Traditional Steam Sauna vs Infrared Sauna (Detailed comparison, cost, benefits and more…)

Thinking about getting a sauna for your home? Not sure where to start? In this article, we explain the difference between a traditional steam sauna and infrared sauna and cover all the key things you need to consider when buying a sauna for your home.

Steam v Infrared Sauna Hero

What is a sauna?

Put simply, ‘sauna’ describes any heating system intended to create profuse sweating.

Saunas are thought to have originated in Finland around 7000bc. The earliest known sauna structures were dug into the earth and lined with stone.

Today, modern saunas are typically timber-framed rooms heated with hot stones, wood stoves, hot embers, or electricity. They can be indoors or outdoors.

There are lots of different types available from traditional steam saunas and steam rooms heated with hot stones through to the latest state-of-the-art infrared therapy saunas.

Today’s high-tech saunas can feature sound systems, Bluetooth® capability and mood lighting. Then there are all the finishing touches like colour and timber choices.

Traditional sauna

What does a sauna do?

Saunas have long been used for therapeutic and relaxation purposes and have been a part of traditional medicine for many centuries.

People have known for thousands of years how beneficial ‘sauna bathing’ is for the mind, body and soul.

The high heat is believed to provide a number of wonderful health benefits including reducing stress, improving sleep,muscle recovery after exercise.

Traditional Steam Sauna vs Infrared Sauna

What types of saunas are there?

There are four diverse types of saunas:

  • Traditional or regular sauna (also called ‘Finnish sauna’ or steam sauna)
  • Dry sauna
  • Steam bath or Turkish bath
  • Infrared therapy sauna

Each experience varies from one type of sauna to the next.

Traditional saunas and infrared therapy saunas are the most common for home use.

Home saunas or domestic saunas can be custom-designed or pre-built. They can be installed indoors or outdoors.

The beauty of pre-built saunas is they are usually portable, generally a lot cheaper than custom-built options, can be bought ‘off the shelf’ and easily installed in around one to two hours, and come in a range of styles and sizes.

Infrared sauna

What is an infrared sauna?

An infrared sauna is a wooden cabin equipped with infrared heaters designed to relax, detoxify and heal the body.

Unlike traditional or classic saunas that use steam or dry heat to warm a room, infrared saunas use advanced infrared heaters to warm your body directly. As your body absorbs the infrared heat, this increases thermal energy, inducing a deep and relaxing sweat.

Reduced muscle pain, better sleep, stress reduction, improved mental clarity – are all well-known benefits of infrared saunas.

Learn more about infrared sauna benefits in this detailed article.

Watch: Traditional vs infrared sauna which is best?

Difference between steam and infrared saunas

On the surface, traditional steam saunas and infrared saunas appear similar.

But, while they both work to re-energise and relax the body – there are nine important differences you should know about before making a decision on which one to buy.

Once you know more about these differences you’ll be able to weigh up the pros and cons for yourself and make the best decision based on what’s right for you.

Keep reading to learn the top nine differences between traditional and infrared saunas and why they matter...

Infrared sauna

1. Heating method

The main difference between infrared saunas and traditional saunas is how they use heat.

Classic saunas use a single heater that heats the air and that hot air heats the user.

With this type of sauna, you are seated in a wood-lined room that is heated by an electric sauna heater filled with rocks. When the rocks are heated you pour water over them to create steam.

In contrast, in an infrared sauna, the air temperature is less important than the quality of the infrared heat. Once your infrared sauna has been heating for about 15 minutes then you’re ready to get in. You will warm up with the sauna.

As your body absorbs the infrared heat, this can increase thermal energy, inducing a deep and relaxing sweat.

Infrared sauna

2. Temperature

Conventional ‘hot rock’ or steam saunas need to have air temperatures of around 70 to 80 degrees to induce sweat, whereas an infrared sauna’s internal air temperature can stay well below 60 degrees while creating higher levels of detoxifying perspiration.

On average, infrared saunas operate between 46 to 57 degrees while traditional saunas can get up to 85 degrees.

Depending on your needs, the cooler, drier infrared environment may appeal to you or you may prefer the hotter, steamy atmosphere of a traditional sauna. Our advice? Try out both types before you buy to work out which one suits you best.

Infrared sauna vs steam sauna benefits

3. Health benefits

Saunas have long been used for therapeutic and relaxation purposes and have been a part of traditional medicine for many centuries.

If you are after relaxation, stress reduction and sweating for detoxification – then both traditional and infrared sauna can provide these benefits.

In either type of sauna, you can experience deep relaxation, your muscles are loosened, and aching joints will likely feel relief.

Numerous studies point to the health benefits of infrared saunas in particular. Proven benefits of infrared saunas include relieving stress, lowering blood pressure, relieving muscle and joint pain, and maintaining cardiovascular health.

Steam vs infrared sauna heat up time

4. Heat-up time

A traditional ‘hot rock’ sauna takes between 30 and 40 minutes to heat up. During this time the rocks are heated to the ideal temperature for soft heat and soft steam.

