Infrared Sauna Benefits vs Traditional Sauna Benefits – Which is best?

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23 Aug

Introduction

Recently in the UK infrared (IR) saunas have experienced a wave of popularity, being hailed as a cheap alternative to traditional saunas that can offer all same the benefits and more at a fraction of the price. The reality, in fact, is that whilst they can offer some health benefits, IR saunas still cannot match traditional steam saunas in either amount or range of overall health benefits, and certainly not in experience or quality. If you are curious as to exactly why this is, then this is article is the place for you to find out.

Unfortunately, there is a lot of misinformation regarding the benefits and effects of frequent sauna use, especially concerning infrared saunas. The intent of this article is not to sell, but to educate. It aims to provide a clear and well-evidenced account of both infrared and traditional saunas and the differences between them. As such, all information provided here has been compiled based on peer-reviewed and credible scientific publications.

The article itself will outline each sauna’s overall design and differences along with the history, effects, type of use, and misinformation underpinning both types. Most importantly it will also go through the overall benefits gained by using each sauna. By the end, you will have an in-depth and thorough understanding of the fundamental differences between traditional and infrared saunas and be better equipped to make a decision regarding which one is really best for you.

Overview of the traditional and infrared saunas

First things first, what is the difference between a traditional Finnish sauna and an infrared sauna? A traditional Finnish sauna is a wooden room or structure that uses heated stones and water to create a hot and humid atmosphere capable of providing a number of health benefits. This room is often large enough to accommodate a number of people but ultimately can be built to be any size.

The traditional sauna is typically heated to between 70oC and 110oC and it is the heat of the room that causes the person to become warmer and sweat. Water is poured onto heated sauna stones to create the distinctive löyly, or atmosphere, of a traditional steam sauna. This atmosphere can be as humid or as dry as the sauna bather desires - although typically it is kept to around 5% to 15%. Aromatherapy can also be used as part of a traditional sauna session, either occurring naturally due to the presence of birch whisks or a wood-burning sauna heater, or with additional scents and oils which have been added to the water.

People using a traditional Finnish sauna will typically stay in the sauna room for anywhere up to 30 minutes, after which time they may choose to get out and take a cold shower or ‘plunge’ (complete submersion in cold water) before repeating the process as many times as is desired. This cycle of sauna and plunge is used to improve circulation and muscle function, stimulate the immune system, and also release endorphins. [1]

An infrared sauna, sometimes called a far infrared sauna or simply an IR sauna, is a wooden or plastic box which uses infrared ceramic, Incoloy, or carbon panel heaters to emit far-infrared light. This light is then absorbed by the skin’s cells, which experiences it as radiant heat - causing the person to become warmer and sweat. In this way, the sauna utilises radiation in place of the convection and conduction used by traditional saunas.

Sauna factory China

 

Infrared saunas are usually much smaller than other saunas and can usually only accommodate between one and four individuals. The heat itself is usually kept between 50oC and 60oC, with no humidity unless a separate steam generator is added. The result of this is much longer, milder, and usually drier heating sessions compared to what you would experience in a traditional sauna.

Their origins and histories

The traditional sauna’s history stretches back an impressive distance of around 10,000 years. Even in the UK, saunas have been found that can be dated as far back as Neolithic times; an example of one such sauna can be found at Marden henge in Wiltshire. Although these saunas are believed to have been created originally as a type of ‘sweat lodge’ used by a nomadic population that would eventually become Finns, they have been developed a lot over the past few thousand years. Saunas have grown from simple fire pits dug in the ground and enclosed within animal skin tents into impressive specially designed wooden structures. Throughout these changes, however, they have never lost their purpose as places of cleansing, healing, relaxation, social bonding, and overall wellness.

Sweat Lodge Marden henge in Wiltshire

The infrared sauna’s history, on the other hand, is not so impressive or extensive. Despite the name, Infrared saunas are not considered true saunas by almost all sauna societies, especially those in Finland, as they do not use heated air. They were created to fill the demand for saunas in the US, where a combination of insufficient power supplies (US appliances run on 110 volts, whereas UK appliances are approximately 220 volts and European appliances are around 400 volts) and strict flue regulations mean that it is extremely difficult to install a traditional wood-burning sauna. Steam generators were also employed in order to try and replicate the traditional sauna atmosphere, but this has become a decreasingly common addition in recent years. The overall intention was to create a similar experience with similar benefits to those provided by traditional saunas, but with much lower power requirements. Unfortunately, the actual result was a poor imitation that is capable of achieving only a small percentage of the benefits and pleasures of a traditional sauna.

