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Comparing Traditional Nordic Saunas vs. Infrared Saunas for Your Home

In recent years there has been a huge rise in popularity of home saunas in the UK, and the new kid on the block is the infrared sauna. But what's the difference between traditional and infrared saunas? Are there any infrared sauna benefits over the more tried and true typical saunas of old and what's the impact of infrared radiation?

When it comes to pitting infrared saunas and traditional saunas against one another you might think it's a battle of modern saunas vs old, but in truth you can enjoy contemporary and modern styled saunas that embrace the long established traditions of sauna bathing that come from its rich history dating back centuries. Offering a mix of relaxation, detoxification and numerous health benefits, it's hard to understate just how pleasant, even spiritual, the ritual of sauna can be.

While traditional saunas, like those enjoyed as a part of everyday life in the Nordic countries and across the world, rely on heating the air and stones, infrared saunas use infrared light to directly warm the body, providing a different sauna experience.

As we look at how best to recreate the authentic sauna experience at home, this comparison will delve into the distinct advantages of the traditional Nordic saunas, known for their comforting appeal, in contrast to the less researched and potentially harmful infrared saunas, shedding light on the best choice for your home sauna experience.

Inside a traditional sauna

Understanding Sauna Traditions

Exploring Nordic Sauna Culture

Nordic sauna culture is deeply ingrained in the history and daily life of the people of countries such as Finland, and Estonia. A traditional sauna in the Nordic countries is not just about bathing but is a ritualistic experience, often associated with cleanliness, relaxation and community. These saunas are commonly wood-lined rooms that are heated to high temperatures by stones on a stove. The heat is intensified by pouring water on the heated stones, producing steam and a hot and humid atmosphere that promotes intense sweating.

This practice is often followed by a cold plunge or shower, which is believed to enhance circulation and invigorate the body. We've previously highlighted the practice of contrast therapy and its benefits, and this fits into the traditions of sauna as enjoyed across the Nordics.

Sauna sessions are a time for socialising, relaxing and enjoying the company of others in a calm and serene environment, embodying a lifestyle that values wellness and simplicity. The connection between the traditional sauna experience and cultural heritage is strong, making it an essential part of Nordic life.

The Importance of Heated Stones and Steam

The heart of a traditional sauna lies in its heated stones and the steam they produce. Unlike infrared saunas, which use infrared heaters to emit radiant heat, traditional saunas create a complete sensorial experience by heating stones to extreme temperatures. When water is poured over these stones, it turns to steam, filling the sauna room with moist heat. This steam is key to the authentic sauna experience, as it affects the air temperature and helps to open up the pores, promoting a deeper, more intense sweat and providing numerous health benefits.

The hot and humid atmosphere created by the steam is not only essential for the full sauna effect but also for the wellness benefits associated with regular sauna use, such as improved blood circulation and muscle recovery. The ritual of adding water to create steam is a defining feature that sets traditional steam saunas apart from other types of heat therapy. Though dry saunas differ from steam rooms, which are constantly filled with steam, a traditional sauna can still offer those benefits of steam, typically in shorter regulated bursts when appropriate. An IR sauna by comparison is trying to mimic a traditional dry sauna but can't offer those same benefits of steam alongside hot air.

Heated stones on a traditional sauna stove

Infrared Sauna Mechanics

How Infrared Saunas Operate

Infrared saunas operate considerably differently from traditional steam saunas. They use infrared heaters to emit infrared light, which is absorbed by the skin's surface, heating the body directly rather than significantly heating the surrounding air. This type of sauna is known as a far infrared sauna (FIR), and it typically operates at lower temperatures than traditional saunas. While a traditional Finnish style sauna may reach temperatures well above 70 degrees Celsius, infrared saunas tend to stay between 40 and 60 degrees.

With far infrared saunas the heat penetrates more deeply into the tissue, supposedly offering benefits such as detoxification, relaxation and muscle relief without the intensely hot environment of a traditional sauna. However, because the air temperature remains relatively low, the sweating and overall sauna experience from infrared sauna sessions can be quite different and ultimately less effective compared to the traditional sauna session.

The Science of Infrared Light and Heat Therapy

Infrared saunas utilise the science of infrared light to provide heat therapy, which is distinct from the ambient, convective heat of traditional steam saunas. Infrared light, a type of electromagnetic radiation, is emitted by infrared heaters in the sauna. Advocates of infrared therapy claim that this direct form of heat can stimulate the immune system, improve cardiovascular health and aid in muscle recovery, though these are all known benefits associated with traditional sauna and infrared sauna research simply cannot compete with the knowledge we have gleaned over centuries of traditional sauna use and studies into its effects.

