Infrared Sauna Benefits, Risks, Reviews, Misconceptions, and Lies
The infrared sauna market has always been a hotbed for sensationalist claims, defenders of Finnish traditions, and deceptive sales tactics. The “too good to be true” marketing has caused a lot of skepticism and equally sensationalist negative claims about infrared sauna dangers.
By being mindful of false marketing claims, you can avoid buying from a deceptive sauna company that clearly doesn’t have your best interests in mind. Let’s start by trying to clear up some common misconceptions.
Infrared saunas don’t:
- Infrared saunas don’t necessarily detox any better than traditional saunas. There is a common claim on infrared marketing materials that infrared saunas detox 7x better than traditional saunas. Another version of the same claim is that infrared saunas cause you to sweat 20% toxins while traditional saunas cause you to sweat 3% toxins. This common claim is either not sourced, or sources a book that doesn’t say that at all. This is explored in a very funny Atlantic article called ‘Infrared Saunas Will Not Detoxify You’ where they talk to the authors of the falsely quoted book and peddlers of the false claim.
- Infrared saunas don’t increase Vitamin D or cure vitamin D deficiency. Your skin needs exposure to UVB rays, not Infrared, to create vitamin D. Unlike tanning beds, infrared saunas have no UV rays (which is a good thing) and thus your body does not create vitamin D while using the infrared sauna. Though it may improve your mood, an infrared sauna is not an alternative to getting in the sun or taking supplements.
- Infrared saunas don’t emit microwaves. Infrared waves are in an entirely different spectrum between microwaves and visible light and have no known negative effects. In fact, the waves are very similar (or exactly the same in biophoton saunas) to those emitted by human body heat. Infrared technology is considered so safe for humans that it is often used in neonatal units to regulate baby temperatures.
- Infrared saunas don’t have much research to back up the long list of health claims. Almost all scientific studies showing health benefits are done with traditional saunas that reach much higher temperatures and have humidity and social aspects.
- Infrared saunas don’t cause cancer, as far as we know. There may be a small cancer risk due to EMF radiation over time, but that is no different than EMF exposure through other electronics, WIFI, Cell Phone Towers, Power Lines, etc. More on this below. If you are concerned about EMF levels, check out the recommendations below for for saunas that don’t emit harmful EMFs. Some can even block outside EMFs to give your body a break while taking a sauna. If you are concerned about EMFs, we recommend this EMF reader to test your sauna while you can still return it.
Infrared saunas do:
- NEAR infrared saunas do heat skin directly with infrared waves. FAR infrared saunas have always made this claim, but most of the heat comes from convection which is why you need to wait for a FAR infrared sauna to heat up. NEAR infrared saunas like SaunaSpace can be used immediately.
- Infrared saunas do heat skin mostly with infrared radiation waves. With a quality infrared sauna, this can result in a deeper feeling of warmth and cause faster and more intense sweating.
- Infrared saunas do allow people with heart conditions who should not enter a traditional sauna get some benefits of sauna with less risk.
- All FAR infrared saunas do have some levels EMFs (more on this below) which can be dangerous.
- Infrared saunas do require direct line of sight between the heater and skin to get the benefits. This may require rotating to ‘cook’ different parts of the body.
What is an infrared sauna?
An infrared sauna is an inclosed space with a device designed to turn electrical current into infrared waves that create heat when they penetrate skin.
The infrared waves are just below the visible spectrum of light. Just like visible light, microwave, RF, ultraviolet, and X-rays, infrared waves are a form of radiation. Infrared waves are used by nature and humans to directly move energy at the speed of light from the sun, fires, and radiators.
Radiation doesn’t have to be highly techie, anything that’s hot radiates heat to cooler things. In fact, human bodies radiate infrared heat to cooler objects.
How Do Infrared Saunas Work?
Infrared radiation waves are not heat, but wave energy that can become heat when it interacts with an object. That’s why sunlight can travel at the speed of light to earth without heating up the space it travels through. Sunlight does not create heat until it interacts with an object on earth.
