What is a red light sauna?

Close-up image of Jules Walters

Jules Walters • Published: Aug 26, 2023

A red light sauna is another way to describe an infrared sauna, which started in Japan in the 1960s. Infrared saunas are now increasingly popular around the world as a modern alternative to the traditional Finnish sauna.

Red light therapy, which uses a similar technology to the infrared sauna, is also increasing in popularity.

This article aims to clear up some of the confusion between a red light sauna and red light therapy.

I’ll also explain how light energy from different parts of the light spectrum is understood to benefit our health, from relaxing sore muscles to easing the pain of chronic health problems.

Short summary

  • The term red light sauna usually refers to an infrared sauna

  • Infrared saunas are different to traditional saunas in the way they generate heat

  • Red light therapy uses low levels of red light but it’s not a sauna

  • Infrared saunas and red light therapy can provide health benefits

How is an infrared sauna different from a traditional sauna?

An infrared sauna, or red light sauna, differs from a traditional Finnish sauna in the way heat is generated and how it affects the body.

In a traditional Finnish sauna, the heat is produced by heated rocks or from a wood stove, raising the air temperature in the sauna cabin. The high temperature causes the body to sweat, promoting relaxation and detoxification.

Woman taking sauna bath, resting on bench of traditional Finnish-style sauna bathing cabin

An infrared sauna uses infrared heaters to emit infrared radiation that directly heats the body without significantly raising the temperature of the air inside the cabin.

The heat generated by infrared saunas is thought to penetrate deeper into the body, providing therapeutic effects at lower temperatures compared to traditional saunas.

A spa-style infrared sauna room with illuminated light panels

Some key differences between the two types of saunas include:

  • Heat source: Traditional saunas use heated rocks or wood-fired stoves, while infrared saunas use infrared heaters.

  • Temperature: Finnish saunas typically operate at higher temperatures, ranging from 170°F to 190°F, while infrared saunas usually operate at lower temperatures, around 120°F to 140°F

  • Air humidity: Finnish saunas tend to have higher humidity levels, from water being poured over heated rocks, which creates steam. Infrared saunas have lower humidity levels, as they don’t involve water or heated rocks.

  • Sensation: In a traditional sauna, the air temperature can feel intense, whereas in an infrared sauna the heat is usually perceived as more gentle and penetrating.

Potential health benefits of infrared sauna therapy

Infrared saunas provide several potential health benefits. Here are just a few:

  • Detoxification: Infrared saunas can promote sweating, which helps eliminate toxins and heavy metals from the body. This process may also support healthy immune function.

  • Improved circulation: Regular use of infrared saunas may enhance blood flow, reduce blood pressure, and generally improve cardiovascular health. This can aid in the delivery of oxygen and nutrients to various parts of the body.

  • Pain relief: Infrared heat can penetrate tissues and joints, promoting relaxation and providing relief from muscle soreness, stiffness, and chronic pain conditions, such as arthritis.

  • Stress reduction: The heat and relaxation experienced in an infrared sauna can help reduce stress levels. This can have a positive impact on mental well-being and improve overall sleep quality.

  • Skin health: The sweating induced by infrared saunas can unclog pores and cleanse the skin. Additionally, increased circulation can potentially promote a healthy complexion and reduce the appearance of scars, acne, and wrinkles.

How an infrared sauna differs from red light therapy (RLT)

While the health benefits of infrared sauna therapy and RLT overlap, the technology and mode of action are not the same.

RLT devices emits red light, usually from overhead, upright panels or a light wand fitted with a bank of LEDs (light-emitting diodes). Operating at low wavelengths, those devices aren’t generating heat.

Infrared saunas, on the other hand, do heat your body directly through electromagnetic radiation. It’s a dry heat, unlike a traditional steam sauna, but you will feel it.

Illuminated red light therapy panel, deployed for a variety of reputed therapeutic benefits of red light

One of the key mechanisms behind red light therapy is its ability to increase energy production in cells.

The red and near-infrared light photons are absorbed by the mitochondria; the energy powerhouses of our cells. This absorption activates a series of metabolic reactions, leading to the production of adenosine triphosphate (ATP), the molecule responsible for storing and releasing energy.

By increasing ATP production, red light therapy promotes cellular repair and regeneration, which can have several positive effects on the body.

Red light therapy (RLT) can enhance collagen production, which may improve skin health and reduce the appearance of wrinkles and fine lines.

RLT also has anti-inflammatory properties and can promote the release of nitric oxide, a molecule that helps improve blood flow, reduce muscle soreness, and enhance recovery from exercise or injuries, as well as improve cardiac and vascular function.

How red light therapy work

Red light therapy, also known as photobiomodulation, works by exposing the body to low levels of red or near-infrared light.

These wavelengths of light penetrate the skin and are absorbed by the cells, stimulating various beneficial responses.

Red light therapy & infrared saunas complement each other

There’s good reason to consider combining red light therapy with an infrared sauna as part of a regular wellness regime, as their effects can be complementary.

The sauna’s heat, for example, can help prepare the body for red light therapy by increasing blood flow and promoting relaxation.

In turn, red light therapy can support the body’s recovery and regeneration process after a sauna session.

Woman receiving treatment with red light therapy device. (For reputed wellness benefits of red light)

Using red light therapy at home

The good news is that you can use red light therapy at home; not just at spas and wellness clinics. Red light therapy devices that emit red or near-infrared light are widely available to buy online and in stores.

One thing to note is that red light therapy (and infrared) is considered generally safe and non-invasive, though specific parameters such as wavelength, dosage, and duration of treatment will vary depending on the intended application.

So, I would always recommend consulting an expert in light therapy, as well as your regular physician, before starting red light therapy at home.

