Q: How do infrared saunas differ from regular saunas, and do they have special health benefits?
A: Traditional saunas use a wood stove or electric heater to heat the air, which indirectly heats the body. In contrast, infrared saunas use radiant heat (energy beyond the wavelength of visible light) to heat the body directly. Infrared heat penetrates more deeply than warm air, and it allows you to sweat in a lower, more comfortable room temperature, compared to a conventional sauna.
An increasing number of spas and health clubs offer infrared saunas. Home models cost several hundred to several thousand dollars.
Many claims are made for saunas in general—that they remove toxins, cure disease, boost immunity, help in weight loss—with little if any scientific support. Advocates of infrared saunas claim even greater effects in reducing pain, stress, fatigue, blood pressure and cholesterol, among other benefits.
A 2009 review published in the Canadian Family Physician concluded that there is “fair evidence” (based on one study) for the use of infrared sauna in chronic pain, “inconsistent data” that it helps with weight loss or blood sugar contro and “no evidence” that it reduces cholesterol. The best evidence—though still very preliminary—is for its use in congestive heart failure and for lowering blood pressure. But it’s hard to do double-blind controlled studies of any sauna treatment, so a placebo effect can’t be ruled out.
If you like it, a sauna may help you relax, both physically and mentally, but it is certainly not “your lazy way to perfect health,” as one website advertises. It’s safe for healthy people, but if you are pregnant or have a heart or circulatory problem—especially unstable angina or a recent heart attack—talk to your doctor first. You should not use any sauna if have a fever, have been drinking alcohol or are prone to fainting.
By the way, there’s no evidence that saunas “detoxify” the body. The function of sweating is to cool the body, while the kidneys and liver eliminate toxins. And don’t believe claims that using a sauna is the equivalent of engaging in aerobic exercise because it raises your heart rate.