What Are Infrared Saunas For, And Are They Worth The Hype?

A few months ago, I came across an article from The Cut about the potential mental health benefits of infrared saunas. Even though I was in Los Angeles at the time, the sun was still setting at 4pm, and my mood levels had definitely been suffering for it. At that point, I’d tried exercising six times a week, meditating, and gratitude journaling to keep my Seasonal Affective Disorder at bay, and frankly, sweating it out in a sauna sounded like a way more appealing option. Once I was back in my beloved NYC, I promptly booked an appointment with HigherDOSE, an infrared sauna spa with locations all over NYC, New Jersey, and Connecticut. It’s also the preferred spot of celebs like Leonardo DiCaprio, Michelle Williams, and Bella Hadid, if you’re into that. Read on to find out the alleged benefits of infrared saunas, and what I thought after my 60-minute session.

What Do Infrared Saunas Do?

Simply put, infrared saunas claim to make you hotter in every way (obviously, pun intended). Not only does an hour of intense sweating knock off some water weight, but infrared heat may actually help boost your metabolism. According to Dr. Frank Lipman, who spoke to The Cut, just half an hour in an infrared sauna could help you burn up to 600 calories. (That’s like, one million squats or an hour on the treadmill. If this is what celebs have secretly been doing instead of working out, I will never feel okay again.)

For those of you less obsessed with losing weight (tell me your secrets), infrared saunas also have major skin benefits. Again per Dr. Lipman, infrared heat boosts circulation, blood flow, and collagen production, giving you an immediate post-sauna glow, as well as long-term benefits from regular use. Lipman, along with HigherDOSE’s co-founders, also hype up the detoxing capabilities of infrared saunas. Co-founder Lauren Berlingeri claims that infrared pulls “heavy metals, environmental pollutants, and radiation” from your system, and the instructional pamphlet inside the sauna room advised that some of your sweat may come out as black from all the toxins being released. (Sidenote: I’m still not sure that I believe “detoxing” is a real thing, but I really want it to be.) Other potential benefits include pain relief (from sore muscles to chronic headaches) and a boosted immune system.

Finally, the mental health benefits: a 2016 study showed that whole-body hyperthermia (whole body heating, specifically to 101.3º F, for the non-scientists among us), could have antidepressant effects lasting up to six weeks. Claims have been floating around for years that infrared heat can influence serotonin levels or release endorphins, but evidence is tenuous. The 2016 study, however, focuses on the “stress” aspect of sitting in a sauna—the extreme heat—and how these bursts of stress can better train your brain to deal with non-sauna stressors, like anxiety or depression. Again, no one’s claiming that this is rock-solid science, but these studies, along with the fact that everyone seems to feel f*cking amazing after leaving one of these saunas, was enough to make me desperate to try it for myself.

So, What’s An Infrared Sauna Like?

I visited the 11 Howard location of HigherDOSE, and was immediately thrilled by the spa-like room I entered. Each sauna room has a private bathroom (with a nicer shower than the one in my apartment), a Bluetooth speaker system, water, chilled eucalyptus towels, and of course, the sauna itself.

HigherDOSE

You’re given a chromotherapy menu, which tells you the different light therapy colors available to you, and the benefits of each type of light. It’s pretty intuitive (yellow and orange are more activating, blue is more relaxing), but given that I’m a type-A weirdo, I spent the first half hour cycling through all of them anyway. The first 20 minutes felt like sitting in a colorful, less-hot-than-normal sauna. I was warm, but I didn’t have that slowly-being-cooked feeling I get after about 10 minutes in a regular sauna. At the 20-25 minute mark, things got really satisfying, by which I mean sweat started pouring down my entire body. Again, in regular saunas, I’ll notice a drip here or there, then walk out and be surprised at how sweaty I actually am. In the infrared sauna, there was no doubt that I was coated in sweat, and steadily producing more.

I also have a pretty short tolerance for regular saunas; I’d say 20-30 minutes and I’m begging to leave. With the infrared sauna, I was happy to stay in there a full 50 minutes (I left 10 minutes to shower), and honestly could have stayed a bit longer. Promptly after showering, I noticed a few things. My skin was baby-soft, the dull full-body ache from yesterday’s boxing class was greatly improved, and while I didn’t suddenly feel an all-around calm or “mental high,” my anxiety was noticeably tamed. I know this because my face, which is highly sensitive to many things, including heat, got some crazy red blotches about ten minutes post-sauna. But the last time I’d gotten blotches like this, I locked myself in a bathroom for two hours, crying furiously and sending my dermatologist selfies. This time, I washed my face, said “f*ck it,” and moved on with my day. See? Anxiety calming.

HigherDose

I’m not including a description of my blotchy face to alarm you. Any discoloration was gone within the hour, and I trust that if you have skin like mine, you already know that heat is a trigger. But it was truly remarkable to look in the mirror at something that would have typically ruined my day and be able to let it go. In terms of a mental boost from the infrared sauna, I was expecting something like a runner’s high (which I’ve also never achieved, possibly because I’ve never run long enough to get there). But the mental boost I got instead was actually way more valuable to my life—for the next few hours, at least, I didn’t get derailed by minor sh*t. As far as superpowers go, I’ll take it.

So, the only real major con of infrared saunas? The price tag. HigherDOSE sessions cost $45 and up for solo sessions, or $30 and up if you go with two people. As a one-time expense, it’s not bad, but given that many of the benefits are unlocked by regular use, I wish the experience were slightly more accessible. Given my experience, I’d love to go more often, but until my wellness influencer career really takes off, I’ll likely have to limit it to a once-monthly treat.

Images: Keziban Barry; @higherdose (2), @busyphilipps / Instagram;