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Infrared Sauna: Dangers and Benefits

The fact that saunas have been used for centuries as a part of an overall healthy lifestyle may say something about their value and usefulness. However, it’s also important to understand the risks associated with infrared saunas.

What is an infrared sauna?

An infrared sauna, like a traditional or dry-heat sauna, uses heat to help you sweat, relieve muscle soreness, rest, and relax. The difference is the method used. Traditional saunas heat the air in the room up to 150–190 degrees Fahrenheit, while infrared saunas use electromagnetic radiation.

In a dry-heat sauna, the heat is generated through electricity or wood, and some produce steam by throwing water onto heated rocks. Traditional saunas are very hot, reaching temperatures of 180–190 degrees Fahrenheit. They are also free of moisture, with humidity levels as low as 10 to 20 percent.

An infrared sauna works by using infrared lamps that release electromagnetic radiation to directly heat the body. The two kinds of infrared saunas, near-infrared and far-infrared, also emit small amounts of red, orange, and yellow light, which is considered light therapy.

One of the many reasons infrared saunas have become so popular is because the wavelengths can penetrate tissue to heat the body instead of heating the air like traditional saunas do.

You can use an infrared sauna at a health or fitness center or you can purchase your own. At home, you can install a permanent sauna or set up a portable infrared sauna for more flexibility. 

How does an infrared sauna work?

With a different heating mechanism and more purported benefits than a regular sauna, an infrared sauna experience differs from a traditional sauna sweat session in several key ways.  

Infrared saunas use electromagnetic radiation to heat your body. This kind of radiation does not pose the same risks as UV radiation, because the wavelengths are longer and the frequency is much shorter. Infrared saunas do not get as hot as traditional saunas because they do not need to; they typically heat to 120–140 degrees Fahrenheit.

Infrared saunas use electromagnetic radiation to heat your body. This kind of radiation does not pose the same risks as UV radiation, because the wavelengths are longer and the frequency is much shorter.

When you enter an infrared sauna, you will typically sit or lie down on a bench, though some are set up with mats on the floor. You will see the lights from the infrared bulbs that are producing the heat. Sessions typically last up to 30 minutes. Unlike traditional saunas, where the dry, super-hot heat produces immediate sweating, you won’t start to sweat for about 15 minutes or so. But don’t worry, by the end of your session, you’ll be just as drenched as in a typical sauna. Sometimes, you’ll be able to listen to music. Cell phones typically aren’t allowed, as the heat can damage them.  

Benefits of an infrared sauna

Advocates claim that infrared saunas can help you detox, burn calories, lose weight, decrease cellulite, improve blood circulation, reduce muscle and joint pain, and much more. But is the hype real?

There have been some studies that report genuine benefits. In one, a small group of people with chronic fatigue syndrome found their symptoms and mood improved with regular infrared sauna use. In another, the saunas were found to help reduce muscle aches and pains following intense workouts. And one report cited studies suggesting infrared saunas can help lower high blood pressure. There is also a study in the American Journal of Medicine that found that people with a rheumatic disease who go to the sauna had decreased levels of pain and improved joint mobility. 

Generally speaking, infrared saunas can help the body move into rest and relaxation mode.

There is also evidence that infrared saunas can slow aging and boost immune function. For example, regular sauna use during the winter has been shown to help lower the risk of developing colds. The red lights used in near-infrared saunas are said to stimulate elastin and collagen production, improving skin texture.

Generally speaking, infrared saunas can help the body move into rest and relaxation mode. In other words, they can be a big part of a system of stress management. Stress left unchecked can put you at risk for many diseases, and finding practical ways to reduce or manage day-to-day stress is important for a healthy life. Infrared saunas can fill that role. 

Infrared sauna dangers

Although infrared saunas are generally considered safe with no side effects, there are still some potential risks.

As with any sauna, the dangers of infrared saunas include the risk of becoming overheated, dehydrated, or dizzy. You can generally avoid this by drinking enough fluids before and after. And of course, avoid using any drugs or alcohol when trying a sauna.

Some individuals need to use an infrared sauna with caution. Although considered safe and even beneficial for those with heart disease, anyone who has had a recent heart attack or has unstable angina (a condition limiting the amount of blood flow to the heart) should avoid using infrared saunas. 

Are there contraindications to using infrared saunas?

While infrared saunas offer a large number of benefits, there are certain individuals that shouldn’t use them.

Women who are pregnant shouldn’t use saunas because they are more likely to feel warmer overall and as a result may be more susceptible to overheating. A significant rise in body temperature in the early weeks of pregnancy could pose a risk to the baby, so infrared sauna use is not advised. Children are unable to regulate their body temperature by sweating like adults can and for this reason should not use a sauna. 

Women who are pregnant shouldn’t use saunas because they are more likely to feel warmer overall and as a result may be more susceptible to overheating.

Anyone who takes prescription medications or is living with a chronic illness, hypertension, or cardiovascular disease should consult their doctor before using a sauna. Similarly, anyone with any type of metal or silicone implant should speak with their healthcare provider before using an infrared sauna.

While some people report experiencing improvement from flu symptoms after infrared sauna use, common sense would advise avoiding high temperatures when dealing with a high fever or flu. 

The takeaway

Infrared saunas can be a wonderful tool to reduce stress and promote healing and relaxation. While there is limited research about its long-term benefits, plenty of small studies suggest it may indeed have an edge over its traditional, dry-sauna counterpart. As long as you don’t have any condition that would put you at risk, an infrared sauna sweat session could do your body good. 

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