Tippi Clark, a 24-year-old nutritionist who lives in Manhattan was describing a mission that tested her endurance. “You reach the peak,” she said, “And it’s like, ‘Oh, my gosh, can I make it through the last 20 minutes?’”
She was not talking about scaling the summit of a mountain but withstanding a 60-minute session of heat hovering around 157 degrees at HigherDOSE, an infrared sauna center that opened in May on the Bowery.
HigherDOSE uses heaters that emit infrared light waves that create heat in the body rather than heating the air. The idea is that one can stay in them much longer, and sweat all the more.
Thanks to spalike locations where one can perspire in private, and plenty of celebrity endorsements, the infrared sauna is looking like the latest wellness fad. And now that these saunas are making their way from Los Angeles to New York, East Coast women can pay more than a dollar a minute to sweat.
Infrared heating was pioneered in the mid-20th century for use in hospitals, mostly in Europe and Japan, to speed the healing of wounds and to warm premature babies. Units for personal use gradually gained a following, with adherents crediting time spent sweating with everything from weight loss and glowing skin to better sleep and detoxification.
They were not exactly chic. Sophie Chiche, 49, who was born in Paris but lives in Los Angeles, could find an infrared sauna only in “a suntan salon type thing with no bathroom, where I thought, ‘I’m going to catch death every time I go here.’” Her solution was to open Shape House in fall 2012, which bills itself as an “urban sweat lodge.”
Shape House uses an infrared heated sleeping bag. Clients, including celebrity devotees like Selena Gomez, various Kardashians and Demi Moore, are encouraged to watch television (anything except the news, which is forbidden) instead of meditating. “Otherwise, it’s how many more minutes are left,” Ms. Chiche said.
They receive cold lavender-scented towels during sweat sessions; oranges and tea are provided afterward (in a relaxation room).
HigherDOSE (the caps stand for Dopamine, Oxytocin, Serotonin and Endorphins) is the creation of Lauren Berlingeri, 30, a health coach and veteran of wellness start-ups, and Katie Kaps, 31, a former investment banker who worked for Tough Mudder, a company that organizes obstacle races. Soon after meeting through a mutual friend two years ago, Ms. Berlingeri introduced Ms. Kaps to a health trend she was sure would be the next big thing: infrared saunas.
“I was a crazy workout freak and had issues with my nervous system, my skin, sleeping at night, and someone suggested I try an infrared sauna,” said Ms. Kaps, whose straight blond hair is shaved on one side. “It was the best sweat I’ve ever had. I felt like I had just ran six miles.”
The women teamed up to install infrared systems at yoga studios like Y7 in the Flatiron district and Yoga Vida on Broadway. They saw that spas that offered infrared saunas like Shape House, Sweattheory and The Springs in Los Angeles were doing well. “New Yorkers are so stressed and need to chill,” Ms. Berlingeri said. “We thought, ‘Why doesn’t New York have one?’”
At HigherDOSE, where rates start at $45 for 30 minutes, there are three rooms the size of a small bedroom with botanical print wallpaper. Each has a wooden sauna, sink and a large glass bottle of filtered water. There’s an auxiliary cord to plug into a smartphone to help pass the time. Ms. Clark listens to guided meditations or tango music while she sits in a sauna.
“I feel safe and alone in a cocoon of warmth,” she said.
Do the saunas have health benefits?
“We do not have data that shows one can sweat out toxins in any meaningful way,” said Dr. Catherine Forest, a clinical assistant professor at the Stanford University School of Medicine. “But people feel better after they sweat and think they look better, and that’s worth a lot.”
And there well may be some medical benefits. “It may improve pulmonary function for people with asthma, and heat improves joint pain for people with arthritis,” Dr. Forest said.
Infrared heating, she added, “can give you some of the benefits of saunas without some of the risks of saunas.” It may be safer for people with heart disease because the body heats up more gradually.
Regardless, the lithe women who populate the HigherDOSE Instagram account, posing for pictures while artfully sweating, seem satisfied. “We’re pretty much booked out every night,” Ms. Kaps said. Leonardo DiCaprio and Michelle Williams have come in, as have myriad models.
“I think the whole IMG roster is coming here,” Ms. Kaps said.
The comedian Chelsea Handler had an infrared sauna built in her bathroom. “I use it on average three times a week,” she wrote in an email. “What it does for my skin alone is worth every penny. It is more rejuvenating than anything else I’ve tried, and I have been sick once in the last four years.”
She added, “I believe it is due to constantly sweating out my toxins, of which there are many.”