There is a lot of debate over which type of sauna is better: infrared saunas vs traditional saunas. Both have their own unique benefits and drawbacks, so it ultimately depends on your specific needs and preferences.
Some people prefer the traditional sauna experience because of its hot, humid air. Others prefer the modern infrared sauna due to a lower temperature being more comfortable without compensating any benefits.
In this blog, we'll debate the pros and cons of the infrared sauna vs traditional – subjectively and scientifically – to demonstrate how infrared saunas are in fact superior to traditional saunas.
Sauna History: What came first, Traditional Sauna or Infrared Sauna?
Traditional saunas were created first with the earliest known sauna structures to have existed around 2,000 BC in the region of Northern Europe. The history of traditional saunas is rooted in our ancestral evolution, with sauna bathing playing a vital role in many ancient cultures.
The infrared sauna is said to have originated from John Harvey Kellogg in the early 1890s through what he called Incandescent Light Baths. However, it wasn't until the mid-1960s in Japan did ceramic far infrared heaters get used specifically for treatments.
If you haven't seen one by now, an infrared sauna typically looks like a small room with a few benches inside. The walls, ceiling, and floor are all made of wood, and there is a door that leads in and out of the sauna. Infrared heaters line the walls inside the cabin and come in a variety of shapes and sizes, however, they all have one common goal: to emit infrared radiation. Many infrared saunas today include some form of lighting such as Clearlight's medical-grade chromotherapy. Exclusively to Clearlight Saunas is the Red Light Therapy and Halotherapy upgrades that can be retrofitted to a Clearlight Sauna.
Infrared Sauna vs Traditional Sauna heating difference
One of the most notable differences between infrared saunas and traditional saunas is the way in which they generate heat. Traditional saunas use steam heaters to produce heat from either wood-fired ovens or electrical hot rocks, with cold water being poured over them to create high-heat steam.
Infrared saunas operate with infrared rays to create heat and this difference is what gives this type of sauna many of its unique benefits.
How do Traditional Saunas heat the body?
Traditional sauna heating system uses steam to produce heat, which in turn heats the body. When you step into a hot room, the hot air increases your core temperature as it begins to sweat, and this also activates the cardiovascular system. Your skin starts to sweat, and the sweat then evaporates, which causes the body to cool down.
How does Traditional Sauna heat work?
The purpose of a traditional sauna is to heat the moisture in the air as high as it can go, to increase the temperature of the room.
When you step into a traditional sauna, the surrounding hot air makes direct contact with your skin and raises your core temperature. This is also known as convection heating. In convection heating, an object heats up from direct contact with the hot air. A very effective method for heating a large, open area.
Traditional saunas and steam saunas are typically heated using heated stones and water which allows for extremely high heat – the top reason why people choose a traditional sauna.
Does Sauna heat = Sauna benefits?
No, the hotter the sauna does not mean more benefits. The myths around higher air temperatures for greater sauna benefits have been busted over recent years.
Studies have found that body temperature produces health benefits, not air temperature. More efficient and safe ways to raise the core temperature are by infrared rays. Sauna use without exposure to extremely high room temperatures can provide the same – if not more – benefits. To understand this, we first have to look at how the temperature in a sauna is measured.
How is Sauna temperature measured?
Sauna thermometers are an important part of the sauna experience, after all, you don't want the sauna too hot or too cold. All have one common goal: to measure the temperature inside the sauna. Some are digital, while others are analog, some are designed to be mounted on the wall, while others can be handheld.
How does a Sauna thermometer work?
A thermometer works by using mercury to measure the change in temperature. The metal strip that runs through the thermometer is filled with mercury, and when the temperature changes, the metal strip expands or contracts. This expansion or contraction is what moves the mercury up or down the thermometer, and this is what ultimately measures the change in temperature. Why does this matter?
How does infrared work?
Infrared saunas are different. Utilising advanced technology that has been around since the late 1800s, infrared saunas specifically heat the core body temperature using infrared light. Infrared light bypasses the skin to cause the water molecules in the body to vibrate, which is how infrared saunas produce heat. This is a more gentle process than traditional saunas, which can be harsh on the skin. Additionally, infrared saunas produce lower temperatures in the cabin because they bypass the heating of the air, making them extremely more energy-efficient at heating the body, a better option for people who are sensitive to heat and a more relaxing experience.
Pros & Cons: Infrared Sauna heat vs Traditional Sauna heat
Pro: Infrared light heats the core body directly, keeping the cabin air temperature low for a more comfortable experience for longer session times.
Con: Some people prefer to have the harsh hot air for more of a 'mental' challenge.
Pro: Infrared sauna heaters do not waste energy heating the air, making them more energy efficient.
Con: Some people like the cultural experience of pouring water onto hot rocks.
