We don’t do many product reviews here on Obesity Panacea anymore, but sometimes you come across health claims that are so amazing that you can’t help but review them. Such is the case with uTan – the University of Ottawa tanning salon.
uTan is based in the University of Ottawa Sports Complex. You may, as I do, find it disconcerting that there is a tanning salon in a university-owned building, given the substantial links between tanning and cancer risk. While it is certainly worth discussing, it’s not the purpose of this post. Instead, I would like to focus on information that uTan uses to promote its Far-Infrared Sauna, which includes some of the most extreme health claims that I have ever seen.
From the uTan website:
BENEFITS OF FAR-INFRARED SAUNA:
- Strengthens the cardiovascular system with deep Far Infrared penetration (up to 1.5″).
- Far Infrared sauna detoxifies heavy metals, hydrocarbon residues, alcohol, nicotine, sodium and cholesterol.
- Helps liquefy fat cells, burns calories and controls weight. Improves and clears cellulite. Most effective way of burning calories. Burns up to 500 calories in one full session.
- Effective for treating sprains, muscle spasms and joint stiffness; relieves aches and pains.
- Improves your immune system by sweating at a lower more comfortable temperature than a conventional hot sauna.
- Increases overall health and resistance to disease.
- Sharpens senses and relieves stress, leaving you feeling refreshed and rejuvenated.
- Improves skin within a few minutes. Helps scars and burns. Acne, psoriasis and eczema conditions will also improve.
- This sauna stimulates endorphins of the brain and kills organisms like bacteria and parasites.
- The Far Infrared sauna’s energy penetrates deeply into the body producing a warming, relaxing and detoxifying effect.
I am skeptical of pretty much all of the above, save for the idea that the sauna could produce a “warming, relaxing” effect (although that does seem to contradict the claim that it also “sharpens senses”). I cannot come up with any mechanism through which it could improve the cardiovascular system or “detoxify” the body of cholesterol (what does that even mean???). But as you might guess, I am most concerned with their claims that the sauna can “liquify fat cells”, “controls weight” and that it is the “Most effective way of burning calories. Burns up to 500 calories in one full session”.
First off, let’s deal with those melting fat cells.
Now I don’t personally believe that this product liquifies your fat cells. Primarily because if it melted your fat cells, I see no particular reason to think that it wouldn’t also liquify the cells in your skin, heart, eyes, and testicles. Further, there is absolutely no biological reason to think that a Far-Infrared Sauna could melt your fat cells, at least none that I have seen offered (the uTan website is unsurprisingly casual about referencing it’s numerous health claims). Since I haven’t heard any reports of people’s skin melting in the Far-Infrared Sauna, and lacking a biologically plausible mechanism, I remain thoroughly skeptical.
But if I am wrong and the Far-Infrared Sauna actually does liquify fat cells, then that would be a far greater concern. As regular readers of Obesity Panacea will know, fat cells are actually extremely important from a health perspective, and the loss of fat cells causes extreme metabolic dysfunction. Here’s what Peter has said about fat cells in the past:
Individuals who suffer from a condition called lipodystrophy, have little to no fat tissue (they look extremely athletic, with defined musculature) but display many of the metabolic symptoms thought to be exclusive to obese individuals. Lipodystrophy encompasses a heterogeneous group of disorders associated with whole body or partial lack of adipose tissue, which can be inherited (genetic-origin) or acquired. Not only are patients with lipodystrophy at increased metabolic risk, but the severity of metabolic complications observed is closely related to the extent of their fat loss.
The CBC recently produced a documentary on Joe Average, a Vancouver artist who suffers from severe lipoatrophy (a form of lipodystrophy) as a result of HIV treatment. Here’s how they describe it on the CBC website:
He has ‘lipoatrophy’ – a particularly ghoulish and debilitating side-effect of anti-retro viral drugs….a condition that eats away body fat. At five-feet-eight-inches tall – Joe now weighs just over 100 pounds.
For anyone who doubts the importance of fat cells, his story is worth a listen.
Melting fat cells aside, could this be an effective way of burning calories or controlling body weight?
Probably not. Traditional saunas (which the site goes to great length to distance itself from) have a short-term impact on blood hormone levels, which could theoretically alter energy expenditure by a very small amount. But the claim that a Far-Infrared Sauna could burn up to 500 calories in a single session seems extremely unlikely, as does the claim that it can have any impact on body weight. As with the melting fat cells, there is no biologically plausible mechanism that I know of that could explain these claims, and I have been unable to find any supporting information in PubMed.
What’s the take-home message?
In general, anytime that a product claims it can melt and/or liquify your fat tissue, you should be very concerned. Not because it will work, but because it is almost certainly will not. As a result, you should evaluate any related health claims (for example, that tanning is a healthy thing to do) with that in mind.
And if, like me, you are concerned about the claims being made by uTan, then I suggest you send a polite letter to uOttawa Sports Services at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Have a good weekend,