For the fullest enjoyment of sauna, for you and others, it’s important to understand sauna. Hopefully this will provide a good, somewhat brief and beneficial introduction.
Sauna is about contrasts – The contrast of very hot vs very cold, of low humidity vs high humidity, and 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.
Hot Cold Hot Cold Hot Cold – A key element of a sauna session is multiple rounds of hot cold contrast.
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.
1) Hygiene Before Heat – Or ‘first shower, then sauna’. Shower with soap before first entering the sauna and then rinse well. Remove all sweat, dirt, bacteria, chlorine, suntan lotion or anything else on your body.
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 off any makeup, chlorine, sunscreen, cologne, dirt or other gook.
This is especially important if you have suntan lotion on or have been in a pool or hot tub. You (and your sauna mates!) want your skin and pores to be as clean as possible. You’ll not necessarily need soap after this, though some people do choose to wash with soap after their final round.
You may enter the sauna wet or dry.
2) 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 10-14 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.
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).
3) Out Cooling Down (10-60+ minutes) – Cool/cold shower, jump in a lake, cold plunge, …
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.
4) Repeat 1x – 5x or as often as you want. Three rounds is kind of the average but two, seven or whatever is OK.
Warm up kind of slowly. While a very quick cool down is wonderful, the opposite is not so true, especially if you’ve been outside in very cool or cold temps. Spend a minute or three in the changing room letting your body warm to that temp. Then enter the hot room and spend a few seconds at the lowest level before slowly climbing up in to the heat of the löyly cavity. This gradual entry to the heat makes for a much more enjoyable sauna experience.
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.
If this is your first time – 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.
- QUIET! Sauna is a place of peace, quiet and contemplation.
- Close The Door!
- ALWAYS shower or rinse before each sauna round.
- Ask others before throwing water on the stones.
- Never throw water on the stones and then leave.
Attire – In most countries everyone enjoys sauna together nude. Alternatively bathers may wrap a towel around themselves or wear a freshly cleaned and quick drying swimsuit.
NEVER wear anything that has sweat, chlorine or anything else offensive.
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. Finns and others say that you cannot experience löyly if you are at all covered.
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 public saunas forbid swimsuits, not just recommend not wearing them.
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.
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, obese, sedentary, pregnant or have any cardiovascular conditions or high blood pressure. It’s likely completely safe for you but some caution isn’t a bad idea.
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.
Cold Water vs Ears – Repeated or continued exposure of ears to cold water can lead to surfer’s ear, medically known as external auditory canal exostoses (EACE) or just exostoses. I’ve been unsuccessful in determining what dose is risky but know that it’s common among folks who swim, surf or dive (SCUBA, etc.) in colder water. Something to be cautious of. That said, if the water isn’t too cold then I’m a fan of full immersion – there’s really nothing like it that’s legal :-).
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 are weight loss and sweating out toxins:
1) Sauna does not cause weight loss. You’ll loose some water weight and maybe a calorie or two from a higher heart rate but 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.