[Read Time: 17 minutes ]
For the fullest enjoyment of sauna it’s important to understand sauna. Hopefully this will provide a good, somewhat brief and beneficial introduction.
If you’re anxious to just get to the sauna then skip down to ‘Going To Sauna’.
Trumpkin? One of my favorite characters in Chronicles of Narnia. If you want a sauna built properly then he is who you want building it. Nothing more.
Sauna is about contrasts. The contrast of very hot vs very cold, of low humidity vs high humidity, and the contrast of calming, quiet, relaxing and rejuvenating vs our daily life. We cycle between sauna and daily life, and within sauna we cycle between extreme heat in the stove room and cool or cold outside, and within the stove room we cycle between dry and humid.
Finns will frequently say that there are two holy places; church and sauna (and that we should behave similarly quietly in each).
Sauna (a Finnish word pronounced ‘SOW-na’, sow rhymes with how now cow) is extremely popular throughout Scandinavia, Germany, The Netherlands and the Baltics (and perhaps not coincidentally these are also among the happiest countries in the world!). Finland is estimated to have 3 million saunas for 5.3 million people, about one per household. Though not as pervasive as in Scandinavia, sauna or sauna-like experiences is still quite popular throughout much of Europe, Asia and indigenous Americans.
Why sauna? For enjoyment and health. Sauna is enjoyable alone and is also a great social activity. The health benefits (further below) are numerous.
It is called sauna bathing because it is truly cleansing. After a round of sauna and a dip in the lake or under a shower your skin is as clean as it’ll ever be.
Finns and other Scandinavians grow up with sauna bathing and most do so throughout their lives, typically three to five sessions per week with each session involving two to five hot/cold rounds in the sauna. It’s not surprising then that there are nearly 3 million saunas for 5 million people in Finland. Finns say that sauna is a place for physical and mental cleansing, a place to relax, meditate and socialize.
Sauna is common also also in The Netherlands, Germany, Austria, Estonia, Slovakia and the Tyrol of Northern Italy.
Sauna has traditionally also been quite popular in Minnesota, Michigan and Maine thanks to Scandinavian immigrants. Around Wolf Lake and Cokato MN as well as parts of the Arrowhead region north of Lake Superior you’ll find a sauna at every home, a slight majority wood burning, and most used every day. A friend of mine grew up bathing (with soap and water) in a sauna every night using water heated by the sauna stove and still does to this day. His kids, ranging in age from 2 to 18, do as well.
What Is Sauna?
Sauna (verb in the english speaking world, not really used as a verb elsewhere as they will instead say ‘going to the sauna’) is the practice of sitting or laying in a sauna hot room for a short period of time, typically 5-20 minutes, until you’ve been sweating for a bit, and then cooling off in a lake, shower, roll in the snow, standing outside, relaxing in a cool room or whatever you desire. …And then Repeating as often as you want.
Sauna should be physically and mentally enjoyable, relaxing, invigorating and meditative.
Sauna is not a jump in the hot room once and then go shower. It’s taking our time for an invigorating ritual of hot cold hot cold hot cold.
What Is A Sauna?
A Sauna (noun) is a wood lined room heated by stones to temperatures of about 75-105°c (167-221°f) or sometimes hotter. Sauna’s are naturally very dry heat and bathers throw water on to the stones to create bursts of steam and raise the humidity.
Finns say that the best way to heat the stones is with a wood fire – not because it makes the sauna itself better but simply because fire is relaxing and enjoyable. (When you sit down to dinner tonight, light a candle and see if dinner time is more enjoyable.)
Traditionally this was an open fire with smoke that filled the room and so the fire and smoke had to be put out before anyone could use the sauna. Today these are called Smoke Saunas or Savusaunas and are still popular. Continuous burning wood stoves with chimneys to exhaust the smoke have largely replaced the savusaunas for everyday use though.
Electric (and gas) are also popular and while perhaps not as romantic, offer some welcomed convenience like being able to pre-heat our sauna from anywhere using an iPhone. For many people though the routine of building a fire in the sauna stove is a key part of the ritual and enjoyment of sauna – it’s foreplay.
The woods chosen for use in a sauna for the walls, ceiling and benches are not only aesthetic but quite practical. They don’t get too hot to touch, the hygroscopic properties help to regulate the heat and moisture for a wonderful soft löyly and it helps to absorb noise for a quieter, more peaceful and less annoyingly echoey space.
When you enter a sauna you’ll typically step up a few steps to a wood platform. Around this platform is an 16-18” high ‘foot bench’ that should ideally be above the top of the stones. You can sit on the foot bench for cooler temps or you can step up on to the foot bench to sit or lay on the higher sitting bench for warmer temps. Some saunas may have 3 or even 4 bench levels.
When on the sitting bench you ideally want all of your body above the top of the stones – that is why the benches are so high. Finns have a saying ‘feet above the stones’ meaning that the foot bench should be above the top of the stones. When the benches are too low you’ll experience uneven heat – hotter near your head and colder near your feet and hot on your front facing the stove and cooler on your back. Being up above the stones results in a softer, more even, comfortable and enveloping heat around your entire body – löyly.
A sauna should be located so that it’s easy to go outside each round to cool off. A separate building with a hot room and vestibule/changing/shower room is ideal but an exterior door from an interior sauna changing room works well also.
This is all just the technical and functional side though. A sauna should also be a room that we enjoy being in and likewise the adjoining spaces, the vestibule, changing room and shower, should be a place we desire to spend time in not just functional.
Building or Buying a Sauna? Check out Trumpkin’s Notes On Building A Sauna, Kit Sauna Reviews, Notes on Barrels and Notes on IR Booths.
Löyly (pronounced kind of like ‘l – eu -i -loo’. Almost like Lou-Lou but more nuanced.) is a special word in Finnish for the environment in a sauna. It is “the purity, freshness, temperature and humidity of the air in the sauna”.
