Infrared vs. Traditional Sauna: Which Is Better? Experts Weigh In
There's a lot to love about saunas. For starters, they're relaxing—but they also come with a ton of benefits, such as improved cardiovascular health and immune function1. So, which is the better pick when comparing infrared saunas to traditional saunas?
They're both great forms of heat therapy, but the two have a few key differences. If you've wondered how much of an impact the infrared actually has on the outcome of your sweat session, you've come to the right place.
The difference between infrared vs. traditional saunas
Casey Kelley, M.D., founder, and medical director at Case Integrative Health in Chicago, says the difference between traditional and infrared saunas is actually fairly straightforward.
"A regular sauna heats the air in the room first, thus, heating your body within it," she explains. These saunas typically use wood or stones, which are then heated by fire, gas, or electricity.
Traditional saunas can also vary in humidity levels. "Some have very dry air, while others utilize higher levels of humidity," Kelley elaborates.
Infrared saunas often function at a lower temperature than traditional saunas. "An infrared sauna uses infrared light to heat your body directly without heating the rest of the room," Kelley adds.
Comparing the research
"There are far more studies on regular saunas, but so far, studies on infrared saunas imply that the benefits may be similar," says Tanmeet Sethi, M.D., a board-certified integrative family medicine physician and clinical associate professor at the University of Washington School of Medicine. "[And] the benefits of a regular sauna are vast and quite impressive."
Sethi explains that most research on saunas comes from Finland, where sauna usage is a part of their culture. "Benefits are mostly through the mode of improvement in cardiovascular health through reduction in blood pressure, improvement in endothelial function, reduction in inflammation, and improved arterial compliance," she says.
Per Sethi, these benefits are linked to better sleep, cardiorespiratory function, improved immune system health, lower risk of neurocognitive disease, and "even improved pain and muscle recovery after injury."
"I think of it as a way to get cardiac exercise without movement, which is really an exciting prospect for those with less mobility," Sethi adds.
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Infrared saunas: A deep dive
Compared to traditional saunas, one benefit of infrared saunas is that their light may penetrate deeper into the skin. "Infrared light is believed to penetrate the skin more deeply than the heat generated by traditional saunas," explains Liam Murphy, M.D., a functional doctor at Melbourne Functional Medicine in Australia.
Murphy shares that this deeper penetration may promote improved circulation, relaxation, and cellular healing. "Proponents of far-infrared saunas claim that the deep penetration of infrared light can aid in detoxification by promoting the release of toxins stored in fat cells," he explains.
However, Murphy also points out that more research needs to be done to fully support these benefits.
Another benefit of infrared saunas is that they often run at lower temperatures than traditional saunas. "This can make them more comfortable for individuals who find the high temperatures of traditional saunas difficult to tolerate," Murphy says.
Infrared sauna health benefits
Research has linked infrared saunas with the following health benefits:
When to use an infrared sauna
Infrared saunas should be safe to use as long as you are not pregnant or under the influence of alcohol or drugs, have a fever, or have any other existing health conditions that could be negatively affected by sauna usage. If you're not sure, it's always best to check with your medical provider.
Infrared saunas can be especially beneficial for those looking to ease sore muscles after workouts, people with chronic pain, or individuals just interested in relaxing. Those who prefer a sauna with lower temperatures may also want to go with an infrared sauna.
Potential cons of an infrared sauna
According to Kelley, most potential downsides of infrared saunas are related to user errors. "Meaning, individuals stay in too long," she warns. "This can lead to dehydration and overheating."
Traditional saunas: A deep dive
One key benefit of traditional saunas? They've been around for thousands of years, so there's a lot more research behind them.
"Compared to infrared saunas, there has been a much greater amount of research carried out on traditional saunas," Murphy agrees. "Therefore, much more definite claims can be made about the health benefits of traditional saunas."
Kelley also shares that traditional saunas may be more accessible and easier to find.
Traditional sauna health benefits
Research has linked traditional saunas to the following health benefits:
When to use a traditional sauna
If you don't mind more elevated temperatures, a traditional sauna may be right for you. Like infrared saunas, traditional saunas can be used to soothe muscles, relax, and improve cardiovascular health and can also make for a great detox method.
Potential cons of a traditional sauna
Per Kelley, cons associated with traditional saunas are similar to those of infrared saunas. "Many of the cons of a traditional sauna arise from staying in too long and getting dehydrated or overheated," she says.
She also stresses that you should steer clear of saunas in general if you're under the influence of drugs or alcohol or have a fever. "As with infrared saunas, pregnant women should also consult with their OB/GYN before use."
Murphy adds that, compared to infrared saunas, traditional saunas may be more costly and can be impractical to have at home. "[Also] because a much higher heat is required compared to infrared saunas, some people may find traditional saunas more uncomfortable."
Infrared vs. traditional saunas: Our verdict
"While infrared saunas may prove to be superior to traditional saunas for detoxification, due to the deeper penetration of infrared rays, currently, not enough research has been performed to demonstrate this," Murphy says.
However, research indicates that sauna use, in general, points to significant health benefits and increased longevity. "So, whether one is better than the other will ultimately come down to personal preference," he confirms.
Kelley echoes this sentiment. "At the end of the day, the best sauna to use is the one that is available to you," she mentions. She says that, in general, traditional saunas may be more accessible, but those who do not enjoy sitting in such high temperatures may lean toward infrared saunas.
