We’ve been intrigued with the infrared saunas popping up across the country with promises to help you burn calories, 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 glowing skin a 30-minute session seems to elicit. It’s also a favorite of the Kardashians, various Real Housewives, Dr. Oz, Gwyneth Paltrow, and Chelsea Handler.
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 — 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 infared saunas.
How do infared saunas work?
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 we can feel it as heat,) “to directly heat your body,” says New York-based dermatologist Joshua Zeichner, MD.
This heating up of the body happens gradually, which results in a “vigorous, effective sweat at a lower, more comfortable temperature,” says Lauren Berlingeri, a holistic nutritionist and co-founder of HigherDOSE.
What are the health benefits?
- better sleep
- 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
Infrared sauna companies like HigherDOSE claim to produce these results at lower temperatures than a regular sauna, which makes 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 wide-spread studies about the possible benefits of infrared saunas leaves us to sort through the claims made by the companies who 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 sauna can benefit your health in a few ways.
While all the claims behind infrared sauna as a miracle experience certainly don’t hold up, a small number of them do. Here’s what we could find:
Myth: Infrared Saunas Detox Your Body
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 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.
“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,” she says.
Truth: Infrared Saunas Reduce Joint Pain
Truth: Infrared Saunas Improve Cardiovascular Health
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, and research shows that infrared sauna may improve your blood vessels’ ability to expand and adapt to changes in blood pressure.Scientists aren’t sure about the mechanisms in 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 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.
Maybe: Infrared Saunas Enhance Muscle Recovery
A few small studies have shown that infrared saunas can enhance recovery after strength and endurance training by improving neural recovery. Like most of the research with infrared saunas, these studies have major flaws– small sample sizes, no blinding, and results that haven’t been consistently replicated – so we just don’t know yet if infrared sauna can actually improve post-workout recovery or not.
Truth: Infrared Saunas Improve Your Skin
According to some, 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.
Myth: Infrared Saunas Fight Cancer
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, but there’s absolutely no evidence to support any of these claims.
Generally, infrared spas 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 New York-based dermatologist Joshua Zeichner, MD.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 usually recommends people consult their doctor before trying an infrared sauna if they’re pregnant, have a heart condition, or are taking any medication. 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.
Are they worth it?
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 up, infrared saunas do appear to deliver some health benefits, including reduced joint pain and stiffness and improved blood vessel function, but it can’t do what many people hope: it 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.