The air in a sauna should always be fresh, not stale and the temperature about 80-105°c at bathers heads. …Or 70 or 120°c if that’s your preference. It should be pure with no excess CO2, particulate matter, chemicals such as chlorine, perfumes, detergents, mold, or cleaning products.
Bather’s bodies should be enveloped in convective heat evenly from head to toe, front to back and second to second.
The steam from the stones is a critical element of löyly and so the environment in the sauna is not considered löyly until this steam has been added. It is not unusual for people to shout ‘LÖYLY!’ when this is done (and is perhaps the only way to elicit verbiage from a Finn:-).
There is a popular saying among Finns, Swedes and others that “90% of the saunas in the U.S. are bad and the other 10% are worse” – that not a sauna in the U.S. has löyly. Sadly this is largely true and is referring to lack of proper fresh air ventilation (that results in suffocatingly high CO2 levels) and temps and benches that are too low. Once you’ve experienced proper sauna and löyly you’ll never want to go back! Fortunately U.S. saunas are starting to improve.
Fun Stuff: The image above is by Giuseppe Acerbi who added himself as the clothed intruder, holding the door open letting in cold air and letting out löyly.
First, ‘the temperature’ is actually not that important. Far more important is that the temps on bathers bodies are fairly even head to toe and front to back and minute to minute, that the air is fresh without high levels of exhaled CO2 or built up moisture, bathers are experiencing the convective loop and steam descending down on them from the ceiling and are not experiencing noticeable radiant heat. These are the elements of good löyly. Finns don’t ask what the temp was, they don’t really care, they ask how the löyly was.
The official recommended temperature from ISA is 80-105°c (± 10°c) (167-221°f (± 20°f)) – measured at a point 1m (39”) above the middle of the longest sitting bench opposite the heater. The ± portion is actually not part of the official definition (see below) but experts I’ve talked with including Risto Elomaa, Chair of the International Sauna Association, all agree that this bit of variation still fits within a liberal interpretation of what is a sauna.
Another way to look at it is that the proper temperature is one that results in someone staying in 10-15 minutes. Less than 10 minutes is perhaps too hot, more than 15-20 minutes is not hot enough.
The best temperature though is whatever you desire. If 60°c is your thing then that’s what you should do and enjoy it even if it may not officially be sauna at that temperature. I encourage you to occasionally experiment with different temps though. As you become more experienced and acclimated you may find that 82°c or 94°c is quite enjoyable.
Note that when outside humidity is high then the base humidity in the sauna might be higher than normal and so slightly lower temps might be a good idea. So while we might normally do around 96°c, on a very humid summer day (91% RH) we find 88°c a nicer temp.
Women generally prefer lower temps than men. In Finland it’s common for women to sauna first and then the sauna will be heated up a bit for the men to sauna. When mixed then a temp between the two is often chosen.
Hot Feet – The foot bench should be somewhat hot. If it’s not then your feet and legs won’t be hot enough. When you sit with your feet on the foot bench it can help to very briefly raise your heels and then put your heels down and very briefly raise the front of your foot. Two or three times doing this is usually sufficient for your feet to acclimate and be comfortable. If the foot bench is too hot for this to work then it is likely getting too much radiant heat from the heater.
Cold Feet / Hot Head – In a sauna with too much stratification, usually from too low of benches and ceiling, our body will perceive temps as hotter than they are. Our body wants to be in homeostasis – equilibrium – and if our head is more than about 15-20°c warmer than our toes it will react to this temperature difference rather than to heat in general. That’s not what we want in a sauna.
Going to The Sauna
Going to the sauna should be relaxing and enjoyable and can be solitary or social. It is NOT A CONTEST. It is not a regimen to be endured (except in Germany 🙂 ).
The enjoyment and health benefits of sauna come not from just sitting in the sauna but from the repetitive rounds of heating up and quickly cooling down. You sit in the sauna for the experience of quickly cooling down in a cold lake, not just for the experience of sitting in the sauna.
Many Finns will say that anything short of Hot Cold Hot Cold Hot Cold (3 rounds) is not sauna. This is the number one thing about sauna that Americans often miss. People in American gyms will get in the sauna for a bit and then take a warm shower. Or maybe do one cold plunge and then a warm shower. That’s not really sauna according to Finns and Swedes.
The hot room and time in it is actually fairly minor. Other places and elements like a dip in the lake, a walk in the snow or a shower often comprise more sauna ritual time than the hot room. You should allow at least one and ideally two to four hours or more per sauna session so that you have time to enjoy multiple rounds in a relaxing way without feeling rushed.
1) Warm Up The Sauna:
Our sauna, like most, needs to warm up about 60-90 minutes prior to use. Ideally you want it to have been at your desired temp for at least 30 minutes so that the stones and walls have time to fully warm up. That said, I’d not let warm up time stand in the way of a sauna session.
2) Before Sauna:
Hygiene Before Heat – Or ‘first shower, then sauna’. Shower with soap before first entering the sauna and then rinse well. As my father-in-law would say “as far down as possible, as far up as possible …and possible”.
Why shower if you’re just going to get sweaty? Bacteria. Our bodies can build up a significant amount of bacteria (it’s the primary ingredient in BO). But you also want to get any makeup, dirt or other gook off.
This is especially important if you have suntan lotion on or have been in a hot tub. You (and your sauna mates!) want your skin and pores to be as clean as soap can make it. You’ll not necessarily need soap after this, though some people do choose to wash with soap after their final round.
To dry or not to dry? Many Finns enter the sauna dripping wet from their shower, others have a strong belief that you should dry off first. This one I think, despite it seeming almost religious to Finns on both sides, is personal preference. I do both and I’m not sure there’s much difference. I do always dry off if I’ll be standing outside in cool/cold temps though which I often do.
