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!). Though not as pervasive as in Scandinavia, sauna is still quite popular throughout much of Europe.
Finns 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 3 million saunas for 5 million people. 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 throughout northern Minnesota and Michigan thanks to Scandinavian immigrants. It began to somewhat die out in the mid 20th century but has seen a revival since the 1980’s.
What Is Sauna?
Sauna (verb) is the practice of sitting or laying in a sauna (noun) for a short period of time until you’ve been sweating for a bit and then cooling off in a lake, cool 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.
What Is A Sauna?
A Sauna is a room heated by rocks to temperatures of about 85-105°c (185-221°f) at bathers heads and shoulders. Sauna’s are naturally very dry heat though bathers can ladle water on to the rocks 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. 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 very popular. Continuous burning wood stoves with chimneys to exhaust the smoke have largely replaced the savusaunas.
Electric and gas are also possible 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.
The woods used in a sauna for the walls, ceiling and benches are not only aesthetic but quite practical. They don’t get too hot to touch and once warmed up they radiate wonderful soft heat.
When you enter a sauna you’ll typically step up one or two steps to a wood platform. Around this platform is an 18” high ‘foot bench’ that you can sit on 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.
In our sauna it is often a bit cooler nearer the window so that is an option for slightly cooler temps as well and is also a wonderful place to lay down.
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 and may also include the heat radiating from the walls and maybe the evenness of the heat and air throughout the sauna.
The air in a sauna should always be fresh, not stale and the temperature about 70-105°c at bathers heads. It should be pure with no chemicals such as chlorine, perfumes, detergents, mold, cleaning products, etc.
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 – not a sauna in the U.S. has löyly. This is largely referring to lack of proper fresh air ventilation that results in suffocatingly high CO2 levels and temps that are too low.
The steam from the rocks is a critical element of löyly and so the air is not usually considered löyly until this steam has been added. It is not unusual for people to shout ‘LÖYLY!’ when this is done.
Taking A Sauna
First, don’t worry about doing everything right. It may seem like a lot of do this don’t do that but it all quickly becomes second nature. Also keep in mind that for most people it takes two or three sessions of three rounds each to get it and appreciate it.
A typical sauna session will involve multiple rounds of being in the sauna sweating and out of the sauna cooling down and relaxing. Much of the enjoyment and health benefits come from the rapid cooling from very high temps so don’t neglect that. Some Finns will say that anything short of Hot Cold Hot Cold Hot Cold is not 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.
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 walls have time to warm up and radiate properly. That said, I’d not let warm up time stand in the way of a sauna session.
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”.
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 during their sauna sessions and roasting sausages on the rocks is a sometimes Finnish tradition but these are totally optional.
If you’re wearing a swim suit then it should be clean and not have been in the hot tub or any other chlorine source.
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. While my preference is 10-15 minutes at 94-98°c, I sometimes like to stay in longer with cooler 75-80°c temps.
Ask others before ladling water on the rocks and start with the rocks farther away from you so that you’ll not be burned by rising steam.
You can’t add water too slowly but you can add it too fast and kill the rocks by cooling them off too much.
Some natural eucalyptus oil may be added to the water bucket – typically about 1/2 to 1 dropper full. Personally I am not a fan of Rento and other scents with unnatural chemicals.
Out Cooling Down (10-60 minutes):
Go jump in a lake! Really. No matter how cold it is. If the water level is not too low then we’ll cut a hole in the ice.
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. Two to five minutes under the shower and then walking outside to dry off and finish cooling down is a wonderful experience. For the shower in our sauna changing room I find that the handle being somewhere between 8 and 9 o’clock is a nice cooling off temp. If you’re a loofa person then this is ideal loofa.
If it’s below about 50°f then you may find sandals to be a good thing. I usually wait to put mine on until after I’ve dried off so that they don’t get wet.
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’s ice in your wet hair.
Some people stay out of the sauna for only 5-10 minutes while others sit and relax for an hour. You can spend this time outside, in the LL rec room or in the sauna changing room.
For me personally the ideal is lake water about 40°f (4°c) and air 20-40°f (-6°c – 4°c).
Remember to take a few deep breaths 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.
Repeat as often as you want. Three rounds is kind of the average but one, 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 wipe your feet well before re-entering the sauna to keep the benches clean.
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! This is a great time for a beer or glass of wine.
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.
And, given American sensibilities, 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 wet places like folds of skin. When you sauna and then rinse off with cool water the bacteria doesn’t have a chance to grow.
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 foot 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 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 9 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.
Sauna is traditionally enjoyed without clothes of any sort because it is more comfortable and more hygienic.
It is more comfortable in the sauna, and outside when it’s cold or breezy it’s much more comfortable to be dry and not have a cold wet swimsuit on. It also makes the routine of showering with soap before sauna and then rinsing well afterwards before getting dressed a lot easier.
From a hygiene standpoint being naked reduces or eliminates the growth of bacteria on your skin, allows your skin and you to breath and sweat easier and swimsuits often have chemicals that can permeate the sauna air.
Scandinavians will also say that not having clothes on makes everyone more equal.
In most countries everyone enjoys sauna together naked and nobody gives it a second thought. There are two exceptions. Finland’s default is separate male & female but mixed if all agree. You will also find public tourist saunas in Finland that require swimsuits. In the U.S., UK and somewhat in 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 patio is fairly well protected so there, the lower level of the house and of course in the sauna you are welcome to wear whatever you do or do not want. Beyond these a towel, shorts or swimsuit is a good idea.
And, no jewelry or electronics. While watching someone who’s just realized that their earrings are getting very hot very fast is entertaining it’s also a bit painful to see.
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. 🙂
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.
Real Health Benefits
First, sauna should be totally enjoyable. It should not be uncomfortable or drudgery and done purely for health benefits. If it’s uncomfortable then it is likely because the sauna does not have proper ventilation or proper heat so if you’re not enjoying it then maybe consider not doing it or finding a better sauna to enjoy. 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 for many people always a bit of a acclimation round and not quite as enjoyable as subsequent rounds.
There are a number of proven health benefits to sauna and no real negatives that we know of. Health benefits include:
– Improved cardiovascular system and significantly lowered risk of Congestive Heart Failure.
– Lowered risk of Ischemic Heart Disease / Coronary Artery Disease, Peripheral Artery Disease, Dyslipidemia, and Hypertension
– Decreased inflammation.
– Reduced risk of Dementia, Depression, Cognitive Decline and related issues.
The leading benefits are a stronger cardiovascular system, lowered risk of dementia and similar ailments, stronger immune system and improved skin. As well, sauna after a workout can help to relax muscles.
Negative Ions – There is some evidence that negative ions may be beneficial including those in a traditional sauna from pouring water on the stones. How beneficial still needs a lot of research.
A good discussion of the health benefits is at Found My Fitness.
What Europeans Wish Americans Knew.
Flatulance is normal.
Erections and shrinkage are normal, especially in response to heat in saunas.
Talking quietly is normal (and appreciated).
Sitting with other people in total silence is normal and enjoyable. As is healthy debate and discussion.
Yes, people come in all shapes and sizes and that’s 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 including Germany, Sweden, Netherlands and Iceland can be very strict about no clothes in saunas. Finns will be polite while eyeing the offender, other countries will speak up and kick them out.
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/blankets.
Infrared Cabin – This is not sauna despite the misappropriation of the name in the U.S. and is a very different experience than sauna. 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 though similar to the benefits these have not yet been studied enough to know if they are real or imagined.
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 often 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 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 even more important.
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.
Ozone Cabin – Similar to IR Cabins these are not saunas in any way except the misappropriation of the name.
Some good resources: