Saunas are not the same thing as steam rooms. There is a lot of confusion about this, but the truth is they are two very different things. While steam rooms surround your body with hot steam, saunas are small rooms that heat up to very high temperatures without any steam or moisture added to the air. Health benefits can be found in the best-infrared saunas, so it’s best not to discount them just from hearing how they work.
A steam room is a heated room that people use for relaxation and to relieve some medical conditions. They are often found in gyms or spas.
A steam room is created when a water-filled generator pumps steam into an enclosed space, so there is moisture in the air when people are sitting in it.
The temperature inside a steam room is generally between 110°F and 114°F, with a humidity level of 100 percent.
Saunas are small rooms that are heated to temperatures between 150°F and 195°F (65°C to 90°C). They often have unpainted wood interiors and temperature controls. Saunas may also include rocks (as part of their heating element) that absorb and give off heat. Water can be poured onto these rocks to create steam.
There are several different types of saunas. For example, Finnish saunas typically use dry heat, while Turkish-style saunas have more moisture.
Relaxing in a hot, woodsy-scented sauna may be the best part of your gym workout or an enjoyable experience reserved for vacation. Whether you indulge several times a week or only once a year, saunas can provide relaxation and health benefits, such as reducing minor aches and pains.
Steam Room vs. Saunas
Steam rooms and saunas are similar. A sauna uses dry heat and is generally hotter than a steam room. Saunas are typically kept at around 160 to 220 degrees Fahrenheit, but steam rooms are cooler. They are usually around 110 to 120 degrees F. Both encourage sitting in the heat as a form of recovery.
A sauna can help relax your sore muscles. It can also help with heart health and circulation. However, the humidity from the steam might have additional benefits for your body.
Saunas and steam rooms are often found in gyms and spas. Some people even have them in their homes. A sauna usually uses hot rocks, a stove, or an electric heater to heat the room with wood panelling to keep the heat in. This usually means it has to be a special room.
You can turn your bathroom into a makeshift steam room by running a hot shower and letting the steam fill the room.
Steam rooms are small, airtight, and designed from materials (such as tile, acrylic, or glass) that can withstand wet heat. They’re heated by generators which turn boiling water into steam.
Steam rooms are kept at around 110°F. (43°C.) Because their humidity hovers at around 100 percent, they may feel much hotter than saunas, which are kept between 150°F and 195°F (65°C to 90°C), with a humidity rate of 5 to 10 percent.
Saunas and steam rooms often have several seat levels to choose from. Since heat rises, the higher the seat, the higher the temperature will be.
It’s not unusual to see a sauna and steam room located next to each other in a health club. Since saunas use dry heat and steam rooms use wet heat, they look and feel differently from each other. Both provide relaxation and varying types of health benefits. Personal preference and your needs may determine which you enjoy most.
How do Saunas work?
There are different types of saunas. Some follow the traditional Finnish model, using dry heat with a water bucket and ladle nearby for producing occasional bursts of steam. Others eschew the water bucket, generating dry heat only. Turkish saunas are also popular. These use wet heat and are similar to steam rooms in function and design.
The way heat is generated in saunas can vary. Heating methods include:
- Infrared lamps. Infrared saunas use lamps that generate electromagnetic radiation to heat your body instead of the entire room. Infrared saunas produce lower temperatures than other types of saunas, typically staying around 140°F (60°C).
- Wood. This traditional method uses burning wood to generate embers or to heat sauna rocks. It produces low humidity and dry heat. Water may be scooped onto the rocks every 10 minutes or so to add bursts of humidity and heat to the room.
- Electricity. Many health clubs and gyms use electrical heaters to heat sauna rocks to a high temperature. The resulting low humidity and dry heat are the same as those generated by the wood-burning method.
- Steam. Turkish-style saunas use steam from boiling water to generate wet heat and high humidity. These saunas are also referred to as Turkish bathhouses or steam rooms.
Two types of saunas are used today. The most common type is the infrared sauna, but there is also the traditional sauna. Traditional saunas heat the room using a wood-burning fire. A chimney must sit overtop the fire to keep eye irritants and smoke out of the sauna. This method can effectively treat dry heat, but it also takes a long to heat the sauna room. Sometimes it may even take all day, depending on the size and design of the room itself.
Modern saunas often use infrared technology instead. It can be used in two different ways. The first and most common way that infrared is used is to heat up objects inside the sauna room. Usually, special rocks or charcoal are placed in the centre of the side of the room and heated to extreme temperatures. The right types of rocks will not crack or show any issues under this type of strain but will very easily heat up the whole room with dry heat. Of course, other items can be used, but most saunas prefer to use rocks or charcoal.
The other way that infrared technology is used is by heating up the people in the sauna directly using infrared lights. This is a much more controversial method, and it’s not been accepted by as many sauna enthusiasts around the world, although it does have some supporters who say this method works better than others.
Saunas are almost always made from cedar wood or other high-quality hardwood. Temperatures inside the room get too hot to use tiles, metal, or plastic, so wood must be used because it absorbs heat while remaining cool to the touch. When you’re dealing with 176+ degree temperatures, this is an important quality.
One side effect of using cedarwood for saunas is a rich scent coming from the wood. You can tell an aged sauna house because the wood will have a strong scent even when the room is not heated yet. The heat helps to bring out the intoxicating smell of the cedar wood, which in turn brings a complete state of relaxation for that inside.
If you’re lucky enough to have a sauna in your home, you won’t have to worry about etiquette. If, however, you’re sharing your sauna experience with other people (such as at the gym), there are important do’s and don’ts you should abide by. These include:
- Take a quick, post-workout shower before using the sauna.
- Enter and exit quickly. Saunas are airtight to keep the heat inside. Opening the door releases heat and should be done expeditiously.
- Note the attire (or lack of it) of the people inside. In some saunas, nudity is acceptable. In others, wearing a towel or bathing suit is preferable.
- Whether you’re nude or not, it’s never appropriate to sit directly on the bench. Make sure to bring a towel you can sit on and take it with you when you leave.
- Don’t stretch out if the sauna is crowded.
- If the temperature is too hot or cold for you, ask for a group consensus before adjusting the thermostat or ladling water onto the sauna rocks. Keep in mind that you can also adjust the temperature to your liking by changing your seat level.
- Keep conversation low, and do not employ rowdy behaviour. Saunas are designed for relaxation.
- Do not shave, tweeze, brush your hair, or groom in any way while using the sauna.
- Do not leave litter of any kind behind, such as band-aids or bobby pins.
How To Use A Traditional Finnish Sauna
According to the North American Sauna Society, you should give yourself plenty of time to enjoy a traditional Finnish sauna. These are the steps they recommend you take:
- Before you enter the sauna, drink one to two glasses of water and rinse off in a shower.
- Warm yourself in a dry sauna for up to 10 minutes without adding humidity.
- Exit and rinse off in a second quick shower.
- Allow your body to continue to cool down by drinking something refreshing, such as water.
- Re-enter the sauna for another 10 minutes or so. For this second visit, you can add steam by ladling water onto the sauna rocks.
- You can also use a traditional whisk made of tree twigs to beat or massage the skin gently. This whisk is called a vihta in Finnish. It’s often made from eucalyptus, birch, or oak. Using a vihta is thought to help reduce muscle aches and soften skin.
- Exit and wash your body thoroughly; cool down again with a glass of water.
- Re-enter the sauna for your final visit of approximately 10 minutes.
- Cool down in a cold outdoor pool or by rolling in the snow. You can also use a cool-to-cold indoor shower.
- Lie down and relax for as long as you need to.
- Drink at least one full glass of water, accompanied by a light snack.
- Once your body feels completely cooled down and has stopped sweating, you can dress and exit the building.
Sauna Safety Tips
Whether you sauna in public or in private, there are important safety measures you should follow and be aware of:
- Despite their benefits, saunas may not be appropriate for everyone. Check with your doctor before using a sauna, especially if you have uncontrolled high blood pressure, diabetes, heart failure, abnormal heart rhythm, or unstable angina. If you have any of these health conditions, limit your sauna use to five minutes per visit, and make sure to cool down slowly.
- Check with your doctor if you’re pregnant or planning to become pregnant before using a sauna.
- Don’t use a sauna if you take medications that interfere with your body’s ability to regulate temperature or medications which make you drowsy.
