A sauna1 is a small room that is heated by burning wood, electricity, or infrared light waves to create a sort of dry heat. These rooms can reach up to 212 degrees Fahrenheit in order to get those in the room to break a sweat.1
Saunas have been around since about 2,000 B.C.2 and originated in Northern Europe. Since their beginnings, saunas have represented everything from cures for various health issues to spiritual practices, not unlike the sweat lodges of Native Americans.2
Today, saunas are still used for various health issues, and in this article, we’ll go into detail about the benefits of sauna bathing. We’ll also go over how to properly use a sauna, sauna safety tips, and the difference between a sauna and a steam room.
How to Properly Use a Sauna
Unless you have your own sauna at home, you’ll likely have to go to a gym or spa to use one. In this case, there is certain “sauna etiquette” that you should keep in mind:
- If you’ve just worked out, rinse off in the shower before getting into the sauna.
- Don’t leave the door open for long as this can cause the room to lose heat.
- Depending on the sauna, you may wear a bathing suit, clothes, a towel, or nothing at all. Ask the front desk at the gym or spa if you’re unsure.
- Put a towel between you and the bench.
- Keep conversations to a minimum.
- Don’t bring your cell phone into the sauna as this could be disruptive to others in the room, and the high temperature could damage it3.
- If the sauna is crowded, don’t stretch out and take up unnecessary space.
Safety Tips When Using a Sauna
Sauna bathing is relatively safe for most people, but the following groups should avoid using them:
- Pregnant people because the risk of overheating is greater4 and could be dangerous for both the parent and the baby
- People with low blood pressure5
- Those with uncontrolled high blood pressure6
- Those who use nicotine patches5
- People with heart disease6
- Those who are currently ill6
These groups of people are more at risk of overheating, a plummet in blood pressure, fainting, cardiac arrest, or even sudden death.5
If you are healthy and don’t fall into any of the above categories, using a sauna should be safe for you. However, there are still some things to keep in mind when using the sauna to keep you safe.
- Never consume alcohol before using a sauna.5
- Never get into a sauna if you’re on stimulants, such as cocaine, methamphetamine, or steroids.5
- Don’t take any medications before using the sauna that could impact your ability to sweat.6
- Keep the temperature somewhere between 140 and 175 degrees.7
- Don’t sit in the sauna for more than 15 to 20 minutes.6
- When you get out, be sure to gradually cool down.6
- Drink two to four glasses of cool water after the sauna.6
- In fact, go ahead and drink water before, during, and after sauna use.1 This is because you can expect to lose about a pint of sweat during a short sauna session.6
For those who are not at risk, the benefits of sauna bathing are plentiful. According to researchers at Mayo Clinic8, regularly using the sauna can reduce the risk of vascular diseases like high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease, and neurocognitive diseases. It can also reduce the risk of certain pulmonary (lung) diseases and reduce symptoms of arthritis, headaches, and the flu.8
Additionally, saunas can help lower bad cholesterol levels, reduce stress levels, and increase circulation.1 They can also improve hormonal function, treat symptoms of colds and viruses, and can even detox the body to help you lose weight.5
All that said, the reason saunas have these benefits comes down to the fact that they raise your heart rate, cause your blood vessels to open, and raise the temperature of your skin, which causes the body to sweat a lot.1 This can all be said of exercising as well, and experts at UCLA Health recommend a combination of both exercising and sauna bathing for the best health results.1
Sauna vs. Steam Room
The difference between a sauna and a steam room comes down to moisture9. A sauna produces dry heat with a very low moisture level. A steam room, on the other hand, provides a lot of heat and moisture. While a sauna’s relative humidity is about 10 or 20 percent, a steam room’s is 100 percent.9 It does this with a water-filled generator that pumps steam into the enclosed room.9
In a sauna, there won’t be steam and you can expect to stay dry (until you start sweating). In a steam room, the room will be filled with steam, often so much so that it can be hard to see in the room. Your body and the surfaces in the room will immediately feel wet. This is why it is also called a “wet sauna10.”
This means that saunas and steam rooms will actually look different. The surfaces in a steam room, for example, will be more conducive to moisture with things like tile, glass, and acrylic.10 In a sauna, the walls, ceiling, and seating areas are usually made out of wood, which is better for dry heat.10
Saunas also tend to reach a higher temperature – ranging anywhere from 158 to 212 degrees Fahrenheit, whereas steam rooms tend to stay somewhere between 113 to 140 degrees.1,9 As you can see, both reach very hot temperatures, but the sauna’s heat is dry, while the steam room’s heat is extremely humid.
Dry saunas have undergone more scientific research, though the research that has been done on steam rooms shows that they offer some similar benefits as saunas.9 That said, the health benefits that come from sweating only apply to saunas, not steam rooms.9 This is because the increased humidity in these rooms actually dampens the body’s ability to sweat as effectively, and the moisture that you feel in these rooms is more likely just the condensation from the steam.9
Some smaller research shows that this inability to sweat it out in a steam room actually puts the body under more stress11.
To decide whether you’d do better in a sauna or steam room, ask yourself:
- Would you prefer an extremely hot room that is dry, or a less hot room that is extremely humid?
- Do you want to sweat and detox? Or would you prefer to clear out congestion?10
- Finally, is scientifically backed research important to your decision between the two, or not so much?
If you answered yes to the former of these questions, you’re better off using a sauna; if you answered yes to the latter of any of these questions, a steam room might be better for you.