An infrared sauna takes between 10 and 15 minutes to heat up. Since far infrared saunas heat the body directly, you can get in the sauna as soon as the heaters are up to full temperature.

Sauna electricity cost

5. Running costs

How much your sauna costs to run depends on your local cost per kilowatt-hour (noted on your electric bill), the kilowatt rating of your heater, and how much you use your sauna.

Infrared saunas cost less to run than a steam sauna mainly because, as they operate at a lower temperature, they take less time to heat up so use less electricty per session. It’s not a big difference in cost however and infrared and steam saunas are both generally pretty energy-efficient.

For example, On average, if you use your infrared sauna three times a week, you could expect to spend around $10 a month on electricity.

In contrast, a traditional sauna with a 6kW element being used for an hour, three days a week, would be over $20 per month. An idle sauna doesn’t cost anything.

You can work out the running cost more accurately by multiplying the costs per kilowatt-hour by the heater’s rating.

6. Maintenance

When you buy a sauna you want to spend your time enjoying it – not cleaning it.

Overall, saunas are fairly low maintenance but some require more cleaning than others.

If low-maintenance is a priority for you then we recommend opting for an infrared sauna.

Infrared saunas provide dry heat so the only moisture produced is from your own perspiration - which reduces the chances of mould or mildew and makes for a cleaner, healthier environment.

In contrast, traditional saunas are hot, steamy spaces so, just as you would with a bathroom – we advice regular cleaning to keep it free of any mould or mildew.

If you decide on a classic sauna, you’ll need to be vigilant about cleaning and maintaining it to ensure it’s hygienic and safe at all times.

Regardless of the sauna type, when cleaning your sauna we recommend using only environmentally-friendly, non-toxic cleaning products.

Never use bleach or other harsh chemicals. Sit on towels to prevent the accumulation of germs or sweat stains on walls and benches.

The sauna experience

7. The sauna experience

Another area where infrared and traditional saunas differ is in the sauna experience itself.

Traditional saunas are hot and steamy spaces that are good for short bursts of sauna sessions.

The high heat (up to 80 degrees) means they are generally only tolerable for around 20 minutes at a time. Some people like to take a cold shower or plunge in cold water after a sauna, before repeating the process.

In contrast, infrared saunas provide a dry, comfortable, relaxing heat you can enjoy for 40 minutes or more. The heat is usually kept between 50 and 60 degrees, with no humidity.

While infrared sauna heat might be lower in temperature it is more effective at inducing deep, detoxifying perspiration. Combined with the comfortable temperature, this means you can relax for extended periods and get maximum benefits from your sweat session.

When deciding which sauna experience is better, it depends on the type of heat you want and the effect you want it to have on your body.

Are you after a short, hot and steamy sweat session? Or would you prefer a longer, drier, more comfortable experience with a deeper, more intense and therapeutic sweat?

Once again, it’s down to personal preference and only you will know which suits you best. Our advice? Try before you buy and see which experience you enjoy more.

Modern infrared sauna

8. Installation

Installing a sauna in your home is a great investment. An in-home sauna can add value to your property and, if it’s portable, you can take it with you when you move.

When it comes to installing traditional and infrared saunas; there is a big difference between the two.

Traditional steam saunas typically need to be professionally installed due to their plumbing, drainage, ventilation and electrical requirements. This all adds to the final price of the sauna and is why they can be more expensive than infrared alternatives (learn more about sauna prices below).

Most infrared saunas, and some steam saunas, come in pre-built or portable form and assembling them can be quite easy to do yourself. For example, it usually takes two people about one to three hours to assemble one of Spa World’s Vortex™ Infrared Saunas using just a few common hand tools. Bear in mind that even with pre-built steam saunas you’ll still likely need an electrician and/or plumber to wire in the extraction fan and install any drainage.

If you want a custom sauna installation to suit your decor then you may decide this is the best option for you. However, if you’re on a budget or want a sauna you can easily install yourself than a pre-built infrared or steam sauna could be more suitable

Important: Before installing a sauna, it's crucial to be aware that installing a one outside (even under shelter) may put your warranty at risk. Manufacturers often design these wellness units with specific operating environments in mind, typically for indoor use where they are shielded from the elements. As such, exposure to outdoor conditions—be it rain, snow, extreme temperatures, or humidity—can lead to damage not covered by the standard warranty.

9. Sauna cost and prices

The ultimate price of a sauna depends on the type of sauna you choose, the unit’s size, the type and quality of wood, quality of equipment (including heaters), and features – which are many.

Infrared sauna prices cost around $2,500 for an entry-level unit, $9,000 to $11,000 for high-quality, mid-market saunas and $10,000+ for premium models. Learn more about infrared sauna costs.

Traditional steam saunas are significantly more expensive than infrared saunas, largely because (as explained above) they need to be professionally installed.

For this reason, steam saunas can cost anywhere from $10,000 to $30,000 – around two to three times more than equivalent infrared units.

Put another way – you could pay $8,000 for a quality, mid-market infrared sauna with all the extra benefits infrared offers or, you could buy a mid-range steam sauna for $15,000 to $20,000. In our opinion, that seems like a lot of extra money for hot air and steam!

