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.

Sauna benefits

Sweating induced by saunas may be beneficial for people with conditions such as COPD, congestive heart failure, and peripheral arterial disease. Saunas may also help reduce symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis, and can be advantageous for muscle recovery after sports. People experiencing depression and anxiety may also find sauna bathing helpful.

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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 prior to 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 prior to adjusting the thermostat or ladling water onto the sauna rocks. Keep in mind that you can also adjust the temperature to your personal liking by changing your seat level.
  • Keep conversation low, and do not employ rowdy behavior. 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.

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 which 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 prior to 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 let your body temperature return to normal gradually 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 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.

The National Health Service (NHS) warns that becoming overheated in a sauna can be dangerous to the health of the mom and the baby during pregnancy. Overheating in a sauna or steam room may also be more likely while you’re pregnant.

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 gently beat or massage the skin. 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 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 perspiring, you can dress and exit the building.

Stop if you don’t feel well

If at any point you feel unwell, overheated, dizzy, or have a rapid heart rate that does not slow when exiting the sauna, discontinue use.

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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 which 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 ladled 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 is the same as that 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.

Steam rooms are small, airtight, and designed from materials (such as tile, acrylic, or glass) which 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.

Sauna and steam room use

Many people alternate their use of saunas and steam rooms, or use both during the same visit to the gym. While there’s no hard and fast rule for which is best to use first, some people prefer to start with the sauna and end with the steam room. Either way, it’s proper etiquette, and safest, to take a quick shower and drink a glass of water between sessions.

How to use a steam room

  • Just as you would with a sauna, shower before entering a steam room.
  • Sitting on a towel here is an absolute necessity, not only for reasons of etiquette, but to avoid the germs and bacteria which breed in moist heat. It’s also a good idea to wear shower shoes.
  • Limit your time in a steam room to 10 or 15 minutes.
  • Even though your skin will remain wet, you may become dehydrated in a steam room. Drink water before and after using.

Saunas were invented in Finland over 2,000 years ago. Here, sauna bathing is part of a national lifestyle devoted to healthy living and communal activities. You can find saunas in people’s homes, places of business, and community centers.

Sauna bathing may have been brought to America with Finnish settlers in the 1600s. In fact, sauna is a Finnish word which translates into bath, or bathhouse.

Saunas, steam rooms, and steam baths of varying kinds are common throughout many countries and cultures. You may enjoy experimenting and exploring different options, such as Russian banyas. Banyas combine elements of Turkish saunas and steam rooms. They’re often large and communal, and may be made of wood or tile.

Banyas use moist heat and rely heavily on sauna whisks, which you may use on yourself, or on your companion. Some banyas employ people to provide whisk massage during the experience. Banyas can be found in many American cities where Russian immigrants have settled, such as Brooklyn, New York.

Sentos, the traditional communal baths of Japan, are less common in America but can be found in several states, including California and Hawaii. If you visit Japan and try out a sento, you’ll be able to choose between warm and hot pools of water, constructed to hold many people. Some of these are gently warmed, and others are filled with dark, dense minerals. Sentos and banyas are typically segregated by gender.

Outdoor, natural hot springs are another relaxing option. Hot springs are thermal lakes heated naturally by geothermal groundwater. Many are too hot for people to bathe in. Some, such as the Blue Lagoon in Iceland, are popular tourist attractions.

Saunas provide a relaxing experience and multiple health benefits. 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.