We’ve been intrigued with the infrared saunas popping up everywhere with promises to support glowy skin, boost your mood, improve muscle relaxation, and more. Lady Gaga swears by the hot treatment to help with her chronic pain, Jennifer Aniston likes hitting the sauna after a workout, and others are addicted to the major skin benefits a 30-minute session seems to elicit. It’s also a favorite of the Kardashians, various Real Housewives, and Gwyneth Paltrow. So are there actually infrared sauna health benefits?
Like many buzzy wellness trends, the infrared sauna promises a laundry list of health cures—from 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—especially when you’re paying roughly a dollar a minute to sweat in a fancy box.
Here’s everything you need to know (and watch out for) when it comes to infrared saunas.
Featured image of Janessa Leoné by Teal Thomsen.
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The appeal of saunas, in general, is that they cause reactions similar to those elicited by moderate exercise, such as sweating and increased heart rate. If you’ve ever tried a traditional sauna, you’re probably familiar with the hot stones and water used to create steam, which is what heats the room (and you) up. In contrast, infrared saunas use infrared light, a type of light that is not visible to the human eye but that we can feel as heat. The result is that infrared light works “to directly heat your body,” says New York-based dermatologist Joshua Zeichner, MD.
According to holistic nutritionist and co-founder of HigherDOSE Lauren Berlingeri, this heating up of the body happens gradually, which results in a “vigorous, effective sweat at a lower, more comfortable temperature,”
Infrared saunas claim the light penetrates the skin more deeply than the heat of a traditional sauna, which leads to more sweat and a more abundant release of “toxins.” More of the stated benefits include:
Infrared sauna companies like HigherDOSE claim to produce these results at lower temperatures than a regular sauna, making it accessible to people who can’t tolerate the heat of a conventional sauna. But does that translate into tangible health benefits? Perhaps.
We do know that 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. The lack of solid evidence and widespread studies about the possible benefits of infrared saunas leaves us to sort through the claims made by the companies that provide the infrared experience.
What does science have to say about these fancy light boxes, though? Well, while the research is still pretty limited, there are a number of studies that show that infrared saunas can benefit your health in a few ways. While all the claims behind infrared saunas as a miracle experience certainly don’t hold up, a small number of them do. Here’s what we learned.
Harmful toxins like manmade chemicals and heavy metals get lodged in our fat cells and can be released through fat burning and then excreted in sweat. So, many people believe that infrared saunas can help “detox” your body by simply making you sweat more. According to Dee Anna Glaser, a dermatology professor at St. Louis University and the president of the International Hyperhidrosis Society, (Hyperhidrosis is the medical term for “excessive sweating,” which basically means Glaser is a sweat expert), the problem with this claim is that half of the equation is missing: fat burning. While infrared saunas do make you sweat, they don’t trigger fat burning, which means they can’t help your body eliminate toxins.
She tells us that “sweat can release some toxins and some chemicals, but that is not really sweat’s major job. The organs responsible for detoxifying our system are the kidneys and the liver. Those two do such a good job that, really, sweat doesn’t need to do that. So, for most people, sweating a lot does not detoxify them at all. Because the kidneys are doing it. Sweat’s main job is to keep us cool.”
This is the first win I could really find for infrared saunas. Numerous studies do indeed show that infrared saunas can reduce joint pain and stiffness in people with rheumatoid arthritis.
And now we’re really in the woods. The more militant promoters of infrared sauna say that it can help the immune system better fight cancer, remove carcinogenic chemicals from the body, and even directly kill cancer cells. However, there’s absolutely no evidence to support any of these claims.
Rigid blood vessels are some of the main drivers of cardiovascular disease. So, anything that makes them more flexible is generally good for long-term heart health. Research also shows that infrared saunas may improve your blood vessels’ ability to expand and adapt to changes in blood pressure. Scientists aren’t sure about the mechanisms at play (and the effects haven’t been replicated yet), but it may be due to an increase in nitric oxide production, which improves blood flow.
Studies also show that an infrared sauna can lower your blood pressure, which is also good for your ticker. Again, we don’t quite know why. It could simply be due to its relaxing effects instead of direct improvements in blood vessel function–but either way, it seems to work.
