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Bathhouses have been a staple of many cultures for centuries. Greece, Turkey, Rome — even San Francisco had a bathhouse culture. If you’ve ever been to a Korean bathhouse (also called saunas) though, well those are a league of their own.
Also known as jjimjilbang, these Korean hotspots started popping up in urban areas across the United States within the last few decades. And the international rise of jjimjilbangs isn’t surprising.
Granted, when visiting these saunas, you’ll have to be comfortable with public nakedness, but rest assured, the ahjumma (Korean word for auntie) in the corner doesn’t care about you.
She’s there because it’s an affordable haven for relaxation: body scrubs until your skin is reborn, soothing facial masks for a glow out, steamy spas to sweat out your pores, heated stone floors, cold pools, kiln saunas, and other beautifying experiences.
According to a 2018 study of sauna bathing in Finland, regularly visiting a sauna is linked to many health benefits, including an improvement in cardiovascular, circulatory, and immune functions. A trip to a jjimjilbang — or recreating the experience at home — could possibly soothe a number of things that ail you.
However, it’s not exactly known why using a sauna can have these outcomes. Some researchers guess that bathing in this much heat may:
- reduce arterial stiffness
- dilate blood vessels
- calm the nervous system
- lower the lipid profile, which reflects your cholesterol and other indicators of heart health
Overall, these effects can lead to a notable improvement in blood circulation. Plus, regular visits to the sauna and warm baths can reduce pain and the symptoms and duration of the flu. Those experiencing arthritis or chronic headaches may find an afternoon at the Korean bathhouse to not only be fun, but also alleviating.
Don’t forget the digital detox bit either. If you’re all about the bang for your buck, you’ll want to spend a whole day at the sauna. Most places will have cafes where you can order food.
Leave your phone behind in a locker and forget about work or kids while you become prune-y in a pool of water. There’s nothing more deeply therapeutic, or even meditative, than letting yourself heal.
Most Korean saunas sort pool and shower areas into male and female. While there are common areas for everyone, like saunas and relaxation rooms, the availability of these depend on the spa.
What they tend to have in common is a dress code, where they give you matching pajama-like outfits after paying the entrance fee, which ranges from $30 to $90 for the whole day.
You’ll then go into the gender-divided pool and shower areas where clothes are usually a no-no. Before you get into any of the pools and hot tubs, they’ll ask you to shower and scrub down to minimize bacteria and outside dirt.
As for the beautification amenities, there’s often an extra fee or package deal. Some places may offer a couples’ discount (yep, others will see your boo naked). If you do decide to get the famous body scrub, be prepared for a scrubbing so vigorous that oodles of dead skin will fall off. No matter how clean you think you are, these scrubs will prove you wrong.
And don’t worry, they know better than to tackle your face that hard.
For those not in Seoul or Busan, there’s no need to travel thousands of miles to undergo this unique style of self-care. If you’re in a larger city like New York City, San Francisco, or Los Angeles, you may be able to find local Korean saunas right in your neighborhood.
If you’re not comfortable being naked around others, or (justifiably) find the gender binary separation uncomfortable, there’s still ways to replicate the benefits of a sauna.
Focus on three things: heat, skin care, and quiet
If you have a bathtub at your house or apartment, this is a good time to lower the lights, lose the phone, draw a steamy hot bath, and schedule some interruption-free soak time.
While a bathroom may not compare to a tiled, stone, or wooden room of steamy pools, physicians report that taking a hot bath can be deeply therapeutic. In fact, studies show that the simple act of immersing yourself in hot water can improve circulation, lower
If you’re sans bathtub, consider looking into memberships at a local gym that boast a sauna or a steam room. While many gym-goers may hop in and out of the sauna as a postworkout ritual, remember that using the sauna can be a reason for the trip alone.
When self-care is the goal, a turn on the treadmill isn’t always necessary. Just remember to abide by the gym’s recommendations for sauna use: Fifteen minutes is usually the recommended maximum time, and people who are pregnant or have certain health conditions should check with their healthcare provider first.
You can exfoliate yourself, too
The facials and exfoliation often offered at Korean bathhouses can also be done from the comfort of your own bathroom. While there’s no one stronger than a Korean auntie at work, you can still slough off a good portion of dead skin with the standard jjimjilbang exfoliator, a scrubbing bath mitten.
Reminiscent of a wire pot scrubber, these are easily available online or you can find them at a Korean beauty store. While sauna patrons swear by the mitt’s incredible ability to reveal smooth silky skin, the harshness of the material isn’t ideal for those with sensitive skin.
In that case, stick to soothing Korean face masks instead. Often sold in packs online and imbued with ingredients like honey, lavender, aloe, and cucumber, these sheet masks will not only improve the look and feel of your skin, but provide that extra bit of self-love your nervous system may be in need of.
The health benefits from a day — or even just an hour — at a Korean bathhouse can be measurable over time. Whether from the release of tension, alleviation of aches and pains, or a drop in blood pressure, it’s clear that these spas are offering more than younger looking skin.
Just remember, there’s no reason you can’t partake in all that goodness. If at all possible, put aside time for yourself to close your eyes, embrace the heat of a bath or sauna, and let the stress of the modern world soak away.
Paige Towers is currently a freelance writer living in New York City and is at work on a book about ASMR. Her writing has appeared in numerous lifestyle and literary outlets. You can find more of her work on her website.