Drink water! It’s a good idea to wait a couple of hours after a meal but a light snack just before sauna is fine. Many Scandinavians will drink beer or Finnish Long Drink during their sauna sessions and roasting sausages on the rocks is a sometimes Finnish tradition but these are totally optional. Be cautious of alcohol though as drunk + sauna heat is not a good thing. High CO2 that’s common in U.S. saunas makes the affects of alcohol much worse.
If you’re wearing a swim suit (sauna is typically done nude) then it should be freshly clean (ideally with non-scented detergent) and not have been in the hot tub or any other chlorine source.
ALWAYS wipe your feet well before entering the sauna to keep the benches clean.
3) In The Sauna (5-20 minutes):
Always sit on a towel, even if wearing a swimsuit.
Sauna is typically done nude but swimsuits are certainly acceptable in North America (for more: Sauna’s, Nudity and Victoria)
Stay in as long as you are comfortable and leave when you want or when jumping through a hole in the ice sounds like a really great idea. There is no magic time to spend in a sauna and it may vary from day to day. Finns and Swedes consistently say 5-20 minutes and I’ve been told by a few people to not stay in longer than 15-20. While my preference is 10-14 minutes at 94-98°c (200-210°f), I sometimes like to stay in longer with cooler 75-80°c (167-185°f) temps and sometimes 8-9 minutes at 112°c (233°f) is my thing.
If you find that you are able to stay in longer than others that may just be that you’ve more body fat and less muscle. Muscle transfers heat better than fat so someone with more muscle and less fat will heat up faster internally. And you thought being able to stay in a long time as macho 🙂
In Scandinavia children are taught “in the sauna you must be as quiet as in church”. A Finnish friend told me “Silence is Gold, Talking is Silver.” Quiet conversation is wonderful as is sitting in total silence. I love both.
Steam (the final element of Löyly)
Steam in a well designed sauna is quite wonderful as you feel it envelope your body in its caressing warmth.
Ask others before throwing water on the stones. It’s impolite to throw water on the stones and then leave or for anyone to open the door for the first minute or so after throwing water on the stones).
Some natural eucalyptus oil may be added to the water bucket – typically about 1/2 to 1 dropper full. We use only pure natural oils, I am not a fan of Rento and other scents with unnatural chemicals. Alternatively you can add some birch leaves or redcurrant.
Ovi kii or ovi perkele are special epithets in Finnish for, roughly, ‘CLOSE THE DOOR’.
3.1) Optional: Cooling In The Sauna (1 second):
There’s nothing like getting warmed up well in a sauna and then pouring a bucket of cold water over your head (or having a cute Finnish singer do it for you). Shocking for about 1 second and then wonderful enveloping warmth.
Only do this in a sauna with a proper drain though.
4) Out Cooling Down (5-60+ minutes):
Go jump in a lake! Really. No matter how cold it is. If it’s frozen we’ll cut a hole in the ice (and maybe plant a warning tree forest like my wife’s cousins Mikael and Maria do in Sweden)*.
My friend Kimmo (SaunaSherpa – check them out for a tour) notes that Finns even have a special word for a hole in the ice to go swimming in – Avanto! He adds “A slight push outside one’s comfort zone can be intimating – both in sauna, as well in avanto to get deeper sensations. For avanto first timers: enter steady, determined, stay calm, remember to breathe(!), Hardly anyone enjoys staying in the water but jumping in is worth it as bliss/euforia comes as a reward afterwards.” He also notes that some people never get fully use to it.
Feeling a bit of trepidation on your way to the lake, like this is going to be cold and I’m nuts for doing this, is a good thing. That means that you’re in for a treat. It’s indeed a bit intimidating but well worth it.
Ideally you want to preserve as much sauna warmth in your body as possible when you jump in the lake. Taking a cue from firefighters, I always hang my swimsuit with strings up so I can get in it quickly (yeah, good idea to pull a swimsuit on before heading to the lake during the day in North America) and I’ll wrap my drying towel around my shoulders for the trip down. A terry cloth robe can work well also.
Next best is to go under a cool or cold shower. You ideally want to cool off quickly. Yep, it’s a bit shocking for 2 seconds and then you feel great. If you’re a loofa person this is ideal loofa! Two to five minutes under the shower and then walking outside to dry off and finish cooling down is a wonderful experience.
If you shower after your first round you may smell some body odor. This is not sweat (sweat doesn’t smell) but bacteria in your skin that soap didn’t remove (and possibly bacteria from soap). You’ll not smell it after further rounds!
Plunge Pools are an option also. It’s important though that your entire body including your head take the plunge. Some way to freshen the water and remove sweat and bacteria is a very good idea, especially if it’s shared. A recirculating filter system or perhaps a constant slow drain and fresh water filler are options.
Or no water necessary. Popping outside for a bit, rolling in the snow, relaxing on a lounge chair are all options.
If it’s below about 40-50°f then you may find sandals outside to be a good thing.
If it’s below about 10°f (-13°c)… drying off before going outside is a good idea. Be careful grabbing cold metal door handles with wet hands. And yes, that is ice in your formerly wet hair.
For me personally the ideal is lake water about 40°f (4°c) and air 20-40°f (-6°c – 4°c) but almost any weather will do.
Remember to take a few deep breaths of fresh air while you’re outside.
The first round is kind of an acclimatization round. Your body is relaxing and waking up at the same time, your pores are opening. In a well designed sauna with good ventilation the subsequent rounds will get better and better with each round.
When doing any kind of a cold plunge – sea, lake, shower, tub or bucket of water – a key is immediate total immersion from head to toe.
Repeat as often as you want. Three rounds is kind of the average but two, five or whatever is OK. Even occasionally doing just one round is fine.
Hydrate with every round. Or not. Some people believe it’s best to hydrate well before your session and then not again until after all of your rounds. Personally I think it best to drink a bunch of water with each round.
After your last round there is no necessary need of soap. Just rinse off well under a cool shower and you’re as clean as you’ll ever be and much cleaner than after a typical soap shower. Many people find the feeling of totally clean and clear skin with open pores and no chemicals quite wonderful.
