The Benefits of Saunas, Infrared Saunas, & Steam for Heart Health, Skin, Weight-Loss, & More

Published on September 19, 2023

By Kristen Boye BS, Natural Health

Kristen Boye

Kristen Boye is a natural health expert, writer, copywriter, and editor. Kristen was raised on an organic farm in British Columbia which inspired her life’s work. She holds a Bachelor’s Degree in Natural Health, is a Certified Natural Foods Chef, co-owner of a medicinal herb farm, and is a natural foods and children’s health advocate. Kristen lives with her husband and two children on their medicinal herb farm in Western North Carolina.

Few traditional wellness practices cross time, cultures, and continents like heat therapy.

The ancient Mayans had their sweat houses, wood saunas are standard in Scandinavian cultures, Europeans still take to their bathhouses, and Native Americans have their sweat lodges.

Today, saunas are one of the more common forms of heat therapy used in modern culture. 

Claims abound about the benefits of various types of saunas for improving cardiovascular health, fitness, skin, metabolism, sleep, stress, pain, and more*.

But has science validated any of the claims behind this time-honored practice?

In this article, we’ll explore the fascinating world of saunas, including the different types of saunas—including the benefits of infrared, their traditional and evidence-based benefits, the real story behind saunas for weight loss and after exercise, and how to enjoy this type of heat therapy safely.

What Is A Sauna?

A sauna is any type of room or space where people relax in dry heat between 100-200 degrees Fahrenheit, depending on the model.

The basic purpose of a sauna is to induce sweating and promote relaxation, but people use them for various reasons and benefits (which we’ll discuss more coming up).

Different Types of Saunas

There are many types of saunas and sauna products available today, all of which impart similar health benefits.

There are three main types of saunas:

1: Dry Saunas: These are powered by a wood fire or electrical panels that heat the entire room or space, resulting in the raising of bodily temperature. There is little or no humidity in a dry sauna.

2: Far-Infrared Saunas: A type of dry sauna that radiates a type of electrical heat from light known as infrared. 

The word “far” describes where the light falls on the light spectrum. Proponents of infrared saunas believe they impart specific benefits that traditional dry saunas cannot.

Infrared heat heats the body directly without heating an entire room or space and is also very low in humidity. Therefore, some people find them more efficient and pleasant to use than a traditional sauna.

There is research to support the specific benefits of infrared, which we’ll discuss coming up.

3: Steam rooms or steam saunas: These use steam instead of dry heat in a room or space to induce sweating. 

The steam is produced by a steam generator, which is filled with water, heated, and pumped into the room until it reaches 100% humidity.

Many different sauna products and styles fall within these three categories.

For example, traditional dry-heat saunas are typically stand-alone structures made of specific heat-tolerant, moisture- and mold-resistant wood, such as cedar, eucalyptus, or hemlock. 

They can range in size from one-person structures to larger rooms, like those found in spas or bathhouses.

Traditionalists use a wood stove with rocks doused with water to heat a dry sauna. However, indoor dry saunas are usually heated using electrical panels.

Far infrared saunas come in many forms, from stand-alone indoor or outdoor structures to shower models, sauna blankets, tents, facial devices, and even heated massagers.

Finally, steam rooms are most commonly self-contained rooms found in spas and health clubs.

However, some people install self-contained steam rooms at home or other forms of steam therapy, such as showers or steam pods.

Thanks to electricity and other technology, heat therapy and saunas have come a long way in the last few decades.

Now that you understand the different types of saunas let’s look at the research behind these trendy hot boxes.

5+ Benefits of Saunas and Heat Therapy

Saunas are trendy these days, with influencers, health experts, and sauna entrepreneurs raving about their extensive health benefits.

A recent Global Sauna Survey published in Complementary Therapies in Medicine found the vast majority of people who used saunas did so for the following reasons:REF#2840

  • Relaxation/stress reduction
  • Pain relief 
  • Socializing

Sauna-goers also report health benefits, especially around mental well-being and sleep.

The research on the health attributes of saunas is in its infancy and, therefore, mixed at this point.

However, researchers have begun to explain why people have turned to heat therapies, like saunas, sweat lodges, etc., for centuries to enhance wellness.

1. Saunas May Support Cardiovascular Health and Longevity

Cardiovascular health has been a focus of sauna research for many years.

Several studies suggest that regular sauna therapy may be beneficial for supporting heart and cardiovascular health and reducing the risk of heart disease.REF#2841

For example, one of the larger studies published in the Journal of the American Medical Association followed 2,315 men in Finland over 20.7 years of frequent sauna bathing for cardiovascular disease-related outcomes.

