by Suzanne Wentley
I’ve been chasing summers for the last 20 years. Sweating doesn’t bother me. To be honest, I kind of like it.
So, when I heard about infrared saunas as a new trend in wellness, I was all in to try it — especially when visiting my family during the winter in Pennsylvania. You should have seen me in the thrift store in advance of my trip: I had a ridiculous number of sweaters in my arms. I was trauma-buying, I knew it, and I didn’t care.
Speaking of trauma, I was also on crutches, and in a medical boot with Achilles tendinitis I suffered from an overcrowded rock concert in South Florida. While there is something to be said for skipping the lines in the airport and sitting in the disabled seats on public transportation, I was struggling both physically and emotionally.
Could a session or two in an infrared sauna help?
There was only one way to find out.
Infrared Saunas 101
Regular saunas use steam or a heater to raise the air temperature up to 200 degrees F. Most folks last about 15 minutes before grabbing their towel and scrambling outside to get some cool air. Me, I can hang in there for 20 minutes or even more. As I said, I like to sweat.
Infrared saunas are different. Instead of heating the room, they use far-infrared light therapy to “heat the body from the inside out,” explained Megan at Restore Hyper Wellness in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. She showed me around before my session because I’d never been inside a facility like it before.
Most infrared saunas aren’t found in traditional spas but in businesses that focus on helping athletes to recharge after big workouts. These small wooden saunas are tucked in among IV drips, compression therapy, and cryotherapy chambers.
This technology is less about generalized relaxation and more about healing.
I thought I was familiar with infrared light since I once belonged to a gym that had infrared booths. I’d strip down before entering the light booth, which had a floor that vibrated me like one of those old-timey belted exercise machines.
But, Megan explained, those machines used near-infrared therapy, which is a different frequency than the far-infrared lights used in saunas.
Near-infrared is used for topical healing of the skin and mild pain relief, while far-infrared is more effective for muscular relaxation, removing toxins, and better circulation. I liked the near-infrared treatments, and I was ready to try the far-infrared therapy.
My First Session
After Megan finished the tour, she set me up with a half-hour infrared sauna experience. Their sauna was designed for a single person, and it was located inside its own small room.
She pointed me to a robe and a stack of towels, as well as a jar of ice water to fill up the bottle I was instructed to bring from home. I could get naked, she said, or wrap myself in the terry cloth spa wrap. Since it was just me in the room, I opted for the former.
They offered LED color therapy, also known as chromotherapy, as part of the package. I briefly looked at the many color options — red enhances the metabolism, green improves purification, and blue relaxes muscles — and decided to let all the colors rotate during my session.
With a timer set for 30 minutes, Megan left the room and I slipped into the sauna. Sitting cross-legged with my injured foot in front, I focused on my breathing and meditated. The lights danced in a rainbow from overhead as the temperature hovered around 158 degrees F. It wasn’t long before I started sweating.
I felt myself exhaling the extra stress I had been feeling from the visit with my family, the travel, the cold, and my injury.
I straightened my posture and noticed my reflection in the glass of the sauna. I felt strong and beautiful.
I smiled at myself.
When the timer rang, I exited and immediately my smile turned into a grimace: I stunk! Was I really that toxic? I gathered my belongings and hobbled across the hallway into the shower. After I cleaned up, I checked out.
Yes, I told them. I felt awesome.
My Second Session
A week later, I returned to South Florida and was ready to try the infrared sauna experience in a different location. Would I like it as much when the air temperature was in the 80s instead of the 30s?
I also wanted to enjoy a different setting. I noticed the same athlete-focused businesses with infrared saunas, but I liked the pampering feel of regular spas. I liked it when employees spoke softly and recognized that I was there to relax.
I booked a 30-minute session at Zen Sweat Den in West Palm Beach. Located next to a yoga studio, this business was almost exclusively focused on infrared saunas. Like the first experience, I was surprised at how packed it was. When I arrived, an employee named Deborah was checking in four people who all seemed to be regulars.
“I had my own infrared sauna when I lived in California years ago,” she said as she handed me a bottle of chilled, deionized water for my session. “I used to just come here until the owner needed someone to help at the desk.”
Since the individual saunas were divided by drapes only, I wore a bathing suit for my session. There were no color therapy options, but there was instrumental new-age music gently flowing from the speakers. The sauna was set lower to 138 degrees, but it was still enough to get me sweaty.
The time went by quickly, and yet again I rushed directly into the shower to wash off my stink. This confused me: I hadn’t drunk alcohol or eaten poorly. I figured all the travel and stress was enough to build up toxins that needed to be released — either that or it was time to upgrade my crystal deodorant!
My skin had broken out a few weeks earlier. After the second sauna, it was nice and clear again.
The Takeaway: I Loved It
After my second session, I mentioned infrared saunas to my friend Sarah, who also loves trying different healing practices.
“I have one,” she said. “I use it every day. You’re welcome to come over and use it too!”
I could see how it made sense to buy a sauna, which costs around $2,000. At an average of $40 a session, it would pay for itself almost immediately if you used it a couple of times a week or more.
Infrared saunas are also more energy-efficient than regular saunas since they heat up the cells in the body rather than the air around it. Most are built with sustainable lumber, too.
However, I can imagine that people who battle with claustrophobia or dislike heated spaces wouldn’t enjoy the experience as much as I did. There are reports of light-headedness and lung irritation, too. Some people with low blood pressure may not do well with it, although I myself have lower-than-normal blood pressure, and I didn’t feel dizzy at all.
For lasting benefits, you’d need to spend time at least once a week in the sauna, both Megan and Deborah told me. Most places with these modern healing treatments have package deals, which make them more affordable.
In this modern world filled with toxins and stress, any investment in health is worth it.
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