In summary, we think value for money is certainly something to factor in when comparing infrared and traditional saunas. It doesn’t depend on what you’re looking for, but if cost is a factor in your decision then you may find that dollar-for-dollar, an infrared sauna is the more affordable option.

Infrared sauna or steam

Traditional sauna pros and cons

Traditional sauna: Pros

  • Authentic sauna experience. With their hot and steamy environment, traditional saunas are much closer to the original Finnish saunas of old. If you can’t imagine a sauna without high heat and steam then this is a definite plus.
  • Humidity control. With a traditional sauna, you can adjust the humidity by using more or less water. Find the level of humidity that is comfortable for you
  • Outdoor use. Traditional saunas are well suited to the outdoors in very cold climates.

Traditional sauna: Cons

  • Longer to heat. It takes about 30 to 45 minutes for a traditional sauna to heat up. Whereas infrared saunas are ready to use in about 10 to 15 minutes.
  • Shorter sessions. Due to the high heat, a typical session is about 10 to 15 minutes.
  • Higher running costs. Traditional saunas can cost more to operate than infrared. The operating costs can be two to three times more than infrared saunas.
  • Installation costs. Steam saunas typically need to be installed and plumbed in by a professional, which is an extra cost.
Infrared sauna pros cons

Infrared sauna pros and cons

Infrared sauna: Pros

  • Faster heat-up time. Infrared saunas are ready to use in about 15 or 20 minutes, compared with traditional saunas which take about 30 to 40 minutes to heat up.
  • Cheaper running costs. Infrared saunas can cost about half as much to run as traditional electric saunas.
  • Longer sessions. Because the air temperature is lower, you can stay in an infrared sauna longer – a typical session is 30 to 40 minutes.
  • Health benefits. There are many proven health benefits of infrared saunas.
  • Easy to install. A pre-built infrared sauna can be installed in around one to two hours. Once it’s set up you can usually just plug it into your household electrical socket.
  • No venting. Because they are dry heat and do not have steam, infrared saunas can be used indoors without the need for venting.

Infrared sauna: Cons

  • No humidity. This could actually be a pro or a con, depending on your preferences. For those who prefer the steamy environment of a traditional sauna, a dry sauna could be a deal-breaker. However, if you prefer your saunas on the dry side, then the lack of humidity is a bonus.
  • Limited outdoor use. Infrared saunas and are not suited to extremely cold outdoor climates. They can be used outdoors but should be under shelter. Before installing an infrared sauna outside, be aware that doing so may put your warranty at risk. Exposure to outdoor conditions can lead to damage not covered by the standard warranty.

Dry or steam sauna?

Choosing which type of home sauna to buy depends on what you’re looking for and which sauna will best meet your wellbeing needs.

Certainly, the hot and steamy atmosphere of traditional saunas is a major drawcard for people seeking an authentic ‘Finnish’ sauna experience.

However, while traditional steam saunas provide what many consider to be a ‘true’ sauna experience – they tend to be more expensive to install, have slightly higher running costs, and require a little more maintenance than infrared alternatives.

The high temperatures of steam saunas mean a typical session is around 15 to 20 minutes. Infrared saunas, on the other hand, have a lower heat so a typical session can be up to 40 minutes.

In terms of sweat factor; while the hot air from a traditional steam sauna creates surface sweat, the gentle heat from infrared saunas raises the core body temperature - delivering a deep, intense sweat.

There have been numerous studies into the effects of steam and infrared heat on the body. Both types of saunas are known to be great for relaxation, recovery and rejuvenation. According to the research, infrared heat may deliver some additonal benefits to steam saunas. You can learn more about the research and health benefits of saunas in this detailed article.

Regardless of the type of sauna you choose, we always recommend that you consult with your medical practitioner before buying any sauna.

In conclusion

With so many options to choose from, buying a sauna can be a daunting task.

The truth is, both traditional and infrared saunas have pros and cons. The goal is finding a sauna that matches your health and wellbeing goals, fits the space available and suits your budget.

The most important thing is to buy the sauna you’ll use the most. Ask yourself the following questions:

  • What do you need it for?
  • What type of heating and temperature do you like?
  • What health benefits are you seeking?
  • How much do you want to pay?
  • What size sauna do you need?
  • How much time do you want to spend looking after a sauna?

Once you know the answers to these questions you’ll have a much better idea of the type of sauna that will work best for you and that you will use and enjoy for many years to come!

Spa world spa

For expert advice, come and talk to us at Spa World. We’re passionate about health and wellness and are experts in saunas and spas, with over 30 years in the industry.

We back every product we sell with industry-leading warranties and offer a ‘no-risk’, 60-day money-back guarantee.

Download the Sauna Buyer’s Guide below for more tips, ideas and advice on finding the perfect sauna for you.


The health information contained in this article is not intended to prescribe a particular diagnosis or course of action. We are not medical professionals. If you have any concerns about your current health or wellbeing, please contact your GP or other medical professional for advice.

Related Articles

Five Star Trust Pilot Rating

We are proud that Spa World customers have given us a Five Star Trustpilot rating.