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Are you someone who relishes the thought of a sauna session, but in reality, you wither away under high temperatures and humidity? The good news is that you’re not alone, and there is a cooler, less intense option that delivers most of the same benefits.

In this article, we’ll take a closer look at infrared sauna benefits and compare how infrared and traditional saunas work. Why? Because if you’re going to spend a ton of money on building or installing a sauna at home, we think it’s important to know what options are available to you and why you might choose one over the other.

It’s also important to know if a sauna will serve you as one of the best muscle recovery tools or if you should find another method. Let’s get started! 

Medical disclaimer: This article is intended for educational and informational purposes only. It is not intended as a substitute for medical advice. For health advice, contact a licensed healthcare provider.

What is an Infrared Sauna?

Infrared sauna light therapy might look similar to a regular sauna but the main difference is the heat source. In an infrared sauna, infrared lamps use electromagnetic radiation wavelengths to warm your body. 

Infrared heat works differently than an electric heater or radiant heater. Instead of a heat source warming the air, an infrared heater emits infrared light, which heats objects (like your body) without heating the air. 

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Infrared heat lamps start emitting heat almost instantly, so you don’t have to wait for the entire sauna to heat itself. Infrared saunas typically operate at lower temperatures than regular saunas and range from 120 to 150 degrees Fahrenheit. However, that doesn’t mean you’ll be cold, quite the opposite—the direct heat from the infrared rays elevates your body temperature quickly and effectively. 

Wide shot inside a sauna with infrared light in top corner

Infrared heat is silent, odorless, and doesn’t produce fumes. Additionally, during an infrared sauna session, you’ll notice there’s no vapor or humidity, making it a truly dry heat experience. This is beneficial for folks who find traditional sauna treatments overwhelming with high humidity. 

It’s worth mentioning that while there are both near-infrared or far-infrared wavelengths, infrared saunas use far-infrared wavelengths. Near-infrared wavelengths are typically used in spectroscopy and imaging technologies. 

How Do Infrared Saunas Differ From Traditional Saunas?

When you think of the traditional saunas of Nordic cultures, you probably think of small stick-built outbuildings with two bench height options and a wood-fired stove (or an electric heating source) that heats rocks, which warm the air inside the sauna. 

As the hot air circulates through the sauna, the temperature rises and elevates your body temperature. These types of saunas range from 160 to 200 degrees Fahrenheit, quite a bit hotter than infrared saunas. This typically leads to more sweating (which some folks may perceive as more detoxing). 

It’s also common practice to pour water on the hot rocks to create steam and humidity in the air, although how much and how frequently is personal preference. 

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Health Benefits of Infrared Saunas

In Finnish tradition, sauna use is said to have a myriad of overall health and wellness benefits including better sleep, weight loss, detoxification from heavy metals, clear skin, joint pain relief, and improved metabolic health just to name a few. 

Close up photo of a light inside a sauna

While general sauna use is considered beneficial to reduce the risk of heart disease risk factors and overall cardiovascular health, there are far fewer studies that look specifically at the benefits of infrared saunas. 

Increased Blood Circulation 

While not all benefits are unique to specific use of an infrared sauna, we think it’s worth noting that increase in blood flow and circulation is one of the most common side effects (all without taking the best pre-workout with creatine). 

Using heat therapy, whether it be a hot compress or a sauna bathing experience, allows blood vessels to expand and increases blood flow to your skin. One Mayo Clinic1 review notes that a typical hot, dry sauna increases body temperature which causes more efficient skin blood flow but also decreases blood flow to internal organs. 

Improved Muscle Recovery 

Piggybacking off increased blood flow, the natural consequence of more circulation is the ability to recover from exercise faster. 

In fact, a small study2 found that infrared sauna bathing deeply penetrates heat into the body, which was found to be helpful for muscle recovery and reducing soreness after resistance training. Further,this study reported that using infrared saunas warmed the body nearly three to four centimeters deep into fat tissue and neuromuscular systems under the skin, which was more than traditional sauna therapy. 

Photo featuring the inside of a large infrared sauna

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While we keep adding up the benefits of saunas, Michael Massi, doctor of physical therapy (DPT) and strength coach, notes that “saunas are not a practical application for most people due to lack of public access.”

“That’s not to say that it may not help. I liken it to your standard localized heat therapy in which I recommend it as a means to manage symptoms so long as it feels good for the patient. The sauna would be more practical for someone trying to address multiple body regions, for instance, someone with polymyalgia rheumatica, rheumatoid arthritis, or various types of chronic pain syndromes,” he adds. 

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Potential to Improve Chronic Fatigue

That brings us to our next potential benefit: infrared sauna use may reduce symptoms in patients with chronic fatigue syndrome. In a small pilot study published by Internal Medicine3 observing patients with chronic fatigue syndrome, researchers found that perceived fatigue significantly decreased when patients were exposed to infrared light therapy for 15-minute sessions five days per week for four weeks. 

