If you are interested in heat bathing, you have probably read many articles regarding the health benefits of a traditional sauna, far-infrared sauna, and steam baths. Today, we are going to look at the biggest debate, which is between a traditional sauna and a far-infrared sauna.
Saunas are a great way to help the body detoxify, but there are so many different kinds – wood-burning, electric, steam, near-infrared, far-infrared – which one is best? BUT NOT ALL SAUNAS ARE CREATED EQUAL. Before buying my sauna, I did A TON of research and spoke with several alternative practitioners to get their perspective on which kind of sauna is best and what brands could be trusted. As with most purchases in life, you get what you pay for, and detox therapy is not a place where you want to cut corners.
Recently in the UK, infrared (IR) saunas have experienced a wave of popularity, being hailed as a cheap alternative to traditional saunas that can offer all the same benefits and more at a fraction of the price. The reality, in fact, is that whilst they can offer some health benefits, IR saunas still cannot match traditional steam saunas in either amount or range of overall health benefits, and certainly not in experience or quality. If you are curious as to exactly why this is, then this is article is the place for you to find out.
Unfortunately, there is much misinformation regarding the benefits and effects of frequent sauna use, especially concerning infrared saunas. The intent of this article is not to sell but to educate. It aims to provide a clear and well-evidenced account of both infrared and traditional saunas and their differences. As such, all information provided here has been compiled based on peer-reviewed and credible scientific publications.
The article itself will outline each sauna’s overall design and differences along with the history, effects, type of use, and misinformation underpinning both types. Most importantly, it will also go through the overall benefits gained by using each sauna. By the end, you will have an in-depth and thorough understanding of the fundamental differences between traditional and infrared saunas and be better equipped to make a decision regarding which one is really best for you.
What Is A Traditional Sauna?
Traditional saunas are also referred to as dry saunas, both stemming from the Finnish culture, and are now found in spas, gyms, and hotels around the modern world. The dry sauna is heated with an electrical unit that heats the stones placed on top of it, the walls of the enclosure and the air contained within. The structures are made of wood: they feel and look like small cabins.
The temperature of these units is generally between 160 and 200 degrees Fahrenheit. To increase the room’s temperature and add some humidity, water is poured over the heated stones.
Very often, these units of heat therapy are communal but can also be built-in private homes. The traditional sauna is effective as a heat therapy modality because they are able to raise the core temperature of the human body to induce copious sweating.
The incredibly high temperature of these units can be uncomfortable for many people. The experience can push the threshold of its users, and many will not be able to reap the full benefit of the heat therapy simply because the air temperature is extremely high.
What Is An Infrared Sauna?
In truth, it would be more apt to call an infrared sauna a ‘light bath’. For example, the original infrared saunas constructed by Dr. Harvey Kellogg in the late nineteenth century were called ‘Incandescent Light Baths’. Like the traditional saunas, the infrared light bath is contained by a wooden structure similar to a small cabin.
The near, mid, and far-infrared light is naturally occurring parts of the broad spectrum of light emanating from the sun. The infrared spectrum is invisible to the eye but is felt as heat.
The infrared heat emitters within the enclosure raise the temperature to anywhere from 100 to 150 degrees Fahrenheit. However, the nature of the wavelengths of infrared light does not actually require much increase in temperature to have a profound effect on the body.
The infrared light can easily penetrate into the skin membrane reaching the soft tissue of the body. As a result, the body’s core temperature is increased from the inside out and does not rely on high external temperatures to induce sweating.
As the infrared light seeps beyond the initial membrane of the skin to penetrate the body’s soft tissue, the cellular mechanism of the body responds in excitement. The human form comprises 50 trillion cells; each cell in the body has what could be considered an ‘energy plant’: the mitochondria, where ATP (Adenosine Tri-Phosphate) occurs. The mitochondria are very sensitive to all light and particularly sensitive to deeply penetrating rays of the infrared. Thus, as soon as the body is exposed to infrared light, ATP production is exponentially stimulated.
How to choose the best sauna for you
Comparing Similarities of Traditional Saunas vs Infrared Saunas
First, let us look at the similarities of the rooms and the shared benefits. Of course, the goal of sauna bathing varies by person, but let’s assume your general goal is to enjoy the benefits of heat bathing: relaxation and stress reduction, sweating (with the associated detoxification) and relieving aches and pains. Both sauna types provide these benefits, although the conditions under which the benefits are achieved are quite different.
The benefits of heat bathing have much to do with the sauna creating a self-induced fever. As Hippocrates, the Father of Medicine, observed, “Give me fever, and I can cure every disease.” While this statement is hyperbole, it does point to the healing power of an increased body temperature.
Both sauna types will be relatively dry. The far-infrared rooms tend to be close to normal house humidity levels unless extended periods have been on. The traditional sauna will be drier (10% or lower) until water is sprinkled over the rocks. The traditional sauna is the only bath where the user controls both temperature and humidity, with humidity controlled to user liking by how much water is thrown on the rocks. In far-infrared saunas, you control the temperature, but the humidity is whatever it is
While sweating in either sauna, you will experience deep relaxation, sore muscles are loosened, and aching joints will likely feel relief. The process of perspiration burns some calories, though the amount of calories burned is debatable and is dependent upon the individual. Most of the weight loss in a sauna is water loss and is regained upon rehydrating. However, without a doubt sauna can be an important part of a healthy weight loss program.
