The Evolution Of The Sauna

A sauna is a sauna is a sauna … or is it?

The history of people heating themselves in a small room or cabinet is long indeed. As far back as 3,000 years, in the great Mayan civilization, “sauna was a place for therapy and ritual.”[1] Many other cultures have used sauna over the centuries, including Native Americans, Russians, Japanese and, of course, the Finns. Nothing could be simpler than the sauna, a heated enclosure, but there have been significant advances in sauna technology over the ages, and especially in the last 100 years, that have enhanced the benefits of sauna heat for personal well-being.

Types Of Heating

Long ago, a sauna space was constructed of wood, stone, adobe (dried mud) or animal skins. Heat was provided directly by a fire burning inside, or by rocks heated in a fire outside, then brought inside. In a hot air sauna, the user is heated primarily through convection, a transfer of heat through the movement of air. In a “steam bath,” water is boiled, and the resulting steam heats the body through direct contact with the skin. This form of heat transfer is known as conduction. Both convection and conduction heat the surface of the skin, which then results in heating the tissue below and eventually raising the overall body temperature.

The Introduction Of Infrared

Timed with the advent of electricity, another method of heating the body was employed--infrared. Infrared is a band of electromagnetic radiation with wavelengths ranging from just longer than visible light at the red end of the spectrum (approximately one micron) to considerably longer (around 25 microns, according to most sources). Infrared radiation is what makes us feel warm in direct sunlight, or next to a campfire or wood stove. The singular and crucial feature of infrared heating, which makes it superior for purposes of sauna, is that this radiation penetrates the surface of the skin to a depth of about 1-½ inches, depending on the energy of the source. Thus, the beneficial effects of body stimulation are improved due to increased heating of the subcutaneous tissue. The body literally is heated within as well as on the surface. This was discovered by the natural healing-oriented surgeon John Harvey Kellogg.

Realizing the efficacy of sauna for removing toxins in the body through the mechanism of sweating, but wanting to improve it, Dr. Kellogg experimented with the new Edison light bulb as a source of heat for his custom-built sauna cabinets. Kellogg called this portion of his protocol “light therapeutics,” and his sauna cabinets “incandescent light baths.” In addition to the benefits of sweating, Kellogg believed in the salutary effects of light, and saw sunlight as a prophylactic measure in its own right.

The first light bath Kellogg constructed was put into use in 1891 in his Battle Creek Sanitarium. After it had been proven effective by thousands of his patients, a replica was exhibited at the Chicago Exposition in 1893. A German entrepreneur noticed it and engaged a company to produce light baths on the model of Kellogg’s. The incandescent light baths were not designed with safety foremost, however, and wouldn’t be suitable for today’s litigious society. The design featured dozens of unguarded electric light bulbs arrayed around the inside of a wooden cabinet.

The Purification Program

The next major advance in sauna therapy was the detoxification protocol of L. Ron Hubbard. Hubbard came to detoxification and sauna with the intent of meeting a growing threat to spiritual development that he saw in the foreign chemicals (pesticides, food additives, smog, etc.) that pollute bodies and fog minds. In 1977, Hubbard first employed sauna to try to remove LSD residues (metabolites) that apparently could cause spontaneous trips long after the original ingestion of the drug. Finding success with sauna alone, but wanting faster results, he added additional elements to make a more comprehensive program. In 1979, Hubbard released the Purification Program. It consisted of six elements:

· Exercise

· Sauna sessions

· Nutrition, including lots of vegetables

· Vitamin and mineral supplements

· Sufficient liquids to offset sweat loss

· Sufficient sleep

The exercise, typically a short session of running, “is done to get blood circulating deeper into the tissues and release the accumulated harmful deposits and get them moving.”[2] The sauna follows to flush out the toxins, now dislodged. Periodic replenishing of fluids is given high priority. Good nutrition and nutritional supplements help the body eliminate toxins and rebuild areas affected by the toxins. The success of this methodology can be measured in the over 100 Purification Program detoxification centers now in existence worldwide, the 200,000 people treated with this method and in the many scientific papers written as a result of studies done on the efficacy of this program on various diseases and conditions.

The Future

So, what is next? How can we improve the substantial results obtained through strict application of the Purification Program? Hubbard gives some direction when he states that we should “use the system that permits the person to sweat the most.” With that in mind, let’s refer to the research of Kellogg. Kellogg points out that one of the most important effects of heat upon the skin is the dilation of the peripheral vessels--the arteries, veins, lymph passages and sweat ducts. He writes, “… radiant energy [infrared radiation] is unquestionably more effective than any other form of heat in producing this dilation of the vessels because of its greater penetrating power. The rays of energy pass through the skin and penetrate to a considerable depth, being converted into heat as they meet with resistance.”[3] Dilation translates into increased circulation, one of the main goals.

That statement, echoed by many present commentators in the field of detoxification, suggests that a significant improvement in the results of the Hubbard program can be found in the use of infrared heating as opposed to hot air or steam. Infrared heating has been shown to cause greater stimulation and dilation of subcutaneous tissues and vessels than does steam or hot air sauna. Also, infrared heating is usually more comfortable for people because the air temperature in an infrared sauna is typically in the 100- to 140-degree Fahrenheit range, while steam or hot air saunas run in the 160- to 200-degree range. Outside of a rigorous monitored regime, such as the Hubbard detox method, people tend to do things that are pleasant and avoid those that aren’t. Thus, the far infrared sauna will likely be used more regularly than other types of sauna, if the choice is available.

The use of sauna has come a long way from its beginnings as an enclosed fire. Today, saunas of all sizes and heating types are available, but as shown above, the infrared style has distinct advantages for detoxification. Saunas have grown in popularity in modern times as the health benefits have become better known, thanks to innovators like Kellogg and Hubbard. Personal saunas in particular are in increasing demand due to their convenience, portability and ease of setup.


1 Wilford, John Noble. “Before Rome’s Baths, There Was the Maya Sweat House,” The New York Times, March 20, 2001.

2 Hubbard, L. Ron. Clear Body, Clear Mind: The Effective Purification Program. Bridge Publications, Inc., 1990.

3 Kellogg, John Harvey. Light Therapeutics. The Modern Medicine Publishing Co., 1927.