The latest health trend to hit the celebrity circuit: infrared saunas that claim to treat cancer, cure paralysis, and, of course, provide a little stress relief.
The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills got toasty in an infrared sauna earlier this season. Gwyneth Paltrow touts the saunas, which range in price from $250 to $2,000 and up, as a good way to detoxify the body and burn fat.
So, what’s the science behind this Hollywood trend?
Not much, as it turns out.
There are some quite small, preliminary studies that show infrared light therapy or saunas could be associated with lowering blood pressure, easing muscle pain, and generally boosting quality of life. That makes sense, because if a sauna relaxes you, it could reduce stress on your body — which, in turn, could improve your overall health, said Dr. Brent Bauer, director of the complementary and integrative medicine program at the Mayo Clinic.
And saunas that use infrared light to get things steamy — as opposed to firewood or other direct heat sources — strike some users as more environmentally friendly and appealing.
“Many people find it much more comfortable,” Bauer said.
But detoxing the body and curing cancer? There is no proof of that, and federal regulators have stepped in several times to tell sauna makers to knock off such medical claims.
Take Therasage, a sauna manufacturer that claimed its infrared products could help with cancer, heart health, Lyme disease, and anxiety. Outlets that sold and used the saunas had to pull those claims from their labels after a crackdown by the Food and Drug Administration.
There’s also manufacturer Chi Machine 4 U, which produced the Far Infrared Hothouse Sauna Dome. The company claimed a laundry list of benefits, saying simmering in the sauna could treat prostate, ovarian, breast, and colon cancer, alleviate arthritis and gout, clear up breathing problems tied to asthma and allergies, and even relieve paralysis. And on top of that, the sauna’s makers promised “serious detoxification” of whatever mysterious toxins might be lurking in a person’s body.
The FDA wasn’t having it. And many doctors are equally wary.
“We should be cautious in terms of making claims of great medical benefit,” said Dr. Mathew Avram of Massachusetts General Hospital, who has studied these types of infrared therapies.
Infared saunas don’t have to be approved before they go on the market, but the FDA can step in when they’re promoted with specific medical claims, from easing heart disease to “reducing muscle soreness, shortening injury recovery time, or increasing blood circulation,” said FDA spokeswoman Deborah Kotz.
The over-the top claims about infrared saunas do them a disservice, Bauer said, because the medical community has already largely discounted the devices as scams, even though scientists might find some actual (more modest) benefits to infrared exposure if they did rigorous research.
While infrared saunas aren’t miracle devices, there isn’t any evidence to show they’ll hurt you, either.
“There are no obvious alarm bells,” Avram said. But he added: “That doesn’t guarantee it’s completely safe.”