- Don’t use a sauna if you’re ill.
- Drink at least one full glass of water before and after using a sauna to avoid dehydration.
- Don’t drink alcohol before, during, or after sauna use.
- Don’t use recreational drugs before, during, or after sauna use.
- Don’t eat a large meal before using a sauna.
- An article published in the American Journal of Public Health recommends that healthy people not sit in a sauna for more than 10 to 15 minutes at a time. If you’re new to the sauna experience, listen to your body and start slowly (for no more than 5 to 10 minutes per session). You can build up your tolerance for the heat over multiple visits.
- Never let yourself fall asleep in a sauna.
- Exit the sauna if you feel dizzy or ill.
- The Finnish sauna tradition often ends with a plunge in freezing cold water. This may not be appropriate for everyone, especially for those who are pregnant or those with heart or other health conditions. It may be better to gradually let your body temperature return to normal after sauna use to avoid dizziness.
- Saunas temporarily elevate the temperature of the scrotum. If you’re a man, this does not mean you can use the sauna as a birth control method. However, regular sauna use may temporarily reduce your sperm count and should be avoided if you’re actively attempting to impregnate your partner.
Health Benefits of Steam Rooms
Steam bathing is a very old practise used by many cultures in different countries. For example, the ancient Greeks and Romans regularly used steam bathing and hot springs. Indigenous peoples also used steam and sweating as health practices. Today, steam therapy and sauna therapy are popular in Finland.
People don’t just use saunas for the fun of it. There are actually proven medical benefits of saunas, although they might not be what you’ve heard. For example, unlike what some myths say, saunas won’t help you with weight loss or remove toxins from the body. But, they will aid you in stress relief, help to lower your blood pressure (at least temporarily), relieve minor pains, and clean out your pores.
Stress relief is the single largest benefit of using a sauna. The heat penetrates deep into muscle tissues and causes your body to relax completely. In addition, it can help to ease pains and aches that are bothering you, further adding to the stress relief.
Your blood vessels dilate when exposed to dry heat like that of a sauna. When the vessels dilate, they stay that way for a while, and blood flow increases around the body. It’s not just large vessels that open up wider; even the smaller blood vessels will open up. This is why saunas are good for your blood pressure because they help to lower it by making your blood flow more efficient.
Better blood flow around the body is also responsible for some pain relief. People with chronic conditions have been known to feel some temporary relief when they use a sauna. To get the best pain relief, you’ll have to use the best-infrared sauna multiple times per week.
Lastly, saunas open your pores and allow your whole body to sweat them clean. Clogged pores and acne might improve slightly as long as you wash well after the sauna session to remove all the sweat!
Steam rooms have specific health benefits. These include:
- Clearing congestion
- Improving skin health
- Lowering blood pressure
- Improving circulation
- Easing bronchitis symptoms
- Workout recovery
- Lowering joint stiffness
While there are many benefits associated with a steam room, people using them should do so with caution and be aware of the risks.
Due to the heat, there is a risk of dehydrating the body, and it is advisable not to spend longer than 15 to 20 minutes inside. It is important to drink plenty of water beforehand, as well.
A steam room also provides the ideal environment for certain types of bacteria and germs to grow and spread.
Examples of this risk are athlete’s foot and other fungal infections that can thrive in warm, humid conditions. So it is advisable to wear a towel and flip-flops or shower shoes when inside a steam room.
Due to the extreme heat in steam rooms, certain people are advised to avoid them:
- pregnant women
- anyone with heart disease
- those with very low or high blood pressure
- anyone with epilepsy
- those taking antibiotics
- users of mind-altering drugs, such as stimulants, tranquillizers, or alcohol
Saunas provide a relaxing experience and multiple health benefits. However, it’s important to use a sauna safely and to follow specific rules of etiquette.
Saunas may be beneficial for a wide range of conditions, such as cardiovascular disease and depression. They’re not, however, appropriate for everyone. Check with your doctor before visiting a sauna, especially if you have an underlying medical condition or are pregnant.
There’s nothing scary or mystical about a sauna. Some people find spiritual satisfaction from using them, but this is purely personal and has nothing to do with the medical science behind the benefits of a sauna. Using a sauna is relaxing, and it can improve your health with regular visits.