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Saunas - What You Need to Know

Saunas - What You Need to Know

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A sauna, or steam bath, is a small room designed to provide wet or dry heat sessions. Similar bathing houses and customs have a long tradition among many cultures, including: the Roman, Turkish and Celtic bath, the Native American sweat lodge or inipi, the Japanese furo, the Turkish hamam, the Russian banja, and the Mexican temascal. In Finland, however, the sauna has a history of at least 1000 years, and the Finns are a special nation of sauna-users that have kept the tradition alive and adjusted it to their modern lifestyle. In fact, today there are more than 2 million saunas in Finland, for a population of 5.2 million!

It is generally believed that the first wooden saunas were built in Finland in the 5th to 8th centuries. Heated by fire and smoke, bathers sat on benches splashing water on the hot stones of the stove and gently beat themselves with leafy birch whisks. The steam produced by the thrown water is known as löyly. Löyly is described as the spirit of the sauna, and is a Finno-Ugric word going back 7,000 years.

Towards the end of the 18th century, cased-in brick stoves which were less prone to set fire to the building first emerged in western Finland. The cased-in stoves had two or three separate sections: the lowest was for burning wood, the next for the stones and the top for the smoke before it escaped into the room.

The sauna with a chimney was introduced at the end of the 18th century, an important achievement decreasing the fire hazard of saunas built in dwellings made of wood. In the early 1900's, the manufacture of factory-made, metal-cased standard stoves began, giving birth to many new models.

The electric stove marks the next stage in the development of the sauna. The electric stove is safe and easy-to-use: push a button and electric resistors heat up the stones. Since electric stoves require no smoke flue, saunas can now be installed where wood-burning saunas could not, and separate sauna buildings are no longer necessary. Saunas once built only in public arenas are now being installed as individual saunas in private homes and mini-saunas are also being built off modern hotel bathrooms. Finally, today, infrared saunas are growing in popularity, using infrared rays emitted by infrared heaters to create warmth.


Sauna temperatures can vary from 60 to 120 degrees Celsius. The higher you sit in a sauna (upper bench versus lower bench), the hotter the temperature will be. You may adjust the air moisture by throwing water on the stones of the heater. The steam will make the room feel hotter. On the other hand, throwing water on the benches has a cooling effect.

Under most circumstances, temperatures approaching and exceeding 100°C would be completely intolerable. Saunas overcome this problem by controlling the humidity. The hottest have very low humidity levels, which allows temperatures to be tolerated and even enjoyed for short periods of time. Other types of sauna, such as the hammam where the humidity approaches 100%, will be set to a much lower temperature of around 40 °C to compensate.

If you are reasonably healthy, you can bathe in a sauna as often as you like without worrying about health effects. As for how long to stay in the sauna, use common sense as to what feels comfortable. Typically, stay in the sauna for 10-15 minutes, step out and cool off, then return to the sauna for another "inning." Repeat as desired. Don't overdo it. Set the temperature and humidity level to your comfort level. If you begin to feel uncomfortable, leave the sauna and cool off.

After a sauna, it is recommended that you take a cool shower or bath to close your pores, cleanse your skin of salts and residues, and leave you feeling refreshed. Drink water, mineral water, fruit or vegetable juice to replace lost fluids. As with showering, taking saunas often may dry your skin, so you may want to use a moisturizing lotion.


The sauna can be so soothing that heat prostration or even the more serious hyperthermia (heatstroke) can result. The cool shower afterwards always results in a great increase in blood pressure, so careful moderation is advised for those with a history of stroke or hypertension (high blood pressure).

As for a sauna's health benefits, in the olden days people used the sauna as a place to treat illness. In the sauna folk healers could concentrate on their work in peace and quiet and patients were receptive to treatment because there were many deeply held beliefs and a certain respect connected with the sauna. In Finland today, the belief in the healing properties of the sauna remains strong and there is even a saying: "Jos ei viina, terva tai sauna auta, tauti on kuolemaksi.""(If a disease can't be cured by booze, tar, or the sauna, it is fatal).

Sauna advocates claim that by raising body temperature, a sauna speeds up heartbeat, improves breathing and circulation, stimulates metabolism and may temporarily lower blood pressure. Some state that a sauna session causes your body to lose water, resulting in temporary weight loss. And, while saunas cannot cure a cold, they certainly might help, since the body relies on heat to fight off viruses, and it is believed that exposure of the skin to heat stimulates the production of white blood cells and strengthens the immune system. Finally, sauna supporters posit that heavy sweating helps remove unwanted 'toxins' from the body and indeed, Hyperthermia Treatment Therapy via infrared saunas is used today along with other cleansing therapies for overall purification.

In fact, to date few of the health benefits of high temperatures or sweating have been scientifically proven. The real point of a sauna is the relaxation, which is the number one benefit mentioned by sauna users worldwide. However, while we now know that sauna bathing does not prevent or cure long-term illnesses, it can reduce stress and improve the bather's well being in general.


The main risk of a sauna is staying in too long and fainting from overheating. Older people need to avoid or limit their time in the sauna. If you are pregnant, have high blood pressure or heart disease or respiratory problems, consult a doctor before starting a steam. Avoid mixing drug and alcohol use with the sauna - tranquilizers, stimulants, and other prescribed drugs alter the body's metabolism and could produce dour effects in the heat. If you experience dizziness, problems with breathing, or a general feeling of ill health, leave the sauna immediately. If you do decide to use the sauna, start gradually. Stay in only as long as you are comfortable, increasing the time with each visit.


The original sauna used wood as an energy source and a large amount of stones to store the heat. Electric heaters with stones continued the tradition. Modern technology has created the infrared (IR) heater.

In an IR sauna an infrared radiator is used to send heat directly to the skin of the bather in the form of heat waves (infrared electromagnetic radiation, essentially the same kind of radiated heat we get from the sun or a hot light bulb). When the skin absorbs the heat energy, its temperature goes up and it reacts by starting to sweat. In the traditional Finnish sauna, heat energy is transferred both by radiation, conduction and convection (from the heater's stones and the room's walls, from the loyly and from the airflow, respectively).

Since the IR radiator is based only on the heat waves it sends out, it is usually ready to use as soon as you switch it on, whereas a traditional sauna takes 30 minutes or an hour to heat up. It is claimed that IR systems warm you to a greater depth and may induce up to 2-3 times the sweat volume of a conventional hot-air sauna. Further, since IR systems operate at a significantly cooler air temperature range, it is said that the lower heat is safer for those concerned about cardiovascular risks.

IR critics express the following skepticism:


Today, traditional steam saunas are being enhanced by the soothing oils of aromatherapy. This system releases essential oils into the sauna steam, stimulating circulation and metabolism to deeply cleanse your skin.

Stepping up to the era of home and personalized services, sauna makers are now serving up portable and personal saunas in the form of a home sauna kit! Home sauna kits are affordable and easy to install, come in various sizes (from a medium-size closet to large bedroom), and come in steam and IR forms. Portable saunas are lightweight and need about 3x4 feet of floor space. Walls and doors are usually tinted for privacy.

And for added spice, sauna mavens suggest mixing fragrant essences into the water you sprinkle over sauna stones. Chose from mint, eucalyptus, cinnamon and other fragrances. Sauna scents bring an exhilarating new dimension to sauna bathing.

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