Red light therapy versus infrared saunas – how to understand that dynamic?

Analogy:

What if I asked you whether you prefer getting a free car or truck? You’d probably think: “that depends”.

And you’d be 100% right…

In some instances, having a car is better – it’s easier to park, moves quicker, and more practical to maneuver inside a big city. A truck is great, however, if you need to move heavy loads from A to B.

The similarity in those cases? Both a car and a truck have wheels and an engine. But you cannot replace a car with a truck and vice versa and achieve your purpose efficiently in most cases.

No need for a truck if you want a day at the beach…

In the health space there’s a similar discussion: 

Are red light therapy LED panels interchangeable with (infrared) saunas, and if not, what are the differences?

Many people think these are very similar simply because both modalities emit red and infrared light. Heck, even the “red” and “infrared” names sound very similar.

The problem?

Saying red light therapy LED panels and infrared saunas are the same is like saying cars and trucks are the same because both got wheels!

You may think: “well, then tell me about the difference”

Here you go:

Red Light Therapy Versus Infrared Saunas: The Fundamental Differences

Now here’s where things get complicated:

Just as with the comparison and the truck, many variables come into play. Unfortunately, I cannot give you an easy 2-sentence answer. I’ve therefore broken up this blog post into several sections:

  1. In the introduction, I’ll distinguish between different types of light at a fundamental physical and biological level
  2. Next, I’ll show you what specific benefits different wavelengths of light can have.
  3. Then I compare whether you should opt for an infrared sauna or a red light therapy device.
  4. Lastly, I’ll conclude that red light therapy and infrared saunas have different benefits for different circumstances.

Ready?

Here we go:

1. Introduction: Understanding The Light Spectrum

Before actually comparing the benefits of red light therapy and (infrared) saunas we first need to take a few steps back. Stepping back, in this case, means looking at the physical nature of light.

The reason is that red light therapy and infrared saunas emit different wavelengths of light. The difference in benefits between these two options can only be understood through the different effects of different light wavelengths.

“A wavelength”, you say?

Yes…

In physics, light is both a particle (photon) and a wave (2). Each type of light has a certain wavelength. You can view those wavelengths by looking at the picture below:

Notice all the colors of the rainbow — that picture actually reflects the sequence of colors you would see in a rainbow.

The colors are (V)iolet, (B)lue, (G)reen, (Y)ellow, (O)range, and (R)ed. All those 6 colors and their infinite number of intermediaries are visible to the human eye.

Notice that violet begins at a ~380-nanometer wavelength and red ends around ~750 nanometers. 

(Opinions on where exactly violet or red begin differ in scientific circles.)

The crazy part?

Ultraviolet and infrared light are not on that scale because they’re not visible to the human eye. The full spectrum of light is thus far bigger, as seen here:

Notice all the colors of the rainbow — that picture actually reflects the sequence of colors you would see in a rainbow.

The colors are (V)iolet, (B)lue, (G)reen, (Y)ellow, (O)range, and (R)ed. All those 6 colors and their infinite number of intermediaries are visible to the human eye.

Notice that violet begins at a ~380-nanometer wavelength and red ends around ~750 nanometers. 

(Opinions on where exactly violet or red begin differ in scientific circles.)

The crazy part?

Ultraviolet and infrared light are not on that scale because they’re not visible to the human eye. The full spectrum of light is thus far bigger, as seen here:

(3Picture used under the CC-By-SA 2.5 Licence, created by Philip Ronan; Source: Wikipedia)

As you can see, the ultraviolet (UV) and infrared (IR) spectrums dwarf the tiny visible light spectrum in terms of size.

Also: what you cannot see does thus exist. Sunburns in the sun, for instance, are caused by ultraviolet light that’s invisible to your naked eye.

Notice that the wavelengths of light originate at a 100-nanometer wavelength (with ultraviolet) and terminate around 1,000,000-nanometers in infrared.

That infrared spectrum is thus huge. So what’s mind boggling is that your human eyes only see about 400 of those 1 million nanometer wavelengths. 

And because sunlight reaches the Earth’s surface mostly around that visible spectrum, it’s thus not a coincidence that you’re able to see from ~380 – 750 nanometers.

Now here’s where things get interesting: 

Let’s look at the differences in wavelengths used by red light therapy and (infrared) saunas:

  • Red light therapy focuses on using very specific wavelengths, frequently around ~660 nanometers (nm) and 850 nm. That 660 nm is found in the red part of the light spectrum while 850 is infrared.
  • Infrared saunas, on the other hand, almost always emit wavelengths of 1,000 nanometers up until 1 million part. Exceptions do exist, which I’ll come back to.
  • Regular (Finnish) saunas work on yet another principle, which is heating up the air, and don’t emit infrared light. I won’t treat these regular saunas in detail–only the infrared ones.

The consequences of that difference?

Let’s take a look at which wavelengths water absorbs light:

(4CC BY-SA 3.0 License, Original Filename: Absorption spectrum of liquid water.png; created July 1, 2008

Conclusion when seeing that picture?