Their findings included a 63% risk reduction of sudden cardiac death and a 40% risk reduction of all-cause mortality.REF#2842

Smaller studies have also demonstrated potential benefits, but more research is needed.REF#2843

There are many reasons saunas may impart a benefit to the cardiovascular system.

One possible mechanism is explained by the effects of heat stress (by infrared or traditional saunas), which causes significant sweating that likely leads to beneficial hormetic adaptation* and beneficial cardiovascular and metabolic effects. 

Hormedic adaptation or hormesis refers to a beneficial or stimulatory effect caused by exposure to low doses of an agent known to be toxic at higher doses.REF#2844

As the body adapts to these types of stressors—be it sauna therapy, exercise, or various therapies—it can become stronger and more resilient over time.

Additional research suggests sauna therapy may also promote:

  • Normal cholesterol levels
  • Nitric oxide production
  • Inflammatory response
  • Normal blood pressure
  • Normal heart rate variability
  • Normal blood vessel function
  • Blood sugar balance

More research is needed to understand how saunas may benefit cardiovascular health, but emerging research does suggest a benefit.

However, sauna bathing may be contraindicated for those with heart disease. 

Always check with your doctor before starting a sauna or heat therapy routine.

2. Saunas Support Skin Health and Vitality

Many people rave on social media about how regular sauna sessions have transformed their skin.

From acne and rashes to anti-aging effects and hydration, skin-conscious influencers and people everywhere swear by saunas.

Saunas can support skin health by opening up the pores and increasing circulation to skin cells, which may create the appearance of healthier, clearer skin.

Sauna use has also been associated with reduced production of sebum,REF#2845 which can lead to clogged pores and breakouts. Some research also suggests infrared may help with rashes and breakouts by supporting normal inflammatory response and tissue regeneration.REF#2846

Steam saunas may also help boost skin hydration, especially during winter or in cooler climates. And some people swear even dry saunas help their skin stay moist in winter.

Steam saunas or facial steamers have also been shown to promote collagen production and reduce wrinkles.REF#2847

In summary, saunas may provide a wealth of benefits to the skin.

However, heat may exacerbate certain inflammatory skin conditions, so check with your dermatologist.

3. Saunas May Help With Minor Aches and Pains

As previously mentioned, pain relief is one of the top reasons people practice sauna therapy. 

So, we have plenty of anecdotal evidence, but do saunas help with minor aches and pains? 

Although more robust trials are needed, various studies have shown saunas may help with:REF#2848

  • Leg pain
  • Low back pain
  • Muscle and joint pain and stiffness
  • Headaches
  • Sore muscles after a workout or vigorous activity

Infrared has also shown promise for supporting normal inflammatory response and helping with various types of pain.REF#2849

The mechanisms behind this require further research but may be due to increased blood flow and enhanced relaxation of sauna therapy.

Conversely, some studies have shown no benefit of saunas for pain.

The effects of sauna therapy will likely vary depending on the individual and what is causing the pain.

4. Saunas Are a Great Way to Relax and Reduce Stress

Sauna therapy, whether practiced at home, in a bathhouse, or in a sweat lodge, has long been used to relax and reduce stress.

As mentioned earlier, it’s also one of the main reasons people take saunas.

But what is it about heating up the body that induces such a powerful relaxation response?

There are several ways saunas may promote relaxation:

  • Saunas help increase blood flow and circulation to the muscles, which can help promote physical relaxation.
  • Research also suggests sauna therapy may promote relaxation and a positive state of mindREF#2850 through the release of endorphins, hormones, and specific neurotransmitters, similar to what happens after exercise.REF#2851 REF#2852 REF#2853 More research is needed.
  • Sitting comfortably in a warm room without any other stimulation can also impart a more meditative state, which relaxes the mind and heart.
  • Heat helps the body relax.
  • A small study showed sauna bathing reduced the stress hormone cortisol in eight otherwise healthy men, but more research is needed.REF#2854

Given the role stress plays in nearly every type of ailment, taking regular saunas may be a wonderful way to reduce your stress load while imparting other health benefits.

5. Saunas May Promote Cognitive Function

A growing body of research suggests that regular saunas may promote normal cognitive function and even have a protective effect. 

These potential benefits may be explained by the induction of small heat shock proteins during sauna sessions, which support brain function by preventing the build-up of amyloid plaques.REF#2855

The relaxation effects of sauna sessions may also affect their potential cognitive health benefits.

The authors noted more research is needed. However, many people swear by regular sauna sessions for promoting cognitive function.

