steam bath and sauna room

What is the difference between a steam room and a sauna?

The difference between a sauna and a steam room can be summed up simply — dry vs. wet. Saunas provide dry heat, while steam rooms generate moist heat. Both can open up your pores, loosen up your muscles and help you relax. Which one is right for you? It’s mostly a matter of personal preference.

The ultimate effect of dry saunas and steam rooms is much the same. Both make you hot, induce sweating and increased heart rate. But there are sufficient differences to make people ask which is better in a contest of sauna vs steam room. The effect of breathing dry sauna air or wet steam is very different for the respiratory system, and the moisture affects skin very differently too. This blog aims to look at the sauna v steam room.

“Some like dry saunas, some like steam, some like hot tubs, and some combine their practice with cold water immersion. If you’re healthy and you enjoy a form of heat treatment, go for it. It certainly isn’t going to hurt, and you may find it a valuable part of your exercise regimen.

When you finish a tough workout and walk into your gym locker room, you might be craving something a little more relaxing than your HIIT class. And if your gym has a sauna and a steam room available, those certainly seem like tempting options for winding down and soothing sore muscles. But should you enter the moist tile chamber filled with steam or the dry but very hot wooden box? Well, it depends on what you’re looking for from experience.

The most obvious difference between a sauna and a steam room is the way they’re heated. In a traditional sauna, the air in the cedar wood room is heated by a special stove, and in an infrared sauna, infrared lamps heat your body from the inside out. In a steam room, boiling water emits hot steam into the air. While all three hot environments are relaxing, they provide slightly different health benefits.

Regularly using a sauna appears to be pretty good for your health, particularly for your heart. A 2018 study from the Mayo Clinic Proceedings found that sauna bathing is linked to a number of cardiovascular benefits, including reduced blood pressure. Sitting in a sauna also raises your heart rate. It makes you sweat, which releases feel-good endorphins similar to a moderate or high-intensity physical activity, according to the 2018 study. When your heart rate increases, more blood flows to your muscles, so you may feel momentarily less sore. And since the air is so dry in a sauna, sweat evaporates faster on your skin, so you can tolerate the higher temperature (most saunas are heated between 160-170 degrees Fahrenheit, per the American College of Sports Medicine) and often end up sweating a lot, according to Harvard Health Review.

The Benefits of Steam Rooms

A steam room is a virtually airtight room where steam is fed with the help of a steam generator builds up a humidity level of around 100%. Steam rooms are usually finished in ceramic tile, and the ceiling must be slanted so that the steam buildup does not drip from the ceiling onto the bathers. The primary goal of steam rooms is to make the bather sweat for detoxification purposes.

Alleviate congestion: “Steam has the edge over both dry and infrared saunas in the stuffy nose department,” said Tobiason. “One of the major benefits is alleviating upper respiratory congestion. The combination of inhaling steam, usually mixed with eucalyptus oil, increases vasodilation in the sinuses allowing nasal passage to clear and relieve congestion.” It’s almost like you’re climbing into one big essential oil diffuser.

Tobiason gave heads up for the cold and flu season. Keep in mind, and if there are a lot of people with stuffy noses in a public steam room, you could increase your risk of “picking up bugs and viruses from everyone who has the same idea.” Instead, you could try a long, steamy shower with some eucalyptus essential oil, or one of these other home remedies for sinus infections.

Effects on skin

Saunas and steam rooms open the pores in the skin and make you sweat, which releases some toxins from the body and cleanses and rejuvenates the skin. This may be beneficial for people with acne because impurities in the skin are one of the causes of acne.

Reduces stress

Being in the heat of a steam room can make the body release endorphins, which are known as ‘feel-good’ hormones because they help to reduce the feeling of stress in the body.

A steam room can also decrease the level of cortisol, which is the hormone released in response to stress. When the cortisol level drops, people can feel more in control, relaxed, and rejuvenated.

Promote mental and muscular relaxation: Being in a steam room can feel like you’re melting stress off of your body. Your muscles relax from the heat, and you can slip into a more peaceful state (for 15 minutes, that is!). As mentioned, some steam rooms use eucalyptus and essential oils to enhance the relaxing experience. (Hot tip: if you’re at an Equinox location, take one of those cold eucalyptus towels with you into the steam room.)