Water absorbs infrared light at 1,000+ (1 micrometer or µm). Yes, ultraviolet (UV) is higher but that type of UV does not reach the earth’s surface.

Your body is primarily made up with water and will thus react with the infrared light, especially infrared light between 1,000 and 100,000 nanometers.

Infrared light above 1,000+ nanometers thus directly heats up your human body from the inside because of its effect on water inside you. And red light therapy uses wavelengths <1,000 nm so there’s far less of a heating effect.

In plain English, you can stand very close to a red light therapy panel without sweating. But if you get very close to a panel in your infrared sauna, it’s time to grab a towel.

Section takeaway: red light therapy panels use isolated wavelengths such as 660 or 850 nanometers. Those wavelengths barely heat your body. Infrared saunas use a very wide infrared spectrum that do heat you up and the primary wavelengths used are completely different.

2. Unique Benefits Of Red And Infrared Light At Different Wavelengths

The reason nature is magical?

Most of the wavelengths I’ve discussed so far, between 100 and 1,000,000 nanometers, all have different (potential) benefits and detriments for your health.

Of course, I won’t venture into these wavelengths very deeply because then you’d still be reading this blog post 10 years from now. What I do instead is give you a very basic overview of what different wavelengths of light can do.

By understanding the biological effect of different wavelengths of light you can also understand how red light therapy and infrared saunas are different. 

Before I proceed I do need to give one more definition: Near-Infrared (NIR) has wavelengths up to 5,000 nm, Mid-infrared (MIR) from 5,000 to 40,000, and Far-Infrared (FIR) from 40,000 to 1,000,000 (56).

The reason I define those terms is because infrared sauna companies use them.

But there’s no need to remember those exact numbers–just understand that different types of infrared exist. So let’s explore those infrared types:

  • Near-Infrared (NIR) can have benefits for circulation, energy, skin health, workout recovery and performance, inflammation, brain vitality, and much more (78910111213141516). Although oversimplifying, the benefits of (visible) red light overlap most with NIR. 
  • Mid-Infrared (MIR) is least well-studied and is purported to have benefits for blood circulation and healing processes — although these benefits are mostly anecdotal in my opinion. An absence of high-quality studies, however, does not mean the benefits don’t exist.
  • Far-Infrared (FIR), lastly, may have benefits for circulation as well, and also sleep quality benefits, pain reduction, wound healing, and more (171819202122). Unfortunately, many of the FIR studies are carried out on animals such as mice. Although indirect evidence, FIR may also support detox – a specific reason why many people apply FIR (2425).

The bottom line?

Looking at the pattern of studies it’s nearly certain that NIR, MIR, and FIR all have different benefits.

Heck, the story gets even more complex because within each category different wavelengths also have varying effects. So within NIR, 630 nanometers has different benefits and possible detriment than 660, for instance.

Literally thousands of studies have actually been carried out on both red and (near-) infrared light, and about 80% of these studies show positive effects (23).

Section takeaway: the light frequencies used by red light therapy and infrared saunas have different effects that don’t overlap much.

3. When You Should Choose Red Light Therapy And When An Infrared Sauna

Now that you understand some of the differences between a red light therapy device from a physics and biological standpoint let’s get more pragmatic.

Take the visual differences between an infrared sauna and red light therapy panel, for instance:

First, a red light therapy device:

Then an infrared sauna:

The differences?

Let’s compare them and begin with the most obvious discrepancies:

Red Light Therapy Benefit 1: Size

(Infrared) saunas are not small and cannot be placed in any room. In fact, even the smallest infrared sauna has the size of an average wardrobe.

Red light therapy devices, however — which use many LED bulbs — can simply be placed against any wall. Whether you want to use your red light therapy device in the bedroom, bathroom (beware of moisture though!), living room, or even outside or in your shed, anything is possible.

Additionally, red light therapy devices are very easy to transport because they weigh < 20 pounds. You can also store your device in a closet if you don’t think it’s visually appealing (which is un-imaginable though, as visitors will always comment on the device!)

The red light therapy device takes up way less space.

Red Light Therapy Benefit 2: Price

Want high-quality products?

In that case you’ll pay at least $1,000 for a 1-person sauna — excluding the heavy shipping costs. A premium sauna made from the best wood types? Prepare to lay down a couple of grand more…

A red light therapy device? Surprise: you’ll have a full-body unit for a thousand bucks. And the bright part? Red light therapy panels last about 50,000 hours so you won’t be needing a new one during your lifetime with regular use.

So saunas are much bigger investments from a financial perspective.

The winner? I’ll give a slight edge to red light therapy here!

Red Light Therapy Benefit 3: Ease Of Use

Now here’s where things get interesting: 

To use an infrared sauna the device first needs to heat up. Using a red light therapy device, on the contrary, is simple plug and play. You push the button and get results – it’s as simple as that.

Then there’s the issue of cleaning: you’ll need to keep your sauna clean because of extreme sweating that takes place there, you’ll need to sanitize the place because of mold and bacteria that can grow there over time, and you’ll have to remove dirt.

The alternative?

