Infrared vs. Traditional Sauna-The Difference?

Jump in a time machine and transport back to ancient Greece and you’d see that the health practice of heat treatments for the body was alive and well. Stepping back in time a little further you’d find that sauna “bathing” originated in Finland thousands of years ago, some would estimate 2000 BC. But in the beginning, they used rock saunas. Eventually, they evolved to using steam saunas, and their therapeutic influence slowly spread throughout the world. But is there a big difference between infrared saunas versus traditional steam saunas?

It wasn’t until 1965 that the first official infrared sauna was invented by a Japanese doctor. Health Mate began manufacturing them to sell in the U.S. not long after that. The year was 1979, and since then, infrared sauna popularity has also grown worldwide.

Let’s explore the difference between the two types.

What is an Infrared Sauna?

An infrared sauna uses infrared light to create heat. Also known as infrared therapy, the infrared emissions heat the body from within. This means that your body will be directly heated by the light waves penetrating your skin. There are generally three types of infrared wavelengths—near-, mid-, and far-infrared. Not all saunas offer the full combination and the benefits vary with each level.

Think of it like when you walk outside on a sunny day and the sun warms your skin. Sunlight is considered far-infrared (FIR). Infrared saunas work similarly to warm your body, from your skin to muscles and nerves and are completely safe to use.

Your infrared sauna is typically a small cabin made of wood. It’s enclosed to help retain the heat while offering room to sit or lay as you relax and enjoy the heat. Temperatures settings are slightly lower for infrared since the heat safely seeps into your body via directed heaters.

What is a Steam Sauna?

A steam sauna is what is commonly referred to as a ‘traditional’ sauna. Steam saunas use a heat element and water and heat the body from the outside. Similar to an infrared sauna, the hot air makes you sweat but it does so using water. Traditional saunas can include rock saunas, which use water poured on high-temperature coals or rocks that then produce steam. Both are designed as enclosed seating areas, and some are built to accommodate many more than a few people.

Traditional saunas tend to reach temperatures in a higher range than infrared since they heat the surrounding air, not your body directly. They normally feature a tile or nonporous interior or can be made of durable wood, depending on the type of sauna and amount of steam produced.

Key Differences

Temperatures and Heat-Up Times

Infrared saunas operate at lower temperatures. The light heats the body from the inside, rather than heating the air outside the body. Additionally, infrared saunas settings vary between 110-150°F.

Because traditional steam saunas heat the air to create humidity to heat your body from the outside, they operate at a much higher temperature – between 150-190°F.

Heat-up times vary, but it’s normal to take 15-20 minutes for an infrared sauna to warm to your desired setting. At higher temps, it can take slightly longer. The benefits begin immediately however since the wavelengths start from your skin inward. On the other hand, traditional steam saunas may take up to 30-40 minutes to heat up and may require longer sessions to experience the same outcomes.

Health Benefits

Both traditional and infrared saunas provide a range of health benefits. Some differ depending on the heat source.

Infrared saunas offer great skin benefits. The infrared rays penetrate deep down into skin tissue and promote more sweating than traditional steam saunas. This deep penetration increases blood flow and in return promotes detoxification, releasing harmful toxins for healthier skin.

Increased blood flow from the infrared rays means more blood is passed through the heart with less resistance by the arteries and veins. This lowers blood pressure for increased cardiovascular health. The increased circulation that results also supports immune strength and other key health improvements. There are many more benefits!

The traditional steam sauna offers a wet heat that is great for moisturizing and purifying the skin. The heat opens up the pores and sweat helps cleanse. The moist air can relieve sinus pressure and help relieve respiratory issues, like allergies and cold symptoms. And, like all saunas, the heat will promote relaxation for sore muscles and muscle strain.


Traditional steam saunas tend to be bigger than infrared saunas. One- or two-person steam saunas are available, yet steam saunas require thicker insulation and walls which adds more weight. Since traditional steam saunas generate moisture, they tend to require more cleaning and pose a risk of mold growth. Infrared saunas can be maintained by regularly wiping the perspiration from wood panels and seats to avoid any mold. Generally, they are easier to maintain.

Unless your sauna is designated as outdoor safe, you’ll likely only need to clean the outside on occasion to keep it free of dust or dirt particles. If your sauna is outside, use a cover, particularly with a Health Mate sauna. It’s not recommended for outdoor use unless you have some protection from the elements.

Each type of sauna warrants particular care. It all depends on the interior and exterior surfaces, construction materials, where you store them, and of course, how often you use them.

And Now You Know!

We hope this provides some insight into your sauna exploration. In deciding on the right sauna for you, it’s important to consider all aspects, in addition to the benefits you’re seeking.

For more details on infrared saunas, reach out to our sauna specialists. See more of our Sauna Blog for other current topics on sauna bathing and its benefits.