Traditional vs. Infrared Saunas: Which is Best for Healing?

Although sauna use has been a traditional relaxation and health practice in many cultures for centuries, in recent years they have made a big splash in the health and wellness community as facilitators for deeper healing. In this article I will give a rundown of the different types of saunas, how they work, the benefits of each type, and how to pick out your own sauna.

What is a sauna?

A sauna is a small space or room filled with hot air, steam, or light waves that cause the production of sweat, deep relaxation and other physiological effects on the body. The temperature in a sauna can range from 100-212° F, and are commonly used in durations of a few minutes to a half-hour depending on the type and effect desired. Saunas are sometimes used in rotation with periods of recovery at room-temperature or a cooling practice like a cold shower or plunge.

Radiant heat saunas

Modern radiant heat saunas trace their design and history from Finland, where small wooden huts were warmed by hot stones. Today, wood-paneled rooms (usually cedar) and an electric heater covered with stones create a similar effect.

Radiant heat saunas use hot air to heat the body from the outside. Compared to the other types of saunas, they operate at the highest temperatures (158-212° F). In some saunas, steam can be produced by pouring water over the rocks. There are usually benches at two different heights in the room, so that the user can choose how much heat they experience.

Traditional practices using radiant heat saunas sit in the sauna for 5-20 minutes and either recover in a cooler room or do a cooling practice like a cold plunge or shower. This cycle is typically repeated 2-4 times.

Steam saunas

Steam saunas operate similarly to radiant heat saunas, except the room is at 100% humidity and operate at a lower temperature (110-130° F). The inability for sweat to evaporate makes this style of sauna feel much hotter than they actually are.

In this type of sauna, steam is created by using a steam generator and the room is usually tiled instead of wooden.

Infrared and FAR infrared saunas

Infrared saunas operate quite differently than radiant or steam saunas. They generate light from the infrared portion of the spectrum of light.

In this type of sauna, infrared light heats the body from the inside (instead of hot air or steam to heat the body from the outside). They operate at the lowest temperatures (100-130° F), are dry and produce the least amount of sweating.

There are two main types of these saunas. In a regular infrared sauna, incandescent heat lamps are used to create heat, emitting mostly NEAR-infrared energy, which penetrates tissues inside the body. In a FAR-infrared sauna, ceramic or metallic heating elements are used to create heat emitting mostly FAR-infrared energy, which does not penetrate as far into tissues, but may have other benefits.

Since these types of saunas are quite new, there are no standard temperature and duration ranges and use varies considerably. Proponents say that the health benefits are the same even though sweating is reduced due to the infrared energy penetrating tissues in the body.

Health benefits of using a sauna

It is important to note that most of the body of research about the effects of sauna use are on traditional radiant heat saunas and not infrared saunas. Although many infrared sauna manufacturers and proponents make health claims, I had a very difficult time finding much peer-reviewed evidence showing clear positive benefits with regular use.

Among some of the benefits of regular sauna use are:

  • Benefits for those with cardiovascular disease (lower risk of disease, higher exercise tolerance, and lower markers of oxidative stress)
  • Lower blood pressure
  • Improved fitness
  • Pain relief
  • Relief from anxiety and depression
  • Detoxification
  • Relaxation

I think sauna use is a particularly interesting tool for those with autoimmune disease because we tend to struggle with the ability to engage in an exercise routine, due to pain, mobility, or energy fluctuations. A lot of the benefits of regular sauna use are similar to those of exercising. While I don’t think sauna use can replace an exercise, I do think incorporating sauna use with an autoimmune-friendly exercise routine (like walking, yoga, stretching, and mobility work) might make some breakthroughs for those who find more intense exercise not possible for them.

It should be noted that if you have any health condition you should talk to your doctor before starting sauna use. Pregnant women, those with heat sensitivity, or anyone under the influence of alcohol should not use a sauna.

Which type of sauna is right for you?

