The benefits of saunas have been recognized for many years but for all their health-giving properties some people find the combination of heat and steam just too much for them to handle.
Then infrared saunas were invented.
There are two big differences between traditional saunas and infrared saunas.
The first is that infrared saunas are free of steam and the second is that infrared saunas heat the body directly rather than heating the air, which then heats the body.
This last point makes them much more energy-efficient.
Infrared saunas have been steadily growing in popularity over recent years. This brings more choice, but more choice can create more confusion. With this in mind, here is a quick guide to buying an infrared sauna.
The choice of wood
Traditional saunas, at least high-quality ones, tend to use cedar, due to its many attractive qualities, with Canadian cedar being the preferred choice thanks to its robustness.
As infrared saunas are a more modern alternative, some manufacturers are now switching to other kinds of wood, which they feel are more suitable for this new generation of saunas.
The modern wood of choice is hemlock, preferably Canadian hemlock, which is arguably less visually attractive than cedar (although it still looks good) but compensates for this by the fact that it is hypoallergenic (and also usually cheaper to buy meaning that the savings can be passed on to the end customer).
You can find saunas made of other woods but these tend to be of lower quality even if, in theory, they sound good.
For example, pine may sound like a great choice for a sauna, since it is not only attractive and affordable but also grows in environments where there are extreme fluctuations in temperature.
The problem with pine, however, is that it has a lot of sap, which will be released as the sauna heats up and can actually give people serious burns.
Also, that pine menthol smell, which can be so pleasant in moderate quantities in an essential oil diffuser, can quickly become overpowering in the heat of a sauna.
The smell from pine is unlikely to become dangerous, but it can certainly become highly unpleasant. Other woods have other issues; for example hard wood such as oak will absorb heat quickly to the point where it will literally burn the skin of anyone who touches it (cedar and hemlock are both soft woods, which are much less inclined to absorb heat).
Many kinds of woods have knots in the grain, which can be very attractive for other forms of woodwork (in fact they can actually be highly desirable in furniture making and crafts work), but are terrible for saunas because they are much denser than the surrounding wood and hence will heat up and shrink at a different rate, which leads to the wood as a whole becoming warped and twisted and the knot may well fall out.
Knots are also often full of sap, which, as we’ve already mentioned is bad news in saunas.
Overall build quality
A sauna is not a shed.
Both saunas and sheds have to stand up to the external elements but a sauna has to handle so much more.
Basically, it has to be able to resist the constant changes in temperature from very hot to very cold (in winter) and that means that it really needs to have sound, well-built walls.
Ideally, it should have double-wall construction with a cavity to provide both insulation and the necessary space for the wood to expand and contract naturally as the temperature changes.
You also want a sauna, which fits together neatly and easily during assembly.
This is about far more than “just” making your life easier.
The whole point of a sauna is that the heat stays within the sauna.
If a sauna is poorly constructed then the chances are it will either have gaps in its construction right from the initial build or it will soon develop them.
You may not see where they are, but they will impact on the quality of your sauna experience. We strong suggest you avoid any saunas which use exterior buckles and clips, as these are, in our opinion, a complete pain to put together and are often used to compensate for a low build quality.
Saunas which use magnets are easier to put together but we’ve yet to see an example of them providing the sort of secure, even and robust fit we consider to be essential to the proper functioning of a sauna.
Side clasp buckles can work effectively, but it’s very easy for them to be or become misaligned either in the factory or by the person assembling the sauna.
Bolt and anchor assembly systems are effective and robust, our only issue with them is that we find them overly cumbersome to put together and, in particular, we find that it’s very easy to scratch the sauna as you are doing so.
Admittedly, this is only cosmetic damage, but, still, it’s a shame to spoil your beautiful new sauna. That’s why we prefer systems such as the invisible full interlocked EZ™ connection.
Added to all of this, you want a floor which will stand up to the traffic on it and which is ideally raised off the ground to improve ventilation.
A note on wiring
It cannot be overemphasized how important it is that you buy an infrared sauna with safe and robust wiring. Light-gauge wiring is highly unlikely to last any length of time in this sort of environment, particularly in the absence of EMF shielding.
There also needs to be a system in place to prevent there being any chance of the wires coming into contact with the wood.
Since we’re on the topic of safety, we strongly recommend only looking at saunas which have been certified by recognizable authorities such as the CE certification and the ISO9001 certification.
Quite frankly, we’d suggest you only take certification seriously if you can recognize the certifying body.
The quality of the backrest
Now this may seem like nitpicking, but as is so often the case in life, it’s the details that make the difference.
Basically, cheaper backrests are primarily horizontal with the minimal level of vertical supports.
This may sound irrelevant but actually if you want to lean back against them, then those vertical supports make a real difference.
High-quality saunas have a higher ratio of vertical supports to horizontal ones, while still leaving plenty of vertical space for the heat to move.
The actual size of the sauna
When looking at saunas, look at the actual stated dimensions rather than just the headline of “two person” or whatever it is.
Some manufacturers seem to have rather interesting ideas about the height and width of the average person.
The choice of heater
Sauna heating is one area where certain manufacturers (generally at the budget end of the scale) can bamboozle customers with jargon purporting to be science.
If you are really into the nitty-gritty detail of heating and the physics behind it, there are plenty of online sources where you can learn all about it.
For the rest of us, ceramic infrared heaters are widely regarded as the best source of heating for infrared saunas.
These are manufactured as either sheets or rods. In the latter case, high-quality rods will be filled with sand (for conductivity), ideally lava sand.
Well-manufactured heating rods will easily last the lifetime of the sauna but poorly manufactured ones have a tendency to break quite quickly.
Some companies use carbon fibre for heating and these have a niche market as they do produce high-quality infrared heat.
The problem with them is that they produce very little of it. Metal rod heaters can still be found on the cheapest saunas and frankly, in our opinion, are to be avoided at all costs.
The importance of effective delivery
Even one-person saunas are hardly what you’d call small items.
It takes a certain degree of skill and a lot of care to package them effectively and deliver them safely to your door.
This matters a lot because even when manufacturers do stand by their guarantees and provide exchanges for damaged parts, you still have the hassle of storing the item in an unusable condition until the new part(s) arrive(s).
If you’re investing in a sauna, you want to look to buy one from a company which will deliver your purchase to as close to your door as physically possible and which will transport it on an oversized pallet to protect it.
You also want one, which will commit to having the driver wait while you check the contents of the boxes so any issues can be reported there and then rather than having them get away as quickly as they can.
Warranty and customer service
If you buy a sauna from a quality brand such as Vidalux, you are highly unlikely to need to call on your warranty, but if you ever do you have the reassurance of knowing that Vidalux is a long-established brand, which has proven its ability and willingness to make good on its warranties. Likewise, you will have the benefit of a dedicated and well-resourced customer service team if you have any questions before or after purchase.