Can an Infrared Sauna Burn Your Skin? (How IR Light Rays Work)

Saunas are growing in popularity around the world, and are used as a relaxing health and wellness activity. Infrared saunas use light to heat your body directly, causing reactions similar to a light workout, including increased heart rate and sweating, but without the steamy high air temperatures of traditional saunas. This makes them more tolerable to some people, but raises the question – can infrared sauna light burn your skin?

Infrared saunas are unlikely to cause skin burns. As long as you follow the recommended specifications, the infrared rays used in saunas are not typically of a high enough intensity to cause burning. If session length recommendations are not followed, it is possible to experience something similar to a sunburn, especially where the skin is thinner.

Keep reading to understand how infrared light works and whether there are any risks of infrared light therapy of any kind, including saunas.

Can you get burned from an infrared sauna?

Infrared light does not cause sunburn, and it is not indicated in skin cancer risk. However, recent research has found that infrared light penetrates deep into the skin, and while burn risk is low, in combination with ultraviolet rays and visible light, more lasting skin damage may occur. 

Dermatologists indicate that infrared light may cause inflammation, hydration loss, and damage to collagen and elastin.

Despite these concerns, there is little risk of skin burning from infrared light unless it is highly intense or your exposure is very prolonged. In the setting of a sauna, burning from infrared light is very unlikely to occur. 

However, with increased heat levels, surfaces may become hot and cause burns. In addition, there may be other risks associated with the use of infrared light. 

It is possible for infrared light to burn skin, but it is unlikely to occur in a sauna due to the intensity or wavelength of the infrared rays used. However, when the benches or other surfaces retain heat from the infrared lighting, those surfaces may cause burns if you come into contact with them.

Can infrared light ever burn skin?

There are some case studies and reports of skin burns caused by infrared light.

In these cases, infrared light has generally been applied directly to the skin for a long treatment period, and in the cases, I have found, burns have occurred on the thinner skin near the ankle or foot. 

So while infrared saunas are not likely to cause skin burning, it may be wise to avoid infrared massagers or treatment centers that are using infrared light but are not medically monitored. 

How hot does an infrared sauna get?

In an infrared sauna, the light penetrates the skin directly to warm the body from within. As a result, infrared saunas are not nearly as hot as traditional saunas. 

Typically, the air temperature in an infrared sauna remains around 100℉, while in traditional saunas the ambient air maintains a temperature of 140℉-170℉. 

Scalding may occur with water temperatures greater than 120℉, so it is clear that a temperature of 100℉ in an infrared sauna will not cause burning.

What does infrared do to your skin?

The benefits of infrared saunas have been widely touted. Saunas may improve symptoms related to cardiovascular, pulmonary, and neurocognitive diseases. The impacts on the skin are less well-documented. 

While we know that infrared saunas are unlikely to cause skin burns, the question remains – what effect does infrared light have on your skin?

Infrared light may have both positive and negative impacts on your skin. Some research has found that infrared light improves skin cell renewal, stimulates anti-inflammatory cytokines, and increases collagen elasticity – but only at the right intensity and duration of light. Negatives include worsening skin pigmentation issues and increased appearance of aging.

Dermatologists recommend the use of oral or topical antioxidants before the use of infrared saunas to reduce negative impacts on the skin. You can eat fruits rich in antioxidants, such as berries or pomegranate, and use an antioxidant serum to reduce aging effects of infrared light.

Are there any potential dangers related to the infrared sauna?

As with all saunas, the primary risks of using infrared saunas include overheating, dehydration, or dizziness caused by the heat. These risks can be minimized by hydrating before and after sauna use and limiting your time in the sauna to about 20-30 minutes at a time. 

However, there are longer-term concerns associated with infrared sauna use centered around skin damage, cancer risk, and impacts on the eyes. 

Research is limited, but there may be some dangers associated specifically with infrared sauna use. These can mostly be mitigated by limited time in the sauna to 20-30 minutes at a time along with the use of protective factors to decrease risk.

Skin damage, cancer risk, and eye damage are real concerns with infrared sauna use. Here are some specific issues and actions you can take to reduce your risk.

Skin damage

While infrared sauna light is unlikely to burn skin, it can cause other forms of damage. Photoaging may occur, which may cause wrinkles, loss of elasticity, and uneven pigmentation. Some existing skin conditions may be exacerbated, such as melasma and dermatitis. 

In full-spectrum saunas, the addition of visible and ultraviolet light may cause further skin damage, including burning and skin cancer.

To reduce your risk of skin damage from infrared sauna use, consider eating high-antioxidant foods and using antioxidant serums before using the sauna. Limit your sauna sessions to short periods of time, 20-30 minutes maximum.

Cancer

There are a few concerns about how infrared saunas may cause cancer. 

While there is no definite connection to cancer causation, the associated incidence of cancer with infrared sauna use is concerning.

Near-infrared light has been found to suppress apoptosis, which is how damaged cells die off after exposure to UVB rays. The DNA mutations that occur as a result may be related to the development of melanoma. In addition, infrared saunas with a high electromagnetic field (EMF) have a specific concern.

High EMFs been correlated with leukemia and other cancers, though causation is unclear. 

To mitigate your risk, again, limit your time in the sauna, and if you have a choice, use a low-EMF sauna and sit further from the infrared lighting.

Eyes

The most common eye issue associated with infrared light exposure is cataracts. Corena and iris injuries may also occur. Other impacts may include eye redness, swelling, or hemorrhaging.

It is important to keep your eyes closed as much as possible in an infrared sauna.

You may also wish to purchase protective glasses that block infrared light.

How to avoid burns when using an infrared sauna?

While skin burns are unlikely to occur from infrared light alone in a sauna, it is important to know how to protect yourself from skin burns that may occur in the warm environment.

To avoid burns when using an infrared sauna:

  • Keep the temperature low. An infrared sauna only needs to reach a temperature of about 100℉ to be effective.
  • Sit further from the heat lamps. This will prevent you from accidentally touching them and burning yourself.
  • Be cautious with surfaces. The wooden benches should not be very hot, but it may be best to place a towel on them before sitting. Avoid touching any other surfaces in the sauna that may be hot.
  • Wear eye protection to prevent burning of the cornea or iris.

Who should avoid using an infrared sauna?

While there are many benefits associated with sauna usage, but infrared saunas are not for everyone.

Infrared saunas should be avoided by:

  • People with certain medical conditions – Those with seizure disorders, angina pectoris, recent MI (heart attack), or severe aortic valve stenosis should avoid sauna usage altogether. Anyone with an implanted medical device should consult with their physician before sauna use.
  • Pregnant women – Especially in early pregnancy, increased body temperature may pose a risk to the fetus. In addition, pregnant women are more susceptible to overheating, dehydration, and fainting in higher temperatures.
  • Infants, toddlers, and young children – Their temperature regulation is not as developed as that in adults, and they are more likely to experience issues from overheating. 
  • People who have been drinking – Do not use a sauna if you are intoxicated or hungover and still dehydrated. Most deaths in saunas occur when people have been drinking heavily.