Infrared vs Traditional Saunas [2021 Guide]

Lose Weight, Feel Great & Detoxify

Written by Christopher Kiggins

Are infrared saunas better than hot rock / traditional saunas? Are infrared saunas better than hot rock / traditional saunas?

All infrared saunas use either ceramic, carbon or halogen heaters to produce infrared light to create a deep sweat. The effects of each of the heaters are vastly different, and you’ll eventually have to make a choice which is best for you. Let’s get into the differences between each heater.

Ceramic Heaters Ceramic Heaters

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Remember what a blackbody is? (Hint: It’s how much infrared an object can absorb). In order to find the right object to use for an infrared heater, you must look at the molecular components that allow for the greatest amount of heat retention, or infrared absorption.

What the original inventors of infrared saunas realized is that a ceramic compound (ceramic is a naturally occurring mineral that comes from clay) lends itself to different states and shapes. Ceramic clay can be molded when wet, it can be dried to take forms of objects (pottery, bricks for buildings) or used to cook. When you heat it, its electrons start to move which generate heat.

In the infrared sauna environment, ceramic is a good conductor of infrared heat because its blackbody rating is closer to 1.0 (ceramic heaters have .99 emissivity). This is higher than any other mineral or rock. What that means is that ceramic absorbs infrared better than any other object.

Emissivity is defined as an object’s effectiveness in emitting energy as thermal radiation. In layman’s terms, this means is that emissivity measures how well an object holds infrared energy (or how much it can absorb) so it can then release it as infrared/thermal radiation.

There is a downside using ceramic as an infrared emitter. The problem with ceramic is that it gets too hot. The absorption property of ceramic allows for its surface temperature to rise to 350 – 400 degrees°F.

Let’s put this into the Wien’s Law formula:

5268 / ( 350 °F + 460) = 6.44 microns

This is a good wavelength to raise your core body temperature through absorption into your soft tissue, but it’s not the best way to administer infrared heat in the sauna environment.

The problem with this wavelength is that it’s too hot (at 350-400°F) to sit 2 inches away from, as you do in an infrared sauna. Additionally, the 6.4 micron wavelength is too short for our bodies to optimally absorb it into our body’s water molecules. Our bodies are made up of 60% water. In fact, water is so good at absorbing far infrared (4-1000 microns) that the earth’s oceans are heated because the water molecules absorb the Sun’s far infrared energy. Our bodies are optimized to absorb far infrared energy.

Therefore, it would be much better if we could find something that got hot enough to heat the body, but also had a longer wavelength of infrared light for proper absorption into our water molecules (with the right balance of comfort to heat).

Carbon Heaters Carbon Heaters

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Twelve years ago there was a significant innovation in the infrared sauna industry: carbon fiber panels. The reason for this was that carbon fiber is more malleable than hardened ceramic and its surface area can be spread out and expanded. It’s also cheaper to manufacture a sauna using carbon; hence, the cheapest infrared saunas are made out of carbon!

Here’s the rationale behind pure carbon heaters: by expanding the total surface area of the infrared heat this would lower the surface temperature and allow for a longer infrared wavelength that can be placed 360° around your body. As we have already established, infrared heat is just invisible light. Therefore, it is optimal to place as many heaters around you so your body is essentially enveloped in infrared light for maximum absorption. 

Now, this happens to be my personal viewpoint—it is better to have a maximum surface area of infrared light surrounding you and why I think carbon heaters led the best companies to think of combination carbon heaters—which have a surface temperature of 190°F. Unfortunately, pure carbon saunas just don’t have enough surface temperature to do too much of anything in an infrared sauna environment.

So what’s the maximum surface temperature of carbon panels in infrared saunas? About 140 – 150°F. Let’s plug that temperature into Wien’s Law:

5268 / ( 150 °F + 460 ) = 8.55 microns

Carbon fiber panels do have a much longer infrared wavelength than other heaters. Seems better, right? Not necessarily. Carbon fiber doesn’t allow itself to absorb as much infrared as ceramic. Its blackbody emissivity rating is closer to .94 or .95.

Hypothetically, let’s say you were standing in the sun wearing a black shirt, which absorbs 99 percent of the infrared light coming from the sun; whereas a light blue shirt absorbs 86 percent of the infrared light. The black shirt gets much hotter because it absorbs more infrared light. Pretty straightforward.

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blue light - infrared sauna - sauna heater

This is the difference between carbon and ceramic. Carbon simply does not get hot enough in an infrared sauna environment to raise core body temperature on its own as it doesn’t absorb as much infrared energy/light.