Infrared saunas create these waves by passing an electrical current through ceramic or carbon, manipulating the heater to emit infrared waves.
When infrared radiation hits your body, molecules in your skin speed up and your skin heats up. The heat causes your body to sweat and react in ways that may be beneficial and relaxing.
However, while infrared manufacturers like to pretend infrared radiation is the only way their saunas heat the body, that is never completely true, and often misleading.
For instance, JNH claims their popular Far infrared saunas (FIR) warm objects without warming the air. The claim is easily debunked by the fact that their saunas reach 140 degrees, and most users report they have to preheat them before using them or they won’t sweat.
If the sauna was purely working by radiating your skin, it wouldn’t have to heat the room first to cause you to sweat. So what’s going on here?
Radiation is one of three kinds of heat transfer along with convection (heat transfer through air movement) and conduction (heat transfer through materials).
Almost all heat transfer in real life involves at least two of the three kinds of heat transfer, so the lines between infrared and traditional saunas are not as simple as radiant heat vs. convection.
In fact, radiant heat from rocks is the primary mode of heat transfer in traditional saunas and convection is a significant factor in infrared saunas.
Traditional (non-infrared) saunas heat rocks using fire or electric heating elements, and the rocks themselves heat the surrounding air through radiation and convection as air passes through the rock pile. The convection can be supercharged by dropping water on the rocks and creating steam. This type of sauna has been around for thousands of years.
Infrared Saunas are designed to heat your body directly through infrared radiant heat, as opposed to convection or steam in traditional saunas. This can be misleading though, as heat transfer is almost always a mixture of radiation, convection, and conduction.
In fact, if you only know one thing about infrared saunas (that infrared saunas penetrate the skin), chances are that it’s wrong, or misleading at best. Depending on the wavelength and technology – most infrared saunas (FIR, or Far Infrared Saunas) penetrate your skin only a few millimeters and primarily work through convection, just like traditional saunas.
That’s why most Far Infrared Saunas (FIR) take time to heat the room and even more time to cause sweating.
Near infrared saunas, on the other hand, may penetrate your body 5-7 cm (up to a few inches), and will heat your body and start the sweating process within a minute or two, even without preheating.
Our bodies often react to stressors by building capacity to deal with larger stressors in the future. In the case of weightlifting, our bodies build muscles in targeted areas to be able to lift more next time. In the sauna, our bodies react to the heat in various ways to cool down core body temperature and reach homeostasis. Just like muscles grow to handle future weight lifting sessions, the body becomes conditioned to deal with future heat stress.
Benefits of Traditional and Infrared Saunas
The physiological benefits of saunas come from hyperthermic conditioning, which is defined by Dr. Rhonda Patrick as a generalized physiological tolerance to stress through heat acclimation.
The physiological adaptations that come from hyperthermic conditioning (ie sauna use) can improve endurance and help build muscle mass. The amazing thing is these benefits can come from sauna use with or without an exercise program.
The endurance effects are a result of increased blood flow and oxygen to the muscles, heart, and skin. The increased blood flow charges your skeletal muscles, reduces strain on the heart, and helps the skin lower core body temperature.
In addition, saunas (both infrared and traditional) can affect brain function and chemistry.
For a deeper dive into research-based benefits of sauna use, this video is a good start:
Unique Infrared Sauna Benefits
While Sauna Marketplace exists to share the health and wellness benefits of traditional saunas with rocks, humidity, and Loyly, infrared saunas have some unique advantages and may be the best option for certain people.
Like traditional saunas, infrared saunas stress your body (in a good way) and make you sweat, initiating several beneficial responses akin to a moderate workout. They are also relaxing, relatively inexpensive, and can (but don’t always) deeply penetrate the skin and work faster than traditional saunas.
The benefits of infrared saunas are primarily around convenience, user preference, and desired benefits. Infrared saunas also claim to be better at removing toxins than traditional saunas but there is no data to back that up.
- Don’t take as long to preheat as traditional saunas.
