As the founder and CEO of Clearlight Infrared Saunas International®, I'm regularly asked my opinion on the infrared sauna vs. Finnish sauna debate. For that reason, I decided to dedicate a short blog post to the topic. I'll tell you which sauna is best for your unique circumstances by digging deeper into the differences that both saunas have.
But let's first look at an infrared sauna - Finnish sauna comparison: where are they the same?
That question is very simple to answer: both saunas are built from woods, ideally quality woods, in a confined room that allows the temperature around your body to rise. But, how that higher temperature is achieved, and the philosophy around it is fundamentally different in a Finnish sauna and an infrared one - so let's explore that difference:
Difference 1: Heating Method
Let's explore how the heating methods of Finnish saunas and infrared saunas are different. First up, Finnish saunas:
Finnish Sauna Heating Method
Finnish Saunas work by heating up sauna rocks that absorb a lot of heat through different means. These means of heating up the sauna rocks include burning wood, coal, or electricity. After the sauna rocks become hot, you can pour water over them. The water evaporates and heats up the air inside the sauna.
As a result, the air around you becomes very hot, and you'll start sweating. Intuitively the heating method of the Finnish sauna is very simple for most people to understand, contrary to "infrared light". So, next up, let's explore the heating method of infrared sauna:
Infrared Sauna Heating Method
Infrared saunas are heated up very differently - infrared sauna always exclusively use electricity for heating. You thus always need to connect your infrared sauna to the electric grid. Your energy bill will go up the more you use it - although even daily use is quite inexpensive!
The aim of an infrared sauna is to convert that electricity into infrared light. But let's take a step back and explain what infrared light is:
The sun also emits infrared light and that light is actually what makes sunlight feel warm on your skin. From a physics perspective, infrared light is literally heat.
In an infrared sauna, different methods exist to convert infrared light into heat though, such as carbon and ceramic heaters. In our sauna models, we combine both for the best combination of different types of infrared light.
So let's consider what these differences in heating methods entail:
Infrared Sauna vs. Finnish Sauna Comparison: Heating Method
The consequence of these different heating methods? Well, I've written a blog post about the differences in the temperature inside different saunas before. Finnish saunas can reach temperatures of up to 100 degrees Celsius, which translates to 212 degrees Fahrenheit (F) (1).
For an infrared sauna, that number is way lower, achieving a 45-60 degree Celsius maximum (113-140F) (2). That 60-degree Celsius threshold will rarely be attained as well, as most infrared saunas don't heat the room temperature beyond 50 degrees Celsius (122F).
You might think: "well, then the choice is easy! I can expose my body to much more heat with a Finnish sauna than an infrared version!" Well, you'd be very wrong in drawing that conclusion because it relies on an oversimplification!
What matters most for getting maximal sauna session benefits is not the temperature of the air around you, but the core temperature of your body instead!
In several scientific studies, it's specifically infrared light directly heating the body and not hot air that is used to push the body's core temperature to its absolute maximum (3; 4; 5). With a steam room, such extreme increases in the core body temperature are not possible to achieve. Also, what's noteworthy is that during this process your head is not heated, as the head is the weak link preventing the core body temperature from achieving higher temperatures.
Clearlight also uses this principle by only aiming the True-Wave II™ heaters at your arms, trunk, and legs, and never on your face or head!
(I've also written an extensive blog post on how the super high core body temperatures can help people counter even a clinical depression, according to the latest science!)
Also, even though the air temperatures of the infrared sauna are lower, many people consider the experience far more gentle. For instance, you don't have to breathe in very hot 90-degree Celsius air in an infrared sauna, but merely 45-degree Celsius air that feels similar to inhaling air during a hot day in a desert. For that reason, the infrared sauna is less harsh on your airways.
Next up, the infrared sauna heats you from the inside out, compared to the outside-in methodology of the Finnish sauna. Want to understand why? Let's therefore explore another important difference between the two sauna types:
Difference 2: The Spectrum Of Health Benefits
So, now I need to dig a little deeper into the topic of infrared light. Three different types of infrared light exist: 1) near infrared; 2) middle infrared; 3) far infrared.
All three types of infrared light affect the body differently, and even within one type, differences can be found according to the wavelength of the light. The sun also emits these three types of infrared light, but with an infrared sauna, you can expose your body in a much more controlled fashion.
So here's the deal: remember I told you infrared light heats you from the inside-out? That statement is literally true because depending on the type of infrared light, it penetrates your skin either millimetres up to 5 centimetres or more (6; 7; 8; 9; 10; 11).
Some of that light will even penetrate your skull, all the way through the bone!
The relationship between different types of infrared light entering the body and the resulting biological effects are extremely complex and far from fully understood. Different tissues are also affected differently depending on the type of exposure.
For instance, near-infrared light with a 900-nanometer wavelength will penetrate very deep into tissue and barely heat it up. Near-infrared light at a 1,000-nanometer wavelength, however, penetrates less deep and is absorbed by water more readily, leading to increased heating.
(Different types of light have different wavelength measurements. Blue light is found in the 400-nanometer plus range, and red light starts in the early 600s.)
But why would you care? Let's explore:
Infrared Sauna vs. Finnish Sauna Comparison: Unique Infrared Light Benefits
Infrared light doesn't merely heat your body up but also affects many biological processes up to the cellular level. Here are three examples:
- While the process is not fully understood, both red light and near infrared light can directly affect the energy-creation process of your "mitochondria" (12; 13; 14). The mitochondria are the energy-producing factories of your cells. The process of how this happens is not fully understood though. For that reason though, a full-spectrum infrared sauna confers the most health benefits, but if your budget doesn't allow it, a high-quality far infrared sauna is a great option too!
- Infrared light exposure, ranging from near infrared to far infrared, can independently improve skin health and appearance (15; 16; 17; 18). Direct studies proving those results for Finnish saunas are harder to find - even though Finnish saunas do confer a tremendous benefit on you for heart and blood vessel health, circulation, lung function, diabetes risk, and much more.
- Some evidence exists that infrared saunas can help your body detoxify at a deeper level, although more research is needed here (19; 20). A reason this thesis may be supported is that infrared light penetrates far deeper into the body.
I hope you see that infrared light can have additional benefits over and above just heating the room and your body. To put this issue into a broader perspective, let me conclude:
Conclusion: You Should Be Buying More Than Hot Air!
I hope I've convinced you that infrared saunas can offer unique benefits that cannot be gotten by using traditional saunas that rely on heating the air around you. Steam rooms are included here.
Now, many foundational scientific studies currently exist looking into the health effects of saunas or how red light or near infrared light affect the biology of your cells currently exist. What's missing though are studies making a direct comparison between traditional saunas and infrared saunas. The latter I'd very much appreciate because I'd like to see the thesis I described above to be validated by independent studies.
Also, more reasons exist to opt for an infrared sauna - a traditional sauna cannot be used without ventilation while an infrared option can. The market also rarely offer 1-person sauna models for Finnish saunas, even though ample options exist if you use infrared light as your modality of choice. You can even buy a very small Clearlight Saunas Dome™ that can be stored under your bed if space doesn't allow it. The infrared therapy options are endless!