There’s nothing quite like a 20-minute sweat session in a sauna. You feel more relaxed and rested after you’re done, and the heat helps relieve sore muscles and improves your overall health and well-being.

But if the high temperatures of a traditional sauna are just too much for you to handle, an infrared sauna may offer the benefits of a sauna without the extreme heat.

What is an infrared sauna?

Unlike a traditional sauna, infrared saunas don’t heat the air around you. Instead, they use infrared lamps (that use electromagnetic radiation) to warm your body directly.

“These saunas use infrared panels instead of conventional heat to easily penetrate human tissue, heating up your body before heating up the air,” explains physical therapist, Vivian Eisenstadt, MAPT, CPT, MASP.

An infrared sauna can operate at a lower temperature (usually between 120˚F and 140˚F) than a traditional sauna, which is typically between 150˚F and 180˚F.

Manufacturers claim that in an infrared sauna, only about 20 percent of the heat goes to heat the air and the other 80 percent directly heats your body.

Supporters of infrared saunas say the heat penetrates more deeply than warmed air. This allows you to experience a more intense sweat at a lower temperature.

Eisenstadt says this environment is more tolerable, which allows you to stay in the sauna longer while increasing your core body temperature by two to three degrees.

What are the supposed benefits of using an infrared sauna?

The supposed benefits of using an infrared sauna are similar to those experienced with a traditional sauna. These include:

  • better sleep
  • relaxation
  • detoxification
  • weight loss
  • relief from sore muscles
  • relief from joint pain such as arthritis
  • clear and tighter skin
  • improved circulation
  • help for people with chronic fatigue syndrome

People have been using saunas for centuries for all sorts of health conditions. While there are several studies and research on traditional saunas, there aren’t as many studies that look specifically at infrared saunas:

  • A small 10-person study found that people with chronic fatigue syndrome benefited from using an infrared sauna as part of an overall treatment.
  • Another 10-person study found that infrared saunas helped decrease muscle soreness and increase recovery from strength-training sessions.
  • According to one review, several studies have found that infrared light therapy saunas may help reduce blood pressure.

The lack of solid evidence and wide-spread studies about the possible benefits of infrared saunas leaves the consumer (you) to sort through the claims made by the companies who provide this service.

Similarly, there are no reports of negative effects so far, beyond the cautions about any sauna experience. These include the possibilities of overheating, dehydrating, and interference with medication, as well as the potential dangers for those who are pregnant, have heart disease, or are under the influence of drugs or alcohol, among others.

The good news: Even if your sweat session doesn’t do all of the things it claims to do, at least it still feels good. Plus, it contributes to your overall health and well-being by helping you relax, loosening up stiff or tight muscles, reducing joint pain, and giving you some much needed time to yourself.

How do you use an infrared sauna?

Many people will do infrared sauna treatments at a health club, spa, or doctor’s office, while others will purchase and build one in their home. If you decide to give an infrared sauna a try, it’s important to know that they don’t come with universal instructions.

There are guidelines you can follow, but ultimately, how you choose to use an infrared sauna is up to you. Here are some tips to get you started.

  • Drink water. Make sure you’re hydrated before going into an infrared sauna. Drink a glass of water before your session. You can also bring water into the sauna, especially if you’re sensitive to higher heats.
  • Choose the temperature. The average temperature for an infrared sauna ranges from 100˚F to 150˚F, with beginners starting out at the lower end and more experienced users at the higher end. If this is your first time, start with 100˚F. You may want to stay at this temperature for a few sessions. You can always increase the temperature each session until you reach 150˚F.
  • Length of time. For first-time users, start with 10 to 15 minutes. You can add time each session until you reach the suggested time of 20 to 30 minutes. Saunas come with a timer, so make sure to set it. You don’t want to stay in there too long and risk becoming dehydrated.
  • Clothing. How you dress is your choice. Some people will wear bathing suits, while others prefer to go in naked.
  • What you can do while in the sauna. Relax, read, meditate, listen to music, or visit with friends. Just don’t go to sleep.
  • After the session is over. When your session is done, it’s suggested that you take your time and let your body cool down. Once cooled down, feel free to take a shower or bath. Just make sure you are drinking plenty of water.
  • Number of sessions per week. Most facilities that offer infrared sauna treatments recommend using the sauna three to four days per week. If you are healthy and tolerate the four days, you can use the sauna daily.

What should you know before you try an infrared sauna?

There are a few things you should know before indulging in your first session.

  • Avoid using an infrared sauna if you’ve been drinking alcohol.
  • If you feel ill or have a fever, it’s best to wait to use the sauna until you’re feeling better.
  • Using an infrared sauna will cause you to sweat a lot, so you may feel lightheaded when you stand up. If this happens, make sure you get up slowly and sit down once you leave the sauna. Drink water immediately after finishing your session and wait for your body to cool down before doing anything else.
  • In extreme cases, some people may experience overheating (heat stroke and heat exhaustion) or dehydration.

If you have any health conditions such as high blood pressure, heart problems, or are under medical care, get cleared by your doctor before your first session. Even though infrared saunas have been found to be fairly safe, you don’t want to take any chances when it comes to your health and safety.