If you follow the wellness trends, you may come up with the statement that an infrared sauna that heats the body with light is better for you than a traditional sauna that uses radiant heat from the stove.
In short, this statement is a myth and is not supported by any strong comparative evidence. Despite the differences between infrared and traditional saunas, the limited evidence we have suggests that both types of saunas are good for your health.
Why saunas are really good for your health
One of two things is usually suggested: that the type of heat generated by infrared radiation leads to stronger detoxifying effects; or that a lower temperature is more convenient, which leads to a longer stay and, consequently, more effect.
Regarding the first statement, there is no evidence that detoxification is the main reason you feel good after a sauna. Isolation of heavy metals may have a therapeutic advantage in limited cases, but it is unclear how well this sauna reaches, or whether there is any significant difference between traditional and infrared in this regard.
The second statement – that lower infrared temperature makes it more efficient than a traditional sauna – can be applied at the level of personal preference, but does not have scientific support.
Traditional Sauna: Overview
Saunas are at least 2000 years old, and they have been a popular social activity in many cultures. The European type has become a traditional sauna, which we know today – a room with wooden walls and a large stove. The defining characteristic is the use of water to create steam over a pile of hot rocks.
Today, traditional saunas can be heated with fire, gas or, most often, electricity. They usually heat between 70º-90ºC. The standard practice is to sit in heat for 10–20 minutes, take a break (including a dip in cold water, if any), and then return to the sauna; sometimes repeating the cycle several times.
Curious children: What happens in the body when we sweat?
After decades of scattered research, the Finnish team recently discovered associations between regular bathing in a sauna and positive results in areas such as cardiovascular diseases, blood pressure, respiratory diseases, and even dementia. Their largest study was based on a cohort of 2,315 middle-aged men with a 20-year follow-up period. The average temperature was 77ºC, and the best results were observed for the participants who used the sauna more often (four times a week or more).
Although the exact mechanisms have not yet been understood, the researchers suggest that the physical effects of the sauna, including heart rate, blood pressure, and cellular response, have similar benefits observed during regular exercise.
How to compare the infrared sauna?
Infrared technology is not new, but the infrared sauna has gained popularity in recent decades. Modern infrared sauna, designed to look like traditional saunas, includes heating panels in the walls (without a stove). The ambient temperature is usually much lower, from 40º to 60ºC. However, the penetrating nature of infrared heat makes you sweat profusely, and your thermostatic system responds in a similar (but not identical) way.
As a rule, you will start to sweat quickly, but lower temperatures mean lower pulse. Sessions in the infrared sauna can last about 30-45 minutes. This is why some people find it more convenient and potentially safer.
However, a traditional sauna often involves several cycles of heat, so it is easy to accumulate 45 minutes (or longer) between breaks. Higher temperatures also accelerate exercise. For example, the positive results obtained in recent studies in Finland include many people, whose sessions usually last only 10–20 minutes.
Infrared sauna is also less social. Although some infrared devices are built for more than one person, the tendency is to individual bathing.
Any sauna is better than a sauna
While the infrared spectrum is gaining popularity, research is scarce, and the vast majority of published research is associated with a traditional sauna (which itself is limited in terms of convincing evidence).
The closest thing we have to comparative evidence is a recent systematic review – the first to compare the research of both traditional and infrared saunas. This review concludes that all the positive results observed in an infrared sauna simply reinforce what is already known about the traditional sauna.
Much remains to be learned about the health benefits of saunas. At the same time, the message about returning home is to use any sauna you like. Try different things and listen to your body. Perhaps you prefer the calm, private, softer nature of the infrared sauna. Or perhaps you prefer a more complete sensory experience with a traditional sauna, including heat, steam, smell, and people.
In any case, after that you will feel good. So go out there and start sweating.