There’s nothing like a little help from Oprah. When the queen of daytime television credited the infrared sauna with helping her shed some pounds a few years ago, dealers across the county saw interest in saunas spike.

While sauna bathing has not permeated American culture to nearly the extent it has in Finland and northern Europe, the market today is strong and expected to grow.

“The sauna market is doing very well,” says Mark Raisanen, national sales manager for Finnleo Sauna in Cokato, Minn. “The main reason is the wellness aspect. A lot of doctors, health practitioners, chiropractors — especially on the alternative medicine side — are highly recommending sauna, both traditional and infrared. That whole wellness angle is driving sales of both categories.”

Without exception, sauna dealers contacted for this story cited the health and wellness benefits as the leading driver of sauna sales. In addition to burning calories, regular sauna bathing is said to improve the complexion, sooth and relax muscles, improve circulation, reduce stress and eliminate toxins from the body.

“Right now, the biggest percentage of people buying saunas are boomers,” says Raisanen. “They want products that are going to make them feel better, look better and sleep better. Saunas are that vehicle.”

“What else can you buy today where you don’t have to take a pill, you don’t have to do this and that, and yet you come out of it better, health-wise?” asked Vince Wuebker, owner of Hot Spring Spas & Pool Tables 2 in West Fargo, N. D. “There’s nothing like a sauna.”

“You’ve got to create the market”

Wuebker has been in the business for more than two decades and has seen a big increase in sales in the past three years. While he acknowledges that growth is due in part to the exceptionally strong economy of North Dakota, he is also devoting many more resources to selling saunas than previously. Where he used to take three or four saunas to a home show, now he takes 15 different models that potential customers can try out. As a result, sales have soared. Even in a relatively small market, he is one of Finnleo’s highest producers and opened a second store in Bismarck last December.

“We treat saunas as an equal part of the business,” Wuebker says. “People will buy saunas if you offer them. It’s a great product.”

For Norm Coburn, owner of New England Spas in Natick, Mass., sauna has typically been a sleeper category, showing small, steady growth over the years, but always lagging behind the sales of hot tubs.

“You have to show it to sell it,” he says.  “You have to understand it to sell it. And you have to advertise. I think it’s a great product and shows good growth potential.”

In addition to customers motivated by the health benefits, Coburn sees a great deal of interest in traditional saunas among people of Finnish, Russian and northern European ethnic backgrounds, where sauna bathing has been deeply ingrained in the culture for millennia.

“They don’t need to be convinced of the value of the sauna experience,” he says. “They just need it installed. And hotter than most of us can stand!”

Traditional vs. far-infrared

Like many dealers, Coburn has seen sales of infrared saunas grow at a much fast rate in the past few years than traditional saunas. Though the two provide similar experiences, there are significant differences between them. In Coburn’s experience, a customer for one type of sauna will generally not convert to the other.

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, the sauna rooms are heated to about 185 degrees Fahrenheit. Humidity can be added 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 lower temperatures (generally about 120 degrees Fahrenheit) and without rocks, so no steam or humidity is added. This type of saunas is sometimes referred to as “dry sauna.”

To some users of traditional Finnish saunas, the whole concept of infrared and dry sauna is heresy. “These infrared boxes that U.S. importers are bringing in from China are not saunas at all,” says Reino Tarkiainen, president of Finlandia Sauna in Portland, Ore. “I was born in Finland and I know what a real sauna is.”

In Tarkiainen’s view, the lower temperatures, the lack of hot rocks for steam and humidity, and the characteristics of the infrared rays themselves make for a bathing experience so different from the traditional Finnish one that he objects to the very use of the word sauna in connection with the infrared rooms.

According to Eero Kilpi, the Finnish-born president of the North American Sauna Society, Tarkiainen’s position is theoretically correct. Still, his trade organization accepts that infrared saunas exist and are here to stay, at least for the foreseeable future. Though the Sauna Society does not have many manufacturers of infrared rooms as members, he welcomes them as a means of conveying correct information about saunas and the real sauna experience.

“We want to make sure that every sales person, every dealer, and everyone in the general public understands that there is a difference between the two types of sauna,” Kilpi says. “The market has shown that there is an opening for the infrared rooms. We just want to make sure that people end up with the sauna experience that they really want.”

Oprah weighs in

For the most part, what customers want today is the infrared sauna. These are the ones that have been touted in recent years by Oprah, Dr. Oz and other television personalities.

“We notice when saunas receive media attention, even if it is Oprah claiming to have lost weight using a sauna,” says Jeff Jarvis, manager of Ultra Modern Pool & Patio in Wichita, Kan. “It piques people’s interest and gives them that push to get into the store and learn about saunas. By far, infrared saunas have been what people want and what people are buying.”

One clear advantage of infrared over traditional is the cost and ease of set up. There are portable models for as little as $1,500 that 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 involved.

“For us, infrareds are outselling traditionals big time, probably about three to one,” says Steve Ruscigno, general manager of Oregon Hot Tub in Beaverton, Ore. 

His store has been carrying saunas for five years. When the company began letting employees takes saunas home and try them out, sales went up dramatically.

“Once we became avid users ourselves and experienced the health benefits personally, we shared that with our customers. That’s what really sparked our sales.”

A new product he has found to be very popular is infrared saunas made by Finnleo that emit no radiation. All electron devices give off electro-magnetic fields (EMFs). Infrared saunas have typically been high in this area. Finnleo’s patented technology brings the EMFs down to nearly zero, exceeding the Swedish standard, among the most stringent in the world.

“That’s important,” Ruscigno says. “You are trying to get toxins out of your body, not put them in.”

Growth potential

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

For customers who can’t decide between traditional and infrared saunas, Finnleo has developed what it calls an InfraSauna. They can’t be used at the same time, but the InfraSauna has both a traditional and infrared heaters, and users can switch back and forth between them. According to Raisanen, the InfraSauna was developed specifically for couples where the husband prefers one type of sauna and the wife the other.

Kilpi estimates that there are well over one million saunas currently in use in the United States with more than fifteen thousand new saunas sold annually. Like most sauna manufacturers and dealers, he sees tremendous opportunity for growth.

“If we succeed in really getting people to understand the experience — the relaxation, the endorphins flowing from a good sauna bathing session —  it would not be impossible to increase the number of saunas in this country by tenfold.”