Call it a logical reaction to this year's ever-snowballing, anxiety-inducing trash fire of a political landscape; or if you're a cynic, call it merely the latest veiled, politically correct means of policing people's diet and workout habits — Wellness, as a capital-letter-worthy concept, has dug its perfectly toned, Outdoor-Voices-clad hooks into the fashion industry, and it's unlikely to let go anytime soon. Millennials in general are leaning into self-care and buying into wellness-projecting lifestyle brands, whether it's athleisure beauty products, bone broths, aesthetically pleasing watermelon jerky, pink salt lamps or the latest meditation app.
And you know what? Maybe there's nothing wrong with that. Perhaps spending on products and experiences intended to calm, relax, restore and health-ify oneself (whether the effects are real or placebo) isn't the worst way to use our time and resources in a chaotic, stressful, sensory-overloaded cultural moment. As an industry, fashion is leading the charge. Many of the wellness trends that get the most exposure, especially among the fashion crowd, are the ones that have a certain gimmicky share-ablity that lends itself well to Instagram coverage. (Think those spin classes in a pool, acro-yoga, freezing yourself via cryotherapy or light therapy.)
As a beauty editor and a millennial, I admit I'm one of the first to get swept up into most of these wellness fads. I own a salt lamp. I drink a lot of matcha. And yes, I've done aerial yoga. (What, was I just supposed to turn down the opportunity to be cocooned in a gauzy hammock while doing yoga? I don't think so!) But one wellness trend that has also arguably become one of the most-Instagrammed among the fashion crowd — designers, models, influencers, editors, you name it — is the infrared sauna. You've probably seen it on your feed. Scratch that, you’ve definitely seen it on your feed if you follow even a small smattering of models, influencers, editors, Lady Gaga, me (again, guilty!) or literally any GOOP disciple.
These scorching wooden boxes, which get cranked up to 150+ degrees and distribute infrared heat, also incorporate LED light therapy, meaning they turn different colors and have the added benefit of creating ideal (albeit sweaty) selfie circumstances. And the fashion crowd can't get enough.
Lady Gaga promotes them as a sort of cure-all for any and all ailments. "When my body goes into a spasm one thing I find really helps is infrared sauna. I've invested in one," she wrote on Instagram. "I combine this treatment with marley silver emergency blankets... that trap in the heat and are very cheap, reusable and effective for detox as well as weight loss…. Hope this helps some of you, it helps me to keep doing my passion, job and the things I love even on days when I feel like I can't get out of bed."
Unsurprisingly, GOOP is pro-infrared sauna as well: "Beyond the incredible relaxation effect it has on people — it has been shown that endorphin levels increase after a sauna session — it's proven to be beneficial for musculoskeletal ailments, heavy metal detoxification, increased blood flow, and boosting the immune system's cell activity," wrote the site's Dr. Alejandro Junger in one article in which he recommended using it as often as possible, preferably every day for at least 15 minutes. Gwyneth Paltrow herself has been known to take to the sauna when she's ill (and, of course, share the experience on Instagram).
In June, stylish New York City hotel 11 Howard partnered with equally stylish infrared sauna spa Higher Dose (other outposts include ABC Home, Alchemist Kitchen and The Barn in the Hamptons), bringing the treatment on-site for its wellness-minded clientele. (A one-hour session costs $65.) "We had been pondering ways to even further enhance the user experience for our guests from a wellness perspective," says Anis Khoury, the general manager of 11 Howard. "The trend in travel and lifestyle overall has been leaning towards wellness initiatives, so a meaningful wellness program at the hotel was something we thought was important for us to explore from the outset for 11 Howard."
So far, he says, the response has been "outstanding," noting that in addition to the hotel guests booking sauna time during their stays, it’s also attracting NYC locals. "I think people are interested in infrared saunas more and more today because of all the benefits," he says. "In a world where none of us ever have enough time, doing a treatment that checks off three wellness categories — detox, anti-aging and weight loss — is something everyone is instantly intrigued by."
But about those benefits — what exactly are they?
"There are so many benefits of using an infrared sauna — everything from boosted collagen production (with the chromotherapy red light) to weight loss and improved mood," says Katie Kaps, who co-founded Higher Dose with Lauren Berlingeri. "Infrared saunas are definitely not your traditional sauna. The full-spectrum infrared rays pull out seven times the toxins when compared to a traditional sauna — and it pulls out everything, including heavy metals." Weight loss claims come from the fact that it’s supposedly possible to burn up to 600 calories in a session. Kaps is personally drawn to the "high" that she feels after a treatment, which she likens to the rush of energy and endorphins felt after running six miles. That's where the "Dose" part of the company's name gets its derivation: It represents the four mood-boosting neurotransmitters that have been shown to be enhanced with infrared sauna use: dopamine, oxytocin, serotonin and endorphins.
