This article looks at steam vs infrared sauna and traditional dry saunas. I share the differences and the pros & cons to each.
It also covers some of the health benefits of heat therapy. I hope by the end of this post you can decide whether you’ll give the sauana a try as part of your exercise recovery routine.
What is a Heat Session?
Steam bathing is an ancient practice. It’s been used for thousands of years dating all the way back to the Mayans. Many European and Swedish cultures still use steam bathing for healing.
In fact, I bet you've been familiar with dry saunas and steam rooms for years! They've been included at gyms for a long time.
These days, infrared (IR) saunas are all the rage. Sauna studios are popping up and touting cellular wellness. Some even claim to burn up to 600 calories in a single 30-minute session.
I’m talking about a spa-like ambience that smells like eucalyptus and lavender where you can pay for a 30-minute appointment to sit in an IR cabin and sweat it out. Just you, your open pores, your sweaty body, and your feelings. A lot of people are even purchasing IR saunas for their homes.
Needless to say, deliberate heat exposure has soared in popularity in recent years. This is likely because of an increased focus on natural health and wellness modalities.
It doesn’t hurt that popular celebs like Jennifer Aniston, Lady Gaga, and Cindy Crawford have jumped on the bandwagon.
Celebs that are using Infrared Saunas
Like many health and wellness trends, infrared saunas grew in popularity as more celebs started openly sharing about their sauna experiences.
Lady Gaga says using an IR sauna has helped with her chronic pain and fibromyalgia.
She even told her IG followers that an infrared sauna is the best investment for your money if you are looking for pain control.
Jennifer Aniston told Forbes that her infrared sauna habits help her have beautiful and glowing skin. She also talked about the detoxification and relaxation she experiences in an IR sauna.
Spends a few minutes in an infrared sauna weekly to help improve her skin tone and detox.
Steam vs Infrared Sauna vs Traditional Dry Sauna
Let’s look at the differences between a steam vs infrared sauna vs traditional dry saunas.
All 3 are very similar in that you sit in a heated room and sweat. They also all claim similar health benefits.The difference between the 3 is the source of the heat, the humidity, and the temperature.
So let’s hash it out. What are the differences between these 3 different heating therapies?
1. Steam Room
- A steam room is heated with steam (what’s in a name?).
- More specifically, they are heated with a generator filled with boiling water.
- This creates a wet and humid environment in the room.
Steam rooms are typically kept around 105-110 degrees F
So really, it’s like spending time outside in August in Texas. Kidding, kind of.
What makes it different?:
- The steam itself makes a steam room different than a sauna by adding humidity to the air.
- It has a wet, almost tropical feel when you step into it.
- Air can feel thick and you might see moisture on your skin right away because of the high humidity.
It’s based on preference, but some people like the steamy humidity that comes with a steam room.
You will notice your body feels wet almost immediately.
2. Infrared Sauna
- The heat in an infrared sauna is created by light.
- More specifically, infrared lamps that use electromagnetic radiation.
- Saunas typical have a desert-like, dry environment in the room
They typically heat to between 120 and 160 degrees F.
What makes it different?
- Unlike a steam room or traditional sauna, the IR lamps heat your body directly without heating the air around you.
- Because of this, the sweat is coming from your core body temperature on a deeper, cellular level.
- There are claims that infrared light can penetrate deep into the body and help heal tissue.
- It can give you the same benefits of a dry sauna, but at lower, more comfortable temperatures.
- Can be more relaxing than a dry sauna because the lower temperature that heats your body directly causes a slower temperature rise.
- Can cause a more intense sweat because you can stay in the sauna for a bit longer
Traditional Dry Sauna
Also known as a Finnish Sauna
Note: infrared saunas are a special try of dry sauna
- Heating rocks using a wood or electric sauna heater and pouring water over the rocks
They are typically kept from 150-195 degrees F
What makes it different?:
- The air is heated which in turn heats your body. This is unlike the infrared sauna which heats your body directly.
- It is much hotter than a steam vs infrared sauna.
- Of the 3, a traditional dry sauna is the highest in temperature. This can make it difficult and less enjoyable or relaxing for some.
Health Benefits of a Heat Session
There are claims that a steam room or sauna can help with a whole host of things. From simple benefits like helping you unwind and relax with a good sweat, to things like detoxifying toxins on a cellular level and helping you shed pounds.
Below are some of the benefits of heat therapy
- Better sleep and relaxation
- Relief from muscular pain and soreness
- Pain reduction
- Skin benefits leading to tighter and clearer skin
- Detoxification of your cells
- Decreased inflammation
- Weight loss
- Boosted metabolism
- Stress reduction
- Improved circulation
While more studies are needed to support many of these claims, there is some research that shows regular sauna use can have benefits like cardiovascular improvements, decreased inflammation, and blood pressure regulation.
Plus, a lot of people would tell you that even though not proven yet by science, they do see many of the health benefits listed above like improvements in their skin, less pain, and better sleep.
What's the Research Say?
Let's take a closer look at some of the research!
Increased blood circulation and heart rate:
Studies have suggested that with any sauna or steam room, the body’s response is the same.
An increase in blood circulation, heart rate, and sweat.
This is the same as the body’s response to low to moderate exercise but without the active function of skeletal muscles.
Blood pressure regulation:
Some studies have shown regular sauna bathing to help decrease BP in those with preexisting vascular disease.
Unfortunately, these studies only show short term results and don’t speak to the long term effects.
Heat rooms can have a positive impact on heart health.
Based on a 2015 study that showed sauna bathing was inversely associated with the risk of sudden cardiac death, coronary heart disease, cardiovascular disease, and all-cause mortality.
Neurocognitive disease, aka Dementia
Reduced Systemic Inflammation
One study found that sauna therapy reduced C-reactive protein, which is a blood marker of inflammation.
Reduced inflammation can help decrease risk of chronic illness and help with skin health.
It can also decrease pain in the body, improve sleep, and decrease anxiety.
Is it safe for everyone?
Depending on how long you stay in the sauna, it can contribute to dehydration.
Some people should avoid saunas such as pregnant women, people with poorly controlled blood pressure, abnormal heart rhythm, unstable angina, and advanced heart failure or heart valve disease.
These people should talk to a doctor before using a sauna.
Which is better? Steam vs Infrared Sauna or a Traditional Dry Sauna?
It's up to you to decide which is best for you! I prefer the lower heat and dryness of an infrared sauna and ideally, I would try to go 1-2 times a week if time and budget allows.
Going on a Thursday or Friday evening is a great way to wind down from a hectic work schedule. It signifies the end of a productive week and the beginning of some well-deserved R&R on a Friday night. Couple that with a yummy take-out meal, a good snuggle on the couch, and a netflix show or movie night with the kids and self-care feels pretty dang good!
The differences between steam vs infrared sauna and a dry sauna are the temperature and humidity. Steam rooms are more humid, infrared saunas heat the body directly with infrared lamps, and traditional dry saunas heat the air in the room.
The pro of an infrared sauna is that it isn’t as hot as a dry sauna so it can be a more relaxing experience and you may be able to stay in it longer and get a better sweat.
There is some research showing the health benefits of saunas, but there aren’t a lot of large studies about the benefits of IR saunas specifically. I have to believe there will be more research that comes out in the near future with the growing popularity of sauna studios and home saunas.
For me, going to the sauna does leave me feeling pretty dang relaxed and feels great on my sore muscles. I don’t need research to tell me that it is one of my favorite self-care activities. 🙂
If you enjoyed this article or learned something, I would love to hear from you! Please leave me a comment or get in touch on instagram @mallorythedietitian.
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