- Can help you sweat at lower temperatures (may be more comfortable)
- Can typically be used by people with heart issues who are advised not to use traditional saunas
- May not require an electrician.
- Cheap to buy and operate
- Won’t cause humidity problems in home, making it a better basement sauna for some homes
Disadvantages of Infrared Saunas
- Not a long history of being safe, unknown risk and benefits
- Doesn’t provide the relaxing, all-sense feeling from Loyly
- Difficult/Impossible to get whole body in one sitting, you’ll need to rotate
Benefit or Disadvantage (Depends On Who You Ask)
- No Humidity
Infrared Sauna risks, dangers, and unknowns
There are also many potential risks and health concerns about infrared saunas that are also largely overstated. Yes, if you were exposed to an early FAR infrared sauna built in the 1960s, you were likely exposed to dangerously high EMF levels from ceramic tube heaters used to produce infrared light. EMF, or electromagnetic fields are a controversial topic but we know that too much exposure can be dangerous.
The tube heaters also posed significant safety hazards from fine lines and cracks in the ceramic heater that could cause fires. The carbon heater technology used today greatly reduces EMFs and fire dangers.
We don’t know much about long term exposure to low EMF levels, and the controversy about whether to regulate and limit exposure is not limited to saunas, but all electronics.
The bigger problem with infrared saunas in they are a relatively new technology there are no studies confirming long term use is safe.
Traditional wood burning saunas have been used for thousands of years, with generations of use cases where people used them over their entire lives with no bad effects. Infrared saunas do not have a long history, and the impacts (both bad and good) of long term use are largely theoretical.
In the words of Donald Rumsfeld, there are known unknowns, and unknown unknowns. It just so happens that Donald Rumsfeld used to wake up at 4:30am to read the newspaper in the sauna, though there appears to be no correlation between sauna use and starting wars.
If you’re considering an infrared sauna, we strongly recommend learning how they work, the basics of EMF (electromagnetic fields), and the difference between Near Infrared Saunas and Far Infrared Saunas.
It’s also important to note that most studies showing benefits of sauna use were done with traditional saunas and cannot necessarily be applied to infrared saunas. Infrared saunas have lower temperature, humidity, and social aspects which could play a role in the benefits.
For instance, the most famous study about sauna benefits is the Kuopio Ischemic Heart Disease Risk Factor (KIHD) Study which provides compelling evidence that frequent sauna use reduces risks of heart disease and all-cause mortality in men. It was done using traditional saunas that reach up to 212 degrees F.
Similarly, the recent study showing sauna use and moderate workouts have similar affects used a traditional sauna. We asked the author of this study, Sascha Ketelhut if the results could be applied to infrared saunas. He said infrared sauna, if they reach similar temperatures, the results should be similar. Since infrared saunas only reach half the temperature, it’s safe to say further studies would be needed to apply these results to infrared saunas.
Infrared Sauna History and EMF (Electromagnetic Field) Risks
It doesn’t always pay to be an early adopter of new technology.
FAR Infrared saunas were invented in Japan in the 1950s, and if you were among the first to use them you had some pretty extreme EMF (electromagnetic fields) exposure.
Electromagnetic Fields occur, to some extent, anytime electricity is generated, distributed, or used. You are exposed to EMF every day from electric wires in your home, power distribution lines, and any electronics you use.
What’s certain, is that too much exposure to EMF is a bad thing. The World Health Organization classifies electromagnetic fields as a possible carcinogen, meaning it may cause cancer and trigger other negative biological effects. However, like most claims about infrared saunas, these studies “only show statistical associations and do not demonstrate causation, and because the evidence from the laboratory is against, the risk is not established, it remains only a possibility.”
New national and international guidelines forced the manufacturers to reduce their EMF level, but they are not yet enforceable in the United States.
Today, many FAR infrared saunas with ceramic panels fraudulently claim they have no EMF, which is simply untrue according to Dr. Joseph Mercola. The manufacturers should “be fined or even go to jail for this,” says Mercola. ” There are probably a few out there that are very low EMF, but the vast majority, maybe even 90% are not.”
