How to set up a home sauna for less than $100

Confession: I am a closet sauna user. Let me explain: I’m not ashamed of my sauna use. Nor do I try to keep it a secret. No, I mean it literally: I built a sauna IN A CLOSET. And it cost less than a hundred bucks!

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Saunas have been used throughout the world for hundreds of years and have been linked to a wide range of health benefits. Sauna’s effects on circulatory, cardiovascular, and immune functions reduce the risk of diseases such as high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease, pulmonary diseases, and dementia. Sauna use has been shown to improve chronic pain and reduce cardiac and all-cause mortality.

Sauna use has also been associated with improved endurance, muscle mass, and neurogenesis (growth of new brain cells), as well as reduced inflammation. The heat stress of a sauna triggers many of the same physiologic responses that exercise does.

I’ve had lots of questions about how I created my home sauna. People often assume that an in-home sauna is an expensive extravagance - and it certainly can be. However, it can be done very well on the cheap, and requires no tools or handyman skills! 

I’ve written previously about the health benefits of red and near-infrared light. My setup has the benefits of red/NIR light plus the benefits of a sauna! I modeled it after the SaunaSpace portable sauna, which has gotten rave reviews and is used and lauded by health experts such as Chris Kresser and Dr. Terry Wahls. It’s made with lovely natural materials and is beautiful to look at, and, I assume (I haven’t tried it myself), a pleasure to use. Unfortunately, it costs about $3000.

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Let’s take a minute to reverse-engineer the SaunaSpace. It consists of

  • An enclosure

  • Four infrared heat lamps

That’s basically it! An enclosure can be created in a closet or bathroom (SaunaSpace even sells a kit for making a sauna in a bathtub). For my enclosure, I used a closet in the bedroom that was my daughter’s before she moved out.

 You may be able to guess that this was once a teenage girl’s closet!

You may be able to guess that this was once a teenage girl’s closet!

SaunaSpace uses 250 watt infrared heat lamps, which are available on Amazon and at most home improvement stores and hardware stores. They typically cost less than $10 each. 

SaunaSpace has a beautiful wood fixture for the bulbs; since I lack any construction or crafty skills, I opted for clamp lights. These lights are often used as worklights in shops, basements, or job sites, and are also available on Amazon or at any home improvement or hardware store for about $10. I’ve used the clamp light-infrared bulb setup in the past to raise baby chicks. Make sure you choose a clamp light rated for the wattage of the bulb you’re using!

Next, you need something to clamp the lights on. I first tried a shelf we had inherited from a friend which hadn’t yet been assigned a place in our home. It worked okay, but it was difficult to aim the lights precisely.

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I was complaining about the shelf when my husband and I were returning from a walk one day; there was a hand truck in our driveway, and at the same time we said “how about that?” I transferred all the clamp lights to the hand truck, and it worked much better than the shelf.

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I also experimented with a wooden laundry rack, which worked quite well - but, we need it for laundry. My point is: you probably already have an object in your home which could be used for the lights. No need to buy something new!

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One thing you need to know about the clamp lights: they are awful. I can’t understand how something in such widespread use hasn’t evolved to a better design. The clamp is held together by a nut, which I find difficult to tighten. When the heavy bulbs are installed in the lights, the weight makes the lights droop; keeping them aimed in the direction you want can be a continual source of frustration. I’ve tried to secure the lights with various clamps, but it remains a bit of a struggle.

The big question: does it work? I’m happy to report that YES, it works and is wonderful! It’s tricky to report how hot it gets, because the temperature varies so widely inside the space. Far from the bulbs it might not get above 90º Fahrenheit, but if when I put the thermometer at the distance my body is from the lights, it hits about 115º. That’s not nearly as hot as traditional saunas, which commonly exceed temperatures of 160º. However, a traditional sauna uses heat to warm the air, which in turn warms your body, while infrared sauna heats your body directly without warming the air around you. This means an infrared sauna is able to produce the benefits of heat stress at much lower temperatures than a traditional sauna. Bonus: the lower temperatures of an infrared sauna are more comfortable and safer than the higher heat of a traditional sauna (although probably still not safe for pregnancy).

In any case, after 15 minutes or so in the sauna, I am dripping with sweat. It feels fantastic. My body temperature increases by about 2 degrees after being in the sauna for 30 minutes. And afterwards, I feel SO relaxed. What a pleasurable way to ramp up your parasympathetic nervous system!

Feels great, science says it is great for you, and can be done at home on the cheap? Yes please!

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