An infrared sauna is a sauna, right? Well, not quite.

Actually, an infrared sauna is named a sauna because manufacturers want to draw a parallel in consumer’s mind between a conventional steam sauna and a new product they offer. Don’t be misguided by this name; an infrared sauna and a steam sauna have more differences than similarities. It doesn’t make one better or worse than another though, as they have different design and, therefore, different purpose. Let me explain why.

It is widely known, that the main effect of a sauna (both steam and infrared) is an intense sweating, which is believed to remove toxins from one’s body. In order for a human body to begin sweating it should be heated. But what is the source of the heat? In a steam sauna it is the air – very hot air, which is usually around 80 °C degrees, going up to 120 °C in extreme cases. It is safe for a human to stay in a such hot atmosphere because of very low humidity of Finnish saunas.

In an infrared sauna the main source of heat is an infrared radiation from infrared heaters. Infrared rays don’t heat the air, they heat human skin directly, and temperature of the air in an infrared sauna is warm, but much lower than in a steam sauna. So, conditions in an infrared sauna are different, and effect is different either. For example, if you have an asthma, you won’t benefit from an infrared sauna, because it is the inhaled hot air that is beneficial to asthmatics, but in an infrared sauna the air is not that hot. From the other side, an infrared sauna is much easier to use, it heats you more deeply than steam sauna and consumes times less electricity than a steam sauna.

So which sauna to buy is up to you. Infrared sauna is a label. An infrared sauna is not the equivalent of a steam sauna. To choose, one should understand, what benefits he needs from sauna, and how he will use it.

3 Responses to “An infrared sauna is a sauna, right? Well, not quite.”

  1. Lowell Meier Says:

    Is there ANY benifits of a infrara red sauna for some one who is asthmatic? Will the infra red bother or harm a asthmatic person.

  2. Paul Mernon Says:

    To Lowell Meier:

    I’m not aware of any benefit of infrared sauna for asthmatics nor I read about any contraindications, but I’m not a doctor. I’ve found some studies which talk about positive effect of a sauna on asthmatic patients, however, they are about conventional saunas. Here are the links to studies I’ve found:

    Benefits and risks of sauna bathing
    The effect of the Finnish dry sauna on bronchial asthma in childhood
    Indications and successes of climate therapy of children

  3. Klaus Fechner Says:

    Just to clarify the term “steam sauna”. The traditional Finnish sauna is a “dry” sauna with high air temperatures (80 °C and up) and relative humidity around 10-20%. If there was steam in the air (i.e. 100% relative humidity) it would be impossible to tolerate those temperatures for more than a few seconds. The body reacts in a variety of ways, including sweating. Sweating is initially invisible due to evaporation (which helps keep the body “cool”, but eventually becomes so strong that one can see sweat coalescing on the skin (this is what most people think of when they talk about “sweating”.

    The “steam” part comes in when one pours water over the heated rocks that are part of the oven. This raises the relative humidity of the sauna air briefly (for a minute or two) which helps trigger sweating due to the reduced ability to evaporate the sweat. Finnish saunas are built of wood (at least on the inside) which is needed to quickly remove the “steam” from the air after the humidity boost.

    Anything with higher humidity and lower air temperatures is not a sauna, but a “steam bath” of some sort.

    I am skeptical of the statement above “an infrared sauna … heats you more deeply than steam sauna”. What is this based on?

    Studies have been performed in the 1960s and 70s that showed increase in body core temperature from the normal 37 °C to around 38 °C after the typical recommended Finnish sauna run lasting for 8 – 12 minutes, typically repeated 3 times with intervening cooling off and resting periods. Elevated core temperature is mostly what gets you sweating. Depth of penetration of infrared radiation depends on a variety of factors including spectrum of wavelengths. I have no knowledge regarding the physiological effects of infrared in a whole body application.

    Regarding the potential benefit for asthma, I also don’t have any direct knowledge, but the water used for the sauna “steam” boost is commonly enhanced with essential oils such as pine needle or eucalyptus oil, which then evaporates together with the water and is inhaled very effectively. I assume that there have been studies regarding that.

    Disclaimer: My parents owned and ran a successful Finnish sauna manufacturing business in Germany for over 40 years. I learned a lot about that since my childhood. We have one of their saunas in the back yard.