Traditional vs. Infrared Sauna

Which is better: traditional saunas or infrared saunas?

First, let us look at the similarities between the rooms and the shared benefits. 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 a fever, and I can cure every disease.” While this statement is hyperbole, it does point to the healing power of increased body temperature.

Both sauna types will be relatively dry. The far-infrared rooms tend to be close to normal house humidity levels unless it has been on for extended periods of time. The traditional sauna will be drier (10% or lower) until water is sprinkled over the rocks. The traditional sauna is the only bath in the world 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.

What is 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 temperature of the room and to 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.

Heating Technology

Traditional saunas heat the air using hot rocks or steam at temperatures in excess of 200°F. The hot air makes contact with the user’s skin which creates a surface sweat as the body tries to cool itself. The high temperatures may feel good to some for a short period of time, and others find the experience unbearably hot and difficult to breathe. The average person should only stay in a traditional sauna for fifteen to twenty minutes max.

Traditional Sauna Heaters: Electric, Wood, Gas

Traditional saunas are much more intuitive than infrared saunas. Traditional saunas heat the same way your furnace heats your house and the same way that cavemen used fire to warm his cave.  

You put a heater in the room and everything gets hot–the heater gets hot, then the air gets hot, then you get hot, and everything else the air touches gets hot.

Nowadays, most traditional saunas are electric. However, traditionalists may opt for a wood-burning heater–the same as sauna enthusiasts have been doing for thousands of years. There are also sauna heaters which operate on gas. These can be extremely convenient if you have available gasoline.  

What Is An Infrared Sauna?

In truth, it would be more apt to call an infrared sauna a ‘light bath’. The original infrared saunas constructed by Dr. Harvey Kellogg in the late nineteenth century were called ‘Incandescent Light Baths’. Similar to 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. 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 is able to easily penetrate into the skin membrane reaching the soft tissue of the body. The core temperature of the body is increased from the inside out and does not rely on high external temperatures to induce sweating.

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 Triphosphate) occurs. The mitochondria are very sensitive to all light and particularly sensitive to deeply penetrating rays of the infrared. As soon as the body is exposed to infrared light, ATP production is exponentially stimulated (5).

Infrared Heat Explained

Infrared panels create infrared radiation. Don’t let the word “radiation” scare you. Visible light is radiation. In fact, both infrared rays and light rays are part of the electromagnetic spectrum. Visible light is radiation with wavelengths between 400 nm and 700 nm.

Infrared rays have longer wavelengths than visible light slightly. They have wavelengths between 700 nm and 1000 nm.  

Infrared heat is very gentle. The experience is similar to lying in the sun on a warm day and feeling the heat radiate to the core of your body. Since infrared heats the body directly and increases core body temperature, the temperature does not to be that hot. In fact, the cooler the surface area of the heater, the more far infrared energy will be produced. The optimal temperature for an infrared sauna session is 100°F to 130°F, which is comfortable for thirty minutes or more.

In discussions of infrared saunas, you will often hear infrared saunas as creating a “deep penetrating heat.” What is meant by this is that the infrared rays emitted by the panels pass through the air, through your clothes or towel, through your skin and directly into your body.

This is because the wavelength of the infrared sauna is specifically matched to be absorbed by the body. You will sometimes hear an infrared sauna referred to as an FIR sauna. This is the same as an infrared sauna, but more specific.  

FIR means Far InfraRed. Far refers to a subdivision of the infrared spectrum. These specific wavelengths just happen to be the perfect length to be absorbed by the body.   

Other things in the sauna, your towel, the wood, the air will not absorb the rays. The rays will pass right through to your body. This makes the infrared sauna ultra-efficient.  

Because the sauna is so efficient at heating the body, the air in the sauna only gets up to 120°F to 170°F.  

Traditional Saunas vs Infrared Saunas

Heating method

In a traditional sauna, perspiration is achieved when the bather enters a heated room. When a traditional sauna has been properly heated, the sauna walls are warm, the air temperature has achieved the set temperature, and the rocks are superheated. As an interesting side note, the heated walls and the rocks are emitting far-infrared heat, combined with the heated air, to create an “enveloping heat”. The process for heating the room most often involves an electric heater that heats a compartment of stones, which then radiate the heat throughout the room. When the high temperature is achieved, the elements cycle on and off to maintain the high temperature. Most traditional sauna users enjoy pouring water over the rocks to create steam to raise sauna humidity levels. The benefits of pouring water over the rocks include: making the room more comfortable, moistening the nasal passages, and allowing the use of aromatherapy by mixing essential oils with the water.