Red light therapy takes 5 seconds a month to keep clean, literally, because you only have to wipe off some dust.

Oh yeah: no need to shower when using red light therapy! Plug and play and you can go on with your day…

Now here’s where things get interesting: 

To use an infrared sauna the device first needs to heat up. Using a red light therapy device, on the contrary, is simple plug and play. You push the button and get results – it’s as simple as that.

Then there’s the issue of cleaning: you’ll need to keep your sauna clean because of extreme sweating that takes place there, you’ll need to sanitize the place because of mold and bacteria that can grow there over time, and you’ll have to remove dirt.

The alternative?

Red light therapy takes 5 seconds a month to keep clean, literally, because you only have to wipe off some dust.

Oh yeah: no need to shower when using red light therapy! Plug and play and you can go on with your day…

Red Light Therapy Benefit 4: Precision

As stated before, with red light therapy you can target very specific wavelengths for their therapeutic value.

The 660 and 850 nanometer wavelengths used in Red Light Rising therapy devices, for instance, have the benefit of penetrating very deep into your tissues (2627 ;28). These wavelengths are also the most therapeutic.

The benefit of exclusively including these wavelengths is that you can use the product without overheating your body. In general, infrared saunas don’t allow you to get very close to the panels which then prevents you from using the most healing wavelengths at proper intensities.

You see, the closer to your body red light therapy is applied, the deeper its penetration (up to a certain cut-off point). You cannot sit against a panel in an infrared sauna, and thus, cannot absorb some of the most beneficial wavelengths to their maximum extent.

However, I do need to state that the wavelengths emitted by are in fact beneficial!

Overall, once again, red light therapy will provide greater benefits for dollars spent for most people.

So you may think: “is there no reason at all to ever buy an infrared sauna?” Not at all! Here’s why:

Infrared Sauna Benefit 1: Full Spectrum – NIR, MIR, And FIR Exposure

One upside is that if you buy a high-quality infrared sauna, you’ll be exposing your body to a wide array of wavelengths.

Doing so is impossible with a red light therapy device. Hence, the benefits of an infrared sauna and red light therapy device only overlap to a small extent.

Red light therapy doesn’t give you any of the MIR and FIR benefits. Infrared saunas generally don’t give you sufficient intensity of the highly-healing wavelengths in the red and NIR spectrum, although some NIR is included.

There’s thus a benefit to both modalities, but, infrared saunas have an advantage here! Next up:

Infrared Sauna Benefit 2: Heavy Sweating

The final remark I’ve been waiting for:

“But Bart, I don’t use a sauna because of wavelengths or because of the absorption spectrum of water. Stop overcomplicating things: I simply use a sauna to break a sweat!”

And you know what?

You’re right! Saunas — whether that’s an infrared sauna or a regular one — do have one unmistakable benefit: they make you sweat harder than you would in the Sahara desert…

And yes, sweating does have independent health benefits (2930). With sweating you temporarily stress your body so that you build up heat tolerance. That sweating process also has many independent health benefits that I won’t go into right now.

If sweating alone is your goal, regular saunas are actually the best way to build up that heat tolerance. Infrared saunas, on the contrary, may have independent benefits because of the NIR, MIR, and FIR penetrating at least some distance into your body — such as detox which I do think is established in the medical literature.

Whatever way you look at it, sweating is great if you’re in reasonable overall health. Both infrared saunas and red light therapy devices thus have their own unique benefits.

Infrared Sauna Benefit 3: Socializing And Fun

Okay, I fully admit: if you’ve got a 2-6 person sauna at your home, invite some friends over for dinner, and have a very relaxed time, then nothing can beat a sauna.

Yes, I’m writing for a red light therapy company but I’m fully willing to admit the upside of saunas here: relaxation with friends. With red light therapy, there’s no socializing that enters the equation so there’s a big win for (infrared) saunas here!

What would I recommend you get first?

Read my conclusion for the answer:

4. Conclusion: Benefits Depend On The Context

Imagine you’re building a new house: in that case you’ll probably make the decision between having a shower or bathtub — or both!

For most people, however, the simplest option is best: a shower. The problem with bathtubs is that even though they look great people don’t consistently use them.

The same is true for infrared saunas: they are somewhat pricier and aren’t as consistently used as red light therapy devices. However, for some people the infrared sauna can be a great option. 

And infrared saunas also have very specific benefits that you cannot get from red light therapy: sweating, socializing, and exposure to wavelengths not included in red light therapy.

Most people should start with the simple shower: get the right light therapy device! But, looking at the advantages I described above, you may be the person that really loves the benefits an infrared sauna gives you. At least I’ve given you the tools to decide!

Author: Bart Wolbers

Bart Wolbers holds Master’s degrees in Clinical Health Science, Philosophy of Science and Technology (with distinction), and Philosophy. He’s extensively written about the science of red light therapy before, as well as many other health-related topics. Bart has also been featured on Yahoo, Fitbit, MSN.com, the Daily Beast, Bodybuilding.com, The Sun, Bustle, and Oxygen Magazine, and many others

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