The Poplar Infrared Sauna -- is this the wood for you?

Why buy a poplar infrared sauna when saunas made of other woods (like cedar or hemlock) are far cheaper to buy? Don’t all saunas produce the same results, after all?

Not necessarily.

There is a key difference between poplar (a hardwood) and the other standard softwoods used to build infrared saunas: poplar doesn’t give off the phenol-containing scent that the other popular sauna woods do—and phenols are toxic.

This makes the poplar infrared sauna the sauna of choice for the toxic or ill (details below) and for anyone planning to use their sauna for a detoxification program. If you fall into one of these groups and you choose a hemlock, pine, redwood, basswood or cedar sauna, you will be working against your own healing by exposing yourself unnecessarily to further toxins given off by these sauna woods.

On this page:

• The key difference between cedar, hemlock and other softwoods vs. poplar as a sauna wood
• The health effects of phenols emitted by softwoods (hemlock, cedar, etc.) used in sauna-building
• When to choose a poplar infrared sauna
• What is meant by hypoallergenic and nontoxic?
• What to look for in a poplar infrared sauna (not all are nontoxic)

The key difference between poplar and softwoods like hemlock

The key difference between hemlock, pine, redwood, basswood and cedar saunas versus a poplar sauna is that the poplar infrared sauna is the only one that doesn’t contain and emit phenols. These phenols can enter your system through skin contact or by inhalation. They are responsible for the aromatic scent of many softwoods, a scent some people really like—it reminds them of a forest!

Did you know that whenever you smell a scent in the air around you, the scent comes from chemicals (some harmless, others not) being released from some material in the environment? In the case of the sauna, the scent is produced by chemicals leaking into the air from the sauna wood. This leakage of chemicals into the air is known as outgassing.

If what was being outgassed from wood into the air was harmless — say, like the smell of vanilla from a baking cake — this wouldn’t be a problem. But in the case of cedar and hemlock and other softwoods, the chemicals that produce the scent they give off can be—to some people—annoying or intolerable, even dangerous.

Are you one of these people? Sometimes it’s hard to know in advance if you are.

If you know for a fact that you’re not bothered by such scents, then you will be able to benefit from significant savings in your sauna purchase — the softwood saunas are cheaper. Even so, be sure that any sauna you choose uses no synthetics in its construction (details below).

Two things you must know about the woodsy scent of softwood saunas

There are two things any potential sauna buyer should know about the softwoods used in sauna manufacturing. The first one we learned about the hard way. The second we only learned about more recently:

1. The scents are stronger than you expect

It is not a matter of airing out your sauna room for a week or two to get rid of this scent! The scent can linger for months or years.

The story of two softwood saunas

We bought a hemlock sauna (see our upcoming page on hemlock saunas) a couple of years ago. While it worked fine, the scent was just too much for us. We never expected it would be so strong. Several months after buying it, the scent was just as strong as ever. We ended up having to sell it.

Recently, we had Jeffrey May (of May Indoor Air Investigations and author of "My House is Killing Me!") come inspect our home.

May is highly mold sensitive and sensitive to chemicals, and apart from the science he uses to analyze a home’s air, having him visit is like having a human canary walk around your house—he can tell where the problems are by what he reacts to as he walks around. (Miners used to use canaries to detect toxic gas fumes in mines.)

Jeff checked out our poplar infrared sauna.

He was interested in whether our sauna was outgassing chemicals. He told us he had a friend who had purchased an infrared sauna built of wood with a strong scent (hemlock?!). She had never been able to use the sauna since she couldn’t tolerate the smell (Rember, smell = outgassing chemicals).

After sniffing around (and inside!) our sauna, Jeff told us he didn’t smell anything—our poplar sauna was odorless to the canary.

2. The scents contain toxic phenols

The odor from softwoods is from natural volatile (rapidly evaporating) chemicals in the wood called phenols. Wood phenols enter your body by inhalation or skin contact and must be detoxified by the liver. Placing an extra demand on your liver during your sauna session—a session meant to help you detoxify the toxins your body has already accumulated — just doesn’t make sense.

By bathing in a sauna constructed of cedar, hemlock, pine, bass, or any other soft, phenol-emitting wood, a person who is hypersensitive might not receive the full benefits they are hoping for from their fir sauna.

Even if you are not hypersensitive to phenols, your body will still have to handle these phenols as the foreign invader they are.

When to choose a poplar infrared sauna

Anyone who has a high toxicity level, MCS (multiple chemical sensitivity), a compromised immune system, a damaged liver, or is otherwise highly debilitated, cannot afford to be exposed to additional chemicals or impurities.

What this means is, if you or one of your family members falls into this group, you will have to get yourself a poplar wood infrared sauna.

You will also need a poplar infrared sauna if you’re planning a sauna detoxification program.

In sauna detox, the purity and quality of the healing environment is paramount. It must be the least toxic possible: quality poplar, heat tempered glass, and stainless steel hardware are currently the materials known to be safest—the gold standard— for fir sauna detoxification.

