I Tried Infrared Saunas. Here’s What I Learned.
For athletes, infrared saunas are becoming the go-to in fitness recovery. Our writer decided to find out what the new trend is all about, how it works and if the health benefits are worth the hype.
I’m stark naked, curled up in a small wooden box just large enough to hold my 5’3’’ frame at SpiritWay Wellness Health and MedSpa near Vail, CO. Sweat beads across my upper lip and trickles down the small of my back. My heart throbs in my ears. Nine black infrared panels behind lattice wood surround me emitting 144°F heat, while a calming spa playlist ripples over bluetooth. An LED chromotherapy light above me flashes through the color spectrum: red to yellow to blue to green to violet. I close my eyes, breathe deeply, clear my mind and embrace the warmth.
Sweat-based therapies are far from new. Ancient Greeks and Romans religiously roasted in bathhouses; sweat lodges were critical to Mesoamerican culture; and in Finland, the capital of sweating, there are more saunas than cars. What’s new, however, is the rise of infrared saunas, a fresh take on the traditional therapy that can now be found in U.S. spas, sports clinics and homes. Pro athletes and weekend warriors alike are purchasing these pop-up recovery tools for around $4,000. They’re a favorite of celebrities and have been enthusiastically featured in trendy publications.
Infrared saunas use infrared light—similar to sunlight sans UV rays—to increase the body’s core temperature, raise sweat rate and improve blood flow, which in turn supports the removal of metabolic waste in the body (a.k.a. "detoxification"). Operating at temperatures 50 to 70°F lower than the typical 200°F of traditional saunas, infrared saunas are based on the premise that lower heat allows for longer sessions, and this in turn will deliver pain relief, better sleep, clearer complexion, enhanced immunity, euphoria, relaxation and mental clarity. Sounds too good to be real. So is it?
Truth be told, I prefer a hot tub over a hot box, but I decided to give infrared saunas a try partly to expand my comfort zone and partly to see if it could help with a hip injury that has sent me on a personal quest for the latest therapies in total-body wellness. I’m nursing a torn right pectineus, a small, but critical hip flexor that I popped while training for a 30km trail race last summer. Even after dry needling and physical therapy, it's still tweaky. I’ve spent several months exploring therapies that promise healing—from massage to yoga to essential oils . Infrared saunas? Sure, why not.
How Infrared Saunas Work
There are two kinds of infrared saunas: Near infrared radiation (NIR) and far infrared radiation (FIR). NIR emits shorter infrared wavelengths at lower temperatures so users can withstand longer sessions. FIR emits longer waves and operates at slightly higher temperatures, though still lower than traditional saunas. According to a 2015 study , FIR saunas may be preferable for the body’s neuromuscular system as a recovery tool from intense endurance performance.
Infrared saunas are actually similar to exercise in that they increase cardiovascular output and blood flow while lowering blood pressure. “Studies have shown that patients who regularly use a sauna for five to seven days have improved things like lipid profiles, fitness parameters and cardiac disease risk,” says Michael Fredericson, M.D., director of the Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation Program at Stanford University Medical Center’s Orthopedic Surgery department. “In addition, there’s a lot of talk about infrared saunas eliminating environmental toxins.” The big question, says Fredericson, is how saunas, versus a tough, sweaty workout, impact the body’s recovery process. In exercise, the body goes into fight-or-flight mode while breaking into a sweat. But a sauna environment triggers the body’s parasympathetic nervous system (also called the “rest response”), promoting relaxation as you perspire. Different mechanisms, but the same sweaty result, make it unclear whether saunas do any better job than exercise would.
Luke Greenberg, a physical therapist and co-founder of MOTIV NY agrees. He believes the greatest benefit of infrared saunas is their use of targeted heat exposure to remove toxins without subjecting people to their fight-or-flight mode. But, he admits, “To me, the scientific evidence is somewhat compelling, but not rock solid.”
Using Colors to Heal
After my first infrared experience, I went to check out Vail Valley Wellness for another dose. Vail Valley, like most infrared saunas, uses chromotherapy lights to enhance the infrared experience. These lights use the visible spectrum of electromagnetic radiation (a.k.a. colors) to allegedly help heal diseases. “Because chromotherapy emits a different wavelength for each color used, you are basically doubling-down on wavelength therapy,” says Becky Burgess, owner of Vail Valley Wellness . “You can use different colors to change the wavelength and customize your healing beyond pre-set programs.”
Inside the sauna, I could select which color of light I wanted according to what benefit I needed. I chose red, described in the spa handout as perfect for people who are “temperamental and ambitious with a need for personal freedom” (sounds like someone I know). Red light also causes hemoglobin in your blood to multiply, according to the spa, and increases energy while releasing muscle stiffness.
While I can’t vouch for my hemoglobin count, I felt happily stoned driving home from my infrared session. I asked Fredericson what happened in my body physiologically to induce such feel-good vibes. “We know growth hormone and beta-endorphins, which produce a pleasure response, increase with both exercise and sauna use,” says Fredericson. He suspects infrared advocates claim emotional benefits because a sauna environment, unlike exercise, adds a layer of calm and serenity. “Through breathing and the stimulation of natural hormones from the heat, you’re going to feel more relaxed.”
What About Detox?
Despite the marketing buzz over the detoxing your body goes through in an infrared sauna, the term is misleading, says Iñigo San Millán, Ph.D., an assistant professor of sports medicine at the University of Colorado School of Medicine. “Detox refers to your body’s natural metabolic process,” says Millán. “So I have a problem hearing infrared sauna users talk about toxins, because although detoxifying sounds cool, what are you going to detox that isn’t already happening naturally?”
In fact, what you’re basically doing is sweating—a lot. And no matter how you spin it, sweat is mostly salt and water, with trace amounts of sodium, potassium, magnesium and calcium. “People think sweating is the way to get rid of toxins,” says Millán. “But sweating is nothing more than the body’s physiological way to dissipate heat. Nothing more, period.”
It’s true, waste products like lactate from lactic acid (the sore sensation from working out) need to circulate so the body can metabolize and remove them. But it is increased blood flow, not sweat, that helps move these toxins through your system—and while infrared saunas may increase blood flow, so do a lot of other things like massage and compression socks, notes Millán, a fitness consultant for the U.S. Olympic Committee and U.S. Rowing National Team. Even without outside help, the body is naturally in a constant cycle of detoxifying and metabolizing, he says. When it comes to the need for infrared saunas, he isn’t sold.
“I wouldn’t say infrared saunas are a game-changer to recovery. By no means are they the holy grail,” says Millán. While infrared saunas can help with marginal recovery gains, he believes, sleep hygiene, solid nutrition and individualized training programs are the central keys to metabolic recovery. Like a lot of new trends , saunas are nice, but not necessary.
Greenberg agrees that the wellness industry would be wise to shift the conversation away from the concept of detox. “It implies that a person is full of poison, which generally is false,” says Greenberg. “Instead of needing detox, what people really need is a combination of exercise , sleep, and lifestyle modification.” Infrared saunas can help with improving your health, but they won't be the solution.
My read? It’s nice to sit, warm and quiet, wrapped in white towels, sucking down alkaline water in a zero-cellphone zone. It’s blissfully relaxing and rejuvenating in a primitive sort of way, and makes me feel healthier—even if I haven’t done a thing. As for my hip flexor, it feels—maybe, slightly—a bit better. Whether that’s thanks to the sauna, or time and continued rehab, is hard to say. What I’m certain of, however, is that those feel-good vibes from the heat linger long after sauna sessions end. So while infrared may not be the cure-all for my physical pain, I’m sold on its ability to soothe my mental ones.