Saunas, sweat lodges, steam rooms — we all like a good sweat. It’s relaxing and rejuvenating, not to mention that heat has long been associated with a variety of health benefits across many cultures.
The latest trend causing temperatures to rise — literally — are infrared saunas. Not only are stand-alone infrared sauna studios popping up coast-to-coast, now fitness studios are getting in on the game too, installing saunas in their facilities. Thanks to deep penetrating heat, celebs and wellness aficionados are touting infrared as a better way to detox, relax, relieve pain and lose weight, plus a fast track to better skin.
But is there truth behind the heat or is it just a bunch of hot air? Here’s what you need to know about the infrared sauna craze.
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What’s Your Wavelength?
“It goes through the skin, through the muscles, tendons and subcutaneous layer.”
First, a quick trip back to high school physics class. Infrared light has a longer wavelength than visible light — lying just past red light on the spectrum — and you can’t see it with the naked eye. There are three categories of infrared: near infrared, mid infrared and far infrared.
These new wave saunas use far infrared light to create heat. Unlike traditional saunas, which warm the air around you, these hot boxes use radiant energy to raise your body’s core temperature. “You can feel the sensation below the skin,” says Dr. Michael Hamblin, PhD, Associate Professor at Harvard Medical School and Principal Investigator at the Wellman Center for Photomedicine at Massachusetts General Hospital. “It goes through the skin, through the muscles, tendons and subcutaneous layer.”
The result is vigorous sweating and increased heart rate at a lower temperature — between 100 to 140 degrees compared to the close to 200-degree temperature of a regular sauna. That means the experience won’t be quite as stifling, but you’ll feel plenty hot.
Hospitals have used infrared heating elements in neonatal beds for years to keep newborn babies warm. And if you’ve taken a hot yoga at Y7, then you can thank infrared heat for your sweaty vinyasa flow.
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What the Science Says About Infrared
While you may associate saunas with a relaxing day at the spa, they’ve been used in Europe and Asia for therapeutic purposes for years.
Some studies have found that infrared saunas may be a non-invasive way to treat chronic heart problems, normalize blood pressure and protect against oxidative stress, preventing the narrowing and hardening of your arteries. Other studies have found that infrared heat may improve the quality of life of adults with type 2 diabetes and reduce pain associated with fibromyalgia and rheumatoid arthritis. “Far infrared may be good for pain relief and recovery after exercise, and it may have anti-inflammatory effects,” says Dr. Hamblin.
“This concept of detoxing is not based on any scientific fact.”
However, despite the potential benefits of infrared sauna use, most of the human studies are small and offer inconclusive evidence, including its long-term effects. Scientists aren’t sure exactly how it works and what changes it makes in the body. Plus, it’s unclear that infrared heat is any better than traditional therapies.
Take pain management, for example. According to Dr. Houman Danesh, Director of Integrative Pain Management at Mount Sinai Hospital, infrared heat can be helpful for joint pain. “Heat and ice are pretty superficial and they don’t get into the joint as much as infrared therapy,” he says, which a physical therapist can apply through pads placed over the intended area. “That being said, heat and ice usually give adequate relief.” For the majority of aches and pains, Dr. Danesh recommends sticking with tried-and-true heat and ice treatment, stretching and a visit to the physical therapist in lieu of infrared therapy.
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As for Infrared sauna studios’ biggest claim to fame that the deep penetrating heat will make you sweat 20 times more and wring out heavy metal toxins, giving you a better detox? Dr. Hamlin says that’s just not true. “This concept of detoxing is not based on any scientific fact,” he says. Sweating is one of your body’s primary ways of regulating temperature. Instead, it’s your liver and kidneys that have the task of removing waste from your body, and they do a pretty good job on their own.
Infrared Saunas: The Real Deal or Total Burn?
OK, we admit that infrared saunas can feel good. If you find heat therapy soothing and relaxing, you can give it a try. Just don’t pack your bags and move in. “You can overdo anything,” says Dr. Hamblin. “If you overdo something, it generally has less of an effect.” So maybe stick with an occasional 15 to 30-minute session, says Dr. Hamblin. And since you’re likely to work up a sweat, don’t forget to hydrate.
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If you have a heart condition, or are pregnant or sick, this may not be the right treatment for you. Be sure to consult your doctor beforehand.
Dr. Danesh also cautions against using infrared therapy to self-treat a chronic condition. “I don’t think that this should be done in spas. It should be done under the supervision of a healthcare practitioner like a physical therapist if you’re interested in it. It’s part of a multimodal approach to treating an issue,” says Dr. Danesh. “I think trying to take one tool out of a toolbox and use it for everything isn’t necessarily the best approach.”
Bottom line: Dr. Danesh advises caution. He likens infrared saunas to tanning beds. “We didn’t know certain complications like skin cancer [would arise] when used so frequently,” he says. “If you do this three times a week on your own, over your entire body, what can happen? No one knows.”