Do Saunas Work for Weight Loss?

This is the million-dollar question: Do saunas work for weight loss?

The theory that saunas help with weight loss is based on the fact that when you sweat, you lose water weight and burn calories.

A few small studies have found that infrared saunas may reduce BMI and other weight-related factors. But more research is needed.REF#2856 REF#2857

Other research shows no long-term benefits besides temporary water weight loss, meaning the weight will eventually come back.

So, can regular saunas help you lose weight? 

Limited research suggests a possible weight-loss benefit. However, most experts do not recommend saunas for weight loss.

That said, many athletes and active individuals enjoy incorporating saunas into their fitness routine to promote relaxation and soothe tired muscles.

Don’t expect the sauna to replace the benefits of a healthy diet and lifestyle for weight loss and management.

What About Taking a Sauna After a Workout?

As we just discussed, many people enjoy taking a sauna or steam after working out.

Plus, new research suggests that infrared saunas after exercise may reduce subjective muscle soreness and raise perceived recovery.REF#2858 

Research has also shown saunas may help preserve muscle mass.REF#2859

Always make sure you stay hydrated, especially if you sweat heavily during your workout.

Can Saunas Help With Body Burden/Detoxification?

Saunas likely can help you excrete toxins, but not everyone agrees with their detoxification-enhancing claims.

The theory that saunas help with detoxification is based on the fact that sweat naturally removes toxins from the body. Therefore, more sweating would promote the excretion of more toxins.

The part about sweat removing toxins is accurate, and there is evidence that sweat removes things like heavy metals, plastic chemicals such as BPA and phthalates, and other persistent organic pollutants.REF#2860 REF#2861

However, some researchers and medical professionals believe the toxins released by sweating in a sauna are minimal, and therefore not necessary.

In contrast, others heartily recommend saunas to enhance detoxification.

Research has shown that sweat releases toxins, and saunas induce sweating. 

How much it may help the body hasn’t been scientifically established. 

Talk with your doctor or healthcare practitioner about whether sauna therapy may support your detoxification goals.

Are Saunas Safe For Everyone? Contraindications and Side Effects

Short or moderate time spent in saunas is generally safe for adults who are not pregnant and in good health.REF#2862

Due to its unpredictable effects on blood pressure, saunas are likely inappropriate for those with blood pressure issues or heart disease, anyone prone to overheating or fainting during pregnancy, or those with claustrophobia.

Some people with heart disease may benefit from specific types of sauna therapy, so check with your doctor.

Saunas may not be appropriate for people with altered or diminished sweat gland function, which can be due to autoimmune disease.

Saunas are not considered safe for babies or children due to how their bodies process heat and sweat.

Spending too much time in a sauna can also cause negative effects such as dehydration, fainting, or overheating.

Alcohol consumption is also contraindicated during sauna sessions, and you should not take a sauna if you have a fever.

Check with your doctor if you are taking any medications, as they may be contraindicated with heat stress.

So, what is a safe amount of time to spend in a sauna?

It depends on a few factors, including:

  • Your overall health
  • The temperature of the sauna
  • How habituated you are to the heat from a sauna
  • How well you stay hydrated

Most sauna manufacturers recommend starting very slowly by sitting in a sauna for 5-10 minutes at minimal heat (under 100 degrees) for several sessions before gradually increasing your time and temperature.

A sauna should feel pleasant and relaxing. If it gets too intense, take a break, cool down, and rehydrate.

To Recap: Benefits of Heat Therapy

Various types of sauna therapy have been practiced for thousands of years to support health.

Research has just begun to validate many of the traditional and anecdotal claims of sauna bathing, including:

  • Cardiovascular support
  • Longevity
  • Skin health
  • Cognitive function
  • Mental/emotional well-being
  • Aches and pains
  • Detoxification of heavy metals and chemicals
  • Muscle maintenance
  • Weight loss

Research suggests common benefits for traditional and far infrared saunas, although infrared may be a better choice for specific health goals such as pain, skin, or detoxification.

Sauna sessions are safe for most people, provided you start low and slow with temperature and time and gradually increase.

Saunas may be contraindicated for those with certain pre-existing conditions, children, babies, those taking certain medications, and during pregnancy.

Various types of saunas are available in gyms, spas, health clubs, and bathhouses. 

You can also purchase personal saunas almost anywhere in the form of stand-alone rooms, pods, blankets, shower kits, steam showers, build-your-own kits, and more.

For more information on similar ancient wellness practices, check out: What Is Hydrotherapy? Benefits, Techniques, and Costs.


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