For the average person, it can be quite daunting to understand the differences between different saunas. For instance, I often get the question “how are infrared saunas different from a Finnish sauna?”
The story becomes even more complicated when you have to consider the different types of infrared heat (light). I, therefore, decided to write a blog post on this topic. First, I’ll teach you what far infrared light is and how it’s different from other infrared types. I’ll then talk about the potential benefits and downsides of infrared light exposure.
Far Infrared Light Definition: What Is Far Infrared Light?
To help you understand “far infrared light” I first need to take a step back and talk about the “light spectrum”. From a physics perspective, the light spectrum consists of all the different types of light found in the universe.
That light can be divided into visible light - that you can see with your naked eyes - and invisible light. Invisible light consists of ultraviolet light and infrared light. Ultraviolet light is what can give you sunburn if you stay in the sun for too long. Infrared light, moreover, is what makes the sun feel hot on your skin.
Infrared light can further be divided into “near-infrared light”, “middle infrared light”, and “far infrared light”. The latter will be the main topic of this blog post, although I’ll also compare far infrared light with the other alternatives.
That comparison will help you better understand what makes far infrared light special. Let’s move on to the next section:
Far Infrared Vs Middle Infrared Vs Near Infrared
Let me take a physics perspective once more. In physics, different types of light are distinguished between the different wavelengths they have (1; 2; 3; 4). These wavelengths, in this case, are measured in micrometres. Micrometres are very small - they’re a millionth of a metre in size.
(Don’t worry if this sounds complicated, I’ll break it down into easy-to-understand terms.)
So let’s look at the wavelengths of different types of light:
- Ultraviolet light has wavelengths between 0.2 and 0.4 micrometres.
- Visible light - which contains all the colours of the rainbow, visible to your eyes - has wavelengths between 0.4 and ~0.8 micrometres.
- Infrared light has wavelengths between ~0.8 and 1,000 micrometres. So, the infrared light spectrum is much bigger than the visible and ultraviolet light spectra.
That infrared light can be further subdivided into:
- Near-infrared light, located between ~0.8 and 5 micrometres
- Middle infrared light, which is found between 5 to 25-40, micrometres
- Far infrared light, defined between 25-40 and 1,000 micrometres.
Keep in mind that not everyone agrees in science on the exact categorisation of these different infrared light types. Let's now explore what these light types do inside your body
How Far Infrared Light And Other Light Types Affect Your Body's Biology
Different types of infrared light have different effects in the body. That effect of light is by no means neutral. Just like the ultraviolet light I talked about before can cause sunburns and get your skin to tan, similar effects happen when your body is exposed to infrared light.
Infrared light, in fact, can enter your body through the skin. That way, the infrared light reaches your bloodstream, muscles, fat tissues, organs, and everything else. Scientists don’t agree on how deep infrared light penetrates into your body though (5; 6; 7; 8; 9; 10; 11; 12).
But, the fact that very smart scientists don’t all agree on how far the light penetrates into the human body should not dissuade you. Instead, it’s smarter to focus on the health benefits you are getting.
We know that far infrared light works. For that reason, I’ve highlighted six major benefits of far infrared light exposure in the section below. All types of infrared have their own unique health benefits though.
If you’re interested in learning more about the benefits of near-infrared, I recommend reading the blog post I wrote on red light therapy. Red light therapy includes non-heating near-infrared which has many unique health benefits of its own. These benefits include pain relief, lowering excessive inflammation, boosting workout recovery, rejuvenating your skin, optimising hormonal health, enhancing sleep quality, and much more.
Far infrared light, moreover, has been used in Japan for many decades now to improve circulation, counter heart and blood vessel disease, impedes chronic pain and improve people’s energy levels (13; 14; 15; 16; 17; 18; 19).
And the best part?
You don’t necessarily have to pick and choose between different types of infrared light. Nowadays, we sell what is called a “full spectrum sauna”. Full-spectrum saunas expose your body to a balanced combination of near-infrared, middle-infrared, and far-infrared light.
And yes, the full spectrum saunas are pricier. Nevertheless, you can also opt for a more affordable far infrared sauna model. In time, you can then upgrade this sauna model with full spectrum heaters, so that near and middle infrared heat are included as well.
Also, Clearlight Infrared® Saunas is the first company to offer red light therapy inside an infrared sauna. The light emitted by our Clearlight® Light Therapy Tower consists of 50% near-infrared light, and 50% red light. Red light is found in the visible light spectrum.
For this reason, I want to emphasise the fact that the different types of infrared light don’t necessarily compete with each other. You don’t need to choose between a near-infrared or a far-infrared sauna because you’ll have both when you opt for full-spectrum.
