The idea of using a sauna for relaxation is nothing new, but another category of sauna bathing is growing in popularity: infrared saunas.
An infrared sauna is a type of therapy that uses light to heat your body, explains Kelly Simms, ND, a doctor of naturopathic medicine in Chicago. But this light is infrared, which exist on the nonvisible light spectrum, she says.
Infrared sauna therapy is different from traditional Finnish (dry heat) sauna bathing, which heats the air to higher temperatures, ranging from 150 to 195 degrees F. In a dry sauna, your body warms up from the hot air circulating around it. Finnish saunas have the most research behind them, and they may improve heart health and quality of life, among other possible wellness perks, according to a review published in August 2018 in Mayo Clinic Proceedings.
While infrared saunas are in the same general category as dry-heat saunas, they operate using nonvisible light, so the air inside stays at a relatively comfortable 110 to 120 degrees F, Dr. Simms says.
And because an infrared sauna slowly builds heat, you can stay in it longer than a traditional sauna. The proposed health benefits come from the fact that infrared heatd your body directly, and the warmth penetrates more deeply compared to traditional saunas.
At present, more research with larger studies needs to be done on infrared sauna therapy to fully understand all the potential health benefits, especially considering that dry heat and infrared might not affect the body in the same ways.
Still, there is research providing evidence that infrared sauna bathing may support the health and wellness of some individuals.
Possible Health Benefits of Infrared Sauna Therapy
1. May Support Heart Health
One of the reasons why infrared saunas and dry-heat saunas may promote wellness is how each influences your circulation. “The therapy may lead to increased nitric oxide production, which dilates blood vessels and can improve blood flow and circulation,” says Melinda Ring, MD, executive director of the Osher Center for Integrative Health at Northwestern University in Chicago. One study, published in December 2017 in the Journal of Human Hypertension, noted that one 30-minute dry-heat sauna bathing session decreased artery stiffness and improved blood pressure.
Specifically for infrared saunas, one review and meta-analysis of seven studies, published in November 2018 in Clinical Cardiology, found that infrared bathing 15 minutes a day five days a week for two to four weeks led to short-term improvements in cardiovascular function in people with heart failure. Along with reduced stress and inflammation and an improvement in blood vessel function, the researchers found that infrared sauna sessions are physiologically as beneficial as walking, which has been found to improve quality of life in people with this condition.
2. Is (Slightly) Similar to Exercise
As with exercise, when you heat up, your body needs to cool itself down. That process provokes thermoregulation (where your body deals with hot environments more efficiently by sweating sooner, for example). It may also make your heart work harder, triggering a response similar to a cardio workout, says Simms. But to be clear, it’s not as effective as traditional exercise — and one small study published in the journal Complementary Therapies in Medicine in March 2022, which compared an infrared sauna with a workout, backs that up. The sauna did not increase participants’ breathing rates like exercise did.
3. May Improve Recovery From Exercise
After a workout, a good place to go is an infrared sauna. “Athletes may note improved recovery after exercise or injury,” says Dr. Ring.
A small study, published in July 2015 in SpringerPlus, of physically active men found that 30 minutes in a far-infrared sauna after a tough endurance workout improved neuromuscular recovery compared with a no-sauna control condition. People also described it as “a comfortable and relaxing experience.”
4. Helps Induce Your Relaxation Response
Think about the last time that you felt really warm and relaxed. People who use infrared saunas regularly are quite familiar with that soothing sensation. Sitting in a warm, quiet chamber is inherently relaxing for most people. “When we calm our nervous system by doing something relaxing, our body responds in a way that reduces stress hormones like cortisol and produces feel-good hormones like serotonin and dopamine,” says Simms. What’s more, the heat improves circulation, which can give you a sense of vigor and energy when you’re done.
5. Reduces Pain in Autoimmune Conditions
A few studies have found benefits of infrared sauna therapy for patients with rheumatoid arthritis, ankylosing spondylitis, fibromyalgia, and chronic fatigue syndrome in terms of decreasing pain, stiffness, fatigue, and anxiety and improving quality of life, according to a review published in April 2018 in Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine. This may happen because the heat helps dilate blood vessels to boost circulation to injured areas and decrease markers of inflammation, says Simms. This is shown in other research on dry-heat saunas that finds people who use a sauna more frequently have lower levels of C-reactive protein, a marker for inflammation, according to a letter to the editor published in December 2017 in the European Journal of Epidemiology, but this hasn’t been well studied in infrared saunas.
Bottom Line: Is Trying an Infrared Sauna a Worthwhile Therapy?
While more research is needed, infrared sauna therapy can be a nice way to decrease stress and improve recovery from exercise, and the wellness practice may have some positive effect on pain reduction and heart function. If you have an existing health condition, such as cardiovascular disease, you may still be able to use an infrared sauna, but talk to your primary care provider about what is safe for you. Likewise, if you’re pregnant, the American Pregnancy Association recommends avoiding saunas because heating your body to a high temperature may be harmful for you and your baby. This is another good time to talk to your ob-gyn about what’s right for you.