Most people do however prefer to use soap or shampoo afterwards. It will not remove any more sweat than just water and it will clog your pores but many of us just don’t feel clean if we’ve not used it. Some people like it just for the fragrance and some rinse with water but shampoo their hair for the shampoo fragrance. This is all personal preference.
Hydrate! Water or maybe a beer, Finnish long drink or glass of wine if you like.
This is a great time for a nap or a relaxing read. Most importantly, enjoy the blissful post-sauna feeling of having cleaned both your body and your mind.
Here’s an alternative routine from The Finnish Sauna Society:
And, given American sensibilities and judgementalism, perhaps no discussion with others about who wore what or not in the sauna.
The First Time
If this is your first time then take it easy, maybe sit on the lower bench if you want, and don’t push how long you stay in the sauna. Different people have different tolerances and the more you do it the more you’ll get to know your body and what you do and do not enjoy.
Maybe take it slow with jumping in a cold lake or under a cold shower. The shower’s easy – adjust the temp up some (about 10 o’clock on ours in the black tile shower or the one just outside on the patio). You can’t turn the temp up on the lake so I’ll take back what I said earlier about taking it slow – jump in and enjoy!
Sauna can take some getting use to. For many people it can take two to five 3-round sessions to learn to really enjoy it. People who’ve done it for decades often comment that it continues to get better and more enjoyable year after year.
Going to the sauna may differ each time. Some days we may want to do six rounds and another day decide that one round is enough for that day. And this is OK.
While from a health/medical standpoint it’s generally recommended to stay in the heat no longer than 15-20 minutes per round, it’s OK for most people to occasionally do so.
Regimen, Ritual and Grounding
This is one place where we may sometimes need to be different from Finns. Finns, Swedes, Estonians and others have a culture of going to sauna. They do it frequently and have for their entire lives. Going to sauna is embedded in their being. And perhaps most importantly, they frequently experience many different saunas and sauna rituals with friends.
Finns rarely talk among themselves about how many rounds they do or how long they stay in. They know. They are also big on freedom and ‘doing what feels good’ whatever that is. However, if you go to sauna with a Finn you will almost always do three or four rounds of 10-17 minutes in the sauna and 15-45 minutes outside cooling down. Finns say that there is no ‘average’ sauna ritual. …but there is.
These are actually quite huge benefits. And we lack them.
For Americans it’s easy to develop not so good habits (or start with them) or to forget how good proper sauna can be. This especially with our rush-to-this-rush-to-that culture. It’s good for us to occasionally plan two or three intentionally ‘average’ and relaxing sessions of three or four rounds and taking at least 30-60 minutes per round split between hot/cold and perhaps 2-4 hours overall to help stay grounded. Finns get this grounding naturally as part of their culture, we do not.
It’s Not Sweat That You Smell
How do you get rid of the smell of sweat if you don’t use soap?
The smell that we associate with sweat is not sweat but bacteria. Bacteria thrive in warm places like folds of skin or skin sweating under a swimsuit unable to breath. When you sauna and then rinse off with cool water you get rid of bacteria that soap can’t.
This is why people can ride an upright Dutch bike in hot weather and not smell offensive. Firstly they don’t sweat as much as someone who’s leaning forward and wearing a helmet because they don’t get as hot – even if they’ve been riding the same speed. The big thing though is that they’ve not given bacteria a chance to grow. Leaning forward creates skin folds and reduced cooling both of which lead to bacteria gardens.
In most countries everyone enjoys sauna together naked and nobody gives it a second thought. People sauna without clothes because it is more comfortable and more hygienic.
“In the sauna nudity is not the objective; it is simply a necessary condition for bathing properly”
– Bernhard Hillila, ‘The Sauna Is’
It is more comfortable in the sauna because swimsuits or towels wrapped around you keep your skin from breathing. This can also create uneven heat across your body. Some Finns and others say that you cannot experience löyly if you wear a swimsuit.
Outside, exposed skin dries fairly quickly making it enjoyable to stand outside, swimsuits not so much. A wet swimsuit just isn’t comfortable, especially when it’s cold or breezy and doubly worse when dripping.
The time spent out of the sauna cooling down between rounds is as important as the time spent in the sauna and an uncomfortable cold wet swimsuit can make this time less enjoyable and shorten the amount of time you want to stay outside.
This also makes the routine of showering with soap before sauna and then rinsing well afterwards before getting dressed a lot easier and more pleasant.
There are two elements for hygiene. First is that having all of your skin exposed to air eliminates the bacteria growth that happens under swimsuits. One of the great things about sauna is that we get rid of all of this bacteria that has built up since our last sauna – and that’s good and healthy for our skin.
Cloth that is not freshly cleaned with unscented detergent can also transport unappealing scents and bacteria. This is why most saunas actually forbid any swimsuits, not just recommend not wearing them.
Scandinavians will also say that not having clothes on makes everyone more equal.
There are two sort of exceptions. Outside of immediate and extended family or close friends, Finland’s default is separate male & female rather than everyone together but mixed if all agree. “Finnish families including cousins aunts and uncles sauna naked together – as in everyone, from grandparents to tots as young as four months old.” You will find public tourist saunas in Finland that allow or even require swimsuits. In the U.S. and somewhat in the UK and Canada people often wear swimsuits, though that is slowly changing.
The default for our sauna is everyone wearing a swimsuit or towel. However, if all agree then it may be swimsuit optional. We can also setup separate male/female/family times if people want to give it a go in private.
