Far Infrared Sauna Benefits, Risks, Contraindications

Woman relaxing in sauna
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Far infrared saunas have gained popularity in gyms, spas, and other settings around the world. Because of the way they work, infrared saunas offer benefits that other traditional saunas do not. That being said, the health and beauty claims associated with far infrared saunas aren't always backed by strong science.

What Is Far Infrared?

Far infrared saunas provide benefits by heating the body directly rather than heating the air around your body. These rooms are often described as infrared heat therapy rooms because heating elements reflect heat in the form of light directly onto a user's body.

In a far infrared sauna, about 20 percent of the heat goes to heat the air and the other 80 percent directly heats your body. This radiant heat penetrates the skin more deeply than traditional saunas.

Because the air around your body is not heated, many people feel that far infrared saunas are more tolerable than traditional saunas. In fact, temperatures in far infrared saunas are significantly lower than in traditional saunas.

Far infrared is the most common type of infrared sauna, but full spectrum saunas are also available and these provide near, mid, and far infrared energy. Each type of energy is said to provide a different benefit

  • Near-infrared is absorbed just below the surface of the skin to promote healing and revitalization. It is believed to be best for wound healing and increased immune function.
  • Mid-infrared penetrates deeper into the body’s tissue to increase circulation, release oxygen and reach injured areas. This range is said to promote muscle relaxation.
  • Far infrared is the longest wavelength. It is believed to penetrate the fat cells to eliminate toxins and stimulate metabolism.

In a far infrared sauna, the air around your body stays cooler than in a traditional sauna. Instead, heat energy is targeted at the body and allows for a more comfortable experience.

How to Use a Far Infrared Sauna

You might have access to a far infrared sauna at your local health club or spa. Some are located in the doctor's office or you can purchase one for home use.

You'll use the infrared sauna in the same way that you would use a traditional sauna, except that the temperature probably won't be as high. Most will have temperatures ranging from 100˚F to 150˚F. Those new to infrared saunas should start with shorter sessions (10-15 minutes) at a lower temperature.

As you get comfortable with the treatment, increase the time, temperature, or frequency of visits. Remember to hydrate before and after your session, and be sure to give your body time to adjust after use. Moving too quickly from the sauna room can result in lightheadedness.

When using a sauna for the first time, it's smart to use the lowest temperature setting (if possible) and spend no more than10-15 minutes inside. Hydrate before and after the session and move slowly to avoid lightheadedness.

Health Benefits

There are countless benefits attributed to the use of far infrared saunas and to sauna use in general. Not all of these benefits are supported by high-quality scientific evidence, but that doesn't mean that you won't experience the benefits if you use a sauna.

Scientific studies investigating sauna use are often small. Some of the most widely cited studies are decades old and many of the studies are conducted by the same researchers.

A large review of sauna studies was published in 2018 by Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine. Study authors commented on the state of research regarding sauna health benefits.

"Regular dry sauna bathing has potential health benefits. More data of higher quality is needed on the frequency and extent of adverse side effects. Further study is also needed to determine the optimal frequency and duration of distinct types of sauna bathing for targeted health effects and the specific clinical populations who are most likely to benefit."

Here's what scientific studies have suggested about using saunas in general and far infrared saunas specifically.

Weight Loss

Weight loss is one of the primary benefits cited by many people who use or sell far infrared saunas. Unfortunately, there is not a lot of hard evidence to back up the claims and the evidence that is provided is not always high quality.

For example, one dated JAMA publication has been quoted repeatedly in articles promoting saunas.

"A moderately conditioned person can easily sweat off 500 grams in a sauna, consuming nearly 300 kcal, which is equivalent to running 2-3 miles. A heat-conditioned person can sweat off 600-800 kcal with no adverse effects."

However, the source of this quote is often misrepresented as a study. In fact, it was was not a study at all. The quote comes from a commentary published in 1981 that provided some supporting data but was not peer-reviewed as research.

Some advertisements claim that caloric expenditures may reach 1000 calories or more, but they are not supported by published data.

The author of one published review put the calorie burn into perspective. He wrote that when people use far-infrared saunas, "The cardiovascular demand imparted by thermoregulatory homeostasis is similar to that achieved by walking at a moderate pace. As such, FIRSs might be of particular benefit to those who are sedentary due to various medical conditions like osteoarthritis or cardiovascular or respiratory problems."

Water Loss

Another key factor regarding the use of far infrared saunas to lose weight is the confusion between water loss and fat loss. Sweating causes water loss, so it is no surprise that people weigh less after a session.

During a typical sauna session, some reports say that the average woman loses 0.5-0.75 pound of body weight in water, while the average man loses 1.0-1.5 pounds. Larger bodies are likely to lose more weight. But water loss is not sustainable.

Weight loss is likely to occur when using a far-infrared sauna due to water weight lost through excessive sweating. However, water loss is not sustainable and should not be confused with fat loss.

Detox

Some say that sweating releases heavy metals like mercury and lead, as well as environmental chemicals that are trapped in the body. Others promote the idea that sweating releases alcohol, nicotine, sulfuric acid, and other organic and inorganic compounds.

There is some evidence to support the theory. Researchers who conducted a study published in the Journal of Environmental and Public Health reported that certain chemicals (arsenic, cadmium, lead, and mercury) are prominent in sweat and therefore sweating deserves consideration for toxic element detoxification.