It's also suggested that infrared heat from near infrared (NIR) saunas offers benefits to the skin, such as stimulating collagen production. However, again, it's important to note that the science behind these claims is not as established as that supporting traditional sauna use. The depth of penetration by infrared rays is theorised to induce a more profound sweat at lower temperatures, which some argue offers a different spectrum of wellness benefits compared to the traditional hot sauna atmosphere.

Ultimately however, infrared sauna bathers are submitting their bodies to radiation emitting infrared rays and naturally, in a traditional sauna, there are no electromagnetic fields (EMF). Whilst infrared sauna companies will tell you there's absolutely zero risk from the EMF they produce, they simply cannot claim that no electromagnetic fields are generated and they will often use the term "extremely low frequency" (ELF) to describe the level of frequencies on the electromagnetic spectrum in their saunas, to reassure buyers. You can find out more about EMF and public health on the World Health Organisation's website so we recommend doing your own research if you're looking into infrared saunas.

Comparing Sauna Experiences

Infrared vs Traditional Sauna: Heat Distribution

The difference in heat distribution between infrared and traditional saunas is a key factor in the overall experience. In a traditional sauna, the entire room is heated, creating a uniformly hot and humid atmosphere that encourages a communal experience. The air temperature is high, and the heat from the heated stones envelops the users, promoting a deep and even sweat throughout the sauna session.

In contrast, infrared saunas heat the body directly through infrared rays, resulting in a more targeted heat exposure, regardless of how close you sit to the heat lamps. This means the heat is not distributed throughout the room in the same way, leading to a less intense sweat and a different sensation on the skin. While some users may prefer the focused warmth of an infrared sauna, it does not recreate the hot sauna environment and the invigorating feeling of being surrounded by steam that is integral to the traditional sauna experience.

Infrared sauna using light

Evaluating Sauna Room Atmosphere and Air Temperature

The atmosphere within a sauna room is an essential aspect of the sauna experience, largely influenced by air temperature. Traditional saunas are known for their high temperatures and the hot and humid atmosphere created by steam. This steam is essential for a traditional steam sauna, as it contributes to the overall warmth and helps users to sweat profusely, which is a key aspect of the cleansing process. The typically wooden room also retains heat, adding to the enveloping warmth that many users find comforting.

In contrast, the atmosphere in an infrared sauna is markedly different. Because infrared saunas operate at lower temperatures and generate heat through infrared light, the air remains cooler and there is no steam to humidify the room. The result is a dry and less intense heat, which may not produce the same depth of heat sensation that sauna users often seek. For many, the lack of a hot and humid atmosphere makes the infrared sauna experience feel less immersive than that of a traditional sauna.

Analysing Health Impacts

Health Benefits: Traditional Steam Saunas

Traditional steam saunas offer a range of health benefits that have been celebrated for generations. The high temperatures and steam in a traditional sauna work together to encourage the body to sweat out toxins, which can aid in detoxification. Frequent sauna use has been associated with improved cardiovascular health, including lower blood pressure and improved blood circulation. This is due to the heat causing blood vessels to dilate, increasing blood flow throughout the body. In fact we wrote a summary of some of the more recent findings around this which you can read in our post Sauna Bathing Insights from a Scientific Study.

Regular sauna bathers will also find the heat from a traditional sauna can aid in muscle recovery by relaxing tight muscles and easing tension. The hot and humid atmosphere also promotes deep relaxation, which can reduce stress and improve overall well-being. Regular dry sauna bathing has been linked to a reduced risk of chronic diseases and may even boost the immune system. The full immersion in the hot sauna environment followed by a cold shower or plunge is believed to harden the body against temperature extremes, contributing to greater resilience and robust health. This is the contrast therapy we highlighted earlier and would encourage you to read our contrast therapy post to learn more.

Potential Disadvantages of Infrared Saunas

While infrared saunas are touted for their convenience and typically lower cost over traditional saunas, there are several disadvantages to consider. The lack of research on the long-term effects of infrared sauna use is a significant concern. Unlike traditional saunas, which have a well-documented history of safety and health benefits, infrared saunas have not been studied as extensively and potential risks could be less understood.