Small studies have shown that infrared saunas can enhance recovery after strength and endurance training by improving neural recovery. Like most of the research into infrared saunas, these studies have major flaws—small sample sizes, no blinding, and results that haven’t been consistently replicated. As a result, we don’t know yet if infrared saunas can actually improve post-workout recovery or not.
According to some, an infrared sauna can improve skin complexion and health, and even reduce lines, wrinkles, and pigmentation. These effects are allegedly caused by the opening of your pores, which allows dirt, toxins, and other nasties to be carried away in your sweat. “Sweating can help [your] body purge dirt, oil, and other particulate matter that deposit on the skin,” says dermatologist Keira Barr, MD. She also notes that infrared saunas fall into the category of “low-level light therapy,” which is sometimes used to treat acne, psoriasis, and eczema.
Generally, infrared saunas are considered to be pretty safe. “So long as you are healthy, [infrared saunas] have almost no risk and certainly will help give you a good sweat,” says Dr. Zeichner. This does come with some caveats, of course. “Overuse can cause overheating and dehydration,” says Katie Kaps, co-founder, and co-CEO of HigherDOSE. She recommends people consult their doctor before trying an infrared sauna if they’re pregnant, have a heart condition, or are taking any medication. The same goes for people with low blood pressure or kidney disease. Dr. Barr also recommends talking to your doctor if you have any condition that impacts your ability to sweat or tolerate heat.
Although I’m still left with as many questions as I have answers about infrared saunas and if they *actually* work, I do know one thing for sure: they create a feeling similar to the endorphin rush you get after working out, only without getting, you know, most of the benefits of working out. You will sweat. Your heart rate will increase. Your skin will enjoy a short-lived #wokeuplikethis glow. Depending on where you go, it will be what feels like a fancy wellness experience.
At a place like HigherDOSE, Berlingeri says you’ll be offered “experience-boosting” elements such as rose water and chilled towels. She also noted that guests can control the heat level in their booth, as well as the color of the light. They also offer Bluetooth hookups, so you can jam to whatever you want during your sweat sesh (which can last anywhere from 25 minutes to an hour.)
To sum it up, infrared saunas do appear to deliver some health benefits, including reduced joint pain and stiffness and improved blood vessel function. But infrared saunas can’t do what many people hope: they can’t “detox” your body, help you lose weight faster, boost your immune system, or prevent cancer. If you’re looking for a new way to defrost this winter, give it a try. Just have realistic expectations before you go and pay a dollar a minute to sweat—I hear they can get pretty pushy on the multiple session packages.
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This particular blanket sauna is beloved by celebs and skincare lovers alike. It’s a high-end, yet relatively reasonable investment to make if you want an infrared sauna that is also conveniently a blanket. You don’t have to deal with major storage issues, it is easily stored, and works beautifully.
This isn’t just your average infrared blanket. The HeatHealer has 96 smooth jade and tourmaline stones that perfectly distribute heat with maximum infrared emissivity and EMF blocking technology. While it’s helping to detoxify and burn calories, it’s also relieving aches and pains, and restoring your energy from the inside out.
For those looking to make a major investment, the Sunlighten sauna is a great choice. It comes at a steep price point, but it is a high-quality sauna bed that comes pretty close to the spa experience.
This pop-up sauna comes with a chair so you can sit comfortably in your home while getting your rays on. If you’ve got the space, then the middling price point of this home spa might be right for you.
You’ll think you’re at your local Korean spa with this gorgeous infrared sauna. It’s the most aesthetically pleasing of all the at-home sauna situations but also happens to be the priciest.
This single-person seated sauna is the most affordable of the bunch and has hundreds of rave reviews on Amazon.
Compared to other options on this list, this sauna blanket is the most discreet—and personally, I find it the most aesthetic. While the price tag is still high, if I was to commit to an infrared sauna (like I said, still on the fence), this is the one I’d be after. RollingStone and Real Simple agree.
This post was originally published on November 26, 2019, and has since been updated.