Now here’s why far infrared has such a wonderful effect on the body:
Your own body uses middle and far infrared to communicate. “Heat”, from a physics perspective, is often also understood as being closely tied to infrared light. Having a hotter body temperature, therefore, means that your body is emitting more infrared light. No wonder security cameras use infrared light detection technology to monitor people when it’s dark outside.
When you project infrared light onto your body, the water and cells are then affected by the infrared light. And, because your body consists of 70-80% water, most of that infrared light will affect your body. Far infrared light is a special case here, as the absorption spectrum of the water is found in the far infrared light spectrum.
Moreover, you may think “why not use a traditional sauna?” I’ll briefly cover that topic right now:
Far Infrared Saunas Vs Traditional Saunas
I’ve written extensively about the temperature difference of several saunas in the past, as well as a comparison between Finnish saunas and infrared saunas. I’ll briefly summarise the benefits of a far infrared sauna below:
First up, an infrared sauna directly heats your body while a traditional sauna heats the air around you. Traditional saunas, such as a Finnish sauna, often reach temperatures of 80-110 degrees Celsius. A very hot far infrared sauna will only use temperatures of 60 degrees Celsius as the maximum.
The benefit of that infrared exposure is that your cells are directly heated by infrared light. Therefore, you can still raise your body temperature by many degrees using an infrared sauna, often better than a traditional one. However, because you’re not sitting inside a very hot room, you’re not breathing very hot air and the experience is much more gentle.
Another downside of traditional saunas is that by heating the air, you’re automatically heating your head the most. The hottest air is found at the top part of a traditional sauna, while your head is the first body part to often get uncomfortable with heat exposure and thus give out.
Next up, the electricity costs of running a far infrared sauna are far cheaper. A traditional sauna will consume up to 50% of your yearly energy bill if you use it frequently. Using a far infrared sauna for many sessions per week only sets you back just over £300 GBP on a yearly basis. Read my blog post on sauna energy costs to understand why an infrared sauna costs more than 15X less than a traditional sauna.
Six Major Far Infrared Sauna Benefits
In the section below, I’ll consider the main far infrared sauna benefits. These benefits have very strong scientific backing as of this moment. Let’s explore these benefits one by one:
Promotes Weight Loss
Many people experienced an increased ability to lose weight when using an infrared sauna. We’ve tested this hypothesis in our own weight loss study, which used a Clearlight Premier 3-Person Sauna infrared sauna three times a week.
Study participants lost one percentage point of body fat every month for four months straight. The control group didn’t receive these benefits. Of course, you can make the argument that the participants using the sauna burned more calories - and you’re correct.
Nevertheless, saunas are a great fat-loss tool that helps you burn calories while moving you into a very relaxed state. Our very own Dr. Raleigh Duncan - who helps to design our saunas and is the intellectual giant behind the company - claims that the connection between weight loss and saunas goes much deeper than just burning calories alone.
First, you’re moving your nervous system into a more “parasympathetic”-dominant state. The parasympathetic nervous system is closely tied to rest, relaxation, and digestion.
Secondly, sweating heavily inside an infrared sauna helps your body remove toxins. These toxins - contrary to popular belief - do play a major role in the average person’s ability to lose body fat. Once you remove the toxins, stress levels in the body go down and you can more easily maintain stable blood sugar levels, for instance (20; 21; 22; 23; 24). As a result, fat loss becomes much easier.
Let’s now explore the earlier benefit of relaxation I mentioned in more detail:
Makes You Feel Relaxed, Lowers Stress, And Boosts Sleep Quality
Many people visit a sauna to increase their relaxation (25). Stress reduction and pain relief are two explicit reasons people go to the sauna, in fact. Also, more than four in five people claim that they sleep better at night after visiting a sauna.
Sounds extremely promising, right?
And, there’s scientific evidence for the validity of this feeling. Spending time inside an infrared sauna releases the same “endorphins” that you also get during a runner’s high (26; 27). And, if you’re depressed, infrared saunas are an extremely promising intervention to make you feel better.
I’ve written an extensive blog post in the past on the far infrared sauna and clinical depression link. In some people, depression and excessive chronic inflammation are linked. Increasing your body temperature significantly with a specific sauna protocol can then create massive improvements in your symptoms after one session. This protocol needs to be carried out under medical supervision though.
The infrared sauna even benefits healthy people in the area of mood and well-being though. Several studies show that what is called your “heart rate variability” becomes higher with sauna usage (28; 29; 30). Heart rate variability measures the interval between your heart rates, and the less consistent that interval, the greater your overall levels of relaxation.
