Like many new wellness trends, the infrared sauna promises a laundry list of health benefits — from weight loss and improved circulation to pain relief and the removal of toxins from the body.
But as is the case with so many health crazes, if it sounds too good to be true, it’s worth doing your due diligence to find out just how reliable all those impressive claims are.
To help you get to the bottom of the science behind infrared saunas — and to find out if those health promises actually have any merit behind them — we asked three of our health experts to weigh in on the matter: Cindy Cobb, a nurse practitioner specializing in women’s health, aesthetics and cosmetics, and skin care; Daniel Bubnis, a nationally certified personal trainer and faculty instructor at Lackawanna College; and Debra Rose Wilson, an associate professor and holistic healthcare practitioner.
Here’s what they had to say:
What’s happening to your body when you’re in an infrared sauna?
Cindy Cobb: When a person spends time in a sauna — regardless of how it’s heated — the body’s response is the same: heart rate increases, blood vessels dilate, and sweating increases. When this happens, there’s an increase in blood circulation.
This reaction is very similar to the way the body responds to low to moderate exercise. The length of time spent in a sauna will also determine the exact response of the body. It’s been noted that the heart rate may increase to between 100 to 150 beats a minute. The physical responses described above, in and of themselves, often bring about health benefits.
Daniel Bubnis: Studies into the health effects of infrared saunas are ongoing. That said, medical science believes that the effects are related to interactions between the infrared frequency and the water content of the tissue.
The wavelength of this light, referred to as far infrared radiation (FIR), cannot be perceived by the human eye and is an invisible form of electromagnetic energy. The body experiences this energy as radiant heat, which can penetrate up to 1 1/2 inches beneath the skin. It’s believed that this wavelength of light impacts the bonds between molecules in cells, and in turn, can provide the therapeutic effects supposedly linked to infrared saunas.
Debra Rose Wilson: Infrared heat [saunas] can provide waves of a type of heat and light that can penetrate deeper into the body, and can heal deep tissue. Your skin temperature increases but your core temperature does not increase as much, so as long as you are able to open your pores and perspire, you should be able to maintain temperature balance.
What kind of person and type of health concerns would benefit the most from this practice and why?
CC: There have been several studies that have looked at using infrared saunas in the treatment of chronic health problems. These include improvement of cardiac health such as decreasing high blood pressure and managing chronic heart failure, easing pain of diseases, including rheumatoid arthritis by reducing muscle soreness and improving joint movement, and reducing levels of stress by supposedly promoting relaxation and improving feelings of well-being through improved circulation.
DB: The research into infrared saunas is still preliminary. That said, studies have suggested that infrared radiation (this includes infrared saunas) may help treat premature aging skin. There have also been studies that have shown the use of infrared saunas as a way to treat individuals with chronic kidney disease.
DRW: Beyond what’s mentioned above by my colleagues, this is an optional treatment for regional or chronic pain, and can be complementary to physical therapy and injury treatment.
Studies on athletes have shown faster healing with heat and so infrared saunas might be appropriate for use in conjunction with good nutrient intake, sleep, and massage. As an alternative to medication, one study suggests this could be one of the tools for people with chronic, difficult to treat pain. Likewise, for those who love the heat of the tanning bed, but want to avoid the cancer-causing UV rays, here is a safer option.
Who should avoid an infrared sauna?
CC: Use of a sauna appears to be safe for most individuals. Those with cardiovascular disease, someone who’s had a heart attack, and individuals with low blood pressure, however, should speak with their physician before using one.
Those with contact dermatitis may find saunas worsen the symptoms. Likewise, due to the risk of dehydration (thanks to increased sweating), individuals with kidney disease should also avoid saunas. Dizziness and nausea may also be experienced by some, due to the high temperature used in saunas. Finally, pregnant individuals should consult their physician prior to using a sauna.
DB: Again, the evidence surrounding infrared saunas is still quite recent. Insufficient numbers of longitudinal studies have been done to fully assess potential negative effects associated with FIR saunas. The most straightforward answer would be to avoid infrared saunas if you’ve been advised against using one by your physician.
DRW: For those with neuropathy on the feet or hands, a burn might not be felt or the warming sensation might cause discomfort. Those who are elderly should also note that the risk of dehydration increases with this type of dry heat, and if you’re prone to overheating or fainting, use caution.
What are the risks, if any?
CC: As noted, the risks for an adverse reaction are higher for those with cardiovascular issues and those who are dehydrated.
DB: Unfortunately, from the scientific sites that I perused, I was unable to determine whether or not there were any risks associated with infrared saunas.
DRW: The risks appear to be low. Keep the treatments short at first and increase length if you tolerate them well. For those who are prone to hot flashes, this might not be the spa option of choice. While there are benefits to circulation and health, overheating is hard on immune function and the cardiovascular system. Those with pre-existing conditions should consult their physician.
What should people look out for and keep in mind if they’re planning on visiting an infrared sauna?
CC: If you’re planning to visit a sauna (infrared or otherwise) it would be best to avoid alcohol consumption beforehand, due to its dehydrating nature. You should limit your time spent in an infrared sauna to 20 minutes, though first time visitors should only spend between 5 and 10 minutes in one until they build up their tolerance.
When planning to visit a sauna, it’s a good idea to make sure you’re well-hydrated, both before and after, by drinking plenty of water.
DB: Since we’re unaware of risks associated with infrared saunas, we cannot fully appreciate ways to mitigate risks. However, there are a few things to keep in mind: make sure the sauna facility you’re selecting is clean, ask the provider about the last time the sauna was serviced, and ask friends for referrals and their experiences with that particular facility.
DRW: Choose a licensed spa and ask the providers what training they’ve received for using the sauna. Reviewing public health checks and reports will indicate whether the location is a clean and safe environment.
In your opinion, does it work? Why or why not?
CC: Those who are unable to tolerate the high temperature of a regular sauna are often able to tolerate the infrared sauna, and thus benefit from its use. Being able to benefit from the warmth and relaxation provided by the sauna, in turn, influences other chronic health conditions in a positive manner.
In short, I believe infrared saunas do work. That said, I would recommend the continuation of studies into infrared saunas to provide evidence for healthcare professionals to base their recommendations for patients.
DB: After reviewing multiple studies, I think it’s safe to say that there’s some preliminary evidence that infrared saunas may provide some health benefits to some individuals. I do not know, however, whether or not I would refer clients, en masse, to use this modality. Instead, I would need to take each client’s unique circumstances into consideration before making a referral.
DRW: In the war on chronic pain without the use of narcotics, the infrared heat approach is another tool in the arsenal to fight chronic pain and reduce dependence on medication. In combination with other approaches, this treatment can add to quality of life, range of motion, reduced pain, and increased mobility. I would recommend this for some patients.
Although there are many online articles espousing the benefits of infrared saunas, you should first discuss the use of these devices with your doctor.
If you decide to pursue infrared sauna therapy, remember that the body of evidence to back up the claims made by infrared sauna manufacturers is limited. Additionally, you should only use facilities that are clean and well-maintained.