Red Light Therapy and Saunas: Competitors or Complementary?
Red light therapy and infrared saunas are two of the most popular technologies in health and wellness right now. You’ll find them at gyms and spas, and in private homes. Celebrities, medical professionals, and fitness gurus alike tout the benefits of these naturally derived therapies.
All this attention begs the question: is one better than the other? And—do you even have to choose?
Actually, you don’t. When comparing red light therapy vs infrared saunas, it’s clear that both provide a number of health benefits, albeit in very different ways. Saunas are one of the oldest therapies around, and they rely on heat. Red light therapy is a cutting edge technology that relies on light. Let’s take a closer look at both to see how they work—and how they can work together.
Sauna: An Ancient Therapy that Still Works
Heat-based therapies have been around for millennia. From Turkish baths, to Mayan sweat houses, to Japanese onsen, the ritual of getting hot and sweaty for therapeutic purposes has a sacred place in many cultures.
For the Finns, it started with hot earth pits that evolved into rooms heated by smokey wood stoves—the prototype of the Finnish sauna, which means “bathhouse” in Finnish.
A hallmark of Finnish culture, saunas gained worldwide popularity in the 20th century. Modern saunas feature heated wooden walls and a compartment of stones warmed by an electric heater. Together, these elements generate an envelope of dry heat with temperatures oscillating between 150 and 185º F. The sauna-goer lingers in this hot little space, sweats profusely, and emerges feeling refreshed and all a-glow.
Saunas: Sweat Without Exercise
The relaxing and often social ritual of taking a sauna yields health benefits that modern science has only begun to comprehend.
One interesting discovery in sauna research involves “heat shock proteins”, which are specialized stress proteins that protect and repair cells and bolster the immune system. Normally, these proteins activate when body temperature spikes, such as during exercise. However, recent studies indicate that passive heat—like that experienced in a sauna—can produce similar effects. This is great news for people who, for whatever reason, can’t tolerate the physical stress of exercise but desire its physiological effects.
Taking a sauna post-exercise has been shown to have benefits as well. In one well-known study, six male distance runners took a sauna after each training session, for three weeks. After the three weeks, researchers noted “a worthwhile enhancement of endurance running performance, probably by increasing blood volume.”
There’s also a fair bit of evidence to suggest that sweating helps rid the body of toxins—which is surprising considering that this function is primarily taken care of by the liver and kidneys. One study found the amounts of toxic elements such as cadmium, lead, and aluminum excreted in sweat were greater than the amounts excreted in urine. This is promising news when you consider the growing body of research warning about high levels of harmful substances and heavy metals that leach into our bodies from the environment.
Infrared Saunas: Same Heat, Different Source
Ever since astronomer Sir William Herschel discovered infrared radiation (IR) in 1800, scientists have been fascinated by its properties. Extending from the red edge of the visible spectrum at 700 nanometers to 1 millimeter, IR is emitted by all objects in the universe to some degree.
Infrared heat works something like this: Imagine a sunny day in the middle of winter. The air around you is cold, but the sun warms your face. That’s the sun’s infrared rays at work, warming your face as they penetrate your skin. You feel the warmth despite the cold ambient temperature of the air around you.
In 1965, a Japanese doctor put this science to work and patented the first infrared sauna. Unlike traditional saunas, where an electric heater or wood stove heats the air and the objects in it through convection, infrared saunas use radiant heat coming from an IR heat lamp, which directs warmth toward the body as well as other objects in the room.
What this means is that the air inside an infrared sauna doesn’t need to be really hot in order for you to sweat. In fact, infrared saunas maintain an ambient heat of 110 degrees F to 130 degrees F, which some people find more comfortable than the range of traditional saunas. Infrared saunas still make you sweat—a lot—thereby generating all the benefits of a traditional sauna, but with less overall stress on the body.
In Infrared Saunas, Wavelength Matters
Most infrared sauna models rely on lightwaves in the far infrared part of the spectrum, known as far infrared light (FIR). With a range of 3000 nm to 0.1 mm, FIR light is the only kind of infrared light capable of raising your core temperature in a way that simulates the heat stress of traditional saunas and exercise. FIR saunas feature metallic, ceramic, or black carbon heating elements (the last being the safest and most modern option), and they are often built of wood, like their traditional counterparts.
