The use of infrared light to heat up the body as a wellness move is approaching a sort of phenomenon.
You can sweat in an infrared heat sleeping bag at Shape House (I love this place) in a pod at SaunaBar, or in a room in NYC’s HigherDOSE. Meanwhile, yoga studios like my new obsession Y7 (pictured above) tout the benefits of using infrared panels to heat their yoga classes.
Personally, I love the way I feel after a good Shape House sweat or Y7 class, but all of the miracle health claims (Weight loss! Clear skin! Muscle relief!) got me thinking: What are infrared saunas actually doing for me and the many others that are now shelling out big bucks to sweat?
What is Infrared Heat
The technical term is Far-Infrared Sauna, or FIRS. While traditional saunas heat the air around you, which in turn heats you up, a far-infrared sauna uses light waves to heat your body directly (without heating the surrounding air). It’s often described as heating your body “from the inside out.”
Why does that matter? Proponents say the heat “goes deeper” into the body, but no reliable scientific evidence supports that claim. The most tangible benefit is that because you’re not surrounded by hot air, it’s more comfortable. People who have trouble tolerating heat often do better in an infrared sauna compared to a traditional sauna.
Also, it’s good to know that experts say infrared saunas are generally safe. The only potential risk is some believe repeated use could affect sperm count, so if you’re a dude looking to have a baby soon, maybe give it a break.
Personally, I love the way this feels in a yoga class: I was never into Bikram yoga back in the day because the forced-air heating in the room made me feel like I couldn’t breathe (or was breathing in dust that was being blown around the room). Infrared feels much cleaner — you sweat like crazy, but you don’t feel suffocated.
The Science-backed Benefits
Okay, here’s where things start to heat up. (Sorry, had to.) Infrared saunas often make health claims that make you think showing up once a week will make immortal, but the research on their benefits is pretty scant.
The benefit most tested and proven by scientific study is improved circulation. One 2009 review of all of the FIRS research to-date (a whopping nine studies!) found decent evidence to support the fact that regular FIRS use is associated with lower blood pressure. And large, long-term studies have found that (traditional) saunas are great for heart health, decreasing the risk of heart disease and fatal heart attacks with regular use.
Another benefit that’s pretty established is pain relief. The aforementioned review found “fair evidence” that infrared saunas could help relieve chronic pain and small studies have shown infrared sauna use reduced arthritis-related pain. Lots of devotees of intense exercise swear by it for muscle pain relief and workout recovery. The evidence is lacking on this point, but one very small study did find FIRS therapy might help with recovery.
And how about that magical promise of detoxification? Well, it is possible for you to sweat out some “toxins” (experts disagree on what those even are), but doctors say your body mainly uses sweat to cool itself, while most detoxification is handled by the kidneys and liver. Claims that sweating in infrared saunas versus sweating elsewhere (like in spin class) are totally bogus.
Other purported benefits that have no basis in science so far? Weight loss, clear skin, and mood-boosting stress relief. Although, I mean, who wouldn’t be relaxed after laying in a pod or room by yourself for half an hour, disconnected from your devices? The sessions at Shapehouse definitely de-stress me, infrared heat or not.
Have you tried far-infrared saunas? What did you think? Have you noticed benefits? Share your experiences in the comments below!