds. If you have open wounds or you’re recovering from surgery, wait until these areas are healed. Then talk with your healthcare provider first to get permission before getting infrared sauna treatments.
- Heart conditions. “People with cardiovascular diseases, or underlying heart arrhythmia such as atrial fibrillation, should talk with their doctor before using a sauna,” Sharma says. The use of a sauna can increase heart rate and cause arrhythmia.
If the risks outweigh the benefits, Sharma says, remember the benefits of saunas are mainly because of the physiological effects of sweating and increased heart rate, just like moderate exercise.
Using an Infrared Sauna Safely
It is considered safe to enjoy a few sessions of an infrared sauna weekly, but you may not want to exceed 20 minutes in a single session. Be sure to drink plenty of water before and after using any sauna.
If you’ve experienced any negative side effects from infrared sauna use, visit an urgent care centre near you today.
Infrared Saunas: The Real Deal or Total Burn?
OK, we admit that infrared saunas can feel good. So if you find heat therapy soothing and relaxing, you can give it a try. Just don’t pack your bags and move in. “You can overdo anything,” says Dr Hamblin. “If you overdo something, it generally has less of an effect.” So maybe stick with an occasional 15 to 30-minute session, says Dr Hamblin. And since you’re likely to work up a sweat, don’t forget to hydrate.
Infrared saunas provide a relaxing experience that’s safe for most people. That said, they’re not appropriate for everyone.
If you’re pregnant, young, an older adult, at risk of overheating or becoming dehydrated or have a chronic health condition, you may want to avoid using an infrared sauna.
These conditions can increase your risk of further health complications. Consider your current health status and talk with your healthcare provider before using an infrared sauna.
Infrared saunas can be a wonderful tool to reduce stress and promote healing and relaxation. While there is limited research about its long-term benefits, plenty of small studies suggest it may indeed have the edge over its traditional, dry-sauna counterpart. So as long as you don’t have any condition that would put you at risk, an infrared sauna sweat session could do your body good.
Tips for using an infrared sauna
Whether you’re using an infrared sauna at a health club, spa, or at home, it’s important to follow the general guidelines for safe use. Here are some tips to get you started.
- Seek medical clearance. Although there’s evidence supporting the notion that infrared sauna treatments can be beneficial, Cook-Bolden says it’s best to seek the advice of your healthcare provider before using the sauna. This is especially true if you have any conditions that may be contraindicated.
- Avoid drinking alcohol and drinking alcohol before sauna use can cause overheating and potentially lead to dehydration, heat stroke, and heat exhaustion. “Due to its dehydrating nature, it’s best to avoid alcohol consumption beforehand,” says Cook-Bolden.
- Drink plenty of water. Make sure you drink plenty of water before getting in the sauna during your session — especially if you start feeling light-headed or thirsty, or you find yourself sweating excessively, and also when you get out.
- Start with mini sessions. Begin with mini sessions that last approximately 10–15 minutes. As you get comfortable, you can add time to each session until you reach 20 minutes. Depending on your access to the sauna and overall goal, three sessions a week seems to be the average number for most people.
- Avoid use with irritated skin. If you have a sensitive skin condition or a condition such as eczema that can cause skin irritation, Cook-Bolden says you may want to allow your skin to recover before exposure.
- Pay attention to certain symptoms. If you experience symptoms of dizziness or light-headedness, stop your session immediately. Sharma says this can be a sign of dehydration or other medical complications. And if the symptoms persist, he recommends seeking immediate medical assistance.