I want to make a very important point: the difference between an infrared sauna and a traditional sauna is that an infrared sauna relies on the changing of the internal properties of objects to exude heat in the form of thermal radiation. This light is absorbed by your body and your core body temperature rises. As a result, you produce a deep sweat—your body’s natural mechanism to cool itself.

Traditional saunas heat the air (and the water in the air), which then heats your skin. If you want hot air, get a traditional sauna. If you want to heat your body, get an infrared sauna.

In the same way that traditional saunas do not heat your core body temperature enough to allow for the health benefits they are capable of providing, carbon infrared panels also do not get hot enough to heat your body’s core temperature. Hence, both are lacking in the sauna environment.

As a result of the low surface temperature of carbon heaters, low-cost sauna companies have to increase the carbon panel surface area to heat the air above your head to simulate getting a good sweat. Did you ever wonder why cheaper carbon saunas always look the same (with their heaters raised up almost to the ceiling)?

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Yes, having enough heater surface space in the sauna can raise the air temperature in the sauna. However, by doing this, it is no longer infra-red light heating your body; but rather hot air convection, the same as traditional saunas. The effect of raising the air temperature to overcompensate for low surface temperatures and underpowered heaters is not the goal of infrared saunas (and is disingenuous if you ask me).

Because infrared energy is actually invisible light, it can be described in the same manner as a flashlight that reflects light in a certain direction: Light from a flashlight travels in a straight line, which is true of invisible light as well. You can think of infra-red panels as giant flashlights reflecting infrared light in a straight line.

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The goal is to reflect this light into your body in order for it to be absorbed creating a rise in core body temperature, which is infrared sauna therapy in a nutshell. When carbon panels are positioned above your head, they are effectively reflecting this light into thin air and the infrared energy is wasted. Unfortunately, the person inside the sauna is often fooled as they feel heat because the air temperature will rise.

The debate between ceramic vs. carbon heaters can be summarized in a single sentence:

Ceramic heaters run too hot and carbon heaters don’t run hot enough.

I made it my personal mission to find out if there was something in the middle that was hot enough to raise your core temperature while being comfortable enough to sit next to for 30 minutes. It took me years to discover, but I found that very heater.

VantaWave™ Quartz Graphite 190°F Heaters VantaWave™ Quartz Graphite 190°F Heaters VantaWave™ Quartz Graphite 190°F Heaters

Eight years ago, when I first started to find out about infrared saunas I quickly realized that just about every infrared sauna company had missed the boat on providing a heater that operated at a comfortable temperature while simultaneously raising your core body temperature.

As we’ve gone over, the industry standard infrared heaters simply don’t cut it (they’re either too hot or not hot enough). One day I was in one of the cheaper carbon saunas and something hit me.

What would happen if you combined two materials with very high emissivity to get the best of both heaters?

The result was the most effective infrared heater ever created. By mixing quartz and graphite together, you get a more emissive heater than carbon at a much cooler temperature than ceramic. You also get a longer, deeper penetrating infrared wavelength. Because the chemical properties are now mixed, you get a blackbody absorption rating between that of carbon and ceramic combined—.95 (quartz) – .99 (graphite) = .97.

This blackbody absorption rating allows the combination quartz/graphite compound heater to hold a hotter temperature of 200 degrees °F, which is the ideal temperature for an infrared heater. Let’s input 200 °F into our formula:

5268 / ( 200 °F + 460) = 7.90 microns

This means that the infrared wavelength is pretty much right in the middle of carbon (9.4 microns) and ceramic (6.0 microns). The Peak Energy Wavelength of the quartz/graphite heater is 7.90 microns, but remember, this is just an average which can be expressed by a bell curve.

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As you can see, the peak emission wavelength is right at 7.90 microns, however, you still have infrared waves traveling at 6.0 microns and wavelengths traveling at 9.4 microns. Why is this important?

Our bodies are made up of over 60 percent water. Different molecules in your body are going to accept and absorb different infrared wavelengths. The shorter the infrared wavelength the deeper that it can penetrate into your body. The longer the wave-length the shallower the absorption, but at a greater amount.

The water molecules in your body absorb a greater amount of infrared than any other molecule in your body. Water actually absorbs the highest amount of infrared energy on the planet, and without water’s ability to absorb infrared, we’d be in a continuous ice age.

The greater the amount of infrared energy that your body receives, the greater the amount that will be absorbed by your body’s water molecules. The different molecular types in your body are water, protein, connective tissue, fats and carbohydrates—98.7% of these are water molecules.

Because a ceramic heater has an emissivity of .99 (versus .95 emissivity of carbon) more of it will be absorbed by your body’s water molecules and your core body temperature will rise faster. The more infrared light, the more energy is absorbed by your body. All things being equal, you will get a much better sweat in a ceramic sauna rather than in a carbon sauna.

