Are Infrared Saunas Worth the Hype?
For the past few years, sauna studios have been popping up in many metro areas. Their sleek storefronts nestle into cute strip malls next to Pilates studios, coffeehouses and smoothie shops, intriguing both fitness addicts and anyone drawn to a good aesthetic.
It’s impossible to pass by the beautifully painted windows listing desirable health benefits like: detoxification, clearer skin, relaxation, weight loss and boosted immunity (just to name a few) without it piquing serious curiosity.
Like, I can literally sit down and walk out thinner, more relaxed and with cover girl skin?! Sign me up!
But, hold the phone.
With so many health crazes out there, and countless ways to waste money hoping the latest trend works, it’s worth doing some due diligence before dropping $39-$60 per sweat sesh. (Yep, you read that right). What some people pay for an entire month’s gym membership, other’s are dropping on just one 40-minute #omgthisishot session.
So What Is Infrared Sauna Therapy?
There’s nothing new about saunas. They trace back to 7000 BC in Finland, where even today, nearly every household owns one. (So in a country of 5 million, there are 3 million saunas!). In fact, many cultures deem saunas a necessity, not a luxury.
An infrared sauna is not a steam room, nor is it the old school “pour some water on hot rocks” type of yesteryear. What makes it special is HOW it heats your body, rather than the room itself.
According to an article by Dr. Michael Ruscio, a gut health expert and doctor of natural medicine, conventional saunas heat the air to high temperatures ranging from 176 to over 200°F. The air is heated first, and then your skin. Eventually, your core temperature rises.
In comparison, infrared saunas usually heat up to between 115 to 150°F. So up to 85 degrees cooler!
He goes on to say,” Infrared saunas work by emitting infrared radiation or light. These wavelengths of infrared light directly penetrate the skin, heating your body directly without significantly heating up the air.”
Claims vs. Science
According to the Mayo Clinic, “The appeal of saunas in general is that they cause reactions similar to those elicited by moderate exercise, such as vigorous sweating and increased heart rate.”
That’s probably why they tout that sauna-goers can burn between 200-600 calories per session.
“Several studies have looked at using infrared saunas in the treatment of chronic health problems, such as high blood pressure, congestive heart failure, dementia and Alzheimer’s disease, headache, type 2 diabetes and rheumatoid arthritis, and found some evidence of benefit.” But take that with a large grain of salt, as the article goes on to state that larger and more-rigorous studies are needed to confirm these results.
So beyond all the marketed benefits of sauna studios, from improved sleep to weight loss, relaxation (sign me up!) and even mood improvement… how can you separate the claims from the science? Well, first things first, one thing rings true from all the studies we reviewed and user feedback: there isn’t really a downside to sauna therapy (unless, of course, you mind being hot).
So let’s dive into what a good, hardcore sweat session can do for your body. And of course, you can do this via exercise too, but we’re all about #options to switch up your routine (we do not recommend replacing the sauna for your workout regime though!).
Getting your sweat on also means you’re getting your heart rate up and dilating your blood vessels. Research suggests that this contributes to lower blood pressure, improves lipid levels, and improves artery health. This may also increase endurance in athletes.
Heat encourages your blood vessels to dilate, which brings more blood flow to the muscles. The blood delivers oxygen and nutrients to muscle fibers, helping with recovery and repair after a workout.
The kidneys and liver are the stars of detox in the body. However, one of the most ancient beliefs about sauna use is that when you sweat, you excrete toxins from the largest organ in your body: your skin.
According to Northern Saunas, the most common toxic elements that could be excreted through sweat include:
Heavy Metals (mercury in fish, cadmium in cigarettes & automobile exhaust, lead & arsenic)BPA – Bisphenol A (Endocrine disruptor found in plastics, food packaging, beverage can lining)Phthalates (Hormonal disruptor, lowering testosterone found in soft plastic, beauty products, soaps & creams)
The science is conflicting on this one – a few smaller studies show evidence of toxins like these in the sweat, but most experts agree that we need more studies to back up this claim.
Sleep and Relaxation
In terms of sleep (which is one of the most critical pieces to overall health), sauna usage relaxes the muscular system, which releases tension. If you time your session right, like a few hours before bed, the muscle relaxation triggers the brain and tells it that it’s ready to go to sleep. So if you suffer from insomnia, anxiety or stress, a simple 4o minute session, over time, might help.
This option is far safer than popping over the counter sleep aids because it’s all natural, non habit-forming and provides the body with something it craves (and deserves!).