Note: If an infrared sauna does not specify whether it is a Near or FAR infrared sauna, it’s probably a FAR infrared sauna.
Most sauna manufacturers are also gaming the system and not measuring the range of electrical fields that could be problematic. They’re only measuring a very narrow spectrum of EMF. Handheld consumer EMF readers are now affordable, and infrared sauna owners often report EMF reading far higher than manufacturer specs. If you have an infrared sauna, we recommend picking up this EMF reader to know your exposure.
There are now national and international guidelines that limit the allowable levels, and all reputable sauna manufacturers fall within these guidelines. However, there is a current debate over whether long-term exposure to these allowable levels is harmful.
Do Infrared Saunas Really Penetrate Your Skin?
The best way to find out if your sauna is penetrating your skin and body is noting how long you need to sit in the sauna before you sweat. If you need to sit in your sauna, or preheat your infrared sauna for 30 minutes before sweating, it’s heating your body primarily through convection and not penetrating your skin very far.
In this case, your sauna is really functioning as a really bad traditional sauna that doesn’t reach proper sauna temperature or have rocks or water.
Near infrared saunas really do penetrate your skin, by a couple of inches. They’re full spectrum heaters in the wavelengths that most benefit you between 600 nanometers to 1100.
Infrared Sauna Reviews
According to one study, 67% of buyers were unhappy with the infrared sauna they purchased online and 59% needed replacement parts within 3 years. You made it this far. If you’re still interested in infrared saunas congratulations, you are an informed buyer and know what to look for. These are the infrared saunas your likely to come across on your search.
1. LOW EMF CHOICE: SaunaSpace Faraday
The SaunaSpace Faraday is the only infrared sauna that does not expose you to potential EMF dangers. Not only does the sauna not emit EMFs, the Faraday actually protects you from outside EMFs giving your body a break from exposure during your sauna therapy. The portable faraday tent distributes charged particles around the exterior to protect what’s inside from certain radiation frequencies that may be harmful.
If you are sensitive to Electromagnetic Fields, some time in the Faraday may be exactly what you need. They offer a 100 day risk free trial.
The Faraday is also portable and can be easily transported and stored making it an excellent choice if you do not have space for a permanent sauna or for renters.
EMF rating = zero mG at 4″
2. BUDGET CHOICE: JNH Lifestyles 2 Person Infrared Sauna
This sauna is the most popular sauna on Amazon and reaches a temperature of 140 making it difficult to know if you are sweating through infrared waves or from traditional convection. Most people preheat it up to 140 degrees before using, so it’s probably a mix of both.
If you’re on a budget and not overly concerned about EMF
EMF rating = JNH claims this sauna is between 2-4 mG at 4″ from the heater but plenty of reviewers have reported much higher levels.
Micron Range = ?
3. Desktop Sauna Choice: SaunaSpace Photon
The SaunaSpace Photon is a convenient way to get some light therapy year round at your desk. It’s used by Jack Dorsey of Twitter, and can be used at home or the office.
To Be Reviewed (coming soon)
- Rocky Mountain Saunas | EMF rating = .6 mG at 1″
- Sunlighten Sauna | EMF Rating = .3 mG at 1″
Other Things to Look Out For Buying Infrared Saunas
Avoid This #1: Cheap Wood Cabinet
The quality of the wood cabinet will likely make up 50% or more of the cost of your infrared sauna, and it’s a tempting area for sauna companies to reduce their costs at your expense.
Low quality wood will warp or crack while many wood products like OSB or OSB off-gas chemicals.
The most common woods used in infrared saunas, including Hemlock, Cedar, and Nordic Spruce are known to off-gas terpenes. This mellows out with age, but you should make sure you like the smell of the wood you choose before buying.
Hemlock is also prone to warping, especially when used as flooring.
Aspen and Poplar do not give off terpenes, but are pricey.
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