With claims to ease sore muscles, improve sleep, and help you relax, infrared saunas are a top choice for people looking for a cooler way to heat their bodies.
While there may be potential health benefits, there are also some risks associated with using an infrared sauna.
Here’s what you need to know before you dress down and get in for a quick session.
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 80°C to 100°C (176°F to 212°F).
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,” says Dr. Fran Cook-Bolden, MD, FAAD, with Advanced Dermatology P.C. This type of sauna typically reaches temperatures of about 45°C to 60°C (113°F to 140°F).
Cook-Bolden says infrared heat penetrates deeper into the body and is thought to impact and heal deep tissue and also detox via sweating through your pores.
The reported benefits of using an infrared sauna include relaxation and
Some studies also suggest regular sauna sessions could protect against cardiovascular disease, dementia, and certain skin and lung conditions.
But just like anything else, with the pros come the cons. Before you heat up, take note of these potential side effects and risks.
According to a 2018 systematic review, potential negative effects of sauna use include:
- heat discomfort or intolerance, which was rated as mild to moderate
- low blood pressure (hypotension)
- leg pain
- airway irritation
Medical reports have also noted cases of:
Some severe health complications and even deaths have been reported among frequent sauna users, but these are believed to be rare.
While not specific to infrared saunas, one small 2013 study found that ongoing sauna exposure could have negative effects on sperm health. Two sauna sessions per week for 3 months — each lasting 15 minutes — was associated with lower sperm count and motility. However, these effects were temporary.
Dr. Ashish Sharma, a board-certified internal medicine physician and hospitalist at Yuma Regional Medical Center, also shared insight regarding negative side effects linked to sauna use.
Dr. Sharma says the dry heat generated in an infrared sauna can cause you to become overheated, and if used for a prolonged session, it can also cause dehydration and even heat exhaustion or heat stroke.
According to experts, sauna use is considered safe for most people. But it’s still a good idea to talk with your doctor before trying it.
Some conditions that affect your heart or your blood pressure may increase your risk for adverse effects. These include:
In general, if you’re taking medication, have implanted medical devices, or have a medical condition — whether acute or long-term — it’s best to proceed with caution.
Cook-Bolden says you should speak to your doctor 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 your doctor.
- Nerve and motor function conditions. If you have a neurological deficits, Cook-Bolden says your ability to sense and respond to the intensity of heat might put you at risk for heat or burn injuries.
- Pregnancy. If you’re pregnant, avoid using the sauna unless you’ve received clearance from your doctor.
- Age considerations. Older adults are more prone to dehydration and dizziness with dry heat, which can lead to falls. For children, discuss infrared sauna use with their doctor before trying it out.
- Weakened 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. Afterward, talk with your doctor 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 doctor 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.
“If you cannot tolerate the sauna or do not have an infrared sauna available where you live, you can also get similar — and even more — health benefits by doing cardiovascular and strength training workouts,” he adds.
If you have any health conditions, it’s a good idea to talk with your doctor before making big changes to your activity level.
Whether you’re using an infrared sauna at a health club, spa, or at home, it’s important to follow 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 your doctor’s advice before using the sauna. This is especially true if you have any health conditions.
- Avoid drinking alcohol: Drinking alcohol prior to sauna use can lead to dehydration and contribute to potential complications such as low blood pressure, injury, and heart problems. “Due to its dehydrating nature, it’s best to avoid alcohol consumption beforehand,” says Cook-Bolden.
- Drink plenty of water: It’s important to stay hydrated when using a sauna. Make sure you drink plenty of water before getting in the sauna and when you get out. If the facility permits it, you can consider drinking water while you’re in the sauna too.
- Limit your time in the sauna: An older 1991 review suggests setting short time limits for sauna use. People who are more likely to experience adverse effects, such as older adults, may want to stick to 5 to 10 minute sessions. Healthy adults may tolerate 10 to 15 minute sessions.
- Avoid use with irritated skin: If you have a sensitive skin condition or a condition such as eczema than 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 help.
Infrared saunas provide a relaxing experience that’s considered safe for most people. That said, they’re not appropriate for everyone.
It’s best to consult your doctor before using an infrared sauna. Certain health conditions can increase your risk of complications from sauna use. Consider your current health status and talk with your doctor before using an infrared sauna.