Your Complete Guide to Saunas

The many health benefits, and a complete guide to what to look for when buying a sauna.


What are different the kinds of saunas?

Most of us are only familiar with the traditional saunas, the ones that use burning wood to heat the sauna rocks. This is how it raises air temperature to get you sweating. Steam and hot rock sauna temperatures often exceed 160 degrees fahrenheit. This high air temperature can be harmful to the viscous membrane tissue of your eyes and other sensitive body areas, not to mention a suffocatingly hot and unpleasant experience.

Infrared saunas have replaced traditional saunas (steam saunas and hot rock) as the sauna of choice for Americans for several important reasons. Safety, efficiency, comfort, durability, economy of use, and ease of maintenance are all important improvements that have propelled  Infrared saunas to the top of the home sauna market. Plus, most of them (if they’re 15amp) can be plugged into a regular electrical outlet (so they are easy to set up in any residential room) and use about as much electricity as a hairdryer.

There are two kinds of infrared saunas: far-light emitting infrared (also known as far infrared, or FIR) and near-light emitting infrared. FIR saunas are made of wood and have black panels inside them. FIR saunas generally cost between $2,000 and $8,000. NIR saunas are much more economical and can be home-made for as low as $100. NIR saunas use incandescent reddish “heat lamps” for heating, which are inexpensive and can be found on Amazon or at most hardware stores. Hand-held or portable NIR devices are perfect for targeting localized physical injuries.

Your Complete Guide to Saunas

The old kind of sauna used heat to make you sweat, and felt oppressively hot

Types of Infrared

Light therapy is not a new age fad, it’s been around for thousands of years for treating skin disease, depression, and other ailments. As you might be aware, hospitals use NIR heating lamps to warm newborn babies. Infrared light is unlike exposing yourself to harmful UV rays from the sun or a tanning bed. With both NIR and FIR, there is a soothing feeling, you cannot burn yourself, nor are there any known dangers in using infrared heat in your sauna. This infrared light is also considered “gentle radiant heat,” so although it can penetrate up to 1.5 inches (almost four centimeters) beneath the skin, it isn’t painful and doesn’t cause a burning effect.

Your Complete Guide to Saunas

Your Complete Guide to Saunas

Near Infrared

Near infrared (NIR) is the shortest infrared wavelength (also known as near infrared, or NIR) that carries 10 times the energy of far infrared. It is also closer to the visible spectrum. Near infrared light therapy is also known by many other terms such as photobiomodulation (PBM), low-level (laser) light therapy (LLLT), red light therapy, photobiology, and mitochondrial stimulation.

Our sun emits 37% of its total energy in the near infrared range. By contrast, on 3% is in the far infrared range. Much like sunlight is needed to produce vitamin D, we are equally biologically hardwired to use near infrared. In fact, it is now understood that the human body is partially photosynthetic. In other words, we need sun light and near infrared for optimal health.

Research by NASA has demonstrated that near infrared LEDs in the 630 to 880 nm range promote cell growth and thus stimulate faster healing for burns, fractures, radiation tissue damage and skin grafts, as well as for treating muscle and bone atrophy, a condition prevalent in astronauts on long space missions. The depth of tissue penetration by infrared radiation depends on its wavelengths and can reach a few centimeters with near infrared having the deepest penetration of any form of infrared, according to studies cited by the NIH.

NIR light therapy uses infrared wavelengths to penetrates through the skin and deliver energy into cells, stimulating healing and relieving inflammation. It penetrates deeper below the skin into tissues to not only relieve pain, but when used therapeutically, in many cases NIR is able to even completely heal the source of the pain. Scientific research shows that when delivered at the vital wavelength of 880 nm, without extreme heat or light, NIR promotes skin renewal, cell health, wound healing, and tissue growth. LEDs are effective because they can trigger a natural photo-biochemical reaction, similar to how plants use chlorophyll to convert sunlight into plant tissue, and when the wave is pulsed, it can travel deeper into tissues.