Remember, the safety tips we previously listed for saunas should also always be applied to steam rooms.
Types of Saunas
According to The North American Sauna Society12, there are five main types of saunas (not including steam rooms):
1. Wood Burning Sauna
In a wood-burning sauna, wood is used to heat the rocks, usually by way of a continuously heated stove. Wood-burning saunas can reach very high temperatures, and you can control the temperature by adjusting how fast the wood burns in the stove.12
2. Electrically-Heated Sauna
Most contemporary saunas are electrically heated. The heaters are mounted on the wall or floor and can often be controlled by a remote. Electrical saunas tend to be efficient and easy to use.12
3. Manufactured Sauna Room
A manufactured sauna room is a free-standing sauna that is not a built-in part of a larger building but one that you can buy on its own. These can either use electrical heaters or wood-burning stoves. Typically, they are made with wood, like cedar, pine, or spruce.12
4. Smoke Sauna
Smoke saunas are more rare now, especially in the United States. A smoke sauna includes a large wood-burning stove without a chimney. The sauna’s heater has several hundred pounds of rocks, which are heated by the stove for several hours before anyone can use the sauna.
The flames from the burning wood heat up the mass of rocks and smoke fills the room. Once the rocks have been fully heated and the room is completely ventilated, it is ready for use. This is a more time-consuming sauna experience, which may explain why it is so rarely used.12
5. Infrared Room
Infrared rooms or infrared saunas are becoming increasingly popular, but according to The North American Sauna Society, they are not true saunas. Instead, they describe them as “heat therapy rooms” because they use radiant heat to warm up a person’s body directly, rather than heat up the air or stones.12 These rooms use infrared lamps to create warmth13, and these saunas do not get as hot as traditional saunas.
Frequently Asked Questions
How long should you sit in a sauna?
If you’re just starting out with sauna bathing, you can begin by sitting in the room for five to 10 minutes at a time and building up your tolerance from there. You should never stay in the sauna any longer than 20 minutes, though, as this could be dangerous.1
Do I wear clothes in a sauna?
Sauna attire depends entirely on the policy of your gym, spa, or other business. Some businesses allow for full nudity while others request a bathing suit. No matter what, you should always have a towel in the sauna to place between yourself and the bench.
Do you site or lie in a sauna?
Depending on the size of the sauna and how many other people are in it, you can either sit or lie down. If the sauna is small or crowded, you’ll want to sit so others can have plenty of space. If the sauna has long benches and you have the space to yourself, you can lie down on a bench. You just want to make sure to never fall asleep in the sauna so you don’t stay in there too long.
Natalie is a content writer for Sleep Advisor with a deep passion for all things health and a fascination with the mysterious activity that is sleep. Outside of writing about sleep, she is a bestselling author, improviser, and creative writing teacher based out of Austin.
- “Benefits of sauna bathing for heart health”. UCLA Health. https://www.uclahealth.org/news/benefits-sauna-bathing-heart-health. 2023.
- Andra-Warner, Elle. “A brief history of saunas”. Northern Wilds. https://northernwilds.com/a-brief-history-of-saunas/. 2022.
- “Can You Bring Your Phone in a Sauna? Weighing the Options”. My Sauna World. Webpage accessed October 9, 2023. https://mysaunaworld.com/blogs/my-sauna-world-blog/can-you-bring-your-phone-in-a-sauna.
- “Is it safe to use a sauna or jacuzzi if I’m pregnant?”. National Health Service. Last modified December 22, 2022. https://www.nhs.uk/common-health-questions/pregnancy/is-it-safe-to-use-a-sauna-or-jacuzzi-if-i-am-pregnant/.
- “Are Saunas Good for You?”. Poison Control. Webpage accessed October 9, 2023. https://www.poison.org/articles/are-saunas-good-for-you.
- “Sauna Health Benefits: Are saunas healthy or harmful?”. Harvard Health. https://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/saunas-and-your-health. 2020.
- “Understanding and Adjusting Sauna Temperature”. My Sauna World. Webpage accessed October 9, 2023. https://mysaunaworld.com/blogs/my-sauna-world-blog/understanding-sauna-temperature.
- Laukkanen MD, Jari A., Laukkanen, Tanjaniina., Kunutsor MD, Setor K. “Cardiovascular and Other Health Benefits of Sauna Bathing: A Review of the Evidence”. Mayo Clinic. https://www.mayoclinicproceedings.org/article/S0025-6196(18)30275-1/fulltext. 2018.
- “Steam room versus sauna?”. Columbia University. Last modified December 11, 2020. https://goaskalice.columbia.edu/answered-questions/steam-room-sauna/.
- “Comparing the Benefits and Differences of Dry Sauna vs. Wet Sauna.” My Sauna World. Webpage accessed October 9, 2023. https://mysaunaworld.com/blogs/my-sauna-world-blog/dry-sauna-vs-wet-sauna.
- Pilch, W., Szygula, Z., et al. “COMPARISON OF PHYSIOLOGICAL REACTIONS AND PHYSIOLOGICAL STRAIN IN HEALTHY MEN UNDER HEAT STRESS IN DRY AND STEAM HEAT SAUNAS”. Biology of Sport. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4042662/. 2014.
- “Sauna Types”. The North American Sauna Society. Webpage accessed October 9, 2023. https://www.saunasociety.org/sauna-types.
- “Infrared Saunas: What They Do and 6 Health Benefits”. Cleveland Clinic. https://health.clevelandclinic.org/infrared-sauna-benefits/. 2022.