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Saunas feel great. They’re warm, inviting spaces where you can relax in a degree of peace and sweat out the frustrations and anxieties of the day.
At least, that’s how they’re portrayed in the media, marketed culturally and described by those who believe in the process.
If you’re reading this, though, you’re probably wondering whether these sweat-inducing sitting rooms really deserve all the hype.
Infrared saunas can provide some benefits, but not everything you’ve read is true — especially when it comes to your skin.
To understand what saunas really do, we’re going to explore the benefits and the science behind them.
But before we get there, it’s a good idea to take a brief look at sauna benefits in general.
Saunas, when used the right way, present a large number of possible and confirmed benefits to health and wellness.
Studies show benefits range from better heart health and lowered blood pressure to relief for asthma and chronic bronchitis.
Additionally, there are benefits to joint mobility to be gained, especially to people suffering from rheumatic disease.
It’s been proven that sauna bathing can lower the risk of cardiovascular disease, too.
A 2018 study explained that while the mechanisms aren’t quite known, there is substantial proof that regular sauna use lowers the risk of fatal cardiovascular disease in men.
Saunas may offer additional benefits for the mind.
A few limited studies have shown that saunas and the heat treatment they provide may prevent the development of dementia, though most studies caution that more research is needed to understand the precise mechanism and what sort of frequency best creates this benefit.
You may notice we haven’t addressed your skin yet. Well, we’re getting to that. First though, we need to explain how your skin works.
Contrary to what it may seem, your skin is actually a complicated combination of blood vessels and glands. It’s the largest organ on your body, after all.
What keeps skin looking healthy is a balance between three proteins: collagen, elastin and keratin.
The most plentiful of these is collagen, which is responsible for firmness. It’s the connective tissue that keeps your skin (literally the cells of your skin) together.
Elastin, meanwhile, gives your skin flexibility and the ability to stretch without getting damaged. Think about your skin returning to normal position after someone squeezes your cheek — that’s elastin.
Last is keratin, which acts as a sort of protective barrier for the skin, and takes damage from objects and elements through its hardened structure so the rest of your skin’s working parts don’t.
Aging then, is essentially what happens when these three proteins are less effective, or your body produces them less efficiently.
Hindered production of elastin, collagen and keratin will make your skin look less youthful over time.
We don’t know everything about aging, but the two current theories of skin aging are best observed in tandem, because they both offer a degree of validity.
Intrinsic factors mostly have to do with your cellular processes becoming less efficient as you get older, which may have genetic links.
Extrinsic sources include a range of forces, like sunlight and air quality, but also include your water and nutritional intake.
Smoking, rubbing your eyes or sleeping face down are also thought to cause some aging.
There’s more to this, including a discussion about free radicals and oxidative stress.
Infrared sauna heat hasn’t been thoroughly studied with regards to your skin’s youth and longevity, but there are some correlated studies that suggest possible benefits.
For example, a 2006 study in the Yonsei Medical Journal observed that infrared radiation (the same way saunas heat) has a multitude of cosmetic benefits. Those benefits included increased collagen and elastin production.
After six months, all patients reported good or better results from the treatment.
The study observed that, “... infrared radiation may have beneficial effects on skin texture and wrinkles by increasing collagen and elastin contents from the stimulated fibroblasts.
Therefore, skin treatment with infrared radiation may be an effective and safe non-ablative remodeling method, and may also be useful in the treatment of photo-aged skin.”
There are some immediate cautions we need to throw at this, and the first is that this study in no way looked at saunas as a method for transmitting infrared radiation.
But the type of infrared radiation observed is the same type emitted by saunas that use infrared technology instead of air heaters.
It’s unclear if air heating saunas can offer these same benefits — or if the sauna is the most effective way of delivering these benefits.
It may sound like saunas have thin claims for aging benefits, but anti-aging research is still comparably new science.
And there are a lot of products out there on the market with relatively little scientific benefit peddling themselves as miracle solutions.
That said, we do have some hard facts. A 2007 review published in the Aesthetic Surgery Journal, found that several over-the-counter topical creams are effective treatments for preventing and reversing the signs of aging.
Vitamin C and alpha-hydroxy acids are two of the most researched anti-aging products out there, and the literature appears to support their efficacy.
There have also been some promising studies on vitamin A and vitamin B derivatives.
Moisturizers have been shown to increase skin hydration and improve the overall appearance of skin.
Studies also indicate that pentapeptides can be effective in decreasing facial wrinkles and roughness.
Vitamin C essentially acts like a candy jar for free radicals, which steal electrons from anywhere they can get them.
It’s full of its own electrons, which free radicals will attack instead of your vulnerable cellular structure.
Vitamin C is a preventative anti-aging ingredient, and it’s best applied regularly. Our Morning Glow Vitamin C Serum, applied in the morning, will brighten skin and help fight those radicals.
Another way of fighting aging is the regular use of vitamin A compounds like retinoids.
Retinoids encourage collagen production while also stripping away layers of dead cells. Prescription retinoids have been used in medicine since the1960s, and have been considered safe and effective since then. You can also combine retinol with hyaluronic acid as a way to combat side effects such as dry skin and irritation.
One of the best prescription options out there is called tretinoin — learn more about tretinoin, and see if it’s right for you.
Maybe this is obvious, but whether you’re aging or not (and you are) dry skin is a problem. It makes you look older, and over time chronically dry skin can suffer more serious aging. Moisturizers help treat that.
There are many on the market, but products with hyaluronic acid are considered the most effective — it can bind to “over one thousand times its weight in water” and keep moisture from leaving your skin throughout the day.
Hyaluronic acid is naturally occurring, and is found in your skin, eyes and joints already, so you’re really just supplementing your body’s own supply.
It’s more effective as an injection, but studies show plenty of topical benefits as well.
If you haven’t figured this out by now, spending 12 hours a day in the sauna isn’t going to magically reverse the signs of skin again.
And 12 hours would cause some serious health issues, including dehydration, which (as we mentioned already) is bad for your skin.
Unfortunately, while saunas have some general health benefits and potential skin benefits worth your time, they’re not a one stop solution.
If you’re seeing signs of aging, the best first step to take is speaking to a healthcare professional about your concerns.
They will be able to better diagnose what’s actually going on, help you find the best treatments for what your body needs, and get you the results you want.
Kate Hagerty is a board-certified Family Nurse Practitioner with over a decade of healthcare experience. She has worked in critical care, community health, and as a retail health provider.