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Infrared Workouts Are Trending — But Do They Make Dark Spots Worse?

Jamie Schneider
August 29, 2023
Jamie Schneider
Beauty & Health Editor
By Jamie Schneider
Beauty & Health Editor
Jamie Schneider is the Beauty Editor at mindbodygreen. She has a B.A. in Organizational Studies and English from the University of Michigan, and her work has appeared in Coveteur, The Chill Times, and Wyld Skincare.
profile of a woman workout out on an elliptical machine
Image by Tempura / Istock
August 29, 2023
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Infrared workouts are becoming increasingly popular, and it's not difficult to see why: Infrared heat can help you sweat out toxins and generate hormesis, a type of short, temporary stress that actually makes you more resilient to stress later on. (It's the definition of what doesn't kill you makes you stronger.) A challenging workout (like HIIT) is one of the most efficient ways to both work up a sweat and experience hormesis. Why not fuse the two together? 

So you might see entire fitness studios aglow with red heat lights, meant to quickly warm up your muscles and stimulate cell regeneration. Fun, right? 

Well, not for everyone: Board-certified dermatologist Shereene Idriss, M.D., FAAD, warns that people who struggle with dark spots might want to steer clear—specifically, those prone to melasma. 

How do infrared workouts exacerbate melasma? 

First, let's understand the common skin condition: Melasma is a form of hyperpigmentation that typically manifests as larger patches of skin discoloration, as opposed to smaller dark spots. It tends to crop up on the forehead, cheeks, and upper lip area—also known as the "melasma mustache." It's typically triggered by sun exposure, heat, and hormonal changes (especially around pregnancy). 

Here's where things get nuanced. While UV rays are the most common factor for initial and preexisting melasma patches1, "even heat, in the absence of sun, has been known to cause a flare," board-certified dermatologist Rebecca Marcus, M.D., previously told mbg about the condition

Idriss agrees, which is why she recommends steering clear of infrared light if you struggle with melasma (yes, that includes saunas, trendy workout classes, and even LED devices).

Even though infrared technology is technically anti-inflammatory, "When it comes to melasma specifically, it can induce a chronic inflammatory response," Idriss explains in a recent TikTok. "That allows your blood vessels to then dilate, bringing in more blood, more heat, to your face and allowing your melanocytes to get more stimulated, and your melanoma to worsen in the process." 

Working out already heats up your body, but working out under infrared lights does so at a much quicker rate. This is good news for detoxification—but not so great for melasma-prone skin.

"Infrared light is believed to penetrate the skin more deeply than the heat generated by traditional saunas," Liam Murphy, M.D., a functional doctor at Melbourne Functional Medicine in Australia, says regarding the perks of infrared. This deeper penetration has benefits for general skin health, but for folks with melasma, it might result in more flares. 

What to do about it

Now, you could argue that any type of high-intensity exercise can theoretically make melasma worse, as your body heats up when your heart rate increases. That may be true, but you can prevent those brown spots from forming by cooling your skin down post-workout (à la a hydrating face mist or gel mask). 

You can also avoid any type of heated exercise, like infrared workouts and hot yoga so as to not exacerbate the hyperpigmentation. That's not to say you can't ever book a hot yoga class ever again—just be mindful of those melasma triggers and try to cool your skin down immediately after class. 

But as we mentioned, infrared light has plenty of benefits—from stimulating hormesis to aiding detoxification to even promoting faster muscle recovery2 after exercise. If you want to take advantage of these perks, please go right ahead! One infrared workout or two won't thwart your melasma journey too much.

"I personally don't make a habit of using any sort of steam bath, sauna, or infrared light device, but every once in a while, knock yourself out," agrees Idriss.

After all, the best type of exercise (for your skin and full body) is the one you'll commit to; if an infrared workout is what inspires you to get up and move, then so be it. You can always snag one of these dark spot correctors to treat the discoloration after the fact. 

The takeaway 

As infrared workouts become more mainstream, it's important to weigh the benefits and potential side effects from the heated exercise. At the end of the day, assess them as you would a hot yoga class: If the heated room tends to make your melasma worse, you might want to think twice before jumping right into infrared exercise. Otherwise, feel free to light it up. 

Jamie Schneider author page.
Jamie Schneider
Beauty & Health Editor

Jamie Schneider is the Beauty Editor at mindbodygreen. She has a B.A. in Organizational Studies and English from the University of Michigan, and her work has appeared in Coveteur, The Chill Times, and more. In her role at mbg, she reports on everything from the top beauty industry trends, to the gut-skin connection and the microbiome, to the latest expert makeup hacks. She currently lives in Brooklyn, New York.