Infrared sauna: Hot new idea has skeptics

Health & Fitness

October 03, 2004|By Harry Jackson Jr. | Harry Jackson Jr.,Knight Ridder / Tribune

A new product called the infrared sauna may be the next health craze, especially because manufacturers say that using it can burn 600 calories in 30 minutes, relieve any number of ailments, improve mood and even reverse aging.

But doctors say consumers should proceed with caution, or just take a hot bath.

"Dry" saunas use infrared heat instead of steam. Marketers and manufacturers say they provide numerous health benefits and can even bring relief from serious illnesses.

Physicians and researchers say reports that infrared saunas produce more benefits than a conventional sauna, hot tub or heat lamp are at best suspicious.

"This is just a plain lie," said Dr. James Shoemaker, director of the Metabolic Screening Laboratory at St. Louis University School of Medicine. "Infrared is just heat. Heat is heat. Heat penetrates, but it's nothing exotic.

"A warm bath would do everything that they are claiming this does. A warm bath makes people feel comfortable; doctors recommend it; it's good for muscle strains and sprains; people use warm baths in rehab. ... They're just selling it in a new and different way."

In general, however, everyone agrees that the only danger from infrared saunas -- as with any heat-based therapy -- is dehydration. Otherwise, medical professionals don't fear infrared heat. In fact, hospitals use it for infant care in nurseries.

Unlike steam saunas, the dry sauna uses infrared radiation to produce heat. If you've stayed in a hotel room and been warmed by a bathroom heater in the ceiling, you were probably under an infrared heater.

(There are three basic types of radiation on the light spectrum. Visible light is in the middle. That exists as the colors we see. To the right of visible light is dangerous ionizing radiation: the ultraviolet forms that cause sunburn or cancer. To the left of visible light is safer, non-ionizing radiation: infrared, microwave and radio signals among them.)

Most infrared saunas on the market are small, wooden rooms that can hold one to four people.

The infrared heat lamps -- four to six in a sauna -- are recessed in the box. Temperature is regulated by digital controls similar to a household thermostat.

Despite a lack of scientific proof to the claims made by infrared sauna makers, popularity of the saunas seems to be growing.

Sunlight Saunas in Lenexa, Kan., one of many manufacturers of the devices, says its business is booming.

The company wouldn't give sales figures. However, Entrepreneur magazine recently selected the company for its Hot 100 list for 2004. To make the list, a company had to be less than 5 years old, be owned by the founder and have more than $1 million in sales in 2003.

Sunlight Saunas units run from about $1,500 to $5,000. Prices for units by other manufacturers are in the same range. They can easily be found on the Internet.

Kathleen H. Christ, owner of St. Louis Aquatic Center, owns a unit manufactured by Sunlight Sauna. Her nonprofit business features natural healing and water therapy. She's also a massage therapist and delivers a range of holistic therapeutic services.

Christ became interested in the saunas after reading literature about detoxification. Her two-person sauna arrived in March. She enthusiastically talks about good results -- increased energy, better skin tone and generally feeling healthier -- for herself and for others using the sauna.

She said she has not seen significant weight loss among her clients, but notes that she has lost 5 pounds since she started using it in March.

"But that can be from increased energy," she said. "I'm not ready to say that this results in weight loss."

The pros and cons

Infrared sauna manufacturers have made a variety of claims about their product:

Infrared radiation penetrates the skin and produces chemical reactions that make fat cells expel toxins such as tobacco and pesticides.

Increased sweat extracted by infrared heat carries more toxins from the body than conventional sweat.

Infrared saunas increase metabolism so cells burn more calories.

But Dr. James Shoemaker, director of the Metabolic Screening Laboratory at St. Louis University School of Medicine, warns consumers against such claims.

"Heating people up does not remove any [toxins] from their bodies."

As for weight loss, there's no way to reduce fat by sitting under a heat lamp, Shoemaker added.

To lose weight, muscles must move and people must take in fewer calories than they burn through exercise.

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