So overall, the relaxation and mood-boosting benefits of far infrared saunas are not only located in your mind. Next up, let’s move to another topic I’ve already touched upon:
Improves Your Body’s Detoxification
In the last few decades, it’s become very clear that the human body detoxifies through the skin. There’s ample science backing that thesis, but many media sources aren’t aware of that fact. As a result, these media sources claim that “far infrared saunas increasing your detoxification is a myth”
Nothing could be further from the truth though:
Even though some toxins are preferably excreted through the liver, intestines, and urinary system, that’s not true for all toxins. Some toxins are preferably removed through your skin instead (31; 32; 33; 34; 35; 36; 37). Sweating is a preferential method for some heavy metals, pesticides, drugs, and many other compounds with difficult names such as phthalates Bisphenol A, and others.
No need to remember these names. What’s more important is that some recent protocols that have been used for decades are extremely helpful in helping lower your toxin burden. I’m talking about what is called the “niacin detox protocol” here. That protocol regularly helps people remove 30 or 40% of toxins that have been stored for decades in a single month.
Next up, let’s explore another very exciting benefit:
Improves Heart And Blood Vessel Health
Heart and blood vessel diseases are the leading cause of mortality in the developed world - together with cancer. And, if you’re 20 years old, you certainly don’t worry about that problem. But, once you’re in your 40s and 50s, and know a few people who have had issues or worse, that dynamic changes.
Suddenly you’ll think “what can I do to keep my heart healthy? Sure, I know moving enough, eating a healthy diet, and not smoking are amazing for promoting heart and blood vessel health but I still have issues.”
Well, the same is true for spending time inside a sauna - massive heart and blood vessel health improvements can be made by implementing a sauna habit.
Consider blood pressure: high blood pressure is one of the most important markers for future problems with your heart and blood vessels (38; 39; 40). Blood pressure is simply how hard your blood presses against arteries.
And, if you’ve got high blood pressure, you better fix it long-term. It turns out that spending just one session inside a sauna can lower your “systolic” (when your heart is pumping) blood pressure by 7 points. And for your “diastolic” blood pressure (when your heart relaxes) that’s 4 points (41).
The more time you spend inside a sauna, the more your risk goes down. With 2-3 sauna sessions per week, your risk of high blood pressure is reduced by 26% With 4-7 sessions per week, that number goes up to 46%.
Those numbers translate in equally dramatic reductions in dying of heart and blood vessel conditions as well (42; 43).
With an average 2-3 sauna sessions per week, you reduce your risk of dying of heart disease by 22%. With 4-7 sessions per week, your risk goes down by a whopping 63%. Of course, you need to build your tolerance to a far infrared sauna slowly - read my blog post on how to build a sauna habit for more information.
And there’s more:
Boosts Your Immune System
If you want to age in a healthy way, then you’ll need to keep your immune system healthy as well. And, far infrared saunas can help your immune system stay stronger as you age.
Just a single sauna session can increase the number of white blood cells in your body. White blood cells are the basic cells of your immune system. Different types of white blood cells - which all have different functions - such as “basophils”, “neutrophils”, and “lymphocytes”, all increased in number.
So what are the implications of these results? Lately, I’ve written two different blog posts on how spending time in a far infrared sauna helps you fight COVID. Early indications imply that for an airway infection like COVID, spending time inside a sauna actually helps prevent you from getting sick.
As COVID is still on so many minds nowadays, this news is highly welcome. The key to successfully implementing a far infrared sauna to counter COVID is to do your session while you’re healthy.
If you’re infected, I don’t recommend spending time inside the sauna unless you’ve consulted your physician. With regard to airway diseases, there’s more promising research though:
Decreases Your Risk Of Airway Diseases
Far infrared saunas support your overall airways' health. That support translates into a decreased risk of getting airway diseases, or, more successfully dealing with symptoms of these conditions.
Let’s consider the risk of getting pneumonia (44; 45). By spending more than 2 sessions inside a sauna per week, you’ll lower your risk of getting pneumonia by 21%. Of course, the more healthy lifestyle habits you implement, the more your pneumonia risk naturally goes down.
A second study found even more promising numbers: Two to three sauna sessions per week reduced pneumonia risk by 23% and four sessions or more lowered risk by 47%.
These results are extremely impressive. For other airway conditions too - when “Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease” and asthma are included as well - the risk goes way down (46). Risk declines by 27% with 2-3 sauna sessions per week and by 41% with 4 sessions or more.
COPD, asthma, and pneumonia are the most important airway conditions in existence. Do keep in mind that I’m talking about prevention here. Less research is available on using a sauna during acute problems - I wouldn’t recommend using a sauna without consulting your physician in these cases, once again.
