Not Calling Infrared Rooms “Sauna” Isn’t An Elitist Thing

Not calling infrared heat rooms “sauna” is not about elitism but several things: Scientific accuracy, clarity in conversation and education, preserving livelihoods, and protecting a cultural heritage.

The other day, I was having a conversation about sauna and health in an online community. I mentioned how I don’t call infrared rooms saunas, and this was one woman’s response:

“I don’t personally get caught up in the terminology argument because I think it usually just ends up being divisive. Traditional sauna is a very rich experience and most people are interested in hearing about it. But folks get turned off pretty quickly if all they hear is about how they are doing it all wrong and their sauna isn’t even sauna!”

In truth, I very much agree with her in that promoting health practices of all kinds is good, and sometimes it’s not worth quibbling over names. Whether or not infrared’s existence is worthwhile, or beneficial to health is an entirely separate question which deserves its own exploration.  But the use of the name sauna, as this post will show, becomes a rather complex issue for many reasons, including the claims made by infrared gurus:

“Sweat induced from an infrared heat source is comprised of 20 percent toxins whereas sweat induced from traditional heating systems is comprised of 3 percent toxins. This is why it’s accurate to say infrared is 7x more detoxifying than traditional heat.” -HigherDOSE Infrared Heat Spa, Manhattan

Such claims need to be scrutinized thoroughly. They choose their wording very carefully, but if you translate “traditional heating systems”, what they’re actually saying is “Finnish sauna is inferior to infrared sauna”. Because that is what they actually call it everywhere else. Sauna. So up front, one of my biggest concerns is that this muddies the waters as far as any scientific research goes, or even just helping people get what should be simple facts. It is a real potential problem when the average researcher wants to get to the truth. But for companies which may be trying to get away with dubious quotes like this, it’s somewhat more convenient, not to mention profitable. First of all, take all the research which applies to Finnish sauna, and claim it for yourself. Then say a bunch more on top, which makes your version superior. It would be a whole lot harder if you had to treat it as its own thing and sell it from the ground up.

But is infrared really so different from Finnish sauna? It is, and isn’t. Mostly “is”. First of all, the operating temperatures are different. 110-130F (40-50c) in infrared, vs the 160F/70c to 210F/100c of the “traditional” Finnish sauna. That right there is very different. Recent studies done on the cardiovascular effects of sauna are rather specific about the fact that these benefits were only seen with the higher temperatures. As far as the practice itself, the way the room is set up and more, there are countless differences. The only superficial similarities are that they are both typically rooms made of wood with a few higher benches, and they both heat your body to some degree.

The way they heat you is the most different thing of all, and one more claim is that infrared detoxifies you better because it penetrates more deeply, down to your deepest fat stores (and then somehow pulls heavy metals, pesticides and plastic residues up through the skin):

“It penetrates your body three-inches deep to pull toxins out of your fat cells, which is a big deal,” she said. “Normally when you sweat it’s a more superficial sweat. Not only that, but normally working out is one of the other big times people think they’re releasing toxins. But when your body is in ‘fight or flight,’ it actually doesn’t release toxins. It’s only when your body is in ‘rest and digest’ mode that it actually releases toxins. So that’s one of the key misconceptions about sweating and working out.”

As if that quote weren’t already nonsensical enough, to do this, they’d have to do what amounts to slow-cooking your inner organs, and there would need to be some mechanism that allows this to happen while somehow protecting the brain (brain damage from fever occurs at temps beginning around 42c/107F). Yes, infrared supposedly does penetrate a little bit deeper, but it is not 3 inches and there is absolutely no evidence to suggest that infrared is “7 times more detoxifying”, but then, that’s an easy claim to make because there are no studies measuring how detoxifying Finnish sauna is in the first place, let alone comparing the two. At least none that I’ve found (and I’ve looked, because I’d love that sort of data).

What really bothers me most though, is that as of late, when I as a Finn, I try to talk to people about sauna, infrared comes up all. the. damn. time. And therefore, trying to have any real discussion that pertains specifically to what sauna has been for years, becomes almost a hopeless cause with some people.