Improve circulation: “Moist heat” (gross, but okay) can improve circulation, according to a 2012 study published in Medical Science Monitor. This helps with overall wellness and organ function, as well as a healthy immune system.

The Benefits of Saunas

These benefits partially depend on which type of sauna you choose—traditional or infrared.

Improve circulation: Like with steam rooms, saunas also help increase circulation. A recent Swedish study even showed that saunas could provide “short-term improvement in cardiac function.”

Relieve pain: A 2009 study conducted at the Expertise Center of Health, Social Care and Technology at Saxion University of Applied Sciences in the Netherlands had rheumatoid arthritis patients undergo eight infrared sauna treatments over the course of four weeks. Researchers found that infrared sauna use led to statistically significant reductions in pain and stiffness.

Boost athletic recovery: A study on infrared saunas from the Department of Biology of Physical Activity at the University of Jyväskylä in Finland examined ten athletes and their recovery. After a strength training workout, they spent 30 minutes in the hot box. The conclusion? Infrared sauna time is “favourable for the neuromuscular system to recover from maximal endurance performance.”

Enjoy longer relaxation sessions: In an infrared sauna, you can “give your body more time to experience a deep, detoxifying sweat,” says Tobiason. This is because you can stay there for much longer than both a steam room and a traditional sauna. “This means your muscles, joints, and skin are receiving more time with helpful infrared rays.”

For guided meditation and entertainment: “Certain infrared saunas also include tablets with the ability to cue up guided meditation apps such as Calm and Headspace during the sessions, which helps aid in relaxation.”

Is there anyone who should avoid both?

If you have a history of fainting or low blood pressure, be careful to avoid falls in the sauna or steam room. You’ll want to steer clear if you suffered from a heart attack or stroke within the last three months or you have a valvular disease such as aortic stenosis where dramatic fluctuations in heart rate and blood pressure can be harmful, advises Dr. Hussain. “But this is based on a precautionary approach more so than actual evidence.” She notes that a lot more research needs to be done, especially on women, to determine all of the benefits and risks.

The dry heat of a traditional sauna starts with a heater that heats up a stack of rocks. Those rocks radiate heat into the room. In most saunas, you can pour water over the heated rocks to generate some steam and boost the humidity a bit –although nowhere near the level of a steam room. Saunas have a vent, usually found near the floor by the heater, that continually brings in the fresh air and limits the humidity buildup. Some saunas, however, use infrared light rather than radiant heat.

Inside a steam room, a device called a steam generator boils water into steam and releases it into the air. Unlike a sauna, a steam room is nearly airtight, so the humidity builds to 100 per cent. The air is so damp that water condenses on the walls.

As you can imagine, hot steam has a much different effect on the body. Steam is often used as a home remedy to treat allergy or cold symptoms because it can loosen mucous membranes and opens up airways. So, spending time in a steam room might help temporarily relieve these sort of respiratory issues, but it’s not necessarily going to cure a cold. Some people find the steam relaxing, and believe it’s good for the skin, while others might not like the humid, 100 to 110 degrees Fahrenheit air.

Saunas Are Hotter

Saunas run considerably hotter than steam rooms, although because of the variance in humidity, your body may not sense the difference. A typical sauna will be set between 160 and 200 degrees Fahrenheit, with a humidity level of 5 per cent to 30 per cent. Steam rooms top out at about 110 to 120 degrees, but the 100 per cent humidity keeps your sweat from evaporating, making you feel much hotter. Whether dry or wet, hot air always rises. In both saunas and steam rooms, the higher up you sit, the hotter you’ll get.

Saunas are built of wood for a reason; metal benches or tiled walls inside the searing heat of a sauna would burn you. Plus, wood absorbs moisture, which not only keeps the surfaces cooler but also helps pull humidity out of the air. In steam rooms, however, the high humidity and constant condensation would cause wood to degrade fairly quickly. Steam rooms are surfaced with non-porous materials, such as tile, that can get wet without causing problems. Self-contained units, such as those for home use, are often plastic. Steam rooms usually have sloped ceilings so that that water will run down to the walls rather than drip all over the occupants.