Comparing Differences of Traditional Saunas vs Infrared Saunas
To look at the differences between traditional and IR saunas, I will separate these into verifiable, theoretical, and fabricated differences.
It’s important to address the differences in this way because many opinions exist about saunas that have to do more with personal experience, cultural tradition, and market competition than scientific facts. So we’ll address the verifiable differences, the facts, below.
How each sauna is used
As well as being a place for health and wellbeing, traditional saunas are used in Finland as a place of socialization with friends and family. This tradition still exists today, with most Finnish families sauna bathing together at least two or three times a week. The sauna is somewhere people can simply relax and be with each other, a place to catch up with friends, and even a place to cement business relations. Whilst many people do frequently sauna alone, the traditional sauna’s social benefits are one of its most striking features and one of the reasons it remains so popular in Finnish culture .
A traditional sauna can also be a very bespoke experience, with many people creating an environment that best serves their needs. The most common way people do this is with the humidity and temperature, as this is determined entirely by how much or how little water an individual decides to place on the heated sauna stones and what temperature they heat the stones to. Then there is also the option of aromatherapy, as the luxury of creating your own steam means having the option to add different scents and oils to it.
Overall, much of the pleasure of owning a traditional sauna is discovering what environment is most enjoyable and how you may change this depending on what you want out of a particular sauna session. Many traditional sauna users intend to create the famous Finnish löyly, or ‘sauna steam’, which is considered an irreplaceable facet of true sauna bathing. This steam, combined with good ventilation, is what really makes an enjoyable and authentic sauna experience.
Infrared saunas, on the other hand, are marketing almost entirely as health products. They are limited in their size and only designed to accommodate between one and four people. The amount of control the bather has typically depended on the model of the infrared sauna use. Still, generally, this is very little as temperature and (if available) humidity are set at predetermined and constant levels. Also, unlike in a traditional sauna, where bathers come in and out repeatedly in short sessions of up to 10 minutes, infrared sauna bathers typically remain in the sauna constantly for up to 45 minutes due to the much lower temperatures. This lower temperature also means many companies install radios, CD players, and additional devices to entertain sauna bathers – something that is not possible (but also not needed) in the higher temperatures of traditional saunas.
Public awareness and misinformation
Neither traditional nor infrared saunas are bad, and both can provide useful health benefits. However, there remains a lot of misinformation directed at bringing in sales instead of educating people about which type of sauna is really best for them.
Infrared saunas, for example, are good choices for individuals who want a cheap and small sauna that can help with mild muscle relief and relaxation. What they cannot do, however, is provide detoxification (which is a job for the kidneys, liver, GI tract, and immune system – not the sweat-controlling autonomic nervous system), increase immunity, cause weight loss, or improve cellulite appearance. Unfortunately, this is a common misconception. Most sauna websites that state otherwise (or pay well-known public figures to) base their statements on a desire to drive sales rather than research and evidence.
Unfortunately, there is also much misinformation regarding traditional saunas in the UK. Many UK residents assume or have experienced traditional saunas to be dry and stuffy, and most would refer to a traditional sauna as a ‘dry’ sauna. However, this is a misnomer created by what are ultimately poor appropriations of proper Finnish saunas – saunas which are badly constructed with no ventilation and with heaters that cannot have water poured onto them. When properly constructed using the correct equipment and following Finnish guidelines, a traditional sauna is neither dry nor stuffy. But unfortunately, this is an experience many UK residents using saunas in gyms or health spa’s will not get to enjoy.
Price and construction
One of the first things people notice when deciding between buying a traditional sauna or an infrared sauna is the price; when constructed properly, an infrared sauna will always be cheaper than a traditional sauna. Traditional saunas require expert knowledge to be made properly and are bespoke constructions that cannot be easily mass-produced. Specialized sauna companies usually teach them to properly design, build, insulate, and ventilate a traditional sauna. On the other hand, infrared saunas usually come flat-packed and ready to be assembled, with no need for specialized knowledge or skill.
More tips on choosing the best sauna
When you research your purchase, carefully read relevant information; consider for yourself how you plan to use your sauna and what health benefits seem relevant. Carefully sort out claims by some manufacturers of superior health or safety benefits. The truth is, both types of saunas have the benefits of heat bathing. Your goal is to find a sauna that fits your wellness plan, your space available and your budget. As I stated in the beginning, “The sauna you will use the most is the best sauna.”
In all, there is a reason why traditional saunas are over three times more popular than infrared saunas. And why Finland, the sauna capital of the world, chooses traditional saunas over infrared saunas almost 98% of the time . Ultimately, an infrared sauna just cannot provide the same benefits and quality of the product as a traditional steam sauna. That does not mean that they are not without their benefits or that, for some people, they are the better choice of the sauna. But for most people, this will not be the case.
Comparing the traditional sauna with the infrared sauna is natural when you decide to embark on the journey of heat therapy. However, in reality, there is no comparison: They share the name ‘sauna’, but the distinct nature of the infrared radiant light significantly alters biochemistry to make this heat therapy method exponentially more beneficial for health.
Exposure to the full infrared light spectrum opens the body up to its own healing mechanism as it dances concerning light frequency. Warm hues of light bask the body in the relaxing environment of the infrared sauna while igniting cellular transformation to optimize your health and wellness; traditional dry saunas pale by comparison to the transformative and transcendent results produced through regular infrared sauna use.