Real Talk: Is Going to an Infrared Sauna Worth the Hype?

Photo: Getty Images / bernardbodo
Skin care has gone high-tech—just look at the slew of at-home LED masks and microneedling tools on the market, and cryotherapy treatments landing at every spa. The latest trend du jour? Infrared saunas. Bloggers, journalists, and influencers alike are singing their praises of the treatment, saying that just 30 minutes in a glowing red booth leaves you with a model-worthy glow. (Celebrities love them, with everyone from Gwyneth Paltrow to Selena Gomez touting their beauty- and health-boosting benefits). Seems pretty sweet to me!

But before you shut yourself up in one of these futuristic-looking rooms and get ready to leave looking like a model, here’s the fine print:

How do infrared saunas work?

If you’ve ever tried a traditional sauna, you’re probably familiar with the hot stones and water used to create steam, which is what heats the room (and you) up. In contrast, infrared saunas use infrared light (a type of light that is not visible to the human eye but we can feel it as heat, per NASA) “to directly heat your body,” says New York-based dermatologist Joshua Zeichner, MD.

This heating up of the body happens gradually, says Lauren Berlingeri, a holistic nutritionist and co-founder and co-CEO of HigherDOSE. This results in a “vigorous, effective sweat at a lower, more comfortable temperature,” she says. That’s what’s responsible for that dewy, #wokeuplikethis glow you’re seeing all over your IG feed. But just because the heating happens gradually doesn't mean it's not hot—as our beauty and fitness editor can attest, you get very toasty during a 30-minute infrared sauna session.

While the process at each sauna will be different (like snowflakes, each one is unique), Berlingeri says that at HigherDOSE, you’ll be offered “experience-boosting” elements such as rose water and chilled towels. She also noted that guests can control the heat level in their booth, as well as the color of the light – “you can choose a color depending on what mood you’re going for,” she says. They also offer Bluetooth hookups, so you can jam to whatever you want during your sweat sesh (which can last anywhere from 25 minutes to an hour).

What are the some of the most important infrared sauna benefits?

Here's the thing: Infrared saunas have a lot of anecdotal evidence (Lady Gaga, for example, swears her time in the sauna helps her chronic pain), but the studies supporting its benefits are small, meaning their results are far from conclusive. However, there are some promising potential benefits of infrared saunas, including:

1. It's good for skin health. No, an infrared sauna can't help you detox, says Dr. Zeichner (your liver and kidneys have that covered!). However, “sweating can help [your] body purge dirt, oil, and other particulate matter that deposit on the skin,” he says. “This gives your skin more of a cleanser than a true detoxification.” Dermatologist Keira Barr, MD, also notes that infrared saunas fall into the category of “low level light therapy,” which is sometimes used to treat acne, psoriasis, and eczema.

2. It could improve cardiovascular health. An older 2011 review of studies found evidence that 15-30 minutes in an infrared sauna helped lower systolic blood pressure, and that sauna therapy in general helped improve blood pressure in people with hypertension.

3. It could improve energy and mental health. A small 2015 study found that when used once a day for 15 minutes, patients with chronic fatigue syndrome saw a marked increase in energy. They also reported a decrease in feelings of anxiety and depression.

4. It could promote exercise recovery. A very small 2015 study on 10 men found that exposure to infrared light helped participants recover faster from endurance workouts. Take these findings with a grain of salt, though: what works for 10 men isn't necessarily universal.

Are there any downsides to infrared saunas?

Generally, infrared spas are considered to be pretty safe. "So long as you are healthy, [infrared saunas] have almost no risk and certainly will help give you a good sweat,” Dr. Zeichner says.

This does come with some caveats, of course. “Overuse can cause overheating and dehydration,” says Katie Kaps, co-founder and co-CEO of HigherDOSE. She usually recommends people consult their doctor before trying an infrared sauna if they're pregnant, have a heart condition, or are taking any medication. Same goes for people with low blood pressure or kidney disease. Dr. Barr also recommends talking to your doctor if you have any condition that impacts your ability to sweat or tolerate heat.

Dr. Barr says that newbies should also ease into infrared therapy. “There’s an adjustment period when you start anything new, so starting low in terms of the temperature [and] amount of time spent in the sauna and gradually adding more time and days to your regimen is a good idea,” she says.

The bottom line: If you're interested in trying an infrared spa, experts say it's generally pretty safe—just don't expect major miracles beyond glowing skin. (Which hey, is still pretty exciting on its own.)

Want more intel on trendy wellness treatments? Here's an insider look at the gemstone acupuncture facial and a volcanic sand bath.

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