As for why models, influencers and performers seem especially drawn to infrared saunas, Berlingeri, herself a model, cites a combination of reasons. "You yourself become a product. It's not only a physical thing where your skin and body have to be presentable; your energy also has to be on point. You have to feel calm, relaxed and connected," she says. "The infrared sauna does all these for me; it's like my rechargeable energy machine." According to both co-founders, the only people they wouldn't recommend the service for are pregnant women.
Kaps and Berlingeri are well aware of the importance of word of mouth and social shareability in growing their business. "It's an emerging market," says Berlingeri. "Social media is the biggest marketing tool in today's world. We like to use our social feed to connect with our customers in ways that we wouldn't have a chance to do with traditional marketing platforms. We love to share their pictures and highlights from their experiences with us." But she notes that it's more about "connecting with" Higher Dose’s clientele and building a relationship, rather than leveraging them as a marketing tool. As for all of those in-sauna selfies you're seeing? It's not exactly where Kaps and Berlingeri's focus lies. "Yes, chromotherapy is a fun photo opp, but we’re more obsessed with the body-mind benefits of the different light colors. Did you know that blue light has a subtle, calming effect on your entire nervous system?" says Berlingeri.
Obviously the entrepreneurs behind an infrared sauna business are going to be some of the most vocal proponents of the treatment they're shilling. But it says something that Berlingeri herself uses an infrared sauna every day (and sometimes multiple times a day). It's a personal obsession for her and for Kaps, and it's something they take pride in proselytizing about. "When people come to our infrared spas, we like to joke by saying, 'Welcome to your new addiction,' from one infrared addict to another," says Kaps.
But what about a medical professional — one who is in no way affiliated with an infrared sauna company (or GOOP)? Doctors are often the first to call BS on gimmicky wellness trends, especially those that revolve around detoxing. I went to Dr. Jeannette Graf, assistant clinical professor of dermatology at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City, to find out whether there's merit to the claims about infrared saunas and the health of the skin (and the rest of the body). Unlike all those questionable, sugar-laden juice cleanses, it turns out infrared saunas are a legitimate way to work healthy detoxing into your wellness routine. "Heat treatments go as far back as ancient China, Native American sweat lodges and Eastern European saunas for healing, weight loss and detoxification," says Dr. Graf, who counts herself as "quite a fan of infrared saunas" and does them regularly. (Honestly, after years of having doctors shoot down wellness trends I find fun and intriguing, I was pleasantly surprised.)
Modern infrared saunas, according to Dr. Graf, are "an effective way to sweat and enhance skin health." She also gives credence to the concept of "detoxing" in general, adding, "The body requires removal of toxins regularly. There are many methods, including fasting, exercise, deep-tissue massage, drinking water to flush one's system and sweating by sauna or infrared sauna."
Those skin benefits are legit, too. "Often following a treatment, skin feels soft and glowing," says Dr. Graf. "Those who stand behind the benefits of infrared sauna with light therapy talk about its anti-inflammatory benefits to the skin as well as nutrient exchange, wound healing, raising the cellular metabolism and enhancing weight loss. Infrared sauna increases heart rate, weight loss and sweat detoxification. Unlike exercise, where calories are burned accompanied by muscle breakdown, there is no muscle breakdown while sustaining an average of burning 400 calories in one session."
Dr. Graf notes that in order to experience the full benefits of infrared saunas, you'd need to ideally be using them two-to-three times a week. Hydration is key, she says, so make sure to up your water intake when you're planning for a sweat session. And of course, she cautions that what's good for one person might not necessarily be for another. "Downsides would have to be determined by one's physicians. How much time is permitted at one time based on cardiovascular health, high blood pressure, heat intolerance and any medical condition must be okayed before embarking on a sauna treatment," she says.
Additionally, all that heat may have a negative effect for those with skin conditions like rosacea, which can be triggered and exacerbated by the high temperatures. But Graf would suggest them to her patients, she says, assuming they aren't experiencing other health issues or skin conditions.
But on the whole? It seems the wellness/fashion crowd may be onto something that's both Insta-worthy and a genuinely beneficial wellness treatment. In the aforementioned ever-snowballing, anxiety-inducing trash fire of a political landscape that has been 2017 so far, I'll take it.
Main/homepage photo: @marianna_hewitt/Instagram