Other side effects of the study included positive changes in mood and overall well-being and reduced anxiety and depression.

Potential to Improve Heart Health

While more research is needed, there have been small studies to test the effectiveness of infrared therapy on other health conditions, including chronic heart failure. 

An older study from the Journal of Cardiology4 published in 2009 found that in a group of 129 patients with chronic heart failure who were exposed to repeated 15-minute bouts of infrared sauna therapy on a weekly basis, there was an 84% survival rate over the course of five years. 

Potential to Reduce Blood Pressure

While more evidence is needed, a 2008 study5 found that infrared dry sauna treatments may help improve high blood pressure statuses and increase exercise tolerance in patients with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). This study was performed on 13 patients, over four weeks, with one 15-minute bout of dry sauna exposure per day. 

Other Benefits of Infrared Saunas

In addition to all the health benefits we covered—from potential improvements in cardiovascular system to muscle recovery—another benefit worth touching on is the lack of steam and moisture compared to traditional saunas. 

Photo of the outside of a door handle leading to a sauna

If you want to build or install a sauna inside your home, using infrared light bulbs will alleviate fears of mold buildup or water damage. While the term water damage might seem strong, adding a ton of extra moisture to your home (without proper ventilation) is not recommended.

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Are Infrared Sauna Benefits Worth Investing In One? 

Interestingly, Michael Massi, DPT, suggests that adding sauna bathing to your routine or even going so far as to install a sauna in your home may have diminishing returns. 

Michael explains, “I’ve read studies on sauna bathing improving depression, chronic pain, and even risk reduction for metabolic syndromes, cardiovascular disease, and all cause mortality, but these are all outcomes that have been very well established as adaptations to physical activity.”

“So, in my line of work as a strength coach and physical therapist, I know I can achieve this with movement and exercise prescription,” he adds. 

In other words, with a consistent exercise routine, you can gain some of the same benefits from sauna sessions through an increased heart rate and a rise in body temperature. 

RELATED: Tips to Understanding Your Target Heart Rate

Infrared Sauna Benefits: Final Thoughts 

While the benefits of saunas date back to ancient civilizations, we still have little research supporting the specific benefits of infrared saunas. To summarize, here are the benefits we do know of today:

  • Heat therapy, in general, helps increase blood circulation and improves muscle recovery. 
  • Infrared sauna therapy has the potential to improve symptoms for folks with chronic fatigue syndrome. 
  • There is evidence to suggest that regular exposure to infrared saunas has the potential to improve heart health and reduce blood pressure. 
  • Because infrared saunas use dry heat and do not produce steam or humidity, they’re an ideal solution for at-home saunas. 

Infrared Sauna Benefits: FAQ

What does an infrared sauna do for the body?

While infrared saunas run much cooler than traditional saunas, evidence suggests2. that infrared saunas heat the tissues in your body more deeply and efficiently, aiding in muscle recovery. 

How often should you use an infrared sauna for benefits?

While the frequency of use is highly subjective to your training schedule and sauna access, many of the studies we reviewed showed the most significant health benefits when patients used the infrared sauna several times per week for 15 minutes per session, followed by 30 minutes of rest after the sauna session. 

Does infrared sauna melt fat?

While infrared saunas can help increase blood flow, reduce muscle soreness, and improve recovery, there are no studies directly related to the benefits of infrared saunas and weight loss. 

These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This product is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any diseases.

References

  1. Jari A. Laukkanen, MD, PhD; Tanjaniina Laukkanen, MSc; and Setor K. Kunutsor, MD, PhD. Cardiovascular and Other Health Benefits of Sauna Bathing: A Review of the Evidence. Mayo Clinic Proceedings. August 2018.
  2. Mero A, Tornberg J, Mäntykoski M, Puurtinen R. Effects of far-infrared sauna bathing on recovery from strength and endurance training sessions in men. Springerplus. 2015;4:321. Published 2015 Jul 7. doi:10.1186/s40064-015-1093-5
  3. Soejima Y, Munemoto T, Masuda A, Uwatoko Y, Miyata M, Tei C. Effects of Waon therapy on chronic fatigue syndrome: a pilot study. Intern Med. 2015;54(3):333-8. doi: 10.2169/internalmedicine.54.3042. PMID: 25748743.
  4. Kihara T, Miyata M, Fukudome T, et al. Waon therapy improves the prognosis of patients with chronic heart failure. J Cardiol. 2009;53(2):214-218. doi:10.1016/j.jjcc.2008.11.005
  5. Umehara M, Yamaguchi A, Itakura S, et al. Repeated waon therapy improves pulmonary hypertension during exercise in patients with severe chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. J Cardiol. 2008;51(2):106-113. doi:10.1016/j.jjcc.2008.01.004

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