If you decide to incorporate using a sauna in your wellness routine, I recommend trying the different types before you make a purchase so that you can pick the one that feels the best to you.

You don’t need to own a sauna to get the benefit of using one. You might have a membership to a gym that offers some sort of sauna for you to use regularly, or you might see a practitioner at a wellness center that has a sauna and sells packages for regular use. You also might have a spa or a sauna facility near you that sells day passes or memberships.

If you decide to purchase your own, your options vary from affordable, portable tent-like versions to extensive, built-in models. I’ve even heard of people making their own radiant heat and infrared saunas! You can spend as little as $200 or as much as $10,000.

In the end, the best type of sauna for you is going to be the one that you enjoy and use regularly. A lot of people get caught up in the argument of which type is better for whatever reason. Instead, I’d encourage you to try the different types and if you see some benefits, consider going after the one that makes you feel the best. We don’t really have enough science available yet to determine definitively which one is superior than the other.

My experience using a sauna

I decided to purchase a traditional radiant-heat sauna after both trying different types of saunas extensively and doing research online. While I had heard a lot of people in the wellness community talking about the benefits of infrared saunas, I personally didn’t feel as good after using them as I did when I used a radiant heat sauna. Initially I thought I wouldn’t tolerate the heat well, but I found that I actually crave heat and sweating paired with cold showers. The infrared sauna felt relaxing, but the effects didn’t last the way that radiant heat sauna use did for me.

Personally, I use my radiant-heat sauna (I have this one) at a temperature of 150-175° degrees fahrenheit for 12-15 minutes, and then I take a 5-10 minute cool-down period after a cool shower and repeat this 2-3 times for about one hour total per session. I’m working up to getting the showers to be colder and colder, and my experience is that this compounds the benefits.

To me, using the sauna is like a “reset button” for my brain – while I am in there I close my eyes, meditate, and relax. Many times I enter the sauna in a stressed state, but by the end of the hour I feel balanced and myself again. I usually don’t sweat much the first session (resistance to sweating is common with Hashimoto’s thyroiditis) but by the final session of the day, I have usually worked up a great sweat and I’ve noticed I start sweating earlier the more I use the sauna. I also feel less muscle and joint pain, improved sleep (especially when I use the sauna before bed), and better moods.

I enjoy my sauna routine because it feels like exercise and stress management combined. Like I mentioned above, with chronic illness or autoimmune disease we often aren’t able to exercise because of low energy, pain, or mobility issues. I feel like using a sauna, especially with alternating cold showers or therapy, I can still “exercise” my heart and work up a sweat without expending energy or causing pain. In addition, I leave a sauna session feeling relaxed and refreshed, as opposed to worn out as exercise can do. This is one of my favorite reasons to use a sauna!

Have you used any type of sauna in your healing journey? I’d love to know more about how it has benefitted you in the comments!

Further Reading:

http://archive.foundationalmedicinereview.com/publications/16/3/215.pdf
https://chriskresser.com/the-health-benefits-of-saunas/
https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007%2Fs10067-008-0977-y

About Mickey Trescott

Mickey Trescott is a cook and one of the bloggers behind Autoimmune Wellness. After recovering from her own struggle with both Celiac and Hashimoto’s disease, adrenal fatigue, and multiple vitamin deficiencies, Mickey started to write about her experience to share with others and help them realize they are not alone in their struggles. She is a certified Nutritional Therapy Practitioner by the Nutritional Therapy Association, and is the author of The Autoimmune Paleo Cookbook, a guide and recipe book for the autoimmune protocol, and AIP Batch Cook, a video-based batch cooking program. You also can find her on Instagram.

20 comments

  • Larisa says

    I have a far infrared sauna and really enjoy the deep heat without the hot air like traditional saunas. I chose the infrared because I could assemble in my garage nook and it’s less than $1 in electricity for an hour session. In winter it makes a noticeable difference in my joint pain levels and muscle stiffness, whicj helps with sleep.
    I’m on disability, making money fixed and tight. A local massage therapist trades me massage time for her using the sauna. That’s the unexpected benefit of the sauna, getting a different self care treat that I can’t afford and helping someone else with their own self care.