Lastly, other benefits that I haven’t considered yet exist as well. Examples are countering nasal congestion, potentially lowering your risk of neurological conditions such as Parkinson’s disease, countering pain such as lower back pain, managing anxiety, and much more. I recommend exploring our blog section for many other ideas.
Next up, I’ll consider the question “do saunas have any risk”? The answer is “sure”, so let’s explore these risks:
Far Infrared Sauna Risks and Side Effects
Far infrared saunas generally are extremely safe - if and only if you take common sense precautions. In the section below, I’ll explain what precautions you need to take and in which situations side effects might emerge.
Far infrared side effects can emerge in the following situations:
- If you just had a “cardiovascular event” or a very high acute risk thereof (47). In plain English, that means that you just had a heart attack or have pain on your chest. If such situations exist, do not use a sauna but consult with your physician first. In general though, if you don’t have acute heart and blood vessel problems, saunas are extremely safe.
- If you have one or multiple chronic health conditions. The issue here is that saunas place temporary stress on your body. The stress of saunas - just as is the case with exercise - can make you healthier over time (48; 49). The problem, however, is that people who have chronic health conditions have lower stress tolerance. In such cases, you’ll have to build up exposure very slowly or your health might deteriorate in the short term. A gentle approach, such as testing a 5-minute or 10-minute far infrared sauna session first is best. The benefit of far infrared saunas is that they’re far more gentle on your body though, compared to traditional saunas.
- Lower heat tolerance due to nutrient depletion. The number of stored nutrients in your body affects your tolerance to heat. I go into more detail about that principle in my eBook on the eight tips to get the most out of your infrared sauna - check the option above if you’re interested. Salt is also very important as some people lose a lot of salt when they’re sweating heavily. Ensure you ingest at least one teaspoon of salt for every hour you spend inside a sauna. And, eat a nutritionally balanced diet - preferably with single-ingredient organic foods - that are mostly home-prepared.
- Low blood sugar. Spending time inside a sauna burns calories and the body burns calories from glycogen (“sugars”) first. If you’re not used to burning a lot of calories, or if you’ve got problems managing blood sugar (due to pre-diabetes or diabetes), or if you’re fasting, then low blood sugar can be a problem. Simply ensure you take it easier next time or eat sufficiently before a sauna session.
- You’re extremely tired. Well, even elite athletes in their 20s will get shot after spending too much time inside an infrared sauna. And, everyone is different, some people tolerate far infrared exposure extremely well while others - such as the famous Tim Ferris - get tired very easily. Sometimes you simply use a far infrared sauna too much or you don’t respect your body’s boundaries. So you’ll have to cut down on exposure if you’re doing three 30-minute sauna sessions with cold baths in between per day.
- Dehydration. This risk sounds really simple, and yet, some people still don’t drink enough water even though they’re sweating heavily. Depending on the person, you can lose up to several litres of water in a single sauna session - sweat rates vary from person to person. If you’re a heavy sweater, and you’ll know by remembering a hot summer day, then make sure to consume at least 1-2 litres of water for every hour you spend inside the sauna.
- During pregnancy. It’s better to avoid far infrared saunas entirely during the first trimester of pregnancy. During the second and third trimesters, it’s recommended to only spend 10-15 minutes at the maximum in an infrared sauna, with the goal of relaxation. Ensure your body temperature is not raised too much as the fetus doesn’t have the ability to regulate its temperature.
- If you’ve got a fresh tattoo - which has been present for up to eight weeks. The lower layers of your skin recover less quickly than the upper layers, so even if most redness and inflammation are gone, you still need 1-2 weeks of full recovery. Spending time inside a sauna will also fade the tattoos quicker, due to sweating. The sauna benefits almost certainly far outweigh the downsides of a more quickly fading tattoo, however. If you need to learn more, read my blog post on tattoos and saunas.
Overall though, far infrared saunas are extremely safe with normal use. And, now that you understand the far infrared saunas' benefits and potential side effects, let’s conclude:
Conclusion: Why Far Infrared Saunas Are A Game-Changer
The benefits of far infrared saunas are already astounding. Science has currently proven that there are many benefits, ranging from improving athletic performance, helping you relax, countering chronic pain, helping you sleep better, upregulating detoxification, and much more.
It’s very likely that that list of far infrared sauna benefits will be expanded in the future when more research is carried out. For instance, for detoxification, many clinics have far superior results than what is currently demonstrated in the published science.
The future is bright...
Hopefully, you'll learn what benefits a far infrared sauna has for your health soon.