The Red-Hot Sauna Industry Is Boiling Over With New Ways To Optimize Your Sweat Session
Sweat, meet tech.
For centuries, saunas have been spaces for sweating it out—but the sauna of the future is proving to be so much more than a hot box. While in-spa and at-home saunas have long featured dry heat (via wood, coals, or electricity) or infrared heat (through electromagnetic energy), the next wave of saunas will layer on additional features. Among them are red light therapy (which uses a shorter wavelength of red light than infrared, typically to reduce inflammation in skin treatments); pulsed electromagnetic field therapy, or PEMF therapy (a non-invasive therapy that mimics the Earth’s natural magnetic energy to improve circulation); and cryotherapy, or cold therapy (which has also been shown to increase circulation when used alongside heat, á la contrast bathing). Such sauna tech innovations will increase the potential benefits we can reap from a sweat session—and improve our user experience in the process.
The main sauna innovations are showing up in the layering of modalities. “Tech stacking is going to be a thing in the sauna space,” says Lauren Dovey, founder of the sauna and wellness brand Heat Healer. In September, Heat Healer launched the latest version of its at-home sauna, the Energy Sauna ($2,498), with its “Triple-Threat Technology”—a combination of infrared heat, red light, and PEMF. (It’s already sold out and is being restocked in mid-December.) Representatives from consumer home brands HigherDose and Plunge shared that they, too, expect to launch sauna products in 2024 that allow for the use of multiple modalities at once.
These launches reflect the next dimension of an already red-hot sauna market, which was valued at $238 million in 2021 and is expected to grow 8 percent annually, hitting $382 million by 2027. It’s a growth trajectory that Lee Braun, CEO of the sauna franchise Perspire Sauna Studio, has witnessed firsthand: The brand opened its first studio in 2010 and hit one million sessions in 2021; but in just two additional years, it reached an additional million sessions. And the growth is showing no signs of slowing: Perspire began 2023 with 29 studios and will end it with 50, and Braun says he plans to double that number by the end of 2024.
All this growth expands on a legacy of sauna tradition. “Humans have been using heat therapy and saunas for thousands of years to fight illness,” says Braun. The earliest recorded evidence of sauna usage dates back to around 7,000 years ago in what is now modern-day Finland. Over time, as cultures evolved, so too did the concept of the sauna. Different regions developed their own variations, such as the Turkish hammam, the Russian banya, and the Native American sweat lodge, each of which is historically associated with a version of detoxification or purification on top of unique cultural and social significance.
More specifically, research finds that saunas may support circulation and cardiovascular health, improve respiratory function, and promote muscle recovery post-exercise.
While there isn’t an abundance of scientific research to support health outcomes from sauna use, some recent data suggests that using an infrared sauna may benefit our physical and mental well-being. More specifically, research finds that saunas may support circulation and cardiovascular health, improve respiratory function, and promote muscle recovery post-exercise. Regularly spending time in a sauna has also been linked to living a longer, healthier life: A 2015 study that monitored 2,300 middle-aged men for an average of 20 years found that those who went to the sauna multiple times per week a week lived longer than those who only went once. In particular, frequent schvitz sessions were associated with lower death rates from cardiovascular disease and stroke.
“Some studies have shown [red light therapy, as well as halotherapy, or salt therapy] can decrease inflammation. Therefore, using these in combination with the sauna heat has the potential to increase the overall anti-inflammatory effect."Tori A. Seasor, MD
The layering of new tech into the sauna experience just stands to enhance some of these benefits. “Some studies have shown [red light therapy, as well as halotherapy, or salt therapy] can decrease inflammation,” says pathologist Tori A. Seasor, MD. “Therefore, using these in combination with the sauna heat has the potential to increase the overall anti-inflammatory effect.” Seasor adds that you should consult your doctor before adopting a sauna practice.
Sauna studios and spas are setting up shop to reflect such layered benefits. At Perspire locations, all saunas pair infrared heat with red-light therapy and chromatherapy, or color-light therapy, which has been linked to boosting mood and mental well-being. Starting in January 2024, Perspire will also begin offering halotherapy in its saunas. “We built a very simple sauna experience so that our guests can experience red-light therapy, full-spectrum infrared, color-light therapy, and now halotherapy, all in their 40-minute session,” says Braun. “They don’t have to do one [modality] after another or spend all day in a studio; they’re able to weave it all into their daily and weekly routines, and that’s something we’ve found people really gravitate toward.”
At social wellness club Remedy Place, which has locations in New York City and Los Angeles, saunas will soon combine traditional dry heat and infrared heat, which hasn’t been done before, according to Remedy Place founder and CEO Jonathan Leary, DC. While dry heat warms the air around you, infrared penetrates the skin to warm the body from the inside out, says Dr. Leary, whose background is in chiropractic medicine and kinesiology. Both contribute to the overall heat effect and “at Remedy Place, you soon won’t have to choose between them,” he says.
As the sauna’s technical capabilities expand in 2024 and beyond, interest is also heating up around an added layer of sauna “biohacking,” or collecting data around the sauna experience so that users can optimize it for their personal health and fitness goals. (Biohacking is the basis for popular fitness apps and wearable health trackers like FitBit and Whoop, which are designed to collect your performance data and certain biometrics like your sleep patterns, heart rate, and stress levels to help you optimize all of the above.)
Contrast-therapy company Plunge, for one, has its sights on the heat-meets-biohacking business. It launched its first heat-focused product earlier this year in response to customer demand—the Plunge Sauna ($10,990)—which opened up an entirely new category for the previously cryotherapy-focused brand. CEO and co-founder Ryan Duey says the sauna itself is designed to be a “smarter” way to sweat, engineered with strategic features like an angled wall to lean against ergonomically and flip-up benches to accommodate a user’s exercise equipment for use inside the sauna. This way, a user can also choose to practice heat training, which, while tougher on the body, can both increase heat tolerance and offer a range of performance benefits for exercise in less-hot situations, such as increased maximum oxygen uptake (aka, VO2 Max), better sweat regulation, and enhanced overall endurance.
The Plunge Sauna is also connected with the brand’s mobile app, which currently allows users to schedule a sauna session remotely and have it set to the temperature of their liking. Duey says he plans for the app to have health-tracking capabilities, too. “Where we really want to get into is eventually tapping into the wearable world with metrics and having a product that gets smart with your body,” he says. That means, in the future, the Plunge Sauna (and the brand's new cold plunge tub, Plunge All-In, which was released in October for $8,890) could allow users to track their biometrics, including things like heart rate and heart-rate variability, adrenaline threshold (the body’s ability to relax in stressful situations), and recovery time from exercise in the sauna.
“Using these metrics in a sauna would [provide a] similar benefit to using them during a workout,” says Dr. Seasor. “This personalization could ideally promote improved physical and mental health by allowing individuals to be more in tune with what their body needs at any given moment,” she says, adding that the numbers could also potentially help users detect early signs of heat-related illness that can occur during sauna usage. Duey says the app could also take a user’s biometrics to suggest personalized recommendations for things like temperature setting, session length, and the best time of day to use the sauna or exercise.
We call that a smarter way to sweat.
Hero Image: Perspire
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