Relax and Destress

Steam rooms and saunas share some therapeutic benefits. Above all, they both reduce muscle tension, promoting relaxation and general well-being. The heat helps improve circulation and, of course, promotes sweating, which opens up the pores and cleanses the skin. Steam rooms may be more comfortable for people with allergies or congestion in the chest or sinuses. Saunas are the better choice for people with conditions that can be aggravated by humidity, such as rheumatoid arthritis.

No Magic Effects

There’s no evidence to support claims that “heat baths,” a catch-all term for both saunas and steam rooms, detoxify the body. The heat will open up your pores, which may help your skin, but it doesn’t draw toxins out of your organs through the skin. Similarly, the ability of saunas and steam baths to help you lose weight is greatly overstated. Spend a significant length of time in either environment, and you’ll sweat enough to make a difference on the scale — but the loss is all water weight. When you replenish your body’s fluids, you’ll be back where you started.

Should I choose a sauna or a steam room?

Again, if you have respiratory issues, it’s best to stick to steam rooms in order to keep your respiratory tract hydrated (a sauna might dry it out even more), according to Dr. Parikh. Otherwise, it’s all about personal preference.

No matter which you choose, Dr. Parikh suggests starting low and slow. The lower you sit in the sauna or steam room (i.e., the closer to the floor), the less intense the heat will be because heat rises. While it’s best for your health to use a sauna or steam room regularly (several times a week, if you can), maybe start with one trip to the spa for no longer than five or 10 minutes at most to see how well you can handle it, then add on from there.

Heat Distribution

The primary difference between a sauna and steam room is the personal preference of the dry heat of a sauna over the moist heat of a steam room. In a traditional sauna, a heater warms a stack of sauna rocks, which then distribute dry heat throughout the space. It is possible to pour water over these rocks, creating steam, but this does not make the sauna as humid as a steam room. Saunas limit humidity by bringing in fresh air through a floor-level vent.

Infrared saunas distribute heat differently, using infrared light rather than a heater. Instead of the traditional sauna’s heat cycle, which heats the air which heats your body, the infrared sauna heats your body directly without warming the surrounding air. The desired results of sweating and increased circulation are attained at a lower temperature. While the myriad of health benefits claimed by those promoting infrared saunas have not been proven, no adverse effects have been reported regarding their use. This type of sauna is a viable option for someone who wants dry sauna results without high temperatures.

A steam room is sometimes called a steam shower since small- to medium-sized steam rooms can be installed instead of a traditional shower. The standard showerhead exists in addition to a steam outlet. A steam room uses an external steam generator to boil water into steam, releasing the steam into the room through the steam outlet. The watertight construction of the steam room keeps the humidity level at 100 per cent, offering a full moist heat experience.

Temperature

The saying “It’s a dry heat” is correct. Low-humidity heat feels less hot to the body than high-humidity heat. For this reason, the low humidity of a sauna is hotter in temperature than the inside of a steam room, but the body does not feel the difference. The normal temperature of a sauna is 160 to 200 degrees Fahrenheit with 5 to 30 per cent humidity. In a steam room, the average temperature is 110 to 120 degrees Fahrenheit with a humidity of 100 per cent. Because of the high humidity, your sweat does not evaporate, and you feel hotter at a lower temperature. Whether you prefer a higher temperature with lower humidity or lower heat at higher humidity is a personal preference. Your body will enjoy similar results.

Installation

Installing a traditional sauna is a quicker and less complicated process than installing a steam shower. However, installing a sauna means taking up interior space or building at least a modular enclosure outdoors, so each installation has its pros and cons.

The sauna will likely be built from a pre-cut kit in a bedroom, a basement, or other space in the home. Although this can be a DIY job, at least two steps may need professional assistance. An electrician will be required to wire the light, light switch, and sauna heater controls. If the heater is gas, a plumber will be needed as well.

An infrared sauna is similar in construction except that no heater is needed. Because of this, the infrared sauna can be quickly and easily installed by a professional who will build the kit contents from the floor up using little more than a screwdriver, wrench, some electrical expertise, and a little heavy lifting.

