Credit: Finlandia

When Oprah Winfrey credited the infrared sauna with helping her shed some pounds a few years ago, millions of Americans were introduced to the pleasures and benefits of sauna bathing.

The soothing warmth of a sauna is something people of many cultures have appreciated for millennia. Sauna bathing, as practiced in the United States, was developed in Finland 2,000 years ago as a way of keeping clean in a cold climate, centuries before indoor plumbing. The beneficial effects of heat on the body soon became apparent. The Russian bania, the Turkish hamman and the Native American sweat lodge are variations on the same idea — an experience that stimulates the body, producing a feeling of exhilaration, and lifting the mind and spirit as well.

Body boost

Stepping into the heat of a traditional sauna is like giving a wake-up call to your body. Your metabolic rate increases along with an increase in your breathing, which has beneficial effects similar to a stimulating session of exercise. (Individuals with heart or respiratory problems should consult with a physician before using a sauna.) The heat also causes you to sweat, which helps eliminate toxins from the body and contains a protein that naturally fights dangerous bacteria. A sauna bath will raise your body’s levels of endorphins, producing a feeling of euphoria and well-being.

A sauna session also will soothe and relax tired muscles, help relieve mental fatigue, relieve stress, improve circulation, temporarily relieve arthritic pain, help maintain healthy skin, smooth out cellulite, clear your lungs and burn as many as 300 calories.

“What else can you buy today where you don’t have to take a pill or do a lot of other stuff, and yet come out better and healthier?” asked one sauna enthusiast, rhetorically. “There’s nothing like a sauna.”

Traditional vs. infrared

When it’s time to buy a sauna, you will first need to decide if you want the traditional or the infrared version. Though the two types provide similar experiences, there are significant differences between them.

A traditional sauna is a wood-lined room into which a collection of stones, heated by wood, electricity or gas, radiates heat throughout. Made of soft wood, sauna rooms are heated to approximately 185 degrees Fahrenheit. Humidity can be added to the room by pouring water over the rocks, even in saunas using electric heaters. Essential oils, such as eucalyptus, can be added to the water for aromatherapy.

Infrared saunas differ from traditional saunas in a number of important ways. The infrared rays heat the bather’s body directly, not the air in the room. They operate at much lower temperatures (generally about 120 degrees Fahrenheit) and without rocks, so no steam or humidity can be added. This type of sauna is sometimes referred to as a “dry sauna.”

To some users of traditional Finnish saunas, the whole concept of infrared or dry sauna is heresy.

The lower temperatures, lack of hot rocks for steam and humidity, and the characteristics of infrared rays themselves make for a bathing experience so different from the traditional Finnish version that they object to the very use of the word “sauna” in connection with infrared rooms.

Still, infrared saunas have their place and two distinct advantages over traditional — cost and ease of setup. There are portable models on the market today for as little as $1,500, which can be taken home and plugged into any standard household electrical outlet. These low-cost, entry-level models, some as small as a phone booth, have opened the door for many customers. Traditional saunas tend to be higher priced, and installation can be more complicated than with infrared.

What’s new

If the health and wellness benefits are not enough, a number of new products on the market today make owning a sauna even more tempting.

All electronic devices give off electromagnetic fields (EMFs). Infrared saunas have typically given off high levels of EMFs, raising concerns about radiation exposure. To address this issue, sauna manufacturers have developed an infrared sauna that emits almost no EMFs at all, exceeding some of the most stringent radiation standards in the world.

Other popular features offered by sauna makers include programmable digital controls, built-in sound and video systems, and sophisticated lighting. Many models sport a clean, modern look — glass-to-glass corners, a mixing of light and dark woods — that is proving popular with many customers.

For those who can’t decide between traditional and infrared saunas, Finnleo has developed what it calls an InfraSauna. While they can’t be used at the same time, the InfraSauna has a traditional and an infrared heater, and users can switch back and forth between the two. Now there’s no need to be torn between the two types of sauna when you can have the best of both worlds.