How does exposure to heat in a sauna affect your health and skin? Sauna devotees and sauna manufacturers make many claims for the health benefits of a sauna regimen, but the research is somewhat limited. Here are the facts:
Choose Your Sauna
There are two types of saunas: dry heat and infrared. Dry heat saunas are the traditional sauna originating in Finland, where radiant heat from hot rocks raises the ambient temperature in a small enclosed room (usually built from fragrant, unfinished wood).
Infrared sauna, however, is based on infrared light fixtures that heat the surface tissue of the body directly. In addition to the benefits of the penetrating heat, infrared sauna manufacturers also claim additional benefits that arise from the infrared light wave frequency. (See our article on light therapy.)
There’s no question that the soothing warmth of a sauna can be relaxing and de-stressing, and that’s reason enough to enjoy one. There is clinical evidence that regular exposure to heat, like that in a sauna, can boost your mood and serve as an antidepressant. Heat can also relax and soothe the pain in tense or overworked muscles, and may help you sleep at night.
Because a sauna’s intense heat promotes perspiration, its main claim is that it can help detoxify the skin and body, allegedly allowing ‘pores to open’ as the sweat carries out waste products. While sweat does carry with it a small amount of waste products, its main purpose is to cool the body, so weigh the other benefits and risks before choosing a sauna for its detox potential.
Sauna and Skin Health
One beneficial effect of a sauna on skin health is that it does promote increased circulation to the skin, which is why one experiences a pinkness, redness or flush when exposed to its heat.
While the warmth and sweat from a sauna can make your skin feel dewy and look a lovely shade of youthful pink, in the end, saunas can be very drying for your skin. A sauna is a very arid environment and you will be losing moisture and some of your natural oils due to perspiration. Be sure to moisturize after your sauna and stay hydrated.
For those with rosacea or other skin conditions where flare-ups are triggered by heat exposure, saunas are probably not for you.
Another skin condition triggered by heat is melasma or patches of hyperpigmentation of the skin cells due to increased melanin production. Heat stimulates production of melanin in this condition, so a sauna may trigger darkening of skin patches.
While infrared saunas are often touted as a cure-all for everything, including skin conditions like eczema, acne, TSW, and psoriasis, there is no significant research to support this. Yet neither is there research proving any significant harm from saunas for those experiencing these conditions. For some patients, the soothing stress relief of a sauna may bring relaxation benefits that prevent a flare-up during times of stress, while for others, the heat and drying effects of a sauna may trigger more flaking and itchiness.
Sauna’s biggest claim is that its heat will open your pores and allow the oils and sweat to flow more freely. Adherents claim this flushes out the bad stuff so that you experience a deeper sense of clean. This can seem like an attractive proposition for those with blackheads or acne.
Please know, however, that a claim for “opening your pores” is by and large a myth, as heat is more likely to close your pores from swelling. Your pore size is fairly fixed by genetics, although pore size is sometimes influenced by the amount of skin oil you produce, hormonal levels, and certain dietary factors.
Most saunas are public places, so be sure to shower after your sauna, which will also rinse off the perspiration and salt from your skin.
General Health Cautions
Due to heat and increased perspiration, a sauna can be very dehydrating. This can be dangerous if a person enters the sauna in an already dehydrated state. (Some people swear by using a sauna to “sweat out a hangover,” or as a treatment for a cold or flu. However, there is no research to support that sauna is a cure for these conditions, while hydration is important for all of them.)
If you decide to try a sauna, be sure to bring ample water to drink before, during and after your session. Avoid dehydrating beverages like alcohol or caffeinated drinks.
Some people have difficulty perspiring (a condition known as anhidrosis) caused by any of several health conditions. If this is the case for you, a sauna can be uncomfortable and even dangerous, as it could lead to heatstroke or heat exhaustion. Saunas are also not safe for those who are pregnant.
Speaking of heatstroke, although it can be incredibly relaxing, it is not safe to fall asleep in a sauna. If you feel this is a risk for you, be sure to set an alarm on your phone and take it with you, or sauna with a friend.
If you want to try a sauna, go slow at first to see how you tolerate the heat. Start with 10 or 15 minutes and keep the sauna at a temperature that is comfortable and tolerable for you (as opposed to the advice of a well-meaning friend or spa staff member). Sit on a lower bench rather than an upper tier, as the temperatures get higher on upper tiers since hot air rises. Some people find that a sauna makes them feel dizzy or light-headed. A sauna can trigger low-blood pressure and even fainting, so be careful.
And if you are a male concerned about your fertility, know that a small study showed that the heat from regular sauna use can decrease sperm count and sperm motility.
Most sauna health claims remain unsupported by solid research, but anecdotal claims for its benefits are many. Nevertheless, sauna bathing, whether in a dry sauna or an infrared sauna, can be a soothing, pleasant addition to your self-care routine when you stay hydrated, shower and moisturize afterward, and follow the tips above. If you’d like to try a sauna, book a short session and listen carefully to your body and your skin both during and afterward.
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About the Author
Olivia Hsu Friedman, LAc, Dipl.OM, DACM, Cert. TCMDerm, is the owner of Amethyst Holistic Skin Solutions and treats Acne, Eczema, Psoriasis, and TSW. Olivia treats patients via video conferencing using only herbal medicine. Olivia is Chair of the Board of Directors of the American Society of Acupuncturists, serves on the Advisory Board of LearnSkin, and is a faculty member of the Chicago Integrative Eczema Group sponsored by the National Eczema Association.