Pro: Traditional saunas heat up the air more quickly.
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Difference between Traditional and Infrared Saunas Health Benefits
Infrared sauna companies have long been debating the advantages that infrared heat provides for health benefits in comparison to traditional steam saunas. Traditional and infrared saunas do contain a majority of the same benefits from a scientific point of view.
Infrared Sauna Benefits
While the sauna benefits of heat therapy remain the same, infrared light has many additional properties that make infrared saunas superior to traditional saunas when comparing the sheer number of health and wellness benefits available. This includes:
Pro: Infrared saunas and traditional saunas both heat the core temperature to provide the most health benefits.
Pro: Infrared heat bypasses heating the air for a more effective core body temperature rising.
Con: Infrared light doesn't heat the cabin during sauna use unlike a traditional sauna - which creates a heated room of extreme temperatures.
Infrared and Traditional Saunas: Sauna Therapy Similarities
Traditional and infrared saunas are a type of therapy known as heat therapy - the application of heat. Infrared and traditional sauna bathing creates deep relaxation and stress reduction, supports weight loss, and activates the cardiovascular system to lower blood pressure and improve blood flow. While the heating system intended to do this may differ - heated air vs infrared light - the effects on the human body remain the same.
Traditional sauna session Vs an infrared sauna session
Now that we've explained how a traditional sauna provides the sauna bather with health benefits in comparison to an infrared sauna, let's explore what this actually looks like in a sauna session.
Traditional steam sauna bathing
To use a traditional steam sauna, you first need to heat up the rocks with water. Then, once the sauna is hot enough, you can enter and sit on the benches. You can pour water onto the hot rocks to create steam or sprinkle water over yourself for a cooling effect. Also known as a wet sauna or regular sauna, the temperature difference during sauna use is notably higher than in an infrared sauna. Therefore your sessions will typically be shorter, and more intense and cause a higher chance of dehydration, heatstroke and related risks.
Infrared sauna therapy sessions
Modern saunas like far infrared saunas and full spectrum infrared saunas are your typical regular dry sauna bathing experience. Where you can have water everywhere traditional, dry saunas have very little to no moisture or water inside the cabin - only on your skin. Because infrared emitters target the body directly the sauna room remains at a comfortable temperature allowing sauna bathers to use an infrared sauna longer than a typical steam room or traditional steam sauna. If you're interested in learning how to maximise the different health benefits of infrared sauna use, we have a range of how-to sauna articles for you to read.
Pros and cons of steam and infrared saunas - sauna experience
Pro: Infrared sauna sessions are dry and easier to participate in for longer
Con: Water is not suitable inside the cabin due to electrical components and soft timber
Pro: Infrared sauna uses less electricity
Con: Infrared sauna has a longer heat-up time
Which sauna is best for your wallet?
It comes as no surprise that an infrared (IR) sauna is a lot cheaper to purchase, build, run and maintain than your traditional sauna. This is mainly because a regular sauna is a complete structural build and professional craftsmanship and electrical and drainage work must be done correctly. With IR saunas, however, most components come in a flat-packaged and easy-to-assemble manner that is simply plug-n-play so to speak. Typically you would be looking at a purchase price of around $10,000 for a premium infrared sauna and anywhere upwards of $20,000 for a premium traditional sauna.
Running costs of sauna therapy
Notably, infrared sauna use is extremely cheap - averaging just over a dollar in electricity to run per hour for smaller models. Steam rooms and traditional saunas on the other hand need to use much more electricity to heat up the stones and generally need to be on for longer to do so. typically for three sessions a week, you would be looking at under $10 for an infrared dry sauna and over $20 for a traditional sauna.
Is heat therapy dangerous?
A sauna bath in and of itself can be dangerous so always keep in mind that extreme temperatures aren't something to mess around with. A traditional dry sauna for example can reach inside temperatures of upwards of 100ºC so the risk of heatstroke and dehydration is high during this type of sauna use. Infrared radiation or far infrared light, however, rarely will heat the temperature of a cabin over 60ºC and thus is much safer to use. In general, the radiant heat of this thermal therapy remains one of the safest and most effective applications of thermal therapy that exists today. While you should be cautious of high temperatures at all times, regardless of the kind of sauna you are using, radiant heat will not only provide a safer experience but also a more relaxing and enjoyable one at that. The bottom line is that both infrared and traditional saunas have their own unique benefits and drawbacks, so it ultimately depends on your specific needs and preferences.
How Do Steam Rooms Work?
Steam rooms use a steam generator in an enclosed environment to circulate hot, humid air (around 43C, or 110F) to trigger a sweat response in the user.
Temperatures inside, however, can seem higher to the user due to the humidity.
How Do Infrared Saunas Work?
Infrared saunas take the opposite approach, using infrared light (we feel this invisible light as heat) that interacts with our skin and muscle tissue, with a dry heat that causes the body to sweat.
