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4 Ways Infrared Saunas Can Give Your Mind and Body a Boost

Does it feel like everyone you know is talking about infrared saunas right now? While traditional saunas have existed for thousands of years, infrared versions are their more modern counterpart and have been slowly building momentum in the past couple of decades: Google search interest in infrared saunas increased more than fivefold 

between 2004 and 2023, with interest in infrared sauna benefits climbing as well. 

Their popularity has continued to skyrocket this year, with many people claiming they help boost their exercise recovery (which is another big topic on everyone’s minds right now, by the way). There are plenty of other potential infrared sauna benefits for your health, too, ranging from better sleep to stress relief. 

So is it time to start using an infrared sauna after a workout or on your rest days? Here’s everything you need to know.

What Are Infrared Saunas? 

An infrared sauna is a type of sauna—or enclosed room with heated air—that uses light waves to create heat. 

The difference between the various types of saunas out there comes down to how the air is heated and how much humidity (water vapor) is in the air, explains Joy Hussain, MD, PhD, a family medicine doctor based in Brisbane, Australia, who studies sauna bathing. 

Traditional Finnish-style saunas “heat the air through convection energy similar to how a stove heats a turkey,” Dr. Hussain explains. The surrounding air is heated by contact with a heating element (in this example, the stove), and the hot air then heats objects it surrounds (the turkey). But in the case of an infrared sauna, air is heated by radiant infrared energy with devices that emit heat and light in waves, somewhat similar to the sun, Dr. Hussain says. 

“Rather than the convection heat gradually being transferred, the infrared sauna directly heats your body without warming the air around you,” explains Victoria H. Maizes, MD, a professor of medicine and public health and executive director of the University of Arizona Center for Integrative Medicine. (More on why that’s helpful in just a bit.)

While air in a traditional sauna is raised somewhere between 150–195 degrees Fahrenheit, an infrared sauna is not nearly as hot, typically hovering between 110–135 degrees. That means it’s easier for some users to tolerate. 

“I've been using saunas for years and recently bought one for my home,” says Peloton instructor Ben Alldis. “I opted for infrared because it was super easy to install and I like that it doesn't get so hot, so I can spend a longer period of time in there.”

Unlike the super-high-humidity steam sauna, both infrared and traditional Finnish-style saunas are usually low-humidity. However, traditional saunas often involve pouring water over stones to create brief bursts of high humidity (called löyly), whereas infrared saunas are generally free of water, Dr. Hussain adds.

How Infrared Saunas Can Boost Your Workout Recovery

Athletes often use infrared saunas post-workout as a non-invasive way to help them recover from stiffness and soreness. The radiant heat increases blood flow, which in turn helps with recovery by decreasing inflammation, reducing pain, and improving muscle repair, Dr. Maizes explains.

While there’s much more research available on the benefits of traditional saunas, a handful of studies show that infrared saunas in particular might help your muscles recover and feel less sore, Dr. Maizes says. 

For example, a recent study published in the journal Biology of Sport found that when healthy, injury-free, young male basketball players spent 20 minutes in an infrared sauna after resistance training, they had less soreness and faster recovery. “This is different from traditional sauna bathing, which actually can reduce strength for up to 24 hours afterward,” Dr. Maizes says, pointing to a 2019 study that found traditional sauna bathing after swimming actually impaired swimming performance the next morning. 

Why might this be? “Because infrared is sending a wave of light, essentially, towards your body, it actually penetrates your body deeper,” Dr. Maizes explains. As a result, it can better transmit heat to your muscles, blood vessels, and nerves. 

This is why many professional athletes rely on infrared saunas (or travel with portable sauna blankets) for pain management and quick recovery from sore muscles. Another small study in male athletes during an intensive five-day training period found that using a whole-body infrared sauna bag for 40 minutes every evening for four consecutive days led to improved muscle performance.