There is an on-going worldwide trend with traditional sauna bathing for “lower temperatures and higher humidity”—the so-called “soft sauna”.

In a far-infrared sauna, the heat waves penetrate the body to heat the body and raise the body core temperature effectively. To achieve this increased temperature, Far-infrared emitters create infrared energy which is close to the same wavelength as that which the body naturally emits—often referred to as the “Vital Range” of 7 to 14 microns), so the energy is well received by the body. The infrared energy deeply penetrates the skin and warms the muscles and joints. When the energy enters the body, it causes the body temperature to increase and ultimately results in perspiration. In an infrared sauna, the emitters/heaters need to remain almost constantly. Since there is no mass of rocks to retain heat, the sauna will cool if the emitters shut off. Thus, even though most of the energy is turned into efficient infrared energy, IR saunas are designed for almost continuous operation of the infrared emitters. As mentioned above, the sauna bather in an infrared room wants to position himself in front of operating emitters to get the maximum benefit from the heat.

Power Needs

Another difference between a traditional sauna and an infrared sauna is the amount of power required to operate each unit. Traditional saunas require more overall power to run, with a typical sauna taking up 6 kW of power in comparison to the typical 1.6 kW needed for the infrared sauna. This means that a traditional sauna is almost three times as expensive to run as an infrared sauna. This can make a difference, depending on how often you use the unit.

Action

A traditional dry sauna uses a stove to heat the air. As the temperature of the air increases around you, the temperature of your body increases as well due to absorption by heat convection. This causes your body to start the cooling process by transporting blood closer to the surface of the skin and opening pores through sweating. Infrared saunas also heat the surrounding air but to a lesser degree. Instead, infrared saunas use infrared heaters to emit a specific wavelength of infrared light. Your skin absorbs this wavelength, causing your body’s temperature to rise. This elicits the same effects as a traditional sauna with less overall heat needed.

Humidity

One clear advantage that traditional saunas have over infrared saunas is the ability to control humidity.  

Traditional sauna heaters utilise a bed of rocks on top of the heat source to allow users to produce steam as desired. Typically the sauna user will keep a bucket of water and a ladle to pour water onto the heated rocks creating steam.  

Sometimes traditional saunas are even referred to as steam saunas or traditional steam saunas. This is a bit of a misnomer because a traditional sauna can be used completely dry. The ladling of water is by no means a requirement.

The term “steam sauna” can also lead to confusion concerning the difference between the traditional sauna and the steam room. To be brief: a traditional sauna uses a heater to heat the sauna room with hot air. A steam room uses a steam generator to heat the room with steam.

The naming confusion doesn’t stop there. Some people refer to traditional saunas as dry saunas, to distinguish traditional saunas from steam rooms.  

There is even such a thing as a “soft sauna.” A soft sauna isn’t a type sauna, but rather a type of experience. In a soft sauna, you will continuously pour so much water on the sauna that you create enough steam to essentially give you a steam room experience rather than a sauna experience.    

Infrared saunas, on the other hand, have no such feature. The only increase in the humidity of an infrared sauna will be the result of the perspiration of the occupants.  

Radiant Heat vs Convection Heat

Traditional saunas depend on convection heat through either electric elements or wood fuel and heat the air in the enclosed room. Exposure to the heated air warms the internal temperature of the body. The nature of convection heat requires that high temperatures be reached in order to affect the core temperature of the human body.

Conversely, infrared saunas rely on radiant heat. The light of the infrared emitters directly seeps into the physiological network of the body and has a streamlined effect on the molecular structure.

Radiant heat is in direct interplay with the body, while convection heat has a secondary relationship to human physiology.

The body responds harmoniously to the frequency of the infrared light spectrum, and the absorption of light ignites the cellular structures of the body.

Traditional saunas heat the air temperature of the sauna. Any thermal therapy has residual health benefits on the body, but they are significantly less when compared to the power of infrared light.