The sunken sauna patio is fairly well protected (and will be better protected when new plants go in), especially the outdoor shower area. So there, the lower level of the house and of course in the sauna and changing/shower you are welcome to wear whatever you do or do not want. Beyond these a towel, shorts or swimsuit is a good idea. If it’s dark out then two presses on the ‘exterior’ button will turn down the outside lights and then a towel or robe is sufficient to get safely down to the lake. It’s easy to get comfortable walking around or laying in the sun in the sauna patio and then deciding to go for a dip in the lake so be thoughtful 🙂
There are two thoughts on swimsuits if you choose to wear one; loose so that your skin can breath or tight so that it dries quickly and doesn’t drip. You’re very likely going to be getting wet (shower, lake, etc.) to cool down and rinse sweat off as soon as you exit the hot room each round. Standing outside in the cold then is uncomfortable with a wet swimsuit dripping on your legs and feet. And personally I don’t particularly like the baggy feel of trunks or board shorts in the hot room. So…
For guys; briefs (‘speedo’) are likely best but a tight fitting square leg, square cut or boxer (three names for the same thing) is a bit more modest and works well to avoid uncomfortable cold drips. Jammers are probably third best with loose trunks or board shorts the worst. Or, if you prefer looser fitting then reverse that order.
Nude but wrapped in a towel is also an option. FWIW, on the very rare occasions that Finns and Swedes wear something, they seem to be equally divided between a towel or swimsuit and for guys equally divided between tight boxers or loose trunks.
For more on nudity, the differences between the U.S. and other countries, and the differences in natural, erotic and sexual nudity: Sauna Nudity
No Judgement Zone
Many people are comfortable in sauna without clothes, others are not. Some are comfortable around others who are nude, some are not. Some guys are not comfortable with other guys, particularly similar aged guys, seeing their wife nude, some aren’t bothered in the least.
NONE of these are right or wrong. Nobody should ever be judged in any way nor should anyone feel pressured to do anything they are uncomfortable with.
Jewelry & Electronics
It is generally best to remove jewelry before sauna. Some, depending on the material, can get hot and be uncomfortable. VHP’s and similar piercings that are somewhat protected do not generally seem to be a problem and other piercings depend on the material and location. The first time you sauna with a piercing it’s a good idea to keep your mind on it so that you can exit before it gets too hot.
When people are using our sauna: the sauna, sauna patio and the lower level may be a Euro Zone – you may encounter naked people. Be forewarned if you’re easily offended. 🙂
Health – Cautions
Sauna is generally safe for all people of all ages. Many people in Finland begin going to sauna as a baby and continue for their entire lives. And, even temps as high as 140°c (284°f) appear completely safe (though recommended temps are 75-105°c).
If you have any concerns about going to sauna then you should talk to your GP. This particularly if you are overweight, sedentary, pregnant or have any cardiovascular conditions or high blood pressure.
Going to sauna places increased stress on our cardiovascular and other systems. This is good but can be risky for people who are not already fit. If you are overweight or sedentary then it might be good to incorporate some lifestyle changes such as moderate activity each day and eating more wisely before beginning a regular sauna routine.
BE CAREFUL WHAT YOU BELIEVE – There are a lot of claims about this or that health benefit from sauna. Many of these claims are based on junk science, lack of understanding of human physiology, or are outright lies to promote or sell saunas, IR booths and other things.
Health – Myths
There are a lot of myths about sauna in the U.S. compliments of deceptive marketing by sauna companies. This is particularly a problem with IR booths (which are not actually sauna). The two big ones:
1) Sauna does not cause weight loss. You’ll loose some water weight and that’s about it. And you should also drink enough water (or beer or longdrink) to make up for that.
Some people report that their sport watch says that they burned xxx calories in the sauna. The problem is that the sport watch is measuring heart rate and it’s assuming that the higher heart rate is caused by physical muscular activity which would indeed cause calorie burn. But in this case our higher heart rate is caused by heat, NOT by physical muscular activity. If Apple and Garmin had an activity called ‘Sauna’ then it would indicate little beyond normal metabolic burn.
In a podcast recently Dr Peter Attai noted that in measuring lactate levels while in the sauna that he did not even reach zone 2 (which is an extremely low caloric burn), much less anything higher where measurable calorie burn takes place.
2) As far as I know there is no real thing as sweating out toxins – not in a sauna nor steam room nor IR booth nor anything. Sweat is water and salt. And a very tiny bit of minerals. That’s it. Your liver and kidneys deal w/ mineral based toxins, they are simply ancillary in sweat and the amounts no more than a rounding error.
Sweating in a sauna can sweat out gook in your skin though. Bacteria and soap scum the primary elements for most people but also potentially the embedded particulate matter from things like spray painting or firefighting. It’s critical to have proper ventilation.
If you use mineral based sunblock which can be very tough to wash off, a round or two in the sauna AFTER a good soap shower will get some or most of what soap doesn’t.
Health – Benefits
First, sauna should be totally enjoyable. It should not be uncomfortable drudgery done purely for health benefits. If it’s not enjoyable then it is likely because the sauna does not have proper ventilation or proper heat so if you’re not enjoying it then find a real sauna. That said, there is a bit of acclimation necessary both for those new to sauna and to some extent with each sauna session. In a well-built sauna with proper ventilation and heat the first round is often a bit of a acclimation round and not quite as enjoyable as subsequent rounds that often get better and better with each round.
Finns frequently say that they never sauna for any reason. They don’t sauna for health benefits but only for enjoyment. The health benefits are just a side bonus. And that’s all very true. HOWEVER, I personally think it’s totally fine to go to sauna for the health benefits. Importantly, enjoyment is one of the key health benefits. If it’s not totally enjoyable then you likely need a better sauna with proper bench and ceiling heights, ample volume per bather, air gaps in and behind the benches, and other bits that make a good sauna a good sauna.
Proper ventilation is critical. Lack of proper ventilation, common in U.S. saunas, results in high ambient CO2 levels and so high blood CO2 thus negating some of the potential health benefits and potentially causing harm.