Dr. Hussain also points out that cold and contrast therapy—going from a sauna to an ice bath, for example—is believed to work better than a sauna alone when it comes to alleviating delayed muscle soreness (DOMS). That’s why a cold plunge paired with an infrared sauna session is an increasingly popular option at gyms and wellness centers. 

“I love combining a sauna session with a cold shower,” Ben says. “The contrast of hot and cold has amazing benefits of reduced muscle soreness, reduced fatigue, and helps remove excess lactic acid, which, as someone who works out a lot, helps me a lot.” 

4 Potential Sauna Health Benefits 

While we still need more research on infrared saunas specifically, “the benefits are remarkably similar to the range of benefits seen with exercise,” Dr. Hussain says. “Recent research shows regular use of dry saunas (infrared or traditional) can improve your cardiovascular function (even if you have some types of heart failure), lower your stroke risk, activate your immune system, expedite relaxation responses, and help control high blood pressure.”

In addition to possibly boosting your workout recovery, here are a few potential benefits of traditional or infrared saunas:

1. It Can Support Longevity and Give Skin a Boost

Regular infrared sauna sessions can encourage healthy aging in multiple ways, says Frank Lipman, MD, a functional medicine expert. For example, by stimulating better blood flow, infrared saunas can increase collagen production, which is key for skin elasticity and overall youthful appearance as we age. (Ben says he’s personally noticed clearer, tighter skin from using his infrared sauna.)

Beyond possibly boosting your appearance, there’s also some evidence suggesting that working up a sweat in an infrared sauna benefits your heart health and reduces blood pressure. Recent research found that hopping in a traditional sauna for 15 minutes after exercising led to a greater improvement in blood pressure than exercise alone.

What’s more, one study published in 2015 followed over 2,000 sauna bathers for 20 years and found that those who visited the sauna more frequently (four to seven times a week) had lower death rates from cardiovascular and all-cause mortality events. 

2. It Can Help Fight Off a Cold

In the short term, research suggests that regular sauna use could help you fight off a cold. “Infrared sauna time can help rally your body's natural immune defenses by raising the body's core temperature, revving up white blood cell production,” Dr. Lipman says.

3. It Can Help Relieve Stress and Promote Better Sleep

Infrared saunas can also help boost mental well-being. Many people turn to infrared sauna blankets at home for stress relief, and there’s even some research that they can help alleviate symptoms of depression. By promoting relaxation, they can also help improve sleep (which is crucial to workout recovery). 

Ben has experienced similar effects, citing improved sleep and less stress as two of the biggest infrared sauna benefits he’s noticed. “It’s great for relaxing and taking a mental break,” he says.

But why are infrared saunas such a great relaxation tool? As Dr. Maizes explains, many of us have our sympathetic nervous system (the network that controls your “fight-or-flight” response) continually turned on. That’s why it’s so important to find ways to activate the parasympathetic nervous system, which controls your body’s ability to relax. Along with techniques like listening to music, meditating, or doing a yoga flow, infrared saunas could be a great way to “quiet” your body, Dr. Maizes says. 

“Using an infrared sauna increases heart rate variability, which is a sign of reduced sympathetic nervous system activity,” she says. If you have an infrared sauna blanket at home, it could be a wonderful thing to do before bedtime to put your body into “rest mode,” Dr. Maizes says.

4. It Might Boost Brain Health 

There’s also some interesting research that shows that sauna bathing could have an impact on our brain health. For example, a 2020 population-based study looking at men and women in Finland suggested that repeated heat exposure from traditional sauna bathing may reduce the risk of developing dementia, although more research is needed. 

Who Should Consider Trying Infrared Saunas?

While infrared saunas are generally considered safe for most people, it’s key that you’re able to tolerate the heat before trying it, just like with regular saunas. If you're prone to fainting or dizziness or are on a blood pressure medication, you might want to check with your doctor first before trying, Dr. Maizes says. 