    • Mickey Trescott says

      Larisa,
      I’m glad you found a setup that works for you, and what an awesome trade!

  • I love the idea of using a sauna, but I’m very sensitive to temperature so I feel like it wouldn’t be a good fit for me. Exercising is very difficult for me to do because of my chronic fatigue, difficulty standing/sitting up, and how much I’m effected by exertion. But swimming is something I’ve started that helps me so much. I find water to be so calming and it really helps my joint pain. I go to my local YMCA and swim just a few laps and my mental health and physical health always feel better after. Plus, I’ve tried sitting in the hot tub for a few minutes and then going back into the regular pool and that’s something I’ve been able to do. I really appreciate this article because sometimes I can be hard on myself for not doing “normal” exercise that other people do, but it reminded me I need to do what makes me feel my best.

    • Mickey Trescott says

      Lauren,
      I understand it isn’t for everyone, and honestly a few years ago while I was still in a deep healing phase I think my experience would be different. It sounds like you have found an exercise routine and begun to play with a little hot/cold therapy in a way that works for your body – which is what it is all about! Wishing you the best.

  • Suzanne says

    How did you see if Infrared sauna worked for you? I hear a lot about Jovv but there is not anything like that to go try before buying. Any ideas??

    • Interesting article! I tend to get better sweating with an infrared sauna, but I still prefer the traditional radiant heat sauna, or the steam room. Like you experienced, I think the effects last a bit longer. Our local YMCA has both a radiant heat sauna and a steam room (which I don’t like! The steam is too thick, and I feel like I can’t breathe), and a spa that I go to has a very nice steam room (I love theirs!), and my massage therapist has a FAR infrared sauna that she allows clients to purchase time in, so I’ve tried them all. For Suzanne: There may be places in your community that have infrared saunas that allow you to purchase time so you can try them out. Look at massage therapists, chiropractor offices, spas, and gyms in your local area.

      • Mickey Trescott says

        Thanks for sharing your tips Cindy! I misread your question Suzanne — Some of the infrared saunas I tried were those my friends owned, others in wellness centers and spas.

    • Mickey Trescott says

      Hi Suzanne! I tried infrared saunas over 10 times, different brands and types. I just didn’t notice as many positive effects as when I used a traditional hot sauna. For me, I notice the positives to come from the high heat, sweating, and alternating with cold therapy (plunge or shower) which I just didn’t get from the infrared saunas. I have never tried a Jovv.

  • Jennifer says

    I grew up taking traditional Finnish saunas (wood burning) in the UP at my Aunt’s camp at the lake during the summer and after skiing in the winter. They are an important part of my Scandinavia heritage and even the proper pronounciation (sow-na not saw-na) is a sensitive area to people of Scandinavia heritage.

    As someone who suffers from multiple chronic heath ailments (and yes! Is so thankful you AIP!), I am a huge advocate for the use of sauna to de-stress, detox and cleanse the mind, spirit and body.

    To anyone interested in learning the history of saunas and their presence in the North Woods, please read The Opposite of Cold.

    Thank you for all that you do! Jennifer

    • Mickey Trescott says

      Thanks for sharing that resource Jennifer! I had the chance to use a traditional wood fired sauna when in Sweden two years ago, it was an amazing experience!

  • Pat says

    I am trying to wrap my brain on this scaraderma
    diagnoses. Getting cold and going into winter won’t be easy as I saw this past Sat. I was out in the cold and knew I had to get warm. My right hand had the fingers go dumb and white. This hand was my better one. Dressing in layers I think will help.
    I am going to the Y here in town next week and seee if I can get a little release and feel better.
    Thanks

    • Mickey Trescott says

      Hi Pat! My sauna came in May this year and I didn’t use it much over the hot summer, but I am looking forward to having it for those really cold winter days (similarly, those with Hashimoto’s can get super cold hands and feet). I suggest going slow and starting out with only a few minutes to see how your body reacts. Good luck!