Saunas made of these materials – or ceramic tiles! – are what is used at the leading environmental detox centers.

What is meant by hypoallergenic and nontoxic?

Unfortunately, the terms nontoxic and hypoallergenic are used loosely — misleadingly, even — on the internet in product advertisements. This is because these are not regulated product features.

That is, there are no official criteria that a product has to meet before it can label itself hypoallergenic, and what is really nontoxic is a matter of perspective (a level of exposure that is obviously toxic to one person, may not seem to bother another).

Hypoallergenic is a term that was coined by advertisers (based on the Greek prefix ‘hypo-‘ meaning "below normal" or "slightly") and first used in a cosmetics campaign in 1953.

People with severe allergies and asthma can still be affected by hypoallergenic products. There is no medical definition for hypoallergenic, so it’s easy enough to for advertiser to use the word how it suits them.

What to look for in a poplar sauna

The poplar infrared saunas offered on the market range widely in quality. Take care not to buy merely by price. There are other essential factors to consider.

For an optimal sauna detox program, an fir sauna must be uncontaminated by harmful fumes from heated synthetic materials and glues that are sometimes used in sauna construction. The sauna's interior air quality is a direct consequence of the construction materials used, so only natural, untreated, or non-allergenic materials should be used to build a nontoxic poplar infrared sauna.

The most chemically sensitive should also avoid plastic sauna accessories like radios, dvd players, or other plastic accessories built into the sauna.

Only premium grades of dry, untreated white poplar wood should be used (even in the concealed framing) in the sauna’s construction, with windows of strong, heat-tempered glass.

1. Were toxic materials like glues used in the sauna’s construction?

Not every poplar infrared sauna on the market is nontoxic — it depends how the sauna is built.

Never consider a far infrared sauna that uses synthetics in its construction: wood glues, so called non-toxic glues, fiberglass, plexi-glass, plastics, plywood, putty, stains, coated nails or staples, or other potentially harmful products.

Make sure oils, stains, or laminates were not used to finish the sauna wood either. Some modular sauna manufactures laminate tongue and groove boards to backer boards or to inner support wood using “non-toxic” adhesives.

Since construction of the sauna must be done without any adhesives, in a nontoxic infrared sauna all wall boards, bench parts, and framing members should be secured in place with non-corrosive, non coated screws. Cleaned, stainless steel, and UL &CSA approved infrared heaters are obviously the preferred choice as heat source.

If you cannot see screw heads or nail pin holes in a poplar infrared sauna, it was constructed with a glue or adhesive! There are NO glues or adhesives that are acceptable for someone who is chemically sensitive or someone who is toxic.

2. What quality of wood are you getting and where did it come from?

Not all poplar infrared saunas are equal in wood quality. Wood grown in the USA follows strict grading standards. Woods grown outside of the US are subject to a more lenient curve.

From highest to lowest quality poplar are:

• FAS poplar
• No. 1 Common poplar wood
• No. 2 Common poplar wood

High grade poplar is very clean in grain appearance.

If you have Multiple Chemical Sensitivity, then you probably know that you have to investigate everything you use thoroughly. For example, does your sauna manufacturer know exactly where the poplar he’s using came from?

Beware that any wood or other product that is shipped into the US may have been treated prior to shipping with pesticides, insecticides, or rodentcides without the manufacturer ever knowing about it.

How can this happen? For one, the container a sauna is shipped in may be treated with pesticides, insecticides, or a rodentcide. (This happens a lot with fruits and vegetables that are not certified organic, incidentally.)

3. Are you really getting poplar...?

Yellow poplar (Liriodendron tulipifera – a member of the Magnolia family) is not a true poplar (Populus spp)! If it’s not a true poplar, then it can’t be expected to have all the qualities of the poplar you really want.

What the experts say

Experts charged with helping people remove health-damaging toxins in intensive sauna detoxification programs have to be very careful about the saunas they have their patients use. The Environmental Health Center—Dallas, run by Dr. William Rea, and Canada’s outstanding Nova Scotia-Environmental Health Center, both recommend poplar wood saunas to their patients. So does Sherry Rogers, MD, the internationally known expert on personal toxicity and detoxification.

They don’t just recommend any poplar wood sauna, though. The sauna must be built entirely of nontoxic materials.

So, if you are overloaded with toxins, suffer from MCS (multiple chemical sensitivity), have a compromised immune system or liver, or are serious about detoxifying yourself rapidly, then, yes, the poplar infrared sauna is really the safer option.

Did you know ?

• Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa is painted on Poplar
• Lisa de Giocondo is the model in the painting
• Poplar is used for the manufacture of furniture, kitchen cabinets, musical instruments, snowboards, bow drills, pallets, and paper
• The bark, leaves, flowers, fruit, and roots of the poplar tree contain pharmaceuticals
• The green color in the heartwood of poplar will darken and turn brown as it ages
• Poplar trees are rarely attacked by parasites

Move on from the poplar infrared sauna to infrared sauna detoxification.