Because a steam room requires a drain, most home retrofit installations are done by replacing a shower with a steam shower. This complex job of demolishing the existing shower and installing the new steam shower is best left to a professional. Steam cannot simply be added to an existing shower. Several characteristics make steam showers unique, including a seat, watertight seal, sloped ceiling, and a ceiling height of no more than eight feet. Also, the steam generator must be nearby, perhaps in a closet or cabinet.

Materials

Design and construction materials are different for saunas and steam rooms. The higher temperature and lower humidity of saunas make wood an excellent choice for all parts of the room. Wooden seats do not retain the heat of the air. Therefore, they are more comfortable to sit on, even in the high heat. Also, wood is porous and pulls moisture from the air, keeping the humidity low. This same porous quality makes wood a poor choice for a steam room, however. The constant moisture would break down the wood quickly. Non-porous materials such as tile, plastic, or glass, meet the needs of the steam room perfectly.

Costs

A traditional sauna that will seat one to two people, approximately 4 x 8 x 3 feet, will cost about $1,400 for the prefabricated unit with all the materials. Although a DIY homeowner may be able to install the kit, a professional electrician will be necessary for wiring the various electrical elements. Labor added to a DIY project will cost about $350 to $700. Labour for the kit to be installed entirely by a professional will be approximately $1,000 to $2,000. An entire two-person sauna professionally installed will cost about $2,900.

The materials for a one- to two-person steam shower will cost between $1,000 and $5,000, and the labour to install the unit will cost between $1,170 and $1,290. The total cost for a professionally installed two-person steam shower will be about $3,300. A custom steam room will cost much more, from $2,500 to $8,000 without installation, the cost of the shower door, or the cost of the steam generator.

Weight-loss effects

Distributors and manufacturers make many claims regarding weight loss of saunas and steam rooms. They say that the intense heat raises the metabolism and burns calories as if you were exercising. Not everyone agrees with this, however. According to health professionals at Columbia University, these effects are often overstated, and the loss is usually due to slight dehydration. Once the balance of water in the body is restored, the weight is regained.

Sleeping

Either a sauna or steam room induces deep sleep. During this portion of your sleep, the brain processes memories and restores brain functions. This is much like the effect of prolonged exercise on the sleep centre of the brain.

Skin Cleansing and Other Health Benefits

The health benefits of saunas and steam rooms are similar. Both are good for muscle tension reduction, mental relaxation, and general good health. Other advantages are the cleansing of the skin, increased circulation, and improved function of the immune and lymphatic systems.

A sauna is a better choice for people with health conditions that can be aggravated by humidity like rheumatoid arthritis, fibromyalgia, asthma, or headaches. Steam rooms hydrate the skin better than saunas, making them a good choice if you have dry skin.

Health risks

Newer studies from the American Heart Association rescind their previous warnings to people with high blood pressure or heart disease. They only caution that these individuals avoid moving from hot areas to cold areas repeatedly since this action can cause a rise in blood pressure. Temporary infertility in men can be caused by even short-term use of intense heat. The Centers for Disease Control offers the following cautions. Never allow a child under five to use a sauna or steam room. Pregnant women should also avoid both. No one should mix the use of alcohol or sleep-inducing drugs with sauna or steam room use.

Even healthy individuals without these limitations should limit their first visits to 15 minutes or less. This is especially true of steam rooms. A steam room cannot be tolerated as long as a sauna because the sweat of your body does not evaporate and cool you internally. Also, anyone who enjoys a sauna or steam room should immediately hydrate with several glasses of water.

Ultimately, it’s up to you which room you choose, because they both can be somewhat beneficial for your health. (Although the claims that are sweating “detoxifies” your body and lead to weight loss are BS: only a very tiny amount of toxins exit your body through sweat and any “weight” lost would be from water.) But before you hop inside, keep in mind that the American College of Sports Medicine suggests waiting at least 10 minutes after exercising to enter the steam room or sauna, and limiting sessions to 10 minutes long. If you’re someone who’s pregnant, has heart or kidney disease, or takes medication for cardiovascular disease, then saunas and steam rooms are not recommended. Otherwise, enjoy basking in the warm glow of a workout well done.

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