Perspective – In the overall scheme of things the health benefits of sauna are not particularly great and will likely not make up for lacking in other areas. Staying physically & mentally active and eating well are of far greater importance. Riding a bicycle for local transportation will provide perhaps 15-20x the benefit of sauna. So while there are indeed likely health benefits to sauna, keep their contribution to your wellbeing in perspective. As well, most of the studies have been on populations in Finland who lead a much healthier lifestyle than Americans. They live five years longer but more importantly have many fewer disability years so they may benefit more from sauna than a typical sedentary American.
There are a number of studied and proven health benefits to sauna. Some of these benefits are believed to come from the cycling of hot/cold/hot/cold/hot/cold – contrast therapy. Others from sweating, and others from relaxing heat. Potential health benefits include:
- Improved cardiovascular system, significantly lowered risk of Congestive Heart Failure, and lower risk of blood pressure disorders, coronary heart disease, stroke and heart-related sudden death.
- Lowered risk of Ischemic Heart Disease / Coronary Artery Disease, Peripheral Artery Disease, Dyslipidemia, and Hypertension
- Reduced risk of Dementia, Alzheimers, Depression, Cognitive Decline and related issues.
- Stronger immune system.
- Decreased inflammation.
- Improved skin.
- After a workout sauna can help muscles relax and begin the repair process.
- Tinnitus relief. I’ve had a ringing in my ears since an incident about 10 years ago and it was made considerably worse by a noise at the end of 2020. Both ENT’s that I saw about it recommended regular massages as the only known relief but both agreed that it wouldn’t hurt to try sauna. While regular sauna may not work as well as massage it does work noticeably well (and is a bit less expensive) especially when done about every other day.
- Negative Ions. There is some evidence that negative ions, such as those in a traditional sauna from pouring water on the stones, may be beneficial. How beneficial still needs some research.
- Social. There are significant mental and thus physical benefits to simply doing something enjoyable with others and this may be the greatest benefit of all.
“Research by Dr Jari A. Laukkanen M.D., an internal medicine and cardiovascular diseases specialist, also observed that heart and cardiovascular disease mortality decreased as the number of minutes spent in the sauna increased: There were half as many deaths among those who spent more than 45 minutes a week in the sauna than among those who spent less than 15 minutes in the sauna.”
“Men who took four to seven saunas a week had a 66 percent smaller risk of a dementia diagnosis than those who sweated it out once a week.”
Some good discussions on the health benefits: Mayo Clinic: Cardiovascular and Other Health Benefits of Sauna Bathing: A Review of the Evidence , Dementia and Alzheimers Study, Health Secrets Of The Sauna, , Found My Fitness
Some important caveats (so your results will likely vary):
- Many of these studies have been on a population such as Finland that is much healthier than a typical North American.
- These have been conducted in saunas that likely have better air quality, more even convective heat on bathers bodies and less radiant heat than a typical North American sauna.
- Some studies confuse radiant and convective heat and call both ’sauna’. The heat from a convective heat sauna will likely produce very different results than the radiant heat from an IR booth or Sweat Cabin. We do not yet have a good idea which produces what benefits nor which is potentially better.
A Word Of Caution – As time goes on we learn more and more about the world around us and our own physiology and neurobiology. We learn about what is good, not so good and downright bad. What we’ve learned about Oxytocin over just the past 5 to 10 years borders on astounding. Over the past 5 years we’ve learned that what we thought we knew for decades about lactic acid likely isn’t really so. And then of course we’ve learned a lot about CO2 and Indoor Air Quality over the past 5-20 years.
We are learning a lot currently about contrast therapy, both hot+cold bath and sauna+cold bath as well as cold therapy alone. I’m a fan of these. There’s good science to back up much of what we’re learning. But we’ve still much more to learn than we already know.
Many people, particularly bloggers and podcasters, get out ahead of the science and too often without any caveats. They too often say what will get them PR and paying members rather than what is accurate. Be careful what you believe. Including from people like Dr. Rhonda Patrick (FoundMyFitness) who has some very good information but also some misleading information.
* Some or many of the health benefits may not be realized in American saunas with poor quality heat and poor ventilation. Similarly, poor ventilation and large head to toe temperature differences, both common in American saunas, may have negative health consequences.
Health Perspective – Blue Zones
The healthiest people in the world do not, as far as I know, ever go to sauna nor do any kind of thermal therapy – hot, cold, contrast or anything. They stay active with things like bicycling for their local transportation, eating wisely, and other bits that result in an overall healthy lifestyle.
So, while there may be some health benefits to sauna, there are other things vastly more important to a healthy life. If you’ve not already I highly recommend reading Dan Buettner’s ‘The Blue Zones: Lessons For Living Longer’.
Post Workout Sauna
Many, and perhaps all, of the benefits of post workout sauna are likely from the hot/cold contrast, not from just the sauna heat itself. Sauna alone may actually do more harm than good as it will cause inflammation and non-beneficial stress while hot/cold contrast appears to improve ventilation (intake of O2 and exhaust of CO2) and blood flow that leads to faster and better recovery and healing.
However, just as with contrast hydrotherapy, we don’t yet have very good data beyond anecdotal. There is also some evidence that post workout contrast therapy may aid recovery but reduce building of muscle so if gaining muscle is your goal then sauna or contrast therapy may not be the thing.
Many athletes report faster recovery and less likelihood of severe DOMS when workouts are followed by a 3 round sauna session. Some studies may indicate that cold hydrotherapy or cryotherapy may work almost as well (having done both, I’ll take the sauna!). The contrast therapy from multiple hot/cold sauna rounds appear to reduce lactic acid that’s built up during a workout or sporting event. So does cryotherapy, though sauna MAY be more effective.
Proper ventilation is critical. Too much CO2 (above about 550-700 ppm) in the sauna hot room will result in too high of blood CO2 which will hamper your body’s ability to recover. For this reason, going to a typical U.S. sauna with poor ventilation likely does more harm than good. Some good information on this is now publicly available here and in particular the article ‘Elevated CO2 Levels Delay Skeletal Muscle Repair by Increasing Fatty Acid Oxidation’. BTW, this applies to your gym as well. You can do a harder workout and get more benefit if CO2 levels are kept below about 700 ppm.
