There are two types of people in this world: Those in the Wim Hof realm that can handle ice baths and those who can’t. If you’re the latter, perhaps you should look to the other end of the temperature spectrum for your health benefits and book yourself a sweat session in an infrared sauna.
Unlike traditional saunas, “Which use heat and steam to warm the air and create more convective heat [which is transferred through water or fluid], infrared saunas use invisible infrared light waves that go into the body and heat it from within,” explains Maria Dolgetta, director of strategic partnerships for Sunlighten Saunas. The temperature inside an infrared sauna also tends to be 40 to 60 degrees (Fahrenheit) lower than a traditional (or dry) one, which may make them more tolerable to those who don’t enjoy the extreme heat of the classic variety. In terms of structure, infrared saunas can encompass a small room to accommodate multiple people, a one-person cabin, or even a blanket or enclosed pod style.
This light-infused treatment already has a roster of fans, with celebrities like Jennifer Aniston, Meghan Markle, Lady Gaga, Selena Gomez, Gwyneth Paltrow, Zac Efron, Cindy Crawford, and Kendall Jenner (to name a few) known to utilize its benefits. If you’re ready to join the wellness ranks of these A-listers, read on to learn about the benefits — and risks — surrounding infrared saunas.
The Health Benefits
Why exactly do people love about spending time in a sauna (infrared or traditional)? For starters, it’s good for the heart. According to the Mayo Clinic, saunas may be beneficial for cardiovascular diseases, as heat expands blood vessels, improving circulation and decreasing blood pressure. It’s like the equivalent of a workout. “Because sauna use can induce increased heart rates into zone 2 [99 to 115 beats per minute], the equivalent aerobic use of energy — mainly burning of fat stores — is engaged,” says Dr. Rand McClain, head of the Regenerative and Sports Medicine Clinic in Santa Monica, CA, and author of Cheating Death. He maintains that while exercise is a better way to achieve this effect, the sauna can be a worthwhile substitute “when hindered by weather, physical hindrance, or other factors.”
Also, studies suggest that this increased blood flow may reduce the chances of developing a neurodegenerative disorder, such as dementia. Infrared sauna-ing has also been linked to improving symptoms of rheumatological disorders. Dr. McClain explains: “Combining the anti-inflammatory and muscle-relaxing effects help people with rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, and other chronic pain sources.”
Another pro: Better rest. “Infrared therapy has been linked to improved sleep quality, as your body experiences less inflammation, improved circulation, and deeper relaxation,” adds Dolgetta. There’s also some research to support that infrared wavelengths can boost metabolism and rid toxins from your cells, “allowing you to burn more fat,” she says. Furthermore, some functional medicine practitioners recommend infrared sauna use to patients as a way to rid the body of mold or heavy metal toxins. “We know that thermal therapies, including sauna, can be used as a treatment for chemical toxicity,” Dr. McClain explains.
One of the first benefits that sauna users recognize is a glowing complexion. It’s been known for decades that near infrared light is instrumental in wound healing and reducing inflammation. One of the reasons why is the improved circulation, which brings nutrients and oxygen to cells. Also, those with acne will appreciate that the sauna detoxifies the skin and neutralizes the pH levels, thereby reducing blemish-causing bacteria. Plus, “infrared helps to boost collagen and improve skin elasticity, which promotes firmness and reduction of wrinkles,” says Dolgettta.
And finally, there’s the mood boost. It’s not unusual to hear users claim that they simply feel great after a session (and research supports the claim). The high heat prompts the body to release endorphins, the body’s feel-good hormones.
Things To Consider
Though infrared saunas tend to be very safe, there are a few things to know. For starters, pregnant women and young children shouldn’t use an infrared sauna, nor anyone with a heart condition. “Coronary patients can have problems with intense heat and should speak to their doctors before trying saunas,” advises Dr. McClain. The same goes for those with low blood pressure “because sauna use can drop the pressure further and make them vulnerable to arrhythmias.”
Because you sweat buckets in a sauna, it’s very easy to get dehydrated. Drink a liter of water during a session, and ideally one liter before and after as well, to replace lost fluids. And definitely avoid alcohol before, during, and after a session, advises Dr. McClain.
What about the issue of EMFs, electric and magnetic fields that come from any device that uses electricity? As Dr. McClain points out, research on human harm from EMFs remains inconclusive. “That being said, the EMF produced by an infrared sauna is relatively low and there are manufacturers who make no- or low-EMF infrared saunas,” he says.
How To Use An Infrared Sauna
Get yourself ready: Take off your makeup, bring a bottle of water to place outside the sauna door and have multiple towels ready to sop up your sweat. At a minimum, you will want one to sit or lay on, one for the floor and one to mop up sweat as you go. No point letting those toxins sit on your skin — wipe them off as you go. People sauna in the nude, wrapped in a towel, in swimwear or underwear. If you’re using an infrared blanket, it’s usually recommended that you wear moisture-wicking clothes to absorb sweat, which makes cleanup easier as well.
Sauna sessions can be a great time to double-up on your wellness, says Dolgetta. For instance, you might want to meditate, stretch, dry brush, or dermal roll. If there’s space, you could do some yoga poses. Or maybe you want to read. Technology shouldn’t enter the sauna — the heat can ruin devices.
And how long should you sauna for? Beginners usually start at 20 to 30 minutes and build up to 45 minute sessions. Even though you’ll see benefits with just one to two sessions per week, it is safe to sauna daily, provided you stay sufficiently hydrated.
After a session, some practitioners recommend taking a cool shower to tighten pores, bring the body back to its normal temperature, further reduce inflammation and improve circulation. That is, if you can tolerate it. If not, let your body cool off a bit and then take a warm shower. And then bask in that post-sauna glow that all the devotees are raving about.