Saunas have existed in other cultures, but it is in Finland that they have become entwined in the national culture. In days gone by, they were the most practical place to wash during the long winters when there was no running hot water. You can still find people in Finland who were born in the sauna. Not when it was heated, of course, but it was a sterile place where hot water was available.
It is estimated that there are two million saunas in Finland, for a population of 5.3 million. Big companies and state institutions have their own saunas. The president has an official sauna, as does the prime minister. They are to be found in city apartments and country cottages.
Traditional saunas are heated by wood, burned either in a stove with a chimney or by a stove with no chimney. The latter – a smoke-sauna – is the original sauna and believed by most Finns to be the best. The door is closed after the wood has burned down (and most of the smoke has escaped), leaving the embers to heat the sauna to the proper temperature, but giving a soft heat and the aroma of woodsmoke.
All saunas have a basket of rocks heated by the stove on which to throw water to increase the humidity. Called löyly in Finnish (for pronunciation, contact your host), the steam increases the feeling of heat and makes you sweat.
Finland – the homeland of the sauna
During the last 50 years, the number of saunas in Finland has grown threefold, from about half a million in 1938 to about 1.5 million in 1990. For a total population of just 5 million, this is a numerical world record of its kind.
The origins of the sauna were rural, but it gradually became part of urban lifestyles, too. Town saunas were first built in the yard outside the living area, then inside detached and terraced houses and blocks of flats, where they would be shared by all the families living in the building. In towns, they also commonly had public saunas. The proverbial saying “share your tobacco and tinderbox, but not your sauna or your woman” was ignored in those days. Today the principle seems to be regaining respect, as people like to have their private saunas built-in individual flats, even bed-sitters, with the bathroom serving as the washing room.
Finns cannot manage without a sauna. Whether an immigrant, a sportsperson or an exporter, a Finn will take the sauna with him wherever he goes. Finnish soldiers at war needed their baths just like others and built a dugout or tent sauna whenever possible. Finns serving in the UN peace corps have also attracted attention by building a sauna at every base they end up at.
In 1936, a sauna was built at the Döbernitz Olympic Village for Finnish athletes participating in the Berlin Olympic Games. The design was Finnish, and the venture gave publicity to the idea of the sauna in Central Europe.
A sauna is a standard element in swimming baths and sports centres, hotels, holiday centres and camping sites. Innumerable families have sauna cottages by a lake or by the sea. An enterprise wishing to maintain the image of a successful business absolutely must have a sauna or sauna suite of its own. Finnish boats and car ferries have long served their passengers with saunas, and even the possibility of a train sauna is being investigated. The number of sauna types seems to be increasing, and the only one who has practically disappeared is the public sauna of the town.
Finnish Sauna Culture and History
As you probably know, the sauna is a major part of Finnish culture. Sauna is not a luxury in Finland, and it’s a necessity.
Today’s saunas have developed from warmed pits covered with animal skins. I’ve taken a sauna bath in a pit with a turf roof, and it was a dirt-filled experience compared to the sleek, modern saunas. I bet it was a bliss 10 000 years ago, though.
After the sauna pit, a smoke sauna appeared. The wood-burning and electrical saunas developed from the smoke sauna.
For centuries, the sauna was a separate building. In fact, when a family started to build a house, they always built the sauna first. The whole family lived there as long as it took the main house to finish! In the 20th century, Finns started attaching them to the house itself.
Everything related to the sauna has a positive echo in Finnish culture. A sauna is a place of health, cleanliness and pureness. There’s nothing sexual about saunas. To be precise, it’s almost a holy place.
Finnish women gave birth in the sauna before hospital births came the standard in the mid 20th century.
Saunas have been used for different purposes through the ages in Finland. Saunas were used for religious ceremonies, bodily cleansing, healing illnesses, relaxation and for social life. Children were born in them, and women went through the purification ritual before marriage, and older people went to die in the sauna.
Historically, there were some beliefs concerning the location of saunas and what kind of firewood is used in the sauna. The first bath of a new sauna required knowledge of ancient traditions to ensure good sauna experiences for the future. Using someone else’s sauna also required its own spells.
