In June, Lauren Warren bought a sauna after monitoring a sale on Wayfair.com and installed it in her living room. “With the winter coming — I really loathe winter — especially with the pandemic, I knew I wasn’t going to be able to get away to get warm,” she said.
Warren, an exercise therapist who lives in Tillson, New York, has competed in Ironman triathlons. She eats organic raw food, intermittently fasts and leads a “holistic lifestyle all the way — that’s the sauna!” she said.
Spending a lot of money in an uncertain economy concerned her, but the price kept dropping, from $5,100 to $1,500. When only two of her preferred four-person, infrared models remained, she pounced.
“Next thing I know, I’m typing in my info and here goes! I hit the button. I was jumping all over, excited,” she said.
Infrared units bear little similarity to the traditional Finnish-style sauna. They heat up to around 150 degrees Fahrenheit, instead of over 200. Light wavelengths warm the body. There is no blast of hot air, no pouring water on heated rocks for steam, and users can sit safely for extended periods of time.
The myriad benefits of saunas have been documented in numerous studies. Sitting in one is said to, among other things, improve insomnia, inflammation, pain, blood pressure and brain function. Infrared has been touted to help heal skin ailments from acne to psoriasis to surgical scars, and is used, particularly in Japan, as therapy for heart patients.
Heat increases blood circulation. “I’m a pasty white Dutch guy,” said Rick Mouw, president of Almost Heaven Saunas in Holland, Michigan, which mainly sells traditional saunas — including trendy barrel-shaped ones — electric, wood-burning and steam. “People ask if I’m tanning! You get a healthy glow.”
Some liken sweating in a sauna to passive cardiovascular conditioning, which may interest anyone who has packed on pounds in quarantine.
But maybe the best way to approach the overwhelming barrage of health claims lobbed at sauna shoppers trying to justify a four-figure purchase to get through winter is a study out of the University of Eastern Finland, which suggests frequent sauna use reduced risks of “all-cause mortality.”
There is also the simple sensual aspect. “As an athlete, I saw in quite a few journals that it can build blood volume, almost like training at altitude,” said Warren, who said she uses her sauna almost daily. “I do a lot of research, then I use myself as a guinea pig. You do feel it the next day — wow, that was good!”
And therein lies the sauna’s current appeal, up there with Peloton bikes, fire pits and outdoor heat lamps. Here we all are, facing climbing coronavirus rates and, in most parts of the country, declining temperatures. All we want is to feel good.
“More people are at home; they aren’t spending money like they used to — going to shows or on vacation or at movies,” said Corey Smee, manager at Health Mate Sauna. “They are cooking more home meals. They can’t go to the gym and sweat. So people are investing in health more than ever.”
Amortizing the cost helped Warren make her investment. She used to go frequently to a sauna spa; those charge about $40 for 30 minutes. Like gyms, such studios have had to restrict customers, or close altogether, during the pandemic.
For those with less space, Sunlighten sells the portable “Solo” sauna, which looks a little like a fancy human pet bed. Sales of this unit are currently up 140%, according to Connie Zack, a founder of the company, adding that overall sales rose significantly in July compared with last year, mostly thanks to buyers in California, New York, Pennsylvania, Texas and Florida. Zack calls infrared sauna “part of my lifestyle; it’s what I do to keep myself healthy.”
Sunlighten has been able to meet increased demand at its factory in Vietnam. So has Health Mate at its Canadian facility. But other companies have sold out of certain models.
“We are back-ordered two to four months depending on the sauna right now,” said Andy Kaps, president of Clearlight Infrared. (Gwyneth Paltrow has posted its “Sanctuary” unit, with a half glass roof and a glass front, on social media. Yes, #saunaselfie is now a hashtag. Instagrammers, including Paltrow and Lady Gaga, who uses hers for chronic pain relief, have posed in the structures.)
Price still seem too high?
You can seek rentals on SaunaShare.com or rationalize the splurge as one might a car. Kaps of Clearlight, whose saunas cost $5,500 on average, swears his product is worth it: “It’s not like that piece of equipment you buy and don’t use; if you sit in it, it’s going to make you feel great.”
Maybe too great. Ksenia Avdulova, who installed a sauna at her tiny cabin near Callicoon, New York, has a 30-foot walk from her sauna to her tiny cabin, which she considers her “cold therapy” post-heat. She stargazes, recently saw a 22-degree halo on an almost full moon, has heard coyotes and once even found the remains of their prey, a baby deer.
“Sometimes I think, what if a wolf approaches me on my way back from the sauna and kills me?” she said. “It wouldn’t be a bad way to die — I feel so amazing.”