The comparative benefits and effects of both infrared and traditional saunas

The culmination of these fundamental dissimilarities between infrared and traditional saunas concerning both design and history is a considerable difference concerning the extent of their effects. Most notably, although the infrared sauna is defined exclusively by its use of far-infrared radiation, all saunas produce this radiation as a by-product of the energy input needed to generate the heat they use, and often in higher quantities [2].

In fact, traditional saunas often produce this radiation in far higher quantities than actual infrared saunas because, as mentioned earlier, they utilise far greater power supplies which in turn produce more radiation. This means that whilst both saunas have the potential to provide a relaxing and physically beneficial experience, the traditional sauna has far more extensive effects.

The established clinical benefits both infrared and traditional saunas can provide include improvements for cardiovascular disease, rheumatoid diseases, and chronic fatigue and pain syndromes; along with a positive influence on exercise performance, skin moisture barrier properties, and muscle recovery [3]. Then there are the additional benefits that only traditional sauna has been found to provide owing to its distinct arrangement of heat and humidity. These include protection against the risk of developing memory diseases such as dementia and Alzheimer’s [4], reduced pneumonia risk [5], improved arterial stiffness [6], reduced risk of respiratory disease [7].

On top of this, traditional saunas also have been found to have a number of psychological and lifestyle benefits as of yet unmatched by other sauna types, including infrared. In the results of a global sauna survey, it was found that relaxation and stress reduction, mental health improvement, socialization, and sleep improvement were some of the primary reasons most people chose to bath using a traditional sauna [8]. These benefits also extend to areas such as addiction due to the endorphin release caused by the sauna bath, especially when combined with a cold plunge. The result is a strong endorphin rush as you relax, resulting in pleasant feelings of dissociation and relaxation.  

Overall, if the benefits and effects of each sauna were illustrated using a Venn diagram below, there would not be two equal circles each with their own distinct but overlapping effects, but instead a small ‘infrared sauna’ circle enclosed within a much larger ‘traditional sauna’ circle.

The comparative benefits and effects of both infrared and traditional saunas

How each sauna is used

As well as being a place for health and wellbeing, traditional saunas are used in Finland as a place of socialisation with friends and family. This is a tradition that still exists today, with most Finnish families sauna bathing together at least two or three times a week. The sauna is somewhere people can simply relax and be with each other, a place to catch up with friends, and even a place to cement business relations. Whilst many people do frequently sauna alone, the tradition sauna’s social benefits are one of its most striking features and one of the reasons it remains so popular in Finnish culture [8].

most Finnish families sauna bathing together at least two or three times a week

A traditional sauna can also be a very bespoke experience, with many people creating an environment that best serves their needs. The most common way people do this is with the humidity and temperature, as this is determined entirely by how much or how little water an individual decides to place on the heated sauna stones and what temperature they heat the stones to. Then there is also the option of aromatherapy, as the luxury of being able to create your own steam means having the option to add different scents and oils to it.

Overall, much of the pleasure of owning a traditional sauna is discovering what environment is most enjoyable and how you may change this depending on what you want out of a particular sauna session. The intention of many traditional sauna users is to create the famous Finnish löyly, or ‘sauna steam’, as this is considered an irreplaceable facet of true sauna bathing. This steam, combined with good ventilation, is what really makes an enjoyable and authentic sauna experience.

sauna steam

Infrared saunas, on the other hand, are marketing almost entirely as health products. As such, they are limited in their size and only designed to accommodate between one and four people. The amount of control the bather has typically depends on the model of the infrared sauna used, but generally this is very little as temperature and (if available) humidity are set at predetermined and constant levels. Also, unlike in a traditional sauna, where bathers come in and out repeatedly in short sessions of up to 10 minutes, infrared sauna bathers typically remain in the sauna constantly for up to 45 minutes due to the much lower temperatures. This lower temperature also means many companies install radios, CD players, and additional devices to entertain sauna bathers – something that is not possible (but also not needed) in the higher temperatures of traditional saunas.

cd player in an infrared sauna

Public awareness and misinformation

Neither traditional nor infrared saunas are bad, and both can provide useful health benefits. However, there remains a lot of misinformation directed at bringing in sales as opposed to educating people about which type of sauna is really best for them.

Infrared saunas, for example, are good choices for individuals who want a cheap and small sauna that can help with mild muscle relief and relaxation. What they cannot do, however, is provide detoxification (which is a job for the kidneys, liver, GI tract, and immune system – not the sweat-controlling autonomic nervous system), increase immunity, cause weight loss, or improve cellulite appearance. This is a common misconception and most sauna websites that state otherwise (or pay well-known public figures to) are basing their statements on a desire to drive sales, rather than research and evidence.