The research on FIR sauna therapy is nascent but promising. One paper summarizes studies showing that time spent in FIR saunas improved quality of life in patients with Type II diabetes; improved cardiac and vascular function in patients with chronic heart failure; and eased pain, stiffness, and fatigue in patients with conditions like rheumatoid arthritis.
All things considered, FIR sauna therapy is one way for patients with inhibitory health problems to feel the benefits of exercise without actually doing it—and without having to withstand the intense temperatures of a super hot Finnish sauna.
Near Infrared Saunas
A few infrared saunas on the market use near-infrared light (NIR), which starts at 700 and tops out around 1400 nm. Near infrared light does not produce heat, so it won’t light your internal fire the way FIR does. The warmth of an NIR sauna comes from the incandescent light bulbs that power its heat lamps—and those bulbs get awfully hot to the touch.
Often, NIR sauna manufacturers say they use incandescent light bulbs in order to harness a broader spectrum that includes therapeutically beneficial light bands—namely, red light wavelengths of 630 nm and 660 nm, and near-infrared wavelengths of 810 nm, 830 nm, and 850 nm. These bands of light have been scientifically proven to yield benefits for humans—and they happen to be the same ones harnessed in red light therapy. But we’ll get into that a little later, and look at why NIR saunas can’t effectively provide red light therapy from incandescent light bulbs.
Summary of Infrared Saunas
They heat the body in order to activate physical benefits, in the same way traditional saunas do. These physical benefits include:
Activating heat shock proteins, shown to bolster the immune system and repair cells;
Increasing blood flow to enhance recovery and endurance, post-exercise;
Sweating out toxins. Note that some manufacturers falsely claim that infrared saunas make you generate sweat that contains up to 20% more toxins than that which is generated by traditional saunas. There is zero evidence to back this up.
Infrared saunas are less hot than traditional saunas—and thus more comfortable for some people.
Most infrared saunas employ far infrared light waves, which are more effective at generating heat.
Some infrared saunas use near infrared light waves, which don’t generate heat; rather, the warmth in the sauna space is due to heat emitted from incandescent light bulbs.
Now that we understand the origins, uses, and benefits of infrared saunas, let’s see how they compare to red light therapy.
Red Light Therapy: Light that Heals
When comparing red light therapy vs. infrared saunas, it’s important to remember that red light therapy employs light, while infrared saunas employ heat. Both technologies deliver therapeutic benefits, but they do so in ways that are completely different to one another—yet also potentially complementary, as we will see later.
Red light therapy is the process of targeting the body with specific near-infrared and red light wavelengths that are recognized for their unique therapeutic and regenerative results. Also called photobiomodulation (PBM), this kind of therapy is applied via medical grade LED light panels that produce truly powerful bands of light during frequent or daily sessions of 10 to 15 minutes.
The set-up alone makes for an all together different experience to infrared saunas. There is no heat involved with red light therapy. The LED lights themselves don’t get hot, and users don’t break into a sweat or experience elevated heart rates, as happens in infrared or traditional saunas.
You might be wondering: What is it about red light therapy that’s so magical? The answer has to do with the efficacy and quality of the wavelengths that are being directed at the body.
Five Bands of Light Science Says Work Best
Let’s start with the red light spectrum, which extends from approximately 620 nm to 750 nm. Within this range are two specific wavelengths that have been scientifically proven to yield benefits: the 630 nm and 660 nm bands.
- The 630nm wavelength is ideal for addressing skin concerns. As they penetrate the skin cells and sebaceous glands, these bands smooth out uneven pigmentation, and rejuvenate the skin’s tone and texture. They’ve even been shown to help reduce the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles, and can also stimulate hair regrowth. The 630nm wavelength has also been effective in treating non-melanoma skin cancers, reducing acne breakouts, and eradicating symptoms associated with psoriasis.
- The 660nm wavelength penetrates a little deeper than the 630nm wavelength, and addresses issues pertaining to the entire range of skin tissue. In multiple studies, the 630nm wavelength has been shown to deliver anti-inflammatory effects, such as reducing swelling following an injury and reducing neuropathic pain. It’s also been shown to accelerate wound healing as well as reduce training fatigue.
Image caption: These 5 wavelengths of light are among the most effective for red light therapy.
