They’re popping up in gyms, spas and yoga studios near you, and they’re already huge in the US. Here’s what infrared saunas can do for your skin, strength and sleep, and why it’s different from your average sweat box experience
Last weekend I was booked into Glow Bar on Mortimer Street, for my first ever infrared sauna session. After being soaked by storm Ciara, and then drenched by storm Dennis, I was very much looking forward to a sweat sesh - only to be told my appointment would need to be rescheduled as the whole wellness hotspot had been hired out by London Fashion Week, as the models were looking for saunas over the weekend.
Knowing that models flock to infrared saunas made me all the more intrigued to learn what the fuss is about - if it’s good enough for the stars of the runway, it’s good enough for me. Not only that, but our resident GP Dr Johanna Ward cited infrared saunas as her favourite find of 2019, saying: "Infrared saunas help rid the body of toxins, boost the immune system and improve whole-body circulation. They are also an effective form of stress relief and have been proven to reduce circulating cortisol, the stress hormone. After a long day, I look forward to nothing more than getting into my infrared sauna, closing my eyes and doing some meditation. It helps to know that I am also sweating out the day's toxins.” Elle Macpherson has one in her home too!
I'm a big fan of traditional Swedish saunas, but apparently an infrared sauna is quite different to these and the effects can have an impact on everything from skin health to flexibility. Here’s what an infrared sauna session could add to your life (and what it can’t).
They’re cooler than regular saunas
Not in terms of in vogue tendencies, although that too. Infrared light won’t create the oppressive heat that can accompany your regular Finnish situation, as it warms your core body temperature rather than the environment around you. As such, you can comfortably tolerate kicking back in an infrared sauna pod for a far longer period of time than you would a conventional sauna, and the infrared energy elevates body heat more gently, so you’re less likely to feel suddenly stifled.
They complement your skincare routine
Or so initial studies seem to suggest, although they’re small and research is currently relatively scant. A study of 20 participants published in Yonsei Medical Journal concluded that regular, gradual exposure to infrared radiation increased collagen and elastin production, with a mean improvement of 25 to 50 per cent in skin texture also occurring after six months of infrared therapy. All patients also noted a decrease in skin roughness and increase in tightness, as well as more even skin tone, although infrared sessions didn’t result in a decrease in hyperpigmentation . Specialists concluded that infrared radiation stimulated fibroblasts to increase collagen and elastin synthesis, slowing the formation of wrinkles, and that infrared treatment could be a safe and effective way of rejuvenating photo-aged skin over time, but that more research is required regarding the mechanism and therapeutic potential of infrared therapy in the context of clinical dermatology.
The thermal effect of infrared energy also stimulates circulation, helping to deliver more oxygen and nutrients to the skin’s surface and generally bringing about a much-coveted healthy glow. You needn’t worry about side-effects either- unlike UV light emitted by the likes of sunbeds, infrared saunas don’t cause DNA damage and are considered to be safe and well-tolerated by all skin types.
They can increase your flexibility
Enhanced circulation boosts blood flow to your muscles, which can, in turn, make it easier to nail poses and balance moves that might otherwise evade you. Hot yoga classes are now undergoing a techy evolution to include classes conducted in infrared heat. While it's certainly a sweaty activity, you’re less likely to get that ‘I can’t breathe’ kind of overwhelm that you might experience in your usual Bikram studio. Infrared yoga sessions also help to increase heart rate which has fitness benefits across the board. Give infrared yoga a go at Triyoga and Good Vibes studios in London.
They could help you to recover from intense exercise
It’s that circulation stimulating thing again, but the fact that infrared saunas deliver a therapeutic benefit for a longer period of time than a regular sauna makes them particularly promising where DOMS reduction is concerned, as muscles and joints will be oxygenated more thoroughly and collagen synthesis is revved up. The pleasant warmth helps with pain relief and improved blood flow reduces muscles soreness and tightness. For a post workout infrared blast, Londoners can drop by KXU’s infrared recovery sauna for anywhere between 25 and 45 minutes.
Stating the obvious here, but the ‘just right’ Goldilocks level temperature is mainly blissful rather than boiling, and many infrared saunas allow you to tailor music and lighting to your preferences. Infrared saunas also tend to be private, furnishing you with almost an hour of screen-free me time, and given that everyone from the Scandinavians to the Japanese to the Morrocans swear by time honoured sauna rituals for mental and physical peace and reinvigoration, the prospect of dropping into an infrared pod whenever we need recharging makes a lot of sense within the confines of our hectic modern timetables.
They could improve your sleep
Like a warm bath before going to bed, an end of the day infrared session has the potential to help you to nod off as raising your core temperature before sleep encourages your body to enact a cooling mechanism afterwards, which brings about feelings of sleepiness in line with our natural circadian rhythms . Alongside the chill-out effects, an infrared wind-down could come in handy for periods on insomnia , stress or just all-out exhaustion (it’s admittedly an expensive method by which to get to sleep on the daily). Alternate a weekly session with warm baths and see how you snooze, or go full Elle MacPherson and invest in your own - she swears by her portable Therasage Infrared Sauna.
They can aid pain-relief
Anyone who suffers from arthritis or stiff joints will know that heat can ease pain- when I had arthritis in the past I found that saunas and steam rooms temporarily took the edge off of heavy, swollen and tender joints, and alongside the weightlessness of floating in a pool, it’s fair to say I swapped wild nights out on dancefloors for more placid, far less raucous/painful evenings at my local leisure centre. Infrared saunas have been shown to aid pain relief by up to 50 per cent in back pain sufferers , and while they don’t show any benefit in terms of disease activity in rheumatoid arthritis sufferers , they have been shown to significantly decrease pain, fatigue and stiffness over a four week period, with no adverse effects. Worth every penny of the gym membership in my humble opinion, but consult your doctor first if you have high blood pressure or are pregnant.