Unfortunately, there is also much misinformation regarding traditional saunas in the UK. Many UK residents assume or have experienced traditional saunas to be dry and stuffy, and most would refer to a traditional sauna as a ‘dry’ sauna. However, this is misnomer created by what are ultimately poor appropriations of proper Finnish saunas – saunas which are badly constructed with no ventilation, and with heaters that cannot have water poured onto them. When properly constructed using the correct equipment and following Finnish guidelines, a traditional sauna is neither dry nor stuffy. But unfortunately, this is an experience many UK residents using saunas in gyms or health spa’s will not get to enjoy.

Price and construction

One of the first things people notice when deciding between buying a traditional sauna or an infrared sauna is the price; when constructed properly, an infrared sauna will always be cheaper than a traditional sauna. Traditional saunas require expert knowledge to be made properly and are bespoke constructions that cannot be easily mass-produced. As such they are usually made by specialised sauna companies with knowledge of how to properly design, build, insulate, and ventilate a traditional sauna. Infrared saunas, on the other hand, usually come flat-packed and ready to be assembled, with no need for specialised knowledge or skill.

Finnmark Sauna design, build, insulate, and ventilate a traditional sauna

Then there is the matter of materials. Traditional saunas usually come in a much larger range of materials as they are being built and possibly designed from scratch specifically for the customer. Infrared saunas, however, are often far more limited as they are already constructed en masse before being sold.

Moreover, companies dedicated to making traditional saunas and following proper Finnish guidelines will use properly heat and moisture treated woods which have been sustainably sourced, usually from Finland. Using Finnish materials and equipment made by Finnish specialists ensures a high standard of product, as not only have they had thousands of years of practice at sauna construction, but their laws and regulations regarding sauna construction are far more comprehensive than those in the UK.

These standards, however, do not apply to many infrared saunas, which are designed to be cheap. This means customers run a higher risk of receiving lower-quality materials which have been mass-produced using unethically sourced materials in countries such as China. This is the case in most infrared sauna companies, who source their saunas from second party websites such as Alibaba.

Conclusion

In all, there is a reason why traditional saunas are over three times more popular than infrared saunas. And why Finland, the sauna capital of the world, chooses traditional saunas over infrared saunas almost 98% of the time [8]. Ultimately, an infrared sauna just cannot provide the same benefits and quality of product as a traditional steam sauna. That does not mean that they are not without their benefits or that, for some people, they are the better choice of sauna. But for most people, this will not be the case.

Hopefully this article has helped to clarify the differences between traditional saunas and infrared saunas and has left you with an idea of which is the better choice for you. However, if you are still unsure or have further questions, please do not hesitate to contact Finnmark Sauna.

References

[1] Pilch, W et al (2013) ‘Effect of a Single Finnish Sauna Session on White Blood Cell Profile and Cortisol Levels in Athletes and Non-Athletes’ Journal of Human Kinetics (39) pp. 127-135. Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3916915/

[2] Vatanserver, F and Hamblin, M.R. (2012) ‘Far infrared radiation (FIR): its biological effects and medical applications’ Photonics and Lasers in Medicine. (4) pp. 255-266 Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3699878/pdf/nihms426504.pdf

[3] Hussain, J and Cohen, M (2018) ‘Clinical effects of regular dry sauna bathing: A systematic review’ Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine. Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5941775/pdf/ECAM2018-1857413.pdf

[4] Laukkanen, T et al (2017) ‘Sauna bathing is inversely associated with dementia and Alzheimer's disease in middle-aged Finnish men’ Age and Ageing 46(2) pp. 245-249. Available at: https://academic.oup.com/ageing/article/46/2/245/2654230

[5] Kunutsor, S.K. et al (2017) ‘Frequent sauna bathing may reduce the risk of pneumonia in middle-aged Caucasian men: The KIHD prospective cohort study’ Respiratory Medicine (132) pp. 161-163. Available at: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0954611117303578

[6] Laukkanen, T et al (2017) ‘Acute effects of sauna bathing on cardiovascular function’ Journal of human hypertension (32) pp. 129-138. Available at: https://www.nature.com/articles/s41371-017-0008-z

[7] Kunutsor, S et al (2017) ‘Sauna bathing reduces the risk of respiratory diseases: a long-term prospective cohort study’ European Journal of Epidemiology 32(12) pp. 1107-1111. Available at: https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s10654-017-0311-6

[8] Hussain, J. N, Greaves, R.F, Cohen, M (2019) ‘A hot topic for health: Results of the Global Sauna Survey’ Complementary Therapies in Medicine. (44) pp. 223-234. Available at: https://www-sciencedirect-com.ezphost.dur.ac.uk/science/article/pii/S0965229919300998?via%3Dihub

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