In the infrared spectrum (750 nanometers to 1,200 nm) are three other bands of light that have shown evidenced-based benefits to humans. These are the 810 nm, 830 nm, and 850 nm wavelengths.
- The 810nm wavelength can penetrate through the skull and into the brain, which means it offers a wealth of neurological benefits, and could even play a role in future medical treatments for brain disorders. Studies of the 810nm wavelength suggest that it improves healing and recovery post-exercise; improves stroke recovery among certain patients; and even may alleviate depression and anxiety symptoms.
- The 830nm wavelength penetrates deeper through skin and tissue into the bone to promote healing deep in tissues. Studies of this wavelength have found that it accelerates healing of severe wounds and may help to ward off infection. It’s also been shown to promote bone repair and growth, and help athletes recover faster after an injury.
- The 850nm wavelength works in concert with the other wavelengths mentioned to provide a wide range of therapeutic and anti-inflammatory benefits, such as muscle recovery, healing of wounds, collagen production for more radiant looking skin, and even orthodontics and tooth alignment.
Used individually or combined, these five wavelengths generate truly powerful effects that comprise the (scientifically backed!) magic of red light therapy.
Near Infrared Saunas: Right Wavelength, Wrong Irradiance
Equally as important as the kind of wavelengths used is the total energy output, known as irradiance. Red light therapy LED devices must produce powerful levels of light in order for the therapy itself to be effective.
This brings us back to the subject of near infrared saunas. While it’s true that these saunas emit some or all of the five wavelengths mentioned above, they can’t do it with a fraction of the irradiance seen in LED light therapy panels.
This is in part due to the fact that the heating elements of NIR infrared saunas are heat lamps that throw off a lot of, well, heat, in order to raise your body temperature. Get too close to these lamps and you will feel the burn. Sit at a safe distance, and the power and efficacy of the wavelengths diminishes greatly; you’re receiving but a tiny portion of those wavelengths’ power, and thus fewer of their benefits.
LED red therapy, on the other hand, is limited to only the most effective wavelengths, uncompromised by other light waves, and delivered at incomparable irradiance. This explains the superior function and effectiveness of LED red light therapy over NIR infrared saunas, if we are looking strictly at the role red and NIR light play in therapy.
Red Light Therapy and Infrared Saunas Pair Well
Is it necessary to choose between red light therapy and infrared sauna sessions? After all, each takes a completely different approach to therapy. Let’s look at a scenario where these different treatments could work in concert.
Say you’ve been experiencing mild but persistent back pain. One day, while lifting weights at the gym, you feel a horrible pinch...and just like that, you’ve thrown out your back. You’re in a lot of pain, and your recovery plan includes physical therapy and just taking it easy—which is going to be really hard because working out is your favorite way to destress, and not being able to exercise is driving you crazy.
In this case, red light therapy and infrared saunas could provide a one-two combo. Red light therapy has been shown to promote healing and reduce inflammation and pain symptoms, potentially shortening your recovery time. Infrared sauna sessions will simulate the heart-pumping, blood circulating endorphin rush you crave while also potentially helping you sweat out toxins.
When comparing the two, think about exercise habits. Most people indulge in more than one activity—be it yoga and running, lifting and swimming, barre and rowing, or whatever you have time for. Red light therapy and infrared saunas are different enough to be complementary, and powerfully so.
That being said, time, money, and circumstances often force us to make a choice between two enjoyable things. Because the therapeutic benefits of certain red and near infrared wavelengths are diverse, powerful, and scientifically backed, red light therapy has the edge.
PlatinumLED Devices: In a Class of Their Own
To reap the full potential of this red light therapy, it’s important to choose the highest quality device among myriad products on the market. PlatinumLED panels are in a class of their own, for a number of reasons. From research and development, to design and manufacturing, we own the entire logistics chain. This ensures the highest degree of quality control over every element of these devices.
We also produce the most powerful LED red light therapy panels available—and this is key, because receiving the full efficacy of these wavelengths depends on irradiance, or output.
Finally, PlatinumLED boasts the most advanced spectrum on the market. This includes the BIO series with more targeted wavelengths; and the patent-pending red and near infrared wavelengths (five altogether, known as R+|NIR+), as seen in the Biomax series. No other product on the market offers this combination of power and versatility.
Whether used on their own or in combination with other therapies, PlatinumLED light therapy devices are a must-have for your wellness and recovery practices.