Saunas have always been used for healing and relaxation. In fact, the Finnish sauna still has old rituals that live on in modern society.
Sauna elf (saunatonttu). Sauna elf lives in the sauna. At Christmas, you can give him a bowl of rice porridge.
Bridal sauna (morsiussauna). A Finnish bachelorette party isn’t complete without a bridal sauna. The sauna is decorated with candles and flowers. The girls enjoy the sauna together and wash the bride with an egg, salt and flour. Loud noise keeps the bad spirits away.
Birch twig (vihta or vasta, depends on region). Finns gently beat their bodies with fresh birch twigs in the sauna to improve our circulation.
Is Finnish sauna good for the physical body only?
Care of both body and soul
Some people firmly believe that the primary purpose of the sauna was to warm up the body. A bath would prevent colds, soften up tense muscles and alleviate any pain, exhaustion or depression. At the earliest stages, water was used sparingly; the skin was supposed to become clean through perspiration. Gradually, though, the sauna’s function as a place where the body was thoroughly cleaned by washing and flushing became important.
The basic sauna ritual is the same as it always was: warming up, sweating, taking löyly vapour and whisking, washing and cooling off. Cooling off nowadays often includes swimming. Many people like to cool off in the open air, and there are also brave ones who want to roll in the snow or take a dip in the sea or lake through a hole in the ice.
A sauna bath without a birch whisk is like food without salt as the saying goes. The bather uses the whisk to beat himself lightly; this raises the blood circulation in the skin, speeds up perspiration and produces a pleasant aroma in the hot room. The whisk is normally made of young birch twigs which are aromatically superior to all other trees. Out of season this birchy smell of summer can be reproduced by using dried or frozen whisks.
Sauna bathing does clean not only the body but also purifies the mind. The bather’s frame of mind after a leisurely relaxed sauna ritual could be best described as euphoric. It is like a rebirth; all unpleasant feelings fall away, and you feel at peace with the whole world. This is what Finns mean by the care of the soul received in the sauna.
How to Use a Finnish Sauna?
Here is a step-by-step guide on how to behave in a Finnish sauna.
Step 1: heat it up (if it’s your job)
In a public sauna, swimming pools, the sauna will be preheated for you. You only need to enjoy it.
In case your accommodation or cottage has a private sauna, you need to operate it yourself.
If your sauna has a wood stove, you will need to make a fire to warm up the stones, and later keep adding more firewood.
An Electric sauna is easier to use; usually, you push several buttons – follow the instructions – and in 1-2 hours it will reach a pleasant temperature.
You can aim for 80 to 90°C (°F) air temperature, you can check it on the thermometer on the sauna wall.
Step 2: stay hydrated at all times (not with booze)
It is essential that you drink enough. Water. Before you had to go to the sauna and while you are visiting it too.
You will lose a lot of water by sweating, make sure you don’t get dehydrated. Take a water bottle with you and refill when needed.
Alcohol extracts the water from your body. Drinking a beer or anything stronger is not the most efficient way to stay hydrated, and alcohol can affect your heart performance as well.
Step 3: Get naked and take a shower – Finland Sauna Etiquette
Take off your clothes. Yes, that’s right. Finns usually don’t wear anything in the sauna. Respect for others and your own health and safety, take a shower to clean yourself and wash off perfume and makeup. Your pores will like it too.
Finns go to the sauna naked, without any clothes. Be brave! If you feel uncomfortable, wrap a towel around you.
– Men and women sauna (turns): public saunas are (usually) either for men or women (in swimming pools), or they have dedicated times when each gender can use it (in apartment buildings).
Step3: grab a sauna towel
Public saunas offer throwable sauna towels, but you can use your own (clean) towel too. We have sauna pads at home. You will sit on it.
Step 4: Get seated – choose a bench
In bigger saunas, you can find benches on two levels. The higher ones are hotter. Choose based on your preference, and don’t be shy to relocate if it turns out to be too hot.