Combination of infrared and traditional saunas
If you're curious if it's OK to use a combination of infrared and traditional saunas, you may be happy to hear that the answer is yes. "It is perfectly safe and effective to use both," says Murphy.
To really maximize the benefits, well-being enthusiasts love to use saunas in combination with cold plunge tubs.
How to use a sauna
Kelley says to keep the below tips in mind when using a traditional or infrared sauna:
- Hydrate: Drink one to two glasses before your sauna session to lessen the chances of dehydrating. "I like to add extra electrolytes and trace minerals to my water bottle when in the sauna as well to replace the good parts that can get lost in sweat," Kelley says.
- Wear loose-fitting clothing: Skip the skin-tight clothing and instead go for loose-fitting tops and bottoms made from breathable fabrics.
- No jewelry: Remove all jewelry before your sauna session. Kelley says that the heat from the sauna may quickly heat up metals, which can be painful.
- Slow and steady: Don't feel like you need to stay in the sauna for long stretches of time right from the beginning. Instead, start small and increase session lengths gradually. "A first-time user should start at 10 minutes, and you can gradually increase the time to 30 minutes," Kelley says.
How long to stay in a sauna
Regarding infrared saunas, Kelley recommends starting slow. Beginners should start with 15-minute sessions or lower if they are very sensitive to heat, twice per week. "Once your body adjusts, you can increase the frequency and length of sessions," she says.
For traditional saunas, you can start with 10-minute sessions a few times weekly and then build up from there. "You can increase time and frequency as you get used to it," Kelley advises.
Sethi says that, based on data, the "magic number" of sauna usage may be four 20-minute sessions per week at approximately 175 to 185 degrees Fahrenheit. However, she adds that research has found even one session per week beneficial.
"So the overall message is to do what you can, but if you can get up to four [sessions per week], that is where you will see even more benefit," Sethi says.
How to get the benefits of saunas from home
Good news: If you don't have a traditional sauna nearby or don't want to spend the money, you can easily recreate one right in your bathroom.
"One way to make a DIY sauna is with your bathtub," Kelley explains. Simply close the bathroom door (seal any door cracks with a towel) and fill your bathtub with hot water. The steam will then fill the room.
"Breathe deeply and relax!" Kelley says. "You can stay in for about 10 to 15 minutes—just make sure you hydrate when you get out."
If you're interested in bringing the infrared sauna home but don't have the space, Kelley points out that infrared sauna blankets are a great substitute.
"Essentially, as the name implies, sauna blankets are saunas you wrap around yourself, similar to a sleeping bag, allowing you to target every inch of your body," she explains. "If you buy a high-quality sauna blanket, they do work well."
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Sauna safety precautions
Kelley reiterates that hydration is one of the most important things to consider when using saunas. "You'll be sweating a lot, so prepare your body by drinking a glass of water or two before use," she says.
Per Kelley, you may want to remove any jewelry as metal may heat up quickly in the sauna. "Also, avoid wearing anything tightfitting," she adds, "Choose something loose and comfortable!"
Remember, if the heat ever feels too hot to you, you can always step out.
Who should avoid saunas?
Pregnant women may want to avoid both infrared and traditional saunas, as well as infrared sauna blankets and hot tubs. You should also not use any form of sauna, including an infrared sauna blanket if you're under the influence of drugs and alcohol or have a high fever.
Kelley also adds that those with heat intolerance or orthostatic blood pressure conditions must exercise extreme caution in saunas and check in with their doctor before using one.
"Certain medications can also affect your response [to saunas]," Kelley mentions. "So again, please talk to your physician prior to use."
Additionally, men who are having issues with conception may not want to partake in sauna sessions. Murphy shares that sperm count may drop if testicles are exposed to high temperatures for a prolonged period of time. "However, these numbers tend to recover after this time frame," he assures.
What type of sauna is healthiest?
There is more research to support the health benefits of traditional saunas (decreased risk of developing dementia and improved immune health, to name a few) than infrared saunas.
What are the dangers of infrared saunas?
Kelley says the dangers of infrared saunas are mostly linked to user errors. For example, staying in for too long or not hydrating well enough before and during sauna use. To minimize risk, be sure to hydrate (preferably with electrolytes) before entering a sauna and don't stay in the heat longer than you feel comfortable.
Is it OK to infrared sauna every day?
Murphy shares that for those living without underlying health conditions, using either type of sauna every day should be safe. "In fact, studies have shown compounding benefits of more regular consistent sauna use in general," he says.
Can you get in a sauna with clothes on?
Yes. Loose-fitting, breathable clothing works best for steamy sauna sessions.
Both traditional and infrared saunas can have positive effects on your health. Sauna sessions have been linked with improved mood, increased immune function, and better sleep quality, to name a few. If you're interested in picking up a sauna for yourself, take a look at our best infrared saunas roundup.
Brittany Natale is a freelance writer who covers topics such as wellness, fitness, lifestyle, food, beauty, and more. After graduating with a B.S. in Advertising and Marketing Communications from the Fashion Institute of Technology, she started a career in writing and research. With over 8 years of experience, her byline often appears in publications such as SELF, Popsugar, i-D, Teen Vogue, Domino, Martha Stewart, and Eat This, to name a few. Born and raised in NYC, when she is not writing you can find her exploring the city, visiting her local library, or getting her steps in at The Met.