An article by The Atlantic states the reasons for this rather clearly: “The infrared craze has recently grown from a mostly-just-Los Angeles trend to a New York City-and-everywhere-else trend, and it is a favorite of the Kardashians, various Real Housewives, Dr. Oz, Gwyneth Paltrow, and Chelsea Handler.”

It’s not hard to confirm that it is everywhere; If I do an online search for a sauna cabin in the interest of purchasing, not only do the infrared options outnumber everything else, they’re also unequivocally the most affordable, and designed with convenience in mind. There was even one which folds away in your bathroom! It fits perfectly with the image of America, a country of convenience, where many hang on the words of reality tv stars. But it doesn’t fit the Finnish spirit of sauna, our needs, or the word. The radical differences and superficial similarities, all told, make shopping a confusing experience, especially online. At one point, I found what appeared to be a very affordable sauna room I could install into my home. There was nothing special in the listing to help me identify that it was not a room where I could then install an electric stove. But it wasn’t, so there went my hopes.

I’ve seen many a Finnish person rant about pronunciation of the word as “sawna” and I myself poke fun at it from time to time, but honestly, that is not even remotely a real problem, whereas this is, one that even affects livelihoods. In such an age, all purveyors of traditional saunas and sauna equipment must be wondering what they could possibly do to compete with such a marketing machine, or, perhaps, whether they should attempt to compete with it at all. After all, it could be a fad which fades away in a few years like the other health fads before it which take the name sauna and market it to a bigger audience, and just about none of the Finnishness of the practice left intact. I’m looking at you, sauna suits.

The ritual and institution of Finnish sauna has been around for centuries, and it hasn’t been without its changes. We no longer spend entire days stoking a large fire to heat stones in a room full of smoke, just to enjoy our evening bath (well, most of us don’t, anyway). So, some would argue, the essence of the practice can remain intact even with infrared. I am not one of those people. Neither am I elitist, or afraid of change. And just because I come from a nation with more saunas than cars, it doesn’t mean we own the practice. People all over the world do it.

But. Finnish sauna popularized it, and now, indeed, people everywhere use the name and slap it on, well, whatever. Infrared “sauna” is not new. It was invented at the end of the 19th century. What is new is the marketing and application of the name. Whereas before, it was just called a “light bath” or “radiant-heat bath”. Well, I’m here to reclaim the word sauna. It’s important to my culture. Nobody goes around selling “sweat lodges”, partly because any native American person would be very protective of both the term and their practice. They’d be up in arms! Nobody goes around calling them “banyas”, because Russia is the longtime enemy of the west, and besides, it’s a cold war, not a hot one.

Perhaps the political climate is right to bring back the term Turkish bath? Why not “Infrared Turkish Bath”. It’s just as sensible!

More recently, I joined a community geared around a health regimen using sauna. That was in the title, so I thought “Ok, how neat!” Well, let’s just say I was surprised upon reading how specific some of the claims surrounding this regimen were, and then all the more so when its origins became apparent. It turns out a certain “L Ron” wrote a book long ago which they still use, for whatever reason, as the basis of their practice. Furthermore, most of them use… you guessed it. Infrared “sauna”. Again, I have no qualm with them using infrared, but you can see the confusion that it creates.

So no, it is not elitism. It is about several things: Scientific accuracy. Clarity in conversation and education. Preserving livelihoods, and protecting a cultural heritage. Maybe the ship has sailed. Would people actually listen if this made it into the news? Would they change the name of it? Doubtful. It’s too convenient for them to keep it. But I feel that it’s important for me to at least inform the public of why I feel the way I do, and now, on the eve of Finland’s 100th year of independence, is as good time as any. Sauna is practically holy to us, as Finns.

True Finnish sauna is still practiced around the world, and has real, proven benefits. It’s such a rich and beautiful thing, as even that woman said in the opening quote. It’s something I, and millions of others like myself have done all our lives, and which our parents, grandparents, and great great great grandparents did all their lives as well. Some of us were even born in one. And this is why, in the upcoming book Sauna Tribe, I go into great detail on the practice and its relation to our culture, and the development of the strength of will we know as sisu.

And so, you can learn about sauna from L Ron Hubbard and Kim Kardashian, or you can learn from the people who live it. Why is it so important to us? Come find out.