Where I’ve personally found it most beneficial is after weight days. My routine is Mon/Wed/Fri are weights and Tue/Thu/Sat are cardio (usually rowing or bicycle). Post weight day workout I’ll typically do 3 rounds though it sometimes varies from one to five. Each round is 10-15 minutes in the sauna (usually about 203°f) followed by cooldown (jump in lake summer or winter, or cold shower and then outside for a bit in winter if there’s no hole in the ice). I usually lay down for the first half of the first round and then sit but that’s purely personal preference.
I do think that I notice a difference when I do and do not go to sauna afterwards. Whether there is actually a difference or just a difference in my head I don’t know.
If you like a post workout protein shake it may be a good idea to start it a bit earlier and drink it slowly over 15-20 minutes so that by the time you begin your sauna rounds it’s not all just sitting in your stomach which can be less than fun when you hit the first cold part.
Dr. Rhonda Patrick and Joe Rogan are known for promoting sauna use with workouts which is good. They have both also shown a lack of understanding of sauna (surprising for Patrick) and of how the health benefits work. Or perhaps they both just say what they believe will sell and get them listeners and paying members rather than honest info. FWIW, most Finns I know do not regard either of them very highly for their sauna knowledge. I would take anything they say with a giant grain of salt.
Post Work Sauna
Sauna after a long days work has the benefits of helping us to relax mentally and physically, likely helps with muscle recovery and is enjoyable.
There’s one other benefit though – cleanliness. There’s no such thing as sweating out toxins, but we can sweat out some of the gook in or on our skin. Along with this, and similar to aiding muscle recovery, we may begin tomorrow with cleaner pores which may allow us to sweat easier and thus remain cooler on a hot day.
Is EMF A Concern?
Not likely in a sauna but possibly in an IR booth.
Every heat source (and really everything) in the world emits EMF, including every light bulb and every surface in your home. And each of us. And sauna heaters. Here’s an image of the EMF spectrum.
Whether the EMF emitted from a sauna heater is harmful or not we kind of really don’t know as we’re still learning about physiology and how our bodies and the world around us interact.
What we do know is that well done studies (above) have indicated that people who sauna (room heated by stones) frequently tend to have fewer health problems (particularly heart ailments and dementia), live longer and show no obvious adverse effects compared to those who sauna less frequently or not at all. So if EMF is causing some harm then the benefits of sauna appear to outweigh any harm.
FWIW, I’m far more concerned about particulate matter (PM1.0, PM2.5, etc.) in a sauna than EMF.
IR Booths might be a greater EMF concern for a number of reasons but we don’t really know for sure. Unfortunately we also don’t have the health studies as we do for sauna. Any harm likely comes from dosage being built up slowly over time and it will vary by unit and the individuals using it. Not unlike getting skin cancer from being in the sun or a tanning bed – except slower. It could be that for a particular IR Booth and individual a total of 20 hrs of total lifetime exposure does little or no harm, 60 hrs total does minimal and 200 hrs does considerable harm. A different unit might be 2x or 3x those dosages. Or none cause any significant harm with less than 500 hrs. We don’t know.
Don’t believe anyone who states that there is no risk or minimal risk because again, we don’t know and will not know until some long-term studies can provide solid data one way or the other.
Throw vs Ladle
I was originally taught to somewhat slowly ladle water on to the stones so as not to ‘kill the stones’. Then some other Finns told me to just throw it on. And recently Kimmo mentioned again ladling rather than throwing. So what’s a person to do?
Throwing ladle fulls of water quickly on to the stones creates a faster burst of steam.
Or, to quote Kimmo: “Water is often thrown but I prefer pouring to get longer, less aggressive löyly. And in case of massive stone capacity water can be poured to one spot to reach lower hotter rocks. When throwing on top rocks they might cool down and take some time until heat is transferred from lower rocks.”
What Europeans Wish Americans Knew.
Flatulance is normal.
Erections and reverse (including, to a few peoples horror, the full retreat) are normal, especially in response to heat/cold of sauna.
Talking quietly is OK.
Sitting with other people in total silence is OK. As is healthy debate and discussion.
Yes, people come in all shapes and sizes with all kinds of attachments and decorations and that too is normal.
Variations On A Theme
Sweden – Sauna is called ‘bastu’ and Swedes have a reputation for drinking liquor in the sauna instead of the beer or long drink that Finns enjoy.
Germany – Germans are well known for three things with their sudatorium; a strong smell of aromatherapy, regimented obedience to sand clocks for how long to stay in and a sauna master who is the only one allowed to throw water on the stones. Germans actually have two different varieties; First is a sauna that is very similar to saunas in Finland with the primary difference being their routine with aromatherapy and sand clocks.
The second is Aufguss. These are built different than a Finnish Sauna. They’re partial performance space (a theatre) for the Aufguss master and part of the ritual is the Aufguss master fanning heat down from the ceiling – so they actually want the benches down lower. This is often also the case with a less formal Aufguss ritual where anyone in the sauna can perform the fanning with a regular towel (but make sure you know the rules before jumping up and doing it!). A good overview on German saunas is here.
Many countries can be very strict about no clothes in saunas. Finns will be polite while eyeing the offender, Swedes will quietly say something while Germans will simply forbid entry or point and yell ‘Aus!’.
Other Thermal Experiences
Sauna is but one form of a Sudatorium or thermal bath. Following are some others. None of these are necessarily better or worse than the others or than sauna, just different. While I prefer a true sauna, as it is known to Finns in Finland, I still enjoy some of these other similar experiences occasionally. Sticky Toffee Pudding, Banofee Pie and Peach Cobbler are three very different foods but I still love all three. I would never try to sell someone Sticky Toffee Pudding and call it Peach Cobbler though. Note: It has taken some bit of work to figure out what’s what with these, particularly Banya. I think I’ve got it but if there is anything incorrect, please let me know.