According to the NIH: “It has been known for almost 50 years that low energy exposure to visible and NIR wavelengths is beneficial to humans via the promotion of healing processes. This low level light therapy (so called LLLT or PBM) has been reported in thousands of peer reviewed articles since 1968 2829]. [NIR is] an alternative therapy for patients needing faster healing of wounds and/or for anti-inflammatory purposes … Several in vitro studies have shown that … NIR could protect against upcoming UVB damage … a SPF-15-like sun protection factor effect and a reduction in post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation were observed.”

NIR light therapy produces energy that and are absorbed by photoreceptors in each of our cells into the mitochondria to power up production of more ATP (adenosine triphosphate), a compound that provides the cell’s energy. When ATP production increases, your energy level increases. It is like your body cells are turbocharged to speed up healing of tissues. Stimulating the cell mitochondria with this infrared wavelength induces cell regeneration, improved metabolism, collagen synthesis, human growth hormone, neuron repair, wound healing, inflammation reduction and many more benefits.

Finally, what is exciting with the usage of NIR therapy, is its assistance in the natural production of collagen and elastin that prevents wrinkles. It also stabilizes and regulates surface skin pH levels and retains natural moisture to keep skin supple, soft and wrinkle-free.

Keep in mind that the reddish NIR “heat lamp” is tuned to produce a lot of infrared with a special filament design. In contrast, a red light bulb is just an incandescent lamp with a red filter. They are quite opposite in their effects. Red light bulbs do not emit much energy in the infrared range. They mainly emit light in the red range of frequencies. Red (non-infrared) light, in fact, can be irritating and stimulating to the body, but not infrared.

Mid Infrared

Mid infrared (MIR) is a longer wavelength that can penetrate deeper into the body’s soft tissue where inflammation occurs and speeds up the healing process. To produce MIR, sauna heaters must be able to maintain a surface temperature of 210⁰C. Though many sauna companies claim to provide full spectrum, the material used in their heaters actually melts at the high temperature required for MIR.

Far Infrared

The wavelength of far infrared light is much longer than that of the near infrared light. As a result, the energy provided by far infrared light is about 10 times lower, as compared to energy of near infrared light. In case of this sauna unit, metal or ceramic heating elements are used for emitting far infrared energy.

Your Complete Guide to Saunas

Far infrared saunas have black panels inside

Far Infrared Saunas: Carbon or Ceramic Heaters?

Ceramic heaters have a shorter wavelength of far infrared energy, which reduces the depth of penetration into the body, a key element in the therapeutic value of infrared saunas. Additionally, ceramic heaters are hotter, can be fragile, and the ceramic material is prone to cracking or shattering during transport or crumbling away over time due to repeated heating and cooling.

In their book Beyond Antibiotics, Drs. Michael A. Schmidt et al. state the following: “Saunas are being used by some doctors to stimulate the release of toxins from the bodies of their patients. They have found that a lower temperature (105-125 F) sauna taken for a longer duration is most beneficial. These low temperatures stimulate a fat sweat, which eliminates toxins stored in fat, as opposed to the high temperature sauna, which encourages a water sweat.”

Carbon far infrared heating elements are a newer technology than ceramic ones. Among their advantages are a much larger surface area than ceramic heaters, which offers a more even heat distribution, eliminating hot or cold spots that can be an issue with smaller ceramic elements. Since the surface is large, the temperature can be lower while having the same energy output, so they are able to operate at lower temperatures than ceramic, which can offer a more comfortable and easily tolerated sauna experience.

Carbon elements also emit longer wavelength infrared rays for more efficient and therapeutic deep tissue penetration. Additionally, carbon heaters are more energy-efficient than ceramic, costing less to run, and are more durable.

Another high-tech option is organic nano-carbon heater panels. These are large, flexible, 100% organic nano-carbon panels which are 95 – 98% efficient to produce the bandwidth of 8 – 12 microns in the far infrared scale. This wave frequency best matches the maximum absorption level of the human body (which is 9.4 microns).

