Saunas and steam rooms are both time-tested ways of providing relaxation by encompassing the healing power of heat.
Warming our bodies helps muscles to relax after a long day (or a workout), and also aids in opening up the skin’s pores.
Both steam rooms and saunas may also provide additional health benefits, but which should you choose?
If you are in good health and just want a relaxing dose of heat, it largely depends on whether you prefer dry heat (sauna) or moist, humid heat (steam room).
If you have a health condition, however, one may serve you better than the other.
Saunas are usually hotter than steam rooms — they are heated to between 160 and 200 degrees Fahrenheit. However, since the heat is dry, and the humidity is low, you may not notice how hot they really are.
Traditional saunas are generally made of wood, and contain stacks of heated rocks that water is poured over to generate the heat. This does circulate some humidity, but not much, as the sauna room is vented so that the humidity can escape. Some more modern saunas are heated by infrared light, so they may be drier.
According to the authors of a 2011 study published in the journal Alternative Medicine Review:
“Sauna therapy has been used for hundreds of years in the Scandinavian region as a standard health activity. Studies document the effectiveness of sauna therapy for persons with hypertension, congestive heart failure, and for post-myocardial infarction care. Some individuals with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), chronic fatigue, chronic pain, or addictions also find benefit.”
The authors add:
“Existing evidence supports the use of saunas as a component of depuration (purification or cleansing) protocols for environmentally-induced illness.”
The authors of a study performed earlier this year, published in JAMA Internal Medicine, wrote:
“Analyzing data from the Finnish Kuopio Ischemic Heart Disease Study, the authors found that men who took more frequent saunas (4-7 times per week) actually live longer than once-per-week users. Although we do not know why the men who took saunas more frequently had greater longevity (whether it is the time spent in the hot room, the relaxation time, the leisure of a life that allows for more relaxation time, or the camaraderie of the sauna), clearly time spent in the sauna is time well spent.”
Some other traditional uses of sauna include improving circulation to the skin and relieving insomnia, as well as relaxing tense muscles. For individuals who have health conditions that are sensitive to humidity, the dry heat of a sauna may be a better choice than the moist heat of a steam room.
A couple of downsides: Raising your body temperature quickly may lead to cardiac complications in some individuals, so if you have a heart condition, make sure you talk to a doctor before trying a sauna. Also, a sauna may dry out sensitive skin.
Unlike saunas, which are traditionally made of wood, steam rooms are usually constructed from tile or another airtight material that is not affected by the high humidity. These rooms are heated to approximately 114 to 120 degrees Fahrenheit, and since they have no vent to let the air out, they remain at nearly 100 percent humidity.
A typical characteristic of a steam room is condensation on the walls, and these rooms may feel hotter than saunas (even though the temperature is lower), and will induce a great deal of sweating.
In the magazine Dermascope, Dr. Reinhard R. Bergel of H.E.A.T. Spa Kur Therapy Development, Inc. writes:
“As a supportive activity, steambath is especially recommended to alleviate the conditions… Bronchial asthma, bronchitis, catarrh of the upper respiratory tract, coughs, hoarseness, expectoration (particularly with the assistance of essential oils), non-acute rheumatic complaints and restricted or painful movement of the joints.”
Dr. Bergel also mentions a steam bath’s “highly beneficial effect on the skin,” and states that these rooms have the benefit of “opening pores, removing dead skin and impurities.”
Individuals who have a cold, sinus congestion, or allergies may find steam baths especially helpful. Moist heat is an ancient remedy for clearing mucus during many seasonal afflictions, and the warmth can be highly soothing as well. The intense sweating that you experience in a steam room is also a great way to detoxify the skin, and may lead to a clearer complexion.
One downside of a steam room is that it is very easy to become dehydrated, so you’ll need to make sure you have ample water with you (this is important in a sauna too, but the sweat-inducing nature of a steam room makes it potentially even more critical).
Also, the humid environment of a steam room may encourage the growth of certain bacteria and fungus, so make sure that the steam room you’re going to is properly cleaned, and that hygienic practices are followed.
Sweat lodges: an ancient practice to be embraced only with caution
In his book, The Native American Sweat Lodge, Joseph Bruchac writes:
“The sweat lodge has many functions. It cleans and heals the body. It heals the mind, bringing clarity. It is a testing place, offering a rite of passage where a participant can show endurance, strength and courage.”
The use of sweat lodges is an ancient tradition in a number of Native American tribes, including the Lakota and Abenaki tribes. Sweat lodges are also utilized by other cultures, including traditional cultures in some parts of Australia. Nowadays, individuals from all around the world visit these sweat lodges in hopes of both healing and experiencing these traditions.
However, despite the mysticism and healing associated with this practice, sweat lodges do come with risks, and safety precautions must be taken when visiting them.
A 2005 study published in the American Journal of Forensic Medicine and Pathology relays the account of a 37-year-old male who died during a sweat lodge ceremony in the Australian outback due to exposure to heat and dehydration. The study authors wrote:
“Participants in this type of activity must be cognizant of the types of medical problems that may arise. Individuals with significant cardiovascular disease, those who are taking certain medications that predispose to hyperthermia, or those who have had large amounts of alcohol should not enter sweat lodges.”
If you plan to visit a sweat lodge, which is an ancient form of a steam room, make sure you get medical clearance first, and that you do not stay in longer than your body feels comfortable. Your health and safety are of the utmost importance.
A few precautions for both saunas and steam rooms
- Do not visit a sauna or a steam room if you are pregnant, as they may be detrimental to a developing fetus.
- Do not visit a sauna or a steam room if you have consumed alcohol.
- Drink plenty of water — dehydration is dangerous!
- Remember that the higher up you sit in a sauna or steam room, the hotter it will be, as heat rises.
- Immediately exit the sauna or steam room if you feel lightheaded, ill, or are uncomfortable in any way. Listen to your body and don’t overdo it.
- If you are on any medications, be sure you get the go-ahead from your health professional before using a sauna or steam room.
There is no set length of time that you should stay in a sauna or steam room — this varies based on individual health. One method of using these rooms is to go in rounds: for example, three 5- to 10-minute rounds per day. Some people stay in longer, but always be sure to listen to your body, and it may be a good idea to bring a friend with you, for optimal safety.
Even if you are generally healthy, it is always a wise idea to talk to a health professional you trust before using either a sauna or a steam room, to determine the length of time that it is safe for you to stay in, and to discuss the benefits and risks to your individual health.