The physician and integrative medicine specialist, Dr Mark Hyman is a keen advocate of red light therapy for its ability to improve skin tone and complexion, diminish wrinkles, and speed the healing of wounds and scars.

Five bands of light scientists believe have health benefits

The increasing preference for infrared saunas over the traditional Finnish type is evidenced by the ever-expanding choice of indoor saunas for home [INTERNAL LINK]. But the color red is far from alone in the spectrum for its perceived wellness benefits.

Independent scientific evidence, based on large-scale clinical trials, is still called for. But there have been multiple smaller studies, and here are some of the conclusions.

Blue light

Blue light has a shorter wavelength and higher energy than other visible light colors. Exposure to natural blue light during the day helps regulate our circadian rhythm, responsible for maintaining our sleep-wake cycles.

Adequate exposure to blue light during daylight hours can also improve mood, cognitive function, alertness, and overall sleep quality.

Green light

Green light is often associated with tranquility and relaxation. It has a calming effect on our nervous system, helping to reduce stress and anxiety levels.

Woman receiving ultrasound therapy with green light in salon setting

Additionally, green light exposure has been found to alleviate migraines and improve migraine-associated symptoms, making it a potential therapeutic option.

Infrared light

Infrared light lies beyond the visible spectrum and is categorized into three bands: near-infrared (NIR), mid-infrared, and far-infrared.

Near infrared light therapy (NIR) has been extensively studied and has shown promising health benefits. It is known to increase circulation and oxygenation in tissues, promote tissue repair, reduce blood pressure, and relieve fibromyalgia. Limited research suggests that far infrared light waves (FIR), absorbed in a far infrared sauna setting, may also relieve chronic fatigue syndrome and potentially even enhance athletic performance.

Red light

Red light therapy has gained significant attention too for its potential health benefits. Red light in certain ranges can penetrate deep into tissues and stimulate various cellular processes.

RLT has been shown to promote wound healing, reduce inflammation, relieve pain associated with conditions like arthritis, and improve skin health and collagen production.

UV light

UV light is divided into three categories: UVA, UVB, and UVC. While excessive exposure to UV light can be harmful, controlled exposure to UVB light is known to stimulate vitamin D production by our skin.

Vitamin D plays a crucial role in regulating calcium levels, promoting bone health, supporting the immune system, and even reducing the risk of chronic diseases like cancer.

Frequently asked questions

Which is better? Red light therapy (RLT) or an infrared sauna?

Both red light therapy and infrared saunas have their own benefits, so the choice between the two depends on your needs and preference at the time. 

Red light therapy involves exposing the body to low-level red or near-infrared light, which can promote healing and provide various other health benefits such as reducing pain, improving skin health, and increasing collagen production.

RLT can also be used for targeted treatments on specific areas of the body, as well as for overall wellness and skincare, and is often used in spa and medical settings.

On the other hand, an infrared sauna uses infrared heaters to emit radiant heat that’s absorbed by the body directly. This can lead to various deeper health benefits, such as detoxification, lower blood pressure, and pain relief.

Infrared saunas can be beneficial too for their capacity to promote relaxation and well-being.

Are infrared saunas backed by science?

Yes. Numerous studies have been conducted to evaluate the effects of infrared saunas on various health benefits; including their effects on recovery from strength and endurance training sessions.

Some of the other benefits demonstrated from infrared sauna sessions include improved circulation, stress reduction and weight loss.

What type of infrared sauna is best?

There’s still a need for independent researchers to conduct large-scale trials to validate conclusively the health benefit claims made by infrared sauna retailers.

Having said that, it’s likely that the best type for you will depend on what specific health benefit you want to achieve from infrared spectrum therapy.

Near infrared wavelengths, for example, are believed to be more effective at close range for topical wound healing. Far infrared wavelengths may be more effective at removing toxins and relaxing muscles.

Are there any potential risks with infrared saunas?

Yes. Infrared saunas are generally considered safe. However, as with a traditional sauna, there is the risk of getting overheated, dehydrated, dizzy or feeling faint; particularly if you stay too long.

So, all sauna bathers should limit their time in the sauna space; 10 minutes to begin with is long enough. It’s also vital to avoid taking drugs or alcohol beforehand; and be sure to drink enough fluids, especially water, before and after sauna use.

Pregnant women, though, are advised to avoid all types of sauna, as they are more susceptible to overheating.

Is red light therapy backed by science?

Yes. Scientists call red light therapy photobiomodulation or low-level light therapy (LLLT), and there have been several small-scale studies into its efficacy that have reached positive conclusions.

The perceived health benefits from these studies range widely, from reducing facial wrinkles to improving the memories and temper of people with dementia.

A recent systematic review of the research concluded that evidence exists to support the role of low-energy red/near-infrared light as a safe and effective method of skin rejuvenation, treatment of acne and alopecia, and, especially, body contouring.

There are calls for more clinical trials to confirm red light therapy’s effectiveness.

Is red light therapy approved by the FDA?

Yes. Red light therapy is FDA-approved and classified as safe and effective for various conditions, including skin rejuvenation, pain relief, and wound healing.

Is there any reason NOT to undergo red light therapy?

Those taking medication that can increase their sensitivity to sunlight, or who have a medical history of eye disease or skin cancer, are generally not suitable for red light therapy.

Is red light therapy safe for everyone else?

For everyone else, red light therapy is a matter of moderation. Too much light and you may end up with skin damage. Too little light and there won’t be enough benefit.

Red light therapy is not completely risk free, though. Eye protection, for example, in the form of goggles or sunglasses, is a wise precaution for all users – and each session should be strictly time-limited.

Light therapy experts generally recommend starting low and slow, but also committing to regular sessions. For example: 5-minutes red light therapy daily – for at least 5 days a week – for the first 4 to 6 weeks.