Total far infrared output from a heater depends on how much of the heater is made from far infrared heat emission material. If it is 100% carbon or 100% ceramic, you end up with 95-98% far infrared emission. If the wattage is low enough so the surface temperature of the heater is around 300 degrees or lower, then you have the other factor that makes a far infrared heater effective. These two factors will give you your percentage of far infrared emission and wavelength.

Beware of fiberglass panels with carbon fiber sprayed on. These are thin, cheap imitations, often covered with a felt cloth. They have weak signal strength and poor durability. They lack proper thermostat safety sensors. The panels are generally too small to provide good infrared coverage, and there are not enough panels in the sauna to heat the body efficiently.

Most far infrared saunas sold in the USA are Chinese and the vast majority use carbon panel heaters that are made of a plastic sheet with a paint-thin coating of carbon. Yes, plastic; typically PET or Polyethylene terephthalate. Plastic acts as a reflector and disperses the heat. It is the plastic that is initially heated, eventually heating the carbon material. These are not low VOC, as they disperse toxic particles into the air. Make sure the one you buy isn’t like this.

Take Note: The heaters used in the saunas that are being called Carbon Wave 360 are standard carbon heaters. They are taking a standard average quality carbon infrared heater and putting a name on for marketing reason. They are the same heaters used in almost all far infrared saunas.

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A writer, artist, and designer since she was young enough to put pencil to paper, Hilary taught herself code and created Urbanette when she was a teenager. Currently, she lives in Monte Carlo, but spent the past decade living in NYC, still considers herself a New Yorker, and visits regularly. She's always traveling, looking for hot new topics, destinations, and life hacks to bring to Urbanette readers.

Reader Discussion: 38 Comments

  1. Rita Hajjar

    I live in a cold climate. I’m looking for an outdoor infared sauna. Does anyone own one of these in the upper states where we have brutal winters? I really want to know if they are usable in the winter months. Any advice is appreciated!! Rita

  2. We have an extra room at home and it’s just where we keep random stuff. I’m thinking of turning it into an at home spa.

  3. Cristina Bernal

    Thanks for making this very detailed guide about saunas. My only question is, I can’t really buy my own so I usually just result to going in saunas that are in my city. How do I know if the saunas they have are safe just like what you said in this article? Is it proper to ask them? It’s not like they will tell the truth anyway. Most concierge employees wouldn’t even disclose such matters to the public or they don’t really know anything about the equipment there.

  4. Can my grandparents use saunas too? My only concern is that it might be too hot for them and instead of reducing the risk for Alzheimers, I might end up making them sick.?

  5. Even in the old times, people really benefit from traditional hot saunas. No wonder!

  6. NIR therapy seems the best fit for me. I want to age gracefully and I could use elastin and collagen boost in my body. I want younger looking skin that won’t look tired despite stress. I bet a lot of women would agree to that because it’s a luxury to have great glowing skin nowadays, becase of environmental factors such as pollution and intense UV rays. Saunas could revive our skin with continued use. It would be really worth it to spend a lot from this tech.

    • Rosalie Wade

      I’m one of those ladies who need it too.

  7. Jessi

    Those are very solid claims. I just think that saunas aren’t for everyone. Personally, I don’t like heat because I feel dizzy and claustrophobic.

  8. I’m just going to go on a spa and sauna place. I don’t really plan on purchasing my own sauna and add up to my electricity bill.

  9. Are hot baths the same? I know it’s not as hot or as effective as saunas, but the natural steam that comes out of warm baths make our bodies feel good.

  10. Just wanted to remind everyone that you shouldn’t overuse saunas no matter how great the effects are. I even do a certain diet whenever I would use my sauna. I would snack on electrolyte rich foods/snacks and hydrate properly. Or else, your body will feel worse instead of better.

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