Q: I've been reading about celebs who are really into infrared saunas. What's the appeal?

A: These saunas surround you with infrared light, which penetrates your skin and provides heat directly to your body (regular saunas warm the air around you). Infrared saunas actually tend to be a bit gentler than conventional ones because they typically run at lower, more tolerable temperatures. Despite what you may have heard from your favorite celebrity, there isn't a ton of hard evidence backing up the medical benefits on infrared saunas. Some studies suggest that the direct heat can help with certain chronic health issues, including rheumatoid arthritis, possibly by reducing pain and stiffness. Meanwhile, spas, sauna makers, and devotees tout such perks as relaxation, better sleep, improved circulation, lower blood pressure, and faster recovery from workouts. Just be skeptical when you read about the detoxifying powers of these saunas (unless you think of sweating itself as a cleanse). Claims that infrared treatments help remove toxins from your body or melt fat cells are mostly unsubstantiated.

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Are they safe? For the majority of people, yes—but remember that, as with any superheated activity, you'll want to watch for side effects, like dizziness. Sit for only 10 minutes at a time, or five minutes if you're just starting out. A sauna session is fine if you're looking for a therapeutic, chill-out activity. (You may think these special saunas sound a lot like tanning beds, but infrared emissions don't have the same skin-damaging effects that ultraviolet trays do.) If you plan to use an infrared sauna for any other purpose than relaxation, or if you have a heart or lung condition, ask your doctor first. 

 

Health’s medical editor, Roshini Rajapaksa, MD, is assistant professor of medicine at the NYU School of Medicine.