by Jaakko M. January 14, 2019 4 min read

Are infrared saunas real saunas? And are traditional saunas harmful?

As there is no official body to define what a sauna is officially, what's "real" and "not real" comes down to who you ask. Infrared sauna is not the same as traditional Finnish sauna, and that makes some people say they shouldn't even be called real saunas.

Well, the reality is a little bit more complicated. Whatever you call them, these "Infrared heat rooms" have been successfully marketed as saunas for some time now, and even though they are noticeably different from the traditional sauna, the goal with both is the same: heat therapy and relaxation.

There is no single party who can define what is a real sauna. It all comes down to what is important with all saunas: what your personal needs are, and what you like the best. What I'm attempting with this blog post, and this site generally, is to provide you with objective information on different sauna types so you can make an informed, facts-based decision. Whether you're a fan of latest technology, or like the idea of a wood heated cabin sauna by the lake, I hope you find this information useful!

The battle of sauna tribes

I see something of a cultural battle developing between infrared and the traditional sauna camps. One of the reasons why you may hear strong words said against infrared, is that their marketers sometimes bend the truth. Especially the truth around other sauna types than infrared, which in turn leads the traditional sauna side getting up in arms.

In a nutshell, the false marketing narrative that has annoyed people says that "traditional sauna is harmful, while infrared heals everything from cancer to osteoporosis". That's not the truth of anything. Both infrared and traditional sauna can have a lot of beneficial effects, because the "active ingredient" in both is the same: heat

How we experience heat generally

So, how can heat be so different? Well, the way we experience heat depends on a lot of factors: the ambient temperature of the air, radiant heat, the humidity of the air, and how that air moves around you. These all play a big part in whether we think it's "hot" or "cold".

Think of this in simple terms, and imagine a cloudy day outdoors, with no wind or rain. That's like a baseline, where you can just look at the thermometer and have a good idea on how hot or cold it is. 

But what about when that cloudy day turns into wind and rain? The same temperature suddenly feels a lot colder, because the heat you had surrounding your body evaporates away much faster. Or think of when the clouds disappear, wind and rain stops, and sun comes up: the heat from the sun (radiating heat) may suddenly make you think it's hot, even when the thermometer (air temperature) still shows exactly the same. 

How we experience heat in a sauna

These same factors are all at play in your sauna experience. With infrared sauna, you mostly have air that's maybe a bit warmer than normal room temperature, and most of the heat you experience is radiating heat. The humidity of the room is the same, or lower, as in a normal room.

With electric and wood-burning saunas, there is only little radiating heat from the heater. Most of the heat experience comes from the heated air, and if you throw water on the rocks, the steam (increase in humidity) will make the air feel a lot warmer. What's interesting to note here that when you throw water onto the heater, the air temperature in the sauna actually goes down, not up. But that's definitely not how you feel it! The humidity makes the air more dense, and you feel that much stronger than a tiny drop in temperature. We are not thermometers, and the way we experience heat is complex. 

There is yet some difference on how we experience the heat from electrically heated vs. wood-burning heaters. The differences with those are smaller, and they are a topic for another blog post. 

The sauna differences are real

For now you need to know that the the main differences are as described above: in infrared saunas the heat is radiant heat, and you mostly feel it on the sides of your body where the heaters are. In a traditional sauna the heat you feel comes from the air, and you feel it more evenly. Throwing water on the rocks gives you a temporary boost to that feeling of heat.

In both sauna types the circulating air (what outdoors we would call wind) may affect your experience as well. I hope you won't experience actual wind in any sauna you go to, but some air circulation is needed to keep the experience from turning stuffy. Well designed saunas take this into account, so please check with your sauna designer how they plan for ventilation.

But what about the harmfulness?

Regardless of sauna type differences, one thing we do know for sure: traditional saunas are very good for you. They've been shown to have a wide range of remarkable health benefits. There are some groups of people (mainly ones suffering of acute heart problems) that may need to steer clear of any kind of saunas, so please consult your doctor. Healthy individuals should only experience beneficial health effects from all types of saunas (details are a topic for another blog post, but you can read this scientific article if you don't believe me).

As newcomer to the market, the IR saunas have less of scientific evidence behind them. That doesn't mean that they would be worse, it just means they haven't been researched as much. The long term effects of electromagnetic fields on human body are still being researched, so if you're worried about that, you'll need to pay attention to the heater EMF ratings.

Infrared or traditional sauna? Contact us for more information!

Whatever type of sauna you are considering to to buy, you can contact us here at Divine Saunas for more of objective information. We will listen to your needs and tell you the pros & cons of each solution. Some saunas suit some needs and situations better than others, and the Real Sauna is the one that you enjoy the most!

Jaakko M.
Jaakko M.

The author has lifelong experience of saunas, as is natural for Finns. When not busy learning about how Bitcoin makes the world a better place, he's learning more about saunas. Jaakko shares his findings here in Divine Saunas blog!

You can read more about him in the About Us page.


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