Another drawback is the difference in heat distribution. Some users find that infrared saunas do not provide the same level of overall warmth as traditional saunas, potentially diminishing the experience and effectiveness of the heat therapy. Additionally, because infrared saunas do not typically reach the higher temperatures of traditional saunas, the detoxification that comes from intense sweating can be diminished.

Finally, infrared saunas lack the steam aspect of traditional saunas, which is a key component in providing the hot and humid atmosphere that many find beneficial for respiratory issues and which contributes to the overall time-honoured sauna experience. Without steam, the sauna session may not feel as immersive or therapeutic.

Cost and Installation Considerations

Traditional Sauna Investment

Investing in a traditional sauna for your home comes with several cost and installation considerations. Modern luxury outdoor saunas, especially those crafted in the traditional Finnish style, require a dedicated space and proper insulation to maintain the high temperatures and steamy environment. The initial cost includes the construction of the wooden room, the sauna stove, whether wood-fired or electric, and the stones that retain and radiate the heat. These materials and the craftsmanship involved typically make traditional saunas a premium investment compared to infrared models.

Installation can also be more complex for a traditional sauna, often necessitating professional construction to ensure safety and optimal performance. This includes proper ventilation to handle the steam and to ensure the air quality remains high during sauna sessions. Despite the higher upfront costs and installation requirements, many homeowners find the investment worthwhile for the authentic sauna experience and the enduring quality of a traditional sauna, which can add value to a property and provide a luxurious wellness feature for years to come.

Wildhut outdoor sauna cabin

Infrared Sauna Affordability and Installation

When it comes to affordability and ease of installation, infrared saunas often have an advantage over traditional sauna rooms. They are generally less expensive, both in terms of the initial purchase price and the installation costs. Due to their lower temperature operation and the nature of infrared heating, they don't require the same level of insulation or ventilation as traditional saunas, which can further reduce installation complexity and cost.

Infrared sauna cabins are typically modular, which allows for a quicker and more straightforward setup. This can be a significant draw for those seeking a simpler, more cost-effective solution. However, while infrared saunas may be more accessible in terms of price and installation, it's important to weigh these factors against the longevity and the depth of experience offered by traditional saunas, which will justify the higher investment for many homeowners. Those who value the longevity of quality craftsmanship know that greater value is retained in a high end traditional garden sauna over a "plug and play" infrared unit.

Making the Right Choice

Personal Preference and Sauna Therapy

Choosing between an infrared sauna and a traditional steam sauna often comes down to personal preference and the type of sauna therapy you seek. As we've uncovered, traditional saunas offer a high-heat environment with the addition of steam, which many believe is essential for the full sauna experience, including the benefits of heat shock proteins activated by the intense sweat. The social aspect of traditional sauna bathing, along with the ritualistic pouring of water on heated stones, is an experience that has been cherished for centuries.

On the other hand, those who prefer a gentler heat may lean towards an infrared sauna. Some find the lower temperatures more comfortable and the direct heat from infrared rays beneficial for specific health issues. It's crucial to consider what you value most in your sauna sessions—whether it's the communal and cultural aspects, the particular health benefits, or simply the type of warmth and relaxation you enjoy.

Ultimately, the decision should align with your wellness goals, budget and lifestyle preferences. Consider the authenticity, health impacts and the investment both financially and in terms of space within your home and garden. By carefully weighing these factors, you can make an informed choice that best suits your needs for sauna therapy.

Small Outdoor Sauna
Wildhut Tuli - Small Outdoor Sauna

Seeking Authenticity vs Modern Convenience

When making the right choice for a home sauna, the debate often centres around seeking authenticity versus appreciating modern convenience. You can only get that authentic experience that closely aligns with the centuries-old Nordic practice with a traditional stove heated sauna. It's about more than just heat; it's about tradition, a communal atmosphere and a connection to history. Those who prioritise authenticity will likely find more satisfaction in the traditional steam sauna's immersive environment.

Conversely, infrared saunas are a testament to modern convenience. They may be easier to install, cheaper and heat up more quickly than their traditional counterparts. For those who live fast-paced lives or have space and budget constraints, an infrared sauna might be the more practical choice. However, it's essential to remember that this modern convenience will come at the cost of the complete wellness experience that traditional saunas offer. The decision ultimately lies in what aspects of sauna use are most significant to you and how they fit into your lifestyle.

Interested to find out more about luxury traditional home saunas? Why not get in touch with Wildhut or explore our high end handcrafted cabins such as the Tuli small home sauna, suitable for up to 4 users. We're confident you won't find an infrared sauna that comes even close to our beautiful traditional saunas!


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