Step 5: Sprinkle some water on the stones (a.k.a. ‘löyly’)
The steam will suddenly increase the temperature. Make sure you first just throw one spoon of water and wait for the effect. Never pour the water from the bucket and don’t pour water on you. Oils might have been used to give a nice scent to the water, and it can cause nasty burns.
Step 6: Relax.
Enjoy tranquillity or chat with your friends. Be happy. Relax. After 10-20 minutes, it is time for a break.
Step 7: Go outside and cool down.
Your body needs time to cool down. Go outside, dip into cold water, jump into the snow or just take a cold shower. Wait and drink water. Stay outside about as much time as you were in the sauna.
These warm-up and cooldown cycles carry several health benefits. They improve your cardiovascular system, and that can help lower your blood pressure (after regular use).
Step 8: Return for a next round (Step 5-7)
Get into the sauna again, throw some water on the stove, enjoy the heat. Repeat the cycles as long as you have the pleasure (probably 1 hour is a good limit to start with).
Step 9: Take a final shower and finish your sauna experience
Give enough time for your body to return to its normal temperature. Don’t be in a rush, wait while dressed. A quick shower will not stop you from sweating. Take on your clothes and drink more. 🙂
The Finnish Sauna Etiquette
The sauna etiquette differs between countries. For example, in Germany, there’s a “sauna master” who throws the water on the hot stones, and he is the only person to do this.
- In Finland, anybody can throw water on the stove. The job goes to the person sitting closest to the water bucket.
- You don’t usually wear a swimsuit, because it has chemicals that react with the warmth of the sauna. If you are feeling shy, use a towel.
- Pretty much all places have separate saunas for women and men. This is normal, for example in hotels and swimming halls.
- If it’s a mixed public sauna, you always use a swimsuit or towel.
- Among the same sex, it’s normal to be naked. If you feel uncomfortable, wear a towel.
- You can talk to a Finnish sauna. It’s not forbidden, although usually, Finns are pretty quiet in the sauna.
- You sit on a towel in a sauna. Public saunas have a specific disposable sauna tissue for you. There’s a roll or a pile of them near the sauna.
- Saunas are washed regularly, and they are hygienic.
- Saunas are usually heated to be around 80 Celsius degrees, which is 175 Fahrenheit. If it’s too hot for you, sit lower.
- You can take the nearest seat to the door in the sauna if you want to escape fast. Usually, the heat is not so sharp next to the door.
- After or during sauna, it’s a tradition to have a cold sauna drink (a beer, cider, long drink, lemonade, water) and a small snack, for example, a sausage.
Final words of caution! In general, Finnish men are quite relaxed about being naked. It’s not unusual that there’s sometimes female housekeeping staff in male changing rooms.
Traditional Finnish Sauna Benefits
In Finland, the sauna has been considered the source of energy and health for years. “If sauna, booze and tar don’t help, your disease is to your death”, says an old Finnish proverb, or “The sauna is the Finnish national medicine”. Väinämöinen in the Finnish national epic Kalevala rescues his people from threatening diseases by calling on a God of Sauna, who uses steam to heal people.
Germany and Japan (in addition to Finland) have conducted research on sauna bathing. The University of Jyväskylä has made a comprehensive summary of the health effects of the sauna, which says that moderate sauna bathing is safe even for pregnant women and people with heart disease. The conclusion is that the sauna is good for everyone, no matter how old you are – a child or an older person.
Sweating in a sauna deep-cleanses the skin and cleanse the body from toxins and impurities. At the same time, the heat relieves muscular ache. In addition to these effects, the quality of sleep improves. The most important health benefit is relaxation and release from stress.
Incorporating peat into your sauna experience gives relief from many health problems such as arthritis, gout, and different skin diseases.
Combination of sauna and winter swimming has also been proven good for your health. Swimming regularly in ice-cold water is healthy in many ways: it improves your energy balance and cold resistance, improves the mood, lowers the blood pressure and washes away any stress. For those who are concerned with the beauty effects – change of the hot and cold temperatures helps to maintain the elasticity of the skin by slowing down cell ageing processes.
