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Infrared Saunas and Skin Cancer: What Are the Links?

In recent years, infrared saunas have become increasingly popular for their detoxifying and relaxing benefits. According to some, infrared saunas can improve your complexion, blood circulation, and even help with weight loss.1

More and more infrared saunas are popping up in health spas, sports clinics, massage centers, and even in private homes. But are they safe for your skin? And is there a link between infrared saunas and skin cancer?

How infrared saunas work

Infrared saunas work by emitting sun-like rays that heat the body from the inside out. Infrared saunas are not like traditional saunas, where high temperatures and humidity (in some cases) heat the air first, and then indirectly heat the body.1

However, infrared saunas are heated by invisible wavelengths of infrared light.1

Infrared light versus ultraviolet light

Infrared light is 1 of 3 wavelengths on the sun’s spectrum of light. These 3 wavelengths are:2

  • Ultraviolet (UV) light – The main culprit for photoaging, skin damage, and skin cancer
  • Visible light – What the naked eye can see
  • Near-infrared (NIR) light – Light that is felt as heat

While NIR is different from the sun’s harmful UV rays, it can still penetrate deep into the skin’s outer layers and may contribute to some skin damage, especially when UV light is present.

In other words: On its own, NIR is not quite as damaging as UV rays. However, that potency increases when it is combined with UV and visible light.2

What the research shows

A 2015 study showed that prolonged exposure to infrared light may be responsible for breaking down collagen in the skin, contributing to wrinkles.3

Another study looked at repeated NIR exposure over a long period of time. Results from that study show that NIR may increase the thickness of the skin and increase the risk of cataracts.4

However, it is important to note that both of those studies used infrared radiation that was far more powerful and unrealistic than what anyone would normally get when spending time outdoors.3

Meanwhile, low doses of NIR in the form of low-level light therapy – which is normally what infrared saunas use – are shown to be quite therapeutic and healing. This low-level light therapy has been shown to help wounds heal faster, reduce skin inflammation, and help treat acne and precancerous patches of skin.3

Furthermore, a 2020 study states that infrared light does not cause sunburn and is not known to directly cause skin cancer. Scientists agree that more evidence and studies that take into account realistic NIR exposure are needed to understand infrared light’s risks and benefits.2

Key takeaway

Infrared saunas, with their low-level light therapy, may provide your body benefits. However, long, repeated exposure to high-intensity infrared light can be harmful to the skin. In other words, NIR can be a detriment to a person’s skin or provide them with healing benefits – it all depends on its intensity.3

NIR’s link to skin cancer is still being explored. You should continue to protect your skin by applying sunscreen that contains an SPF of at least 15. Talk with your dermatologist if you are interested in using an infrared sauna or if you are curious about how it may help you with any skin concerns you have.

What are your thoughts about infrared saunas? Tell us in the comments

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