Another study published in the same journal by different authors concluded that induced sweating appears to be a potential method for the elimination of BPA. Bisphenol A (BPA) is a chemical contaminant that has been associated with adverse effects on human health.

Some sources claim that infrared saunas release seven times more toxins than traditional Swedish saunas. However, those making the claims are often selling infrared saunas.

Pain Relief

One of the most commonly cited health benefits of infrared saunas is improved muscle recovery after exercise. Many gym-goers report a decrease in pain and inflammation after intense exercise when they follow up their workout with a session in the sauna.

There is some evidence to support this benefit.

A small study conducted in Finland on ten men found that far infrared sauna use helps to speed recovery from strength and endurance training sessions.

Blood Pressure

Both far infrared and other types of sauna are said to improve blood flow and circulation. In fact, many sauna users report feeling flushed during and after use. However, it would be hard to tell for the average consumer if blood pressure is directly affected.

However, several study authors acknowledge that sauna use is linked to a decrease in blood pressure.

The author of a published review stated that far infrared sauna use was associated with beneficial effects on systolic hypertension. However, that author also noted that most studies are limited by several factors including small sample size.

Stress Relief

This is another area where anecdotal claims are substantial but scientific evidence is lacking. However, anyone who has used a sauna can attest to the fact that time spent in a quiet space, away from a computer or cell phone encourages mindfulness practices such as meditation and deep breathing—restorative body processes that are backed by science.

Heart Health

If using a far infrared sauna is associated with a decrease in blood pressure, reduced weight, and stress relief, it is not a far leap to consider that it may also be associated with a boost in heart health.

A study investigating the health benefits of sauna use conducted by researchers in Finland found that more frequent sauna use was associated with a decreased risk of death from cardiovascular disease and stroke. Men in the study averaged 14 minutes per visit to a 175-degree sauna. The men who visited the sauna four to seven times each week had the lowest mortality rates.

Another study investigated the relationship between regular use of far infrared sauna by men with coronary risk factors. Researchers concluded that the treatment provided improvements and suggested a therapeutic role for sauna treatment in patients with risk factors for atherosclerosis.

Management of Other Medical Conditions

Since far infrared saunas are more accessible to those who cannot tolerate extreme heat, they offer pain relief and other benefits to a wide range of people with medical conditions.

Chronic fatigue syndrome

A small study conducted on women with chronic fatigue syndrome who were treated with Waon therapy perceived less pain after treatment, as well as an improved mood, reduced anxiety, depression, and fatigue. Waon therapy is a form of thermal therapy using a far-infrared dry sauna.

Type 2 diabetes

There is some evidence that far infrared sauna use may provide benefit to people with type 2 diabetes by reducing blood pressure and waist circumference. The author also notes that people are more likely to stick to a plan to use an infrared sauna than they are to stick to a plan that includes traditional lifestyle interventions.

Chronic respiratory conditions

A large study published in the European Journal of Epidemiology found that frequent sauna baths may be associated with a reduced risk of acute and chronic respiratory conditions in middle-aged men. Those conditions included chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, asthma, or pneumonia.

Rheumatoid arthritis

Another study investigated the use of infrared sauna in patients with rheumatoid arthritis (RA) and ankylosing spondylitis (AS). Researchers concluded that infrared treatment has statistically significant short-term beneficial effects and no adverse effects.

Younger Appearance

Claims about skin benefits, cellulite reduction, and other beauty benefits are commonly associated with far-infrared sauna use. While these benefits are supported by a wealth of anecdotal evidence, the science to support them is lacking.

Far infrared saunas may provide pain relief, stress reduction, beauty benefits, and other advantages that can help those with medical conditions. However, there is not enough strong evidence to know for sure if the treatments are effective.

Risks and Side Effects

Most researchers investigating the health benefits of far infrared saunas note that few side effects are associated with their use. However, to stay safe, there are some factors to keep in mind.

If you are not used to using any type of sauna, there is a risk of overheating. Therefore, it is important to keep sessions short when you begin. If possible, use the lowest heat setting.

It is also possible to become dehydrated if you don't drink enough water before and after your treatment. Remember that you will lose water during the sauna. It is important to replenish that water so that your body can recover effectively.

Lastly, even if you hydrate properly, lightheadedness may occur. Be sure to move slowly both in the sauna and as you move out of the sauna.

Contraindications

Certain people should exercise caution when using any type of sauna, including a far infrared sauna.

Even though these sessions may provide benefits to people with medical conditions, particularly high blood pressure and heart conditions, you should speak to your health care provider before using it for enjoyment or as treatment.

Additionally, anyone taking a medication—particularly those that cause drowsiness—should get medical advice before using a sauna.

You should not use any type of sauna while under the influence of drugs or alcohol.

Lastly, women who are pregnant or think that they might be pregnant should avoid steam rooms or saunas until they get personalized advice from a healthcare provider.

A Word From Verywell

Far infrared sauna benefits are widely reported by health experts, medical professionals, and those in the sauna industry. While you are likely to experience some enjoyment from the experience, there is no guarantee that the treatment will promote weight loss or provide relief from a medical condition.

If you are interested in using far infrared technology for improved wellness or certainly if you plan to use it for medical purposes, speak to your healthcare provider about including the sessions as part of a comprehensive program.

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