You can go to the sauna when you want and stay there as long as you want – everyone has their own way of enjoying the sauna. Just sprinkle the water on the rocks in the stove and hear the sizzle as it turns into steam. The cooldownCooldown for a while by going outside and then return to the sauna and do it all over again.
In Finland, the sauna has been considered the source of energy and health for years. Since its invention, the sauna has healed, has helped to relax, to refresh their own body and mind.
Sauna has also been a place where family and friends can gather to share news, thoughts and ideas. In fact, even some high-level political figures, such as president Kekkonen, discussed important decisions with own guests in a sauna. After all, in the sauna, people are all equal, leaving behind titles and egos with their clothes.
SAUNA AS A HEALER
Sauna’s health effects cannot be overestimated. Sauna cleanses the body, skin and helps to relax any muscle pain. There are numerous health benefits sauna has on the body and mind.
SAUNA AS A SOCIAL ACT
Although for many Finns sauna is a place to regain own inner balance, quite many enjoy a chat while bathing. Rather reserved Finnish people can strike a conversation even with total strangers in a sauna.
SAUNA AS A TRADITION
Sauna is often associated with many important celebrations in Finland. Whether it is a sauna session during Christmas or during the Midsummer celebration, Finnish people cherish their family ways of enjoying sauna before the important festivities.
Types of the Finnish Sauna
A Wood-burning Classic Finnish Sauna
A wood-burning sauna is the star of the traditional Finnish sauna experience. It takes about 30 minutes to be ready. Most Finns could heat up a wood-burning sauna with their eyes closed.
This sauna type is warm and moist, and it’s the most popular sauna type in Finnish summer cabins and the countryside.
An Electrically Heated Finnish Sauna
An electrically heated sauna is easy to use, and the spirit of this sauna is sharp and a bit dry. The sauna snacks need to be cooked in the kitchen, not in the embers of this sauna stove.
You can find electrically heated saunas in public places like swimming halls, hotels and city homes. They are certainly a cure for sauna cravings when living in the city.
A Finnish Smoke Sauna
Even though it’s the oldest of the saunas, a smoke sauna is the sauna type that is the rarest in Finland. I love it the most, as do many other sauna fans in Finland.
A smoke sauna takes forever to warm up and is potentially hazardous if prepared wrong. One can inhale carbon monoxide or burn the building.
Considered by many as THE sauna, the smoke saunas are rare. They are not built anymore, even though they were the standard types in the past. The process to heat them up is long and complicated, and that’s why they have lost popularity in relation to the other types of sauna. Furthermore, they are so old and dry that, since they’re built with wood, many of them burn (one can’t tell from the outside if the smoke is from the wood or the sauna is burning) and they are not re-built.
Nonetheless, the smoke saunas have real charm. The stoves don’t have chimneys, and the black smoke remains in the sauna. Before having a sauna, it is necessary to let the smoke out and to clean the benches, since they might have some soot. The embers have heated up the rocks, and it is time to get in.
However, the sauna experience is pretty close to religious when you walk into the gentle warm darkness. I am one lucky girl to have this type of sauna at our summer cottage.
It is said that the steam that this kind of sauna produces is the best since it is softer.
Sauna in Helsinki
If you are visiting Helsinki, the trendiest place to try both wood-burning and smoke sauna is Löyly – a cool sauna venue next to the sea. Make a sauna reservation in advance!
If you want to experience the last public sauna with traditional wood-burning style in Helsinki, head to Kotiharju sauna. It’s been warming up since 1928!
A hidden sauna gem in Helsinki is Kulttuurisauna, which offers an esthetic and truly relaxing sauna experience without the hassle of modern life. Read the instructions on their home page carefully.
Wherever you travel in Finland, you will find plenty of public saunas. There are saunas in swimming pools but don’t forget about the dedicated sauna places and ice swimming clubs. Don’t forget to check out one of the most popular ones in Helsinki.
If you have any medical condition or doubt using a sauna, consult your doctor beforehand. If you feel unwell any time, leave the sauna room immediately.