Is there anything more extravagant than a sauna? For the uninitiated: You put on a plush robe, sit your naked-under-the-plush-robe body down, and just stay there in the oppressive steam. You’re literally paying to sit in humidity. And, while all that steaming (and, you know, sweating) has a serious detoxing effect on the body, you might not be getting the most out of your steam room experience—unless it’s an infrared sauna.
Here’s how it works: The treatment employs FIR infrared heat, a band of radiant energy that has long been used in Japan (known as “Waon therapy”) and shown to help improve cardiovascular conditions. Unlike tanning booths and UV rays, which heat our bodies from the outside in, FIR infrared warms our bodies from the inside—where our muscles and fat are stored—so it doesn’t burn our skin or damage DNA.
Heating our bodies from the inside can trigger a number of responses that come with promising health benefits. For one, FIR infrared heat can make our bodies flush toxins—such as traces of dirt, makeup, pollution, metals, nicotine, and alcohol—more rapidly. Of course, our skin and liver are equipped to detox on their own, but as proponents say, accelerating the process can help provide clear skin faster.
Infrared-induced sweat sessions can also cause the heart rate to quicken, stimulating better oxygen flow: “They elevate the heart rate similarly to cardiovascular exercise so it’s a wonderful option for people who are handicapped or unable to get their heart rate up with exercise,” says Dr. Alejandro Junger, a cardiologist and creator of CLEAN, a 21-day detox program. Studies have also shown that the treatment can regulate sleep and stimulate blood circulation in human skin, which in turn may help boost collagen production. Dr. Junger also notes you can expect to burn off anywhere between 200 and 600 calories depending on your weight, fitness level, and how long you stay in, among other factors.
It all seems too good to be true, so we headed over to Shape House in Los Angeles, where Selena Gomez and Taylor Swift have reportedly been spotted, to try it for ourselves.
We turn up as advised, wearing loose-fitting cotton pants, a long-sleeved shirt, and socks (and looking very much like a member of the Guilty Remnant on “The Leftovers”). If you’re not prepared with the right gear, an attendant will provide suitable clothes in an on-brand shade of shocking orange, a look that screams Litchfield penitentiary.
After being equipped with a carafe of alkaline water and made sure I’m fit for duty (free of pregnancy, pacemakers, and heart conditions), I’m led to a cube outfitted with a treatment bed, TV, and headphones. I crawl into a sleeping bag of sorts that’s rigged with custom-made ceramic plates, which help provide equal heat distribution.
The weighted cocoon is heavy, but not uncomfortably so, and feels like something an astronaut would cozy into come lights-out during a mission. The attendant cranks on the heat, and I’m left to stream “Game of Thrones” while I sweat it out for 55 minutes. For the first 45 minutes, I’m warm and blissfully unaware that the bed has heated to 158 degrees, my heart rate is thumping, and I’m soaking through my cottons like a kid with a bad case of night terrors.
Yes, the “GoT” helps distract me from my physiology, but unlike when sweating inside a dry sauna, my head is left out of the action and I’m able to breathe the cool air outside of the blanket. Can I really be giving my heart a workout on par with running without getting winded? Julia Dopp, a Shape House spokesperson, later explains: “Sweating is hard work. Your body needs to carry a lot of blood around to thermoregulate itself. But due to the heat, your muscles are relaxed and that keeps you from experiencing windedness.”
Just 10 minutes before the end of my session, I suddenly start feeling incredibly squirmy. I’ve sweat completely through my clothes, my heart is racing, and dammit, I’m hot. Not 30 seconds after my agitation sets in, my attendant pops in with a cool, lavender water–soaked washcloth, which, along with swigs of water, relieves my discomfort for the final few minutes.
After cooling down from my session with more H20 and orange slices in a relaxation room, I leave wondering whether I’ve purged enough toxins to leave my skin radiant like Khaleesi’s. I later check in with dermatologist Dr. Jeannette Graf, author of Stop Aging, Start Living, to see whether my skin will really benefit. “Infrared heat can help benefit the skin by flushing out toxins,” she confirms. “By doing so, the skin will have a glow to it.” My typically dull complexion is replaced by a healthy flush right after my session, though a day later, a monster cystic zit surfaces on my cheek—a possible byproduct of my sweaty detox. Dr. Junger also advises to drink enough water to keep a healthy electrolye balance. “I can’t say it enough—hydration is essential if you are going to try saunas,” he says. “Try to use the time to meditate, practice mindfulness, or listen to relaxing music. You may want to take small breaks every 5–10 minutes until you become accustomed to the heat.”
While I can’t link celebrity-grade skin or other claimed benefits like regulated sleep or weight loss to one treatment alone, the experience does leave me wanting to go back for more. I don’t expect these sessions to replace my workouts—my muscles need toning, after all. But health claims aside, the affordable $45 session just felt good. And if it gets my heart pumping and steps up my skin’s radiance over the long run? Well, I’m all for that, too.