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 ‘Taking A Sauna’.
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 has 3 million saunas for 5.3 million people, about one per household. Though not as pervasive as in Scandinavia, sauna is still quite popular throughout much of Europe and Asia.
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 many Swedes and Estonians) 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 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 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) is the practice of sitting or laying in a sauna for a short period of time 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. … Repeat as often as you want.
Sauna should be physically and mentally enjoyable, relaxing, invigorating and meditative.
Sauna is NOT a jump in the sauna 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 85-105°c (185-221°f). Sauna’s are naturally very dry heat and bathers ladle water on to the stones to create bursts of steam and raise the humidity.
Finns say that the only way to heat the stones is with a wood fire and that a wood fire sauna is always best. And yes, this is indeed so. But 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.
Electric (and gas) are also popular and while not as nice of an experience do offer some welcomed convenience like being able to pre-heat our sauna from anywhere with 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 helps to absorb noise for a quieter and less echoey space.
When you enter a sauna you’ll typically step up a few steps to a wood platform. Around this platform is an 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 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. 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 is ideal but an exterior door from the sauna changing room works well.
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 85-105°c at bathers heads. Or 70-120°c. It should be pure with no chemicals such as chlorine, perfumes, detergents, mold, or cleaning products.
The steam from the stones is a critical element of löyly and so the environment in the sauna is not usually considered löyly until this steam has been added. It is not unusual for people to shout ‘LÖYLY!’ when this is done.
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.
Taking A Sauna
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 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.
1) Warm Up The Sauna:
Our sauna, like most, needs to warm 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 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 – Shower with soap before first entering the sauna and rinse well. As my father-in-law would say “as far down as possible, as far up as possible …and possible”. This is especially important if you have suntan lotion on or have been in the hot tub. You (and your sauna mates!) want your skin and pores to be as clean as soap can make it. You’ll not need soap after this, though some people do choose to wash with soap after their final round.
It’s generally best to not enter a sauna wet so dry off well after your shower or swim.
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 very 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 then it should be freshly clean and not have been in the hot tub or any other chlorine source.
3) In The Sauna (5-20 minutes):
Always sit on a towel, even if wearing a swimsuit.
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 10-12 minutes at 94-98°c, I sometimes like to stay in longer with cooler 75-80°c temps and sometimes 6 minutes at 112°c is my thing.
If you find that you are able to stay in longer than others that may just be that you’ve more 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”. Quiet conversation is wonderful as is sitting in total silence. I love both.
Steam (the final element of Löyly)
Start with the rocks farther away from you so that you’ll not be burned by rising steam. Don’t forget to ask others before ladling water on the stones.
You can’t add water too slowly but you can add it too fast and kill the rocks by cooling them off too much. On the other hand many Finns throw water on from a distance – a full ladle at a time.
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.
Ovi kii is a special epithet in Finnish for ‘CLOSE THE DOOR’.
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) says 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.
Second 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!
If it’s below about 40-50°f then you may find sandals to be a good thing.
If it’s really cold out, like 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 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 if possible.
Repeat as often as you want. Three rounds is kind of the average but two, five or whatever is OK.
Hydrate well 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.
Please dry off (all over) and wipe your feet well before re-entering the sauna to keep the benches clean for others.
After your last round there is no 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. Using soap now will only clog your pores with chemicals. So rinse off, maybe stand or sit for a few minutes to finish cooling down and then get dressed. The feeling of totally clean and clear skin with no chemicals is quite wonderful.
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.
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.
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 or three 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.
In most countries, all except the US actually, 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.
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 family, 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 🙂
If you do wear a swimsuit then one that is fast drying and won’t drip is preferable. For guys; briefs (‘speedo’) are 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.
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 the 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. 🙂
There are a lot of myths about sauna in the U.S. compliments of deceptive marketing. This is particularly a problem with IR cabins (which are not actually sauna).
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) to make up for that.
As far as I know there is no real thing as sweating out toxins – not in a sauna or steam room or IR cabin or anything. Sweat is water and salt. And maybe a tiny bit of minerals. That’s it. Your liver and kidneys deal w/ mineral based toxins, they are simply ancillary in sweat. That said, sweating in a sauna does have numerous health benefits including improved skin and getting rid of bacteria (and soap scum).
First, sauna should be totally enjoyable. It should not be uncomfortable drudgery done purely for health benefits. If it’s not totally 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.
There are a number of studied and proven health benefits to sauna and no real negatives that we know of. Some of these benefits are believed to come from the cycling of hot/cold/hot/cold/hot/cold, others from sweating, and others from relaxing heat. (Some or many of these benefits may not be realized in American saunas with poor heat and poor ventilation.) 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
– Decreased inflammation.
– Reduced risk of Dementia, Alzheimers, Depression, Cognitive Decline and related issues.
– Improved skin.
– Stronger immune system.
– 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.
“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.”
Kimmo sums it up well: “Sauna session is comparable to a brisk walk exercise (heartbeat increases).”
Some good discussions on the health benefits: Found My Fitness, Mayo Clinic: Cardiovascular and Other Health Benefits of Sauna Bathing: A Review of the Evidence , Dementia and Alzheimers Study, Health Secrets Of The Sauna.
What Europeans Wish Americans Knew.
Flatulance is normal.
Erections and reverse (including 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 that Finns enjoy.
Germany – Germans are well known for three things with sauna; a strong smell of aromatherapy, 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.
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 and others will simply forbid entry or point and yell ‘Aus!’.
Similar Or Not So Similar Experiences
Outside of the U.S. the word sauna is used only in reference to… sauna – a room heated to high temperatures by a large mass of stones. It is not used for Infrared Cabins or Turkish Baths or snake oil tents.
Russian Banya – Very similar to sauna with sometimes slightly lower temps (90°c ± 10°c / 194°f ± 18°f ) but higher humidity (30-50% RH). Banya’s may have a pot of water over the rocks that constantly drips water on to the stones to maintain the humidity. Banya also includes Parenie thermal massage using a venik of birch, oak or eucalyptus as an essential element while using a venik is optional and less formal with sauna.
Turkish Bath / Steam Room – 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 or Banya 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 and Banya. There is higher risk of bacterial transmission in a Turkish Bath so hygiene of bathers and the facility is critical.
Hammam – Similar to Turkish Bath but a more formal proscribed ritual done in a larger multi-room facility.
Sweat Lodge – These are common among many Indigenous Americans and are somewhat similar to a Finnish Smoke Sauna. Sweat Lodges are a spiritual ritual for Indigenous Americans.
Infrared Cabin – 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 have a preference, often strong, for sauna though some do prefer IR. There are two flavors of IR; Far Infrared or FIR and Near Infrared or NIR. Both include potential health benefits though the lists of benefits differ for NIR, FIR and Sauna. As of yet none of the benefits of IR have been proven in formal studies as have the benefits of sauna though this may come with time. 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 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.