However, because we were able to create our (patent pending) combination quartz/graphite compound heaters we have effectively found the sweet spot of infrared heaters. You literally get the best sweat possible whilst being able to sustain that sweat for over 30 minutes. In an infrared sauna, the more sweat, the better.

From my own experience and hearing hundreds of stories throughout the years, carbon simply doesn’t put out enough infrared energy to be absorbed by your body. Your experience and resultant health benefits will be greatly reduced when using only carbon heaters.

Additionally, you get an even distribution of infrared light around your body at 360°. This allows for you to absorb so much more infrared at every angle you are sitting in your sauna.

Halogen Heaters Halogen Heaters

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The last type of infrared heaters that have become popular due to “full spectrum” infrared saunas are halogen heaters. Unfortunately, somebody thought it would be good to falsely claim that these heaters produce near infrared (which they don’t) and claim them to be “full spectrum heaters.”

Halogen heaters happen to be great heaters that produce a very high surface temperature (775°F). They are used across the globe at restaurants for outdoor patios to keep their customers warm. I’m pretty sure you have felt the heat these give off. I have used them many, many time in a sauna environment and have sold them to 6/7 continents—people love them. That being said, they aren’t full spectrum heaters! And I can prove it using our nifty formula!

Let’s plug in 775°F to see where it lands—near, mid or far.

5268 / ( 775°F + 460) = 4.26 microns

This is still in the far infrared bandwidth!

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In order to get to the cooler end of the near infrared spectrum, you would have to heat an object to 2150°F! This is where near and mid infrared overlap. This is the actual burning temperature inside of a bonfire! You simply could never put something this hot inside of a 4′ x 6′ x 7′ room. It would be a severe fire hazard and you would fry your clients!

How someone in this industry thought this would be good to call “full spectrum” is beyond me… What’s worse is that literally every company has followed suit, which has caused people searching for infrared saunas online to be very uninformed. Most people calling me demand their future sauna to be “full spectrum” without even knowing the benefits of each wavelength. They just hear the buzzword “full spectrum” and there’s no negotiating. I wish they knew that what they end up purchasing definitely is not a “full spectrum”, “broad spectrum” or “true spectrum” sauna. Frankly it’s all bullshit and the industry is pulling a fast one on the uninformed public (hence this book!) Sorry for the rant, but it needs to be said…

That being said, halogen heaters happen to be great emitters of far infrared energy. They are made of quartz, which does a great job of keeping its charge from infrared energy and then putting it out as heat. I really do think the sweat you get in an infrared sauna is better having them in the sauna.

TrueWave II™ Carbon/Ceramic TrueWave II™ Carbon/Ceramic

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  • 97% Emissive
  • 190°F Surface Temperature
  • Wavelength in microns: 7.9
  • Average EMF: .20 mG
  • Most effective at raising core temp for 30+ minutes
  • Most comfortable
  • Long infrared wavelength for maximum absorption

Halogen Heaters Halogen Heaters

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  • 97% Emissive
  • 775°F Surface Temperature
  • Wavelength in microns: 4.2
  • Average EMF: 3 mG
  • Very Effective at raising core temp for 20 minutes
  • Less comfortable/Most Intense
  • Shortest infrared wavelength for infrared absorption

Ceramic Heaters Ceramic Heaters

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  • 97% Emissive
  • 400°F Surface Temperature
  • Wavelength in microns: 6.0
  • Average EMF: 10 mG
  • Very Effective at raising core temp for 20 minutes
  • Less comfortable
  • Moderate infrared wavelength for infrared absorption

Carbon Heaters Carbon Heaters

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  • 95% Emissive
  • 140°F Surface Temperature
  • Wavelength in microns 9.2
  • Average EMF: 30 mG
  • Least effective at raising core temp for 30 minutes
  • Least effective
  • Long infrared wavelength with little to no heat/absorption

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I am glad infrared saunas have developed the way they have, because I couldn’t imagine my life without the benefits they provide, like deep sleep, lower blood pressure, less joint pain, weight loss, and a boosted immune system. Here at SaunaCloud I sell saunas that are some of the best history has offered. My far infrared saunas use advanced ceramic-carbon combination heaters for an amazing sauna experience. For more information on how SaunaCloud’s infrared saunas work and how they can improve your health, download my book The Definitive Guide to Infrared Saunas. Just give us a call at SaunaCloud 1.800.370.0820.

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Christopher Kiggins | Sauna Enthusiast

Christopher Kiggins | Sauna Enthusiast

I have been writing, learning, educating and generally pointing people in the right direction infrared sauna wise since 2012. Let me know how I can help: - (530) 417-1220