Thanks to spa-like locations where one can perspire in private, and plenty of celebrity endorsements, the infrared sauna is looking like the latest wellness fad. They’re popping up everywhere, from big cities on the East and West coasts, to smaller urban areas like the Treasure Valley.
Infrared heating was pioneered in the mid-20th century for use in hospitals, mostly in Europe and Japan, to speed the healing of wounds and to warm premature babies. Units for personal use gradually gained a following, with adherents crediting time spent sweating with everything from weight loss and glowing skin to better sleep and detoxification.
They were not exactly chic. Sophie Chiche, 49, who was born in Paris but lives in Los Angeles, could find an infrared sauna only in “a suntan salon type thing with no bathroom, where I thought, ‘I’m going to catch death every time I go here.’” Her solution was to open Shape House in fall 2012, which bills itself as an “urban sweat lodge.”
Shape House uses an infrared heated sleeping bag. Clients, including celebrities like Selena Gomez, various Kardashians and Demi Moore, are encouraged to watch television (anything except the news, which is forbidden) instead of meditating. “Otherwise, it’s how many more minutes are left,” Chiche said.
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They receive cold lavender-scented towels during sweat sessions; oranges and tea are provided afterward (in a relaxation room).
Many spas set their temperatures at 120-140 degrees, but some go as high as 160. The costs vary widely, but average $20-$40 for 30 minutes.
Katie Kaps, 31, of New York City, was introduced to infrared saunas by a friend and became a fan.
“I was a crazy workout freak and had issues with my nervous system, my skin, sleeping at night, and someone suggested I try an infrared sauna,” said Kaps. “It was the best sweat I’ve ever had. I felt like I had just ran 6 miles.” She and her friend opened an infrared sauna in the city.
Do the saunas have health benefits?
“We do not have data that shows one can sweat out toxins in any meaningful way,” said Dr. Catherine Forest, a clinical assistant professor at the Stanford University School of Medicine. “But people feel better after they sweat and think they look better, and that’s worth a lot.”
And there well may be some medical benefits. “It may improve pulmonary function for people with asthma, and heat improves joint pain for people with arthritis,” Forest said.
Infrared heating, she added, “can give you some of the benefits of saunas without some of the risks of saunas.” It may be safer for people with heart disease because the body heats up more gradually.
The comedian Chelsea Handler had an infrared sauna built in her bathroom. “I use it on average three times a week,” she wrote in an email. “What it does for my skin alone is worth every penny. It is more rejuvenating than anything else I’ve tried, and I have been sick once in the last four years.”
She added, “I believe it is due to constantly sweating out my toxins, of which there are many.”