The Infrared Sauna: Hollywood's Hot, Pricey 'Magic' Box

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Okay, folks, we've seen this before in various forms, and now we're experiencing it once again. It has all the right buzzwords from devotees, like "detoxify" and "rejuvenation" and "cleansing," and a celebrity set hopping on board. That means it's time for the level-headed among us to tap their inner skepticism before the purveyors of cool have us all bamboozled and reaching for our wallets.

This time the miracle cure talk involves saunas, or more precisely, a "better, healthier" way to sauna that aids sleep, clears skin and provides improved stress relief. Hollywood's fit and fabulous say that instead of being heated from the outside you can be cooked from within -- sort of.

Say hello to the infrared sauna, coming to an overpriced salon near you. And then say goodbye (especially to the wild health claims that it detoxes the body and helps treat cancer) and no thanks. (Yes, there are already companies that stated such things before being swatted down by the FDA, which we'll get to.)

An infrared sauna, or IS, works by creating light rays that produce heat -- radiation, if you remember your physics, as opposed to traditional saunas that heat up the air in the room (convection), which in turn raises one's body temperature. Infrared is between visible light and microwave energy on the electromagnetic spectrum. We all know that using a microwave to heat a meal -- in which water molecules inside the food are energized and made to vacillate -- is faster than putting a dish in an oven. IS works the same way. 

Bill Best, founder of Thermal Electric Corp. invented the technology in the 1960's, primarily to help paint on cars dry quicker. Once the patent expired, it became attainable for home grills. If you wouldn't use a microwave sauna, should you use a far-infrared-waves one?

Beautiful people enjoying infrared saunas

Those sweating the IS praises -- the boldface names include Jennifer Aniston, Leonardo DiCaprio, Lady Gaga and Chelsea Handler -- say its health benefits are plentiful and satisfying. "I really love an infrared sauna; it just allows for such beautiful, glowing skin and cell rejuvenation and detoxification," said Aniston, the actress and Aveeno skincare spokeswoman. "It even helps with weight loss and relaxation.”

Yet while IS adopters and adherents share their positive experiences, the proven health benefits are elusive, says Dr. Catherine Forest, as quoted in the New York Times. “'We do not have data that shows one can sweat out toxins in any meaningful way,' said Dr. Forest, a clinical assistant professor at the Stanford University School of Medicine. 'But people feel better after they sweat and think they look better, and that’s worth a lot.'”

Alright, take that for what it's worth. Perhaps this trend gives people access to saunas who otherwise couldn't tolerate them, due to the stifling humidity and length. Fair enough. But at $45 per half hour -- which is what one New York salon is charging -- is it worth it, especially for something that's new and unproven?

The FDA is already on the case. Therasage, a manufacturer boasting about the amazing benefits from its infrared saunas, was slapped with a "Labeling False and Misleading" determination, telling the company to "discard any of the labeling materials that state the following:"

  • 1) Use of the sauna allows one to "naturally detoxify"
  • 2) Use of the sauna expels toxins from the body
  • 3) Any reference to an exact amount of calories one uses in an hour when enjoying the benefits of this product
  • 4) Although this product is enhanced with a negative ion environment, we cannot say that the product is enhanced with negative ion therapy
  • 5) Any reference to the maximum infrared absorption available cannot be explicitly stated, as it may vary for each individual person

And then, "There’s also manufacturer Chi Machine 4 U, which produced the Far Infrared Hothouse Sauna Dome," writes Statnews.com. "The company claimed a laundry list of benefits, saying simmering in the sauna could treat prostate, ovarian, breast, and colon cancer," which of course, is ridiculous.

On the Mayo Clinic's website Dr. Brent Bauer says IS use may help those slightly with health problems -- but there is no evidence it will help them get healthier.

The research on this emerging fad is thin, so caveat emptor -- and don't get cooked.