Infrared saunas don’t require high temperatures to trigger a sweat response from the body, instead, the spectrum of infrared light affects up to 3cm (1.5-inches) through the body, and heats up your core body temperature extremely efficiently, avoiding heating the air around you.
Rather than warming your body from the outside in, like a steam room, an infrared sauna warms you from the inside out, making it by far the most efficient means of working up a sweat from an energy perspective.
This is why the temperature inside a steam room can surpass an infrared sauna, however, an infrared sauna will raise your core body temperature to the same effective degree while remaining at a more comfortable interior cabin temperature.
Health Benefits Of A Steam Room
As we’ve just discovered, steam rooms and infrared saunas work in completely different ways.
Steam rooms offer the user 'wet heat', while infrared saunas produce 'dry heat'.
Steam rooms are recognised for their improvement in cardiovascular health, and the lowering of blood pressure and these physiological benefits stem from raising the core body temperature.
The hot, humid air is supposedly beneficial to the respiratory system, as well as the sinus cavities, as the mucous membrane is warmed up.
In comparison, steam rooms have only been shown to provide an additional benefit to sinus cavities and mucus.
Infrared Sauna Benefits
On the other hand, infrared saunas have been shown to promote an increased metabolism & weight loss, cardiovascular health improvements, muscle & joint pain relief, boosted immune system, much more advanced detoxification improvement, reduce the appearance of scars and improve skin elasticity, reduces stress, provide mental wellbeing relief, improve sleep patterns, and has shown effective results in the aiding and supporting of autoimmune diseases such as fibromyalgia and Lyme.
In comparison, infrared saunas provide the same health benefits as steam rooms except for supporting the sinus cavities, and a plethora of additional health benefits mentioned above.
Our Clearlight Infrared® Saunas are extremely efficient in heating the body without the need for high ambient temperatures and offer proven health benefits when it comes to easing muscle and joint pain, increasing the immune system, encouraging detoxification, improving cardiovascular health, helping you sleep, reducing stress while improving relaxation, as well as the metabolic response which can help with weight loss and skin issues.
Do You Lose More Weight In A Sauna Or Steam Room?
It has been proven that you lose more fat with infrared saunas than you do with steam saunas.
The way your body soaks up the infrared light and begins warming from the inside out can have a dramatic impact on the metabolism and offers considerable weight loss benefits for users.
While the ambient heat in a steam room causes the body to lose water weight, infrared light targets underneath the skin, which has proven more effective when it comes to losing weight than in a steam room.
A two-phase weight loss study from Binghamton University, New York shows that an increase in core temperature causes the body to decrease its body fat.
When we take a closer look at how steam rooms and infrared saunas cause the body to heat up, the efficiency of infrared technology means steam rooms are limited when it comes to using targeted at weight loss. Infrared targets underneath the skin, which includes the toxins stored in your fat cells.
By targeting these cells, infrared light helps you sweat away these fats and toxins, while also increasing your cardiovascular, lymphatic and immune system health.
Steam rooms are beneficial when it comes to weight loss, although they’re most effective when it comes to an individual losing water weight.
Due to the infrared heat actively working directly on fat tissues underneath the skin, they’re believed to be better when it comes to losing weight than time in a steam room, which is predominantly from losing water weight.
Are Saunas Better Than Steam Rooms Post-Workout?
Studies have shown that applying heat to muscles and joints after a workout helps massively when it comes to reducing inflammation and pain.
Both steam rooms and infrared saunas are believed to decrease the amount of force needed to move a specific joint by up to 25%.
Is A Steam Room Hotter Than A Sauna?
One common myth prevails.
That is, higher temperatures in a sauna equate to greater health benefits.
So far, there’s been no conclusive link between higher ambient temperatures and greater health benefits.
The human body operates at a temperature of 37C (97F), and temperatures even slightly above this will trigger a sweat response from the user.
It has been shown that the physiological benefits of heat therapy arise once the core body temperature reaches 38.5C.
Long exposures to a traditional sauna or steam room can cause dehydration in the user, rather than trigger health benefits.
Steam rooms and infrared saunas are arguably the most enjoyable means of taking care of yourself, but which is better?
Of course, it’s a highly subjective topic, dependent on whether the user enjoys dry, or wet heat.
In terms of health benefits, they’re evenly stacked, although science suggests that the nature of skin penetration from infrared saunas can stimulate a more powerful response from the body, and more effectively target toxins, as well as assist in weight loss more than steam rooms.
As always, we recommend doing your own research into all aspects of your buying decision - from cost to health benefits - and hopefully, you'll be confident in the choice you make. Ultimately, it is up to you to decide which one is right for you - but if you would like to see what Clearlight Saunas can offer contact us today!