Turkish Bath / Steam Room / Steam Shower – Lower temperature (40°c ± 5°c / 105°f ± 9°f ) and very high humidity of 90-100%. Rather than the wood walls of a Sauna the walls of a Turkish Bath are typically tile or stone and the rooms are likely to be larger. Turkish Baths are less tranquil and intimate than Sauna. Turkish Baths do have a number of health benefits, some overlapping with Sauna. There is higher risk of bacterial transmission in a Turkish Bath so hygiene of bathers and the facility is critical.
A steam unit can be added to an enclosed shower to create a quite good Turkish Bath.
It’s not unusual for someone to have both a sauna and a steam room or steam shower though these are separate rooms as they are designed very different.
Hammam – Similar to Turkish Bath but a more formal proscribed ritual done in a larger multi-room facility.
Russian Banya – Banya’s sit between Finnish Saunas and Turkish Baths. They look somewhat like saunas but there are some critical differences. Russian Banya’s do not have the löyly that Finns value so much. Banya’s are more constant humidity vs the contrast of dry with bursts of steam in a sauna and Banya’s don’t have the more even heat löyly pocket of saunas. While the goal in a sauna is for there to be no noticeable harsh or point source radiant heat, there can be considerable radiant in a Banya where the very large floor to ceiling oven produces a large though also somewhat even source of radiant.
Russian Banya ‘ovens’ (above) are typically much larger and more enclosed than a sauna stove and function more similarly to a steam generator than the open convective dryer heat of a sauna stove. There are two types of Banya ovens; 1) a large ≈ 8-12’ high masonry structure and 2) a smaller modern banya oven. The latter looks similar to a sauna stove but differs in numerous ways including having a water reservoir that constantly drips water on to the stones (and typically on only the lower stones). Banya’s may also have a pot of water hanging over the stones that constantly drips water on them to help maintain the humidity.
Banya includes Parenie thermal massage as an essential element, typically by a masseuse using a venik of birch, oak or eucalyptus. Using a venik is optional and less formal with sauna and often done by the bather themselves or whoever is sitting next to them.
Banya is lower temp (55°c ± 15°c / 131°f ± 27°f ) + higher and more constant humidity (30-70% RH) than a Sauna. Note that there is also a Banya experience that is quite high temps, about 140°c, and very low to no humidity.
Interestingly Russians will often say that Banya is just like Finnish Sauna while Finns say, rightly IMO, that it is very different.
Sweat Lodge or Temazcal– These are common among many Indigenous Americans and seem somewhat similar to a Finnish Smoke Sauna except that typically the stones are heated outside and then carried in to the tent. Sweat lodges are more radiant heat vs the convective heat of a sauna. Sweat Lodges are also a spiritual ritual for many Indigenous Americans.
Sweat Cabin – Prevalent in North America and sometimes misappropriately called a sauna or pseudo-sauna, these are kind of a hybrid of a Sweat Lodge, IR Cabin and Sauna. These have radiant heat from a heavy steel stove rather than the convective loop and convective heat of a sauna, These generally do not have the löyly cavity that a sauna has. They will usually have lower ceilings and benches since with radiant heat there is less benefit to higher as there is for sauna with convective heat.
Infrared Cabin / Booth – This is not sauna despite the misappropriation of the name in the U.S. and is a very different experience than sauna despite what marketing people say. Most people who have experienced both usually have a preference, often strong, for sauna. There are two flavors of IR; Far Infrared or FIR and Near Infrared or NIR. Each is a bit different from a comfort/enjoyment standpoint.
Both FIR and NIR include potential health benefits though the lists of benefits differ for NIR, FIR and Sauna. One studied benefit is using FIR for Waon Therapy to improve respiratory function for people with COPD. Other health benefits are being studied so as time goes on we’ll know more. There are some health concerns with IR such as EMF exposure though similar to the benefits these have not yet been studied enough to know if they are real or imagined.
Ozone Cabin – Similar to IR Cabins these are not saunas in any way except the misappropriation of the name and are also usually not a thermal experience.
Official Definition Of A Sauna
International Sauna Association (ISA) – Adopted at the ISA Congress in Aachen, Germany on 5 Aug 1999
Sauna bath – Saunaing is a healthy and relaxing hot air bath, alternating between warming up and cooling off. When taking a sauna, the whole body is heated several times in a wooden-surface room with a typical temperature of about 80-105 º C, measured from a height of about 100 cm above the level of the upper sitting bench. Warming is followed by cooling in the open air or with cold water.
Sauna room – The sauna is a wood-paneled room with stepped benches, a stove with stones, with a temperature of about 80-105º C measured at a height of about 100 cm above the level of the upper sitting bench, and low humidity, which is briefly added by throwing steam.
Saunologia: The Finnish Sauna Basics
GQ: In Search Of The Perfect Sauna
Womens Health: Sauna Vs Steam Room Benefits
The Truth About Sauna: The Truth About Finns. An interesting (and NSFW) video.
And Good Books:
Anyone and everyone who is building or buying a sauna should read Lassi Liikkanen’s ‘Secrets Of Finnish Sauna Design’. I’ve read over 20 books on sauna – this is the most accurate and most informative book available.
Other books largely have dated or inaccurate information from a design standpoint but may have useful ideas on sauna routines, ideas for aesthetics or provide some interesting historical context. Books by Alan Konya, Sakari Pälsi, and H. J. Viherjuuri fit this latter area.
‘Finnish Sauna: Design and Construction’ was the go-to book for accuracy prior to Lassi’s.
Various Fun Articles
I cannot attest to the accuracy but overall seem good.
Nordic Perspectives – Ice Bath Guide
* Avanto and Ice Baths – Never do it alone. Those with diabetes, heart conditions or just general concerns should consult a doctor before jumping through a hole in the ice. While it is considered safe (and healthy) for the vast majority of people there are a few who should be cautious.