If you follow any smattering of wellness influencers on Instagram, chances are you've seen at least one photo of someone sitting in an infrared sauna — it's sort of hot right now. The main difference between an infrared sauna and the regular ones you see at the gym is that infrared saunas use infrared lamps to heat your body from the inside out, and traditional saunas just heat the air.
There are a few trendy boutique infrared saunas in New York City — Higher DOSE, Gravity, and DTX Cellular Evolution — where you can go and sit in a small room and sweat for between £30 to £50. Some hot yoga studios use the same infrared heaters to heat their studios, and there are even portable infrared saunas that you can buy to use in the comfort of your own home.
Infrared saunas might be easier to handle, because they're actually gentler, says Katie Kaps, one of the co-founders of Higher DOSE. "Unlike traditional hot rock or steam saunas, which operate at well in excess of 200°F, infrared heat has the benefit of being effective at a more comfortable operating temperature of 100° to 150°F." Kaps compares the feeling to being in the sun on a hot day.
The claimed benefits of using infrared saunas range from helping chronic pain, to improving your mood, fixing your skin, and even making you feel high. Luckily, there has been some research on people who use infrared saunas, so the claims aren't all anecdotal.
Okay, but is an infrared sauna safe? "Using a far infrared sauna is extremely safe," says Svetlana Kogan, MD, a doctor who focuses on holistic medicine ("far" refers to where the infrared waves fall on the light spectrum). "But whenever heat therapy is involved, you cannot do it with pregnant women, people with pacemakers or battery-operated or electric devices, or patients on an insulin pump."
Here are some of the benefits that might actually be legit:
It helps your heart.
"Sitting or laying in an infrared sauna can increase your heart rate," Dr. Kogan says. Kaps says this can feel like a light jog, which releases endorphins like exercise does. A review of studies about infrared sauna use found that there's a little evidence that infrared saunas can be effective for people with high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and congestive heart failure. So, it can get your blood flowing, and put stress on your heart that "conditions" it in a way, but it won't necessarily help prevent or cure heart diseases.
It can soothe chronic pain.
In 2016 Lady Gaga posted an Instagram of herself inside her personal infrared sauna, and said she uses it to help her chronic pain. One small study on hospitalised patients with chronic pain found that people who used a far infrared sauna daily for four weeks were able to go back to work sooner and sleep better than those who tried a different therapy program.
It makes you a little happier.
Kaps says dopamine, oxytocin, serotonin, and endorphins (that's where the acronym DOSE in Higher DOSE comes from) are all released during an infrared sauna session, from the infrared lights and just knowing you're doing something good for yourself. At Higher DOSE, they let you listen to your own music and encourage taking selfies to make it a real experience. Dr. Kogan suspects the infrared lights could have a positive "healing effect," but that hasn't actually been studied. "How this happens is unknown, because no one has been able to measure the actual levels of serotonin or cortisol before and after treatments," she says. One study confirmed that heat makes people feel relaxed. Bottom line: You don't have to go to an infrared sauna to relax and feel happy, but it just might tide you over until it's warm out again.