Pregnant people and men currently focused on their fertility should also check before using an infrared sauna, she says. “We don't recommend that pregnant women raise their body temperature, because there are risks of that affecting the fetus,” Dr. Maizes says. “Elevating your temperature kills sperm, so we don't have men who are trying to conceive going into saunas,” she adds.

There are also quite a few conditions that aren’t considered compatible with sauna bathing. If you’ve been diagnosed with aortic stenosis (narrowing of the aortic valve in the heart), have recently suffered a heart attack or stroke, or have been diagnosed with a medical condition involving large fluctuations in blood pressure (like POTS), Dr. Hussain recommends against using a sauna. Dr. Maizes adds that those with multiple sclerosis or heart disease should also talk to their doctor first. Generally, you’ll also want to avoid it if you've had a recent sunburn or are currently suffering from severe eczema or psoriasis.

Dr. Hussain also shares that anecdotally, she’s had patients who stopped using an infrared sauna due to migraine headaches, low blood pressure events, and tinnitus (ringing of the ears). 

Remember, it’s always a good idea to check in with your doctor before trying something new like an infrared sauna.

What You Should Know Before Trying Infrared Saunas

Here are a few pro tips for infrared sauna first-timers, according to our experts: 

  • Be prepared to sweat, Ben says. Treat it as you would a hot yoga session and make sure you’re staying hydrated with water and electrolytes before, during, and after your infrared sauna session. 

  • Know that alcohol and saunas don’t mix. Even if you want to “sweat out” the alcohol from the night before, it’s best to give yourself a buffer day. It’s not wise to do an infrared sauna session when you’re already dehydrated, Dr. Lipman says. 

  • Wear as little as possible (a big benefit of having an at-home sauna!), Ben says. “If you’re going to wear clothes, ideally, you should opt for loose-fitting clothes made of natural fibers like cotton, bamboo, or linen,” he suggests. 

How to Use an Infrared Sauna

How to best use an infrared sauna depends on the person trying it. Just like with an exercise plan from a personal trainer, there is no one-size-fits-all approach here, Dr. Hussain says. How exactly you use an infrared sauna might depend on your health, how acclimated you are to saunas already, and what kind of benefits you’re looking for, for instance.

But generally speaking, it’s smart to start your infrared sauna sessions at a lower temperature and for a shorter amount of time. Although many spas, gyms, or wellness centers may provide 30- or 60-minute infrared sauna sessions, Dr. Maizes suggests starting with five or 10 minutes if you’re brand new and building up from there.

Many people use infrared saunas (or at-home infrared sauna blankets) daily, while others might use them more occasionally. “I'm always less stressed, more relaxed, and in a better mood when I am using the sauna regularly,” says Ben, who uses his at-home infrared sauna three to five times per week. 

There’s currently no solid evidence indicating a specific length of time or number of times per week you should use an infrared sauna to notice benefits. But just as with any recovery routine, experts believe that consistency is helpful. “I suspect it will be like exercise—one session has beneficial effects, but more regular sessions will have better, more long-lasting results,” Dr. Hussain says.

As for what time of day to hop in, many people love using infrared saunas in the evening to wind down from the stress of the day and potentially help their sleep—but of course, there’s no rule that says you can’t use your infrared sauna in the morning or afternoon instead. If you can, Ben suggests getting your body moving to get the blood flowing and release any built-up stress before starting your infrared sauna session.

And if you’re looking for infrared sauna benefits for exercise recovery specifically, be sure to use the sauna after your workout, Dr. Maizes says. 

The Takeaway

While more research needs to be done on infrared saunas specifically, experts say they’re a relatively low-risk way to potentially reap a wide range of health benefits—and maybe even level up your existing recovery routine.

Luckily, infrared saunas are starting to become more accessible as they’re popping up in more gyms, spas, and wellness centers, Dr. Maizes points out, giving more people a chance to see if it works for them. “I’m a big fan of trying new things,” Dr. Maizes says. “If you’re an athlete and you’re curious if this might make you feel better? Go try it.”

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