Safe Use

No matter whether you’re using a traditional sauna or an infrared sauna, there are some safety precautions you need to observe. In either case, you’re eliciting extreme sweating, so be sure you drink plenty of water before and after your session. If you start to feel unwell, leave the sauna immediately and get some water; call a doctor if you don’t feel better soon.

Infrared saunas are still new on the health scene, and so they are still being researched. Preliminary studies show that they don’t pose any significant risks, but they should be used in moderation. Stick to sessions under half an hour, and don’t use the sauna more than a couple of times a week.

Operation & Maintenance

Maintenance of a traditional steam sauna can be extensive with the risk of mould and mildew if you are not vigilant about maintaining it. Traditional sauna heaters also require a lot of power to heat a full sauna room. With a 45 minute warm-up time, traditional saunas consume twice the energy of an infrared sauna.

Infrared saunas run on the same wattage as a blow dryer and will cost little to run monthly: typically 15 to 35 cents per hour. This varies with the model and local utility cost. Your utility company can help you understand a more exact per hour cost if needed.

Sunlighten’s patented Solocarbon infrared heaters are antibacterial, anti-mould, and anti-germ. Simply keep the unit on for 10-15 minutes between clients to kill any germs or odours from the previous client. 

Clients should sit on a Bamboo Carbon towel to absorb sweat and keep the sauna clean. Once the client is finished, a staff member will use Sunlighten’s natural sauna cleaner to spray the bench down and dry with a clean cloth.

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. As such they are usually made by specialised sauna companies with knowledge of how to properly design, build, insulate, and ventilate a traditional sauna. Infrared saunas, on the other hand, usually come flat-packed and ready to be assembled, with no need for specialised knowledge or skill.

Then there is the matter of materials. Traditional saunas usually come in a much larger range of materials as they are being built and possibly designed from scratch specifically for the customer. Infrared saunas, however, are often far more limited as they are already constructed en masse before being sold.

Moreover, companies dedicated to making traditional saunas and following proper Finnish guidelines will use properly heat and moisture treated woods which have been sustainably sourced, usually from Finland. Using Finnish materials and equipment made by Finnish specialists ensures a high standard of product, as not only have they had thousands of years of practice at sauna construction, but their laws and regulations regarding sauna construction are far more comprehensive than those in the UK.

These standards, however, do not apply to many infrared saunas, which are designed to be cheap. This means customers run a higher risk of receiving lower-quality materials which have been mass-produced using unethically sourced materials in countries such as China. This is the case in most infrared sauna companies, who source their saunas from second party websites such as Alibaba.

What are the 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.”

If you require further assistance in determining which room best meets your needs, contact your local sauna specialty dealer who carries BOTH traditional sauna and far-infrared sauna. Their interest is in meeting your needs rather than promoting and selling only one product. If you are using heat bathing as part of a recommended program by a doctor, ask your physician for her advice given your medical history.

Finally, there is a seldom discussed difference in the social experience between the two rooms. While our culture has lost some of the social benefits of the traditional sauna experience, it can be very socially rewarding. From a family time in the sauna to heart-felt conversations with significant others, to sauna parties—the traditional sauna experience can lead to intimate socialising. Traditional saunas are typically large enough to allow multiple people to enjoy the sauna for social time. Though a sauna session may only be 10-15 minutes at a time when time allows the sauna can be used in multiple “innings”; the experience of heating the sauna, preparing to use the sauna, talking while in the sauna, and relaxing after the sauna can be very therapeutic and rewarding.

While it is possible to converse in an infrared room, due to the smaller room sizes and room design, the typical experience of the infrared room is often more of a private escape. Most higher-end infrared rooms include coloured light therapy, sound systems and full-glass fronts. The size of most rooms allows for two people to comfortably use the room, while some designs may allow for a 3rd or 4th person to use the room. Custom infrared rooms are also available, with room sizes available up to 7′ x 8′ x 7′ high.

No matter which variety you choose, spending time in a sauna can be a great way to relax and improve your health. Knowing the difference between an infrared sauna vs. a traditional sauna can help you decide which one you want to invest in. Make sure to stay hydrated, and no matter which model you choose, you’ll love the results you see.

If you’d like to get a sauna for your home, reach out to us at Thatcher. We have hot tubs, pools, fitness systems, and more for you to add to your home. Get pricing for our traditional and infrared saunas today.

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