Is the Celeb Hype Real?
It’s only fair to ask this question when you start seeing mega stars on Instagram like Gwyneth Paltrow, Zac Efron, Cindy Crawford, Selena Gomez and the Kardashians posing from inside their #clearlightsaunas100. Like, do you really love it Gwen? Or are you a spokesperson? Just checking before I buy a membership, k?
Turns out, these stars, and millions of sauna devotees, genuinely use, love and believe in the healing benefits. Lady Gaga credits hers to reducing her chronic pain and Fibromyalgia. She stated on Instagram, “I still deal with bone inflammation from my hip injury two years ago. But I keep control of pain with infrared sauna. A great investment for everyone. I use mine every day.”
Personally, I’m a Fan, and Here’s Why:
It’s 45 minutes of self-care I’d never otherwise carve out for myself. In fact, I loved my sauna membership so much, I ended up buying a sauna for my home. I found I craved the post-workout sweat (followed by the glow) so much, I wanted 24/7 access.
In addition to feeling calmer after each session, my body became warm and primed for stretching (something I used to loathe but began craving after the sauna).
I’m not sure if it’s a placebo effect or not, but the days I hit the heat I just feel better overall. I sleep better. I feel cleansed from the inside out. I’m mentally sharp (perhaps due to all of the podcasts and books I consume during my sessions) and feel as physically energized as when I hit the weights really hard.
I will say, after buying my sauna, I tended to use it slightly less than when I had my membership. That’s because my sauna takes an hour to heat up, and I often missed my ideal sauna-window due to logistics. Something about scheduling my visits at a sauna studio makes the experience feel luxurious, and like a treat. (Not to mention the chilled eucalyptus towels they provide).
So, just know there are pros and cons to buying a home sauna, and that starting with a membership to see how you like it is definitely the way to go! Check Groupon for deals, or simply ask your local spot if they have any upcoming package deals. They usually do around the holidays and before summer.
Prepping For An Infrared Sauna Session
First of all, be aware of health conditions that don’t pair well with sauna use, and consult with your health provider. If you decide to give it a go, book a session online by Googling “infrared saunas near me.” Perspire is a well known chain, but there are several independent places popping up all across the country.
Alternatively, there are several at-home contraptions you can invest in: either your own full-sized box, or dozens of portable versions.
What You Need To Know:
Since you’ll be a hot sweaty mess afterward, make sure you show up wearing something that’s easy to put back on. Wearing your tightest sports bra and tights present challenges when redressing while you’re soaking wet.
Throw that hair up in a bun girl, or else it’ll be all wet and sticking to your back.
Get in makeup-free! The last thing you want is smeared mascara all over your face or clogged pores from your foundation.
Bring a large bottle of ice water in with you, and make sure you have a couple of towels; one for the floor, and one to sit on.
Start out a bit easy by only staying in for 20-30 of the recommended 40 minutes, or keeping the temperature on the lower side. Over time, your tolerance increases.
If you can lay back and relax, do it! Catch up on some Netflix and *try* to chill. Yes, it’ll be hot. But just like a good workout, it feels amazingly invigorating when it’s done.
When you leave, you’ll be sweaty with rosy cheeks and a dewy facial glisten. Most people say their skin feels clean and clear after a session. Bring a face wipe and then bask in your gorgeous, “I woke up like this” glow.
Hydrate long after the session ends. And consider throwing some electrolytes into your water.
So…Worth the Hype?
Will sauna-ing clear up your breakouts, reduce wrinkles and help you lose weight? The jury is still out. Let’s just say: don’t swap your workouts for a sauna hoping for an equivalent calorie burn.
But are regular sauna sessions worth a try? Absolutely! If you have the time and extra money, and like experimenting, you just might find it’s the perfect accompaniment to your health and beauty routine.
The bottom line is (as with most things related to health and fitness), different strokes for different folks. You might feel better than ever, or, not notice enough of a difference to shell out the money.
If nothing else, there’s no denying the relaxation. You know that post-beach day feeling after a long day in the sun and ocean? That’s kind of what you feel like after a 40-minute session. Your muscles are warm, your circulation is pumping, and your body feels rested. And if you focus on a good book or binge-worthy show rather than answering dozens of emails, your mental state might get a boost too.
Call it placebo, therapy, a necessity or just time to unplug…if you love it, do more of it. Best case scenario: you receive all of the listed benefits. Worst case, you’re down $40 but walk away with a glow and saying you gave it a try.