What Is A Sauna

What Is A Sauna?

And where does a Sauna fit among other sudatoriums or thermal experiences?

If I say I want a Sauna, what do I mean?  If I ask someone to build me a sauna, what do I expect?

What if I say I want a very good or ideal sauna?

When is something not a sauna?

Are Americans being misled by people telling them that a room with low benches and a high radiant heater is a good sauna?



Bather Experience:

  • Temp: 80-105°c (± 10°c) @ 1m above the middle of the main sitting bench.
  • Head to Toe Temp Difference: Ideally no more than 15-20°c head to toe temp difference (e.g., no Cold Toes).
  • Heat Characteristics: We are heated very evenly head to toes, front to back and minute to minute by soft convective heat (and steam when created). Every inch of our body feels this heat and steam evenly.
  • Radiant Heat: We feel no noticeable point source, uneven or harsh radiant heat. We may feel mild radiant from the wood walls.
  • Humidity: Naturally dry but higher 
  • Air: We have fresh air to breath without high levels of CO2, VOC’s or odors.
  • Air Movement: We feel no, extremely minimal, unnoticeable, air movement.
  • We feel no cool drafts, even when someone opens the door.
  • Humidity is returned to normal quickly after creating steam (so that we can do it again!).
  • We are in a quiet, calm and relaxing environment.
  • We can easily and comfortably cool off outside, with a shower, bucket of water, in a lake or in a cold plunge.

Achieving That Bather Experience:





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.


Russian Banya:

Banya’s sit between Finnish Saunas and Turkish Baths. They look somewhat like saunas but there are some critical differences. The steam room or ‘Parilka’ in Russian Banya’s do not usually have the löyly that Finns value so much. Parilka’s are more constant humidity vs the contrast of dry with bursts of steam in a sauna and Parilka’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. While saunas in Finland nearly always include a changing room, I’m told that having three rooms (steam or ‘parilka’, washing or ‘moyka’ and the critical ‘predbannik’ for relaxing) is essential to Banya.

Banya is traditionally lower temp (65°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 and some Russians will treat their Parilka somewhat like a Sauna with lower humidity and temps around 80-105°c

Interestingly Russians will often say that Banya is just like Finnish Sauna while Finns say, rightly IMO, that it is very different.


Hot Banya:



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.


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.