  • Melissa says

    My husband and I recently built a wood stove sauna, and it may be a coincidence but after using it a few times I actually lost a couple pounds! No matter what I did before, I couldn’t get past that plateau weight number. It takes me a while to work up a sweat too due to having Hashimoto’s, but once I break that barrier it feels so therapeutic. I think it is a great mind-body-soul healing tool if used properly.

    • Mickey Trescott says

      Melissa,
      Thanks for sharing your experience! I’m glad it is helping you on your healing journey.

  • Jeanette Tilley says

    I can’t afford to buy a sauna and would love to make a sauna for myself but I am really worried about EMFs from it. Have you seen any science as to why certain types radiate more EMFs than others? I have seen some on-line to construct but can you recommend any on line that are easy to make and good quality. Thanks soo much! Looking forward to some warmth this winter. I am always soo cold even though I live in Georgia!

    • Mickey Trescott says

      Hi Jeanette! I have a traditional sauna with a stove so there is no electronics in the paneling (just electricity to the heating unit on the floor). I’m not well versed in EMFs and how to avoid them in construction, wish I could help more!

  • Anni says

    Hi Mickey and greetings from a grateful reader from Finland! Finding AIP has been life changing! 🙂 I wonder if you could help me with one thing or maybe guide me to someone for consultancy? I’ve been doing elimination diet for 67 days and had a HUGE improvement in my GI symptoms. I started reintroductions after 30 days but went back on elimination because I think my gut needed more time to heal. Now it’s 70-80% better and it feels so good (and weird?!) after suffering for almost 20 years!

    I’m 33 yo and have a quite large goiter, no diagnosed autoimmune disease (TSH 0.55, T4 15.14, TPOAb 29), but for many years I have had fatigue, brain fog and mild depression. I recently started taking iron and B12 to see if they help (ferritin 46, B12 195, B12 transcobal. 46.4.). Now I’m wondering if I could start reintroductions again. Even a few things (for example yolks) would make my life a lot easier because I have to travel a lot. I’m in China at the moment with no possibility to cook my own food and this sure is tricky. The thing I’m wondering is, if it’s enough that ”only” my GI symptoms have improved or should I wait longer to see if my other symptoms (energy levels, mood) improve too? I think my goiter has decreased in size. I’m not sure if that’s even possible but it sure feels and looks like it?! If I start reintroductions now, is there a risk that I might be adding foods that my gut is fine with but still are harmful to me? Or do the symptoms usually go hand in hand? I’m planning to do reintroductions really slowly and add just a few things at first.

    Thank you so much!

    Best, Anni

    • Mickey Trescott says

      Hey Anni!
      Thanks for the comment! I wish I could address some of your questions, but since I am neither a medical practitioner nor do I have enough info to make coaching recommendations I can’t really advise. I do know that a lot of folks have made the decision to either do an early reintroduction of a food that will make life a LOT easier traveling (like eggs or rice!) as well as make some reintroductions before they make a huge dent in their symptoms. I would say a big difference in your gut health is a huge sign! With thyroid issues, I highly, highly recommend finding a practitioner who can look at your lab work and advise if you need medication, or see how your levels are doing with any dietary changes. Sending you good vibes and a swift recovery! -M

      • Anni says

        Thank you for the reply Mickey! I’m in Australia now, and doing strict AIP is a lot easier than in China! I found this amazing AIP compliant (I think?) coconut yoghurt, here. You probably know this one already, but if not, it’s called Coyo. They sell it in US too. Quite expensive, but soooo good!

        • Mickey Trescott says

          Hi Anni! I actually discovered CoYo in Australia when I was visiting a couple of years ago, and they now have their product in the US too! It is a good one!

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