Saunas and steam rooms are a great way to relax and unwind especially after a tough day in the office or a hard workout. The mental and emotional benefits become quite apparent after your first time but they are incredibly good for one’s long term health as well.
Saunas are more common than steam rooms in gyms and hotels but if you are lucky enough to have experienced both, you may now be asking, which is better? This is an age-old debate so in the following post, we hope to cover the advantages and disadvantages of both as well as settle the sauna vs steam room debate once and for all!
Sauna Vs Steam Room – What’s Best?
What is a Steam Room?
Also referred to as a Turkish Sauna or Turkish bath, this is a very hot, moist room. Generally speaking, a steam room is made from a non-porous material and tiles are the most common choice. The use of tiles traps all of the moisture produced by the steam generator within the room itself as opposed to absorbing it.
Walking into a steam room can be quite an experience for your first time. Due to the steam you won’t be able to see very far, making out maybe the silhouettes of other users or a few feet. As soon as you walk into a steam room your skin will immediately feel damp as will the air. Breathing is fine although some people find it a little strange the first time. I think the best way to describe the air would be thick.
Steam Room Temperature and Humidity Level
The steam is generated and will generally turn off at the pre-determined humidity level. This can be up to 100 percent with most functioning above 95 percent humidity.
Temperatures within a steam room can range anywhere from 100 degrees Fahrenheit to 120 degrees Fahrenheit, this may not seem like a lot but the humidity makes it feel much hotter than that.
Where to Sit in a Steam Room?
Hot air rises, as does steam so the higher up in the room you are the hotter or more intense it will be. There are generally two sets of steps in the room, one providing a lower ledge and one a little higher up. If you find it too much up the top then lower yourself down to the bottom step.
Health Benefits of a Steam Room
As a result of the extremely high moisture in the room, your skin will begin to feel moisturized almost immediately.
Moisturized skin is supple, soft and glowing and who doesn’t want that?!
The high temperatures means your pores will open up faster and release any toxins.
The steam or moisture in the room condenses on your skin and washes the dirt and dead skin away.
So not only are you going to look moisturized, but you will also be on track to clearer, healthier skin.
Improving Circulation & Lowering Blood Pressure
Circulation and therefore cardiovascular health can be greatly improved through the use of a steam room. High temperatures boost your circulation which after prolonged use can lead to lower blood pressure. Lower blood pressure can also mean a healthier heart.
In particular, for the older generation, a study has proven that moist heat does improve circulation (1).
There have also been a few interesting studies published regarding steam room use and the release of a hormone that changes your heart rate.
Known as aldosterone, this hormone regulates the blood, which just so happens to be released in a steam room.
Decreasing or reducing the amount of cortisol in your body is going to significantly lower your stress levels. The use of a steam room to reduce cortisol has been scientifically proven (2).
If you lead a high-stress job or lifestyle then a steam room will do wonders for you mentally and physically.
Make it part of your routine on the way home from work!
Relaxing and de-stressing have very positive impacts on your mental focus, emotional well being as well as clarity.
The heat and humidity of steam rooms are also great for clearing any congestion whether that’s sinus issues or your lungs. The heat warms the mucous membrane which can lead to deeper breathing. This will further accelerate the break down of any congestion.
A controlled study was completed of children with respiratory infections which proved that steam therapy significantly reduced respiratory distress than those who did not use steam (3).
If you do suffer from sinus problems you may have already tried a home steam facial. This can be slightly dangerous if you spill the boiling water on yourself. In a steam room, there is no danger whatsoever of this happening.
Depending on the type of steam room you visit, some will use leaves over the steam generator or a few drops of eucalyptus oil. This further adds to the steam room experience and is great for clearing any congestion.
It is not advised to use a steam room if you have a fever.
Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness can be reduced through the use of a steam room. The heat will penetrate quite deeply into the sore muscle tissues and works to relax it. A study has been done showing the benefits of moist heat vs dry heat in terms of muscle recovery (4).
Heat can benefit stiff joints, warming them up adequately allows them to be flexible and relaxed. A steam room can not only relax and help stiff joints but it can also prevent further injury. Studies show the effect of heat increasing ligament flexibility which may help reduce athletic injuries (5).
While sweating away in a steam room burns calories it won’t help you lose weight. If you do notice a loss of weight after using a steam room it is simply water weight that is lost only short term.
For this reason, it is very important to replenish your fluids and stay hydrating, during and after your steam room.
Steam Room Health Risks
Due to the high temperatures and humidity, a steam room does come with a warning label. If you have low blood pressure or tendencies to faint or become dizzy then be mindful of the clock when using one.
According to experts, it is vital to stay hydrated and limit your time to a few minutes when starting. Do not use steam rooms if you are using drugs, medications or under the influence of alcohol.
If you are pregnant, using a steam room is not advised nor if you have heart conditions. If you are concerned then check with your physician before proceeding.
What is a Sauna?
A sauna is a dry, high-temperature room. Typically, saunas will range between 158 degrees Fahrenheit to 212 degrees Fahrenheit. They are generally dry and have a humidity of 10 percent to 20 percent which is significantly lower in humidity and higher in temperature than a steam room.
A sauna can increase the temperature of the skin to 104 degrees Fahrenheit. As you can imagine at such a high temperature you will begin to sweat.
Types of Saunas
There are quite a few different types of saunas, with some allowing you to increase the humidity in the room by pouring water over the hot rocks. Let’s take a quick look at the most commonly used saunas.
- Wood-burning sauna – A traditional Finnish sauna is this design and you can adjust the heat in the room by adjusting the rate at which the wood fire is burning.
- Electric saunas – Using a wall or floor mounted heater to heat the room, these also have fancy displays where you can adjust the temperature and see what it is at.
- Smoke Sauna – With a wood-burning stove rocks are heated. These saunas don’t have chimneys so once the heating is started the room is aired out before use.
- Infrared saunas – Heating these rooms is done via infrared waves. Infrared saunas are growing in popularity and are commonly used by athletes.
Health Benefits of a Sauna
When using a sauna your heart rate elevates and your blood vessels widen to accommodate the rising heat. This is great for your circulation, with the same effect as what exercise does to the body.
Using a sauna can elevate your heart anywhere from 100 to 150 beats per minute! This, of course has many health benefits (6).
Increasing the blood circulation throughout your body is going to improve joint flexibility, mobility, and movement. Saunas can also be used to ease pain from arthritis.
Reducing Stress Levels
Just like in a steam room, a sauna is going to significantly lower your stress levels and help unwind and relax the body and mind. By relaxing your body you give the parasympathetic nervous system to take over.
Improving Cardiovascular Health
As Finnish people are the founders of saunas, the majority of studies have been completed on these people. A very interesting study showed that men aged 42 to 60 years old had lowered their risk of cardiovascular disease just through regular sauna use.
As a result of the increased circulation, you can also expect your blood pressure to lower and your heart functionality to increase.
For those with particularly dry skin, using a sauna may further aggravate it. The dry heat takes out the elasticity so I think a steam room is much more beneficial for skin health.
Sauna Health Risks
With the very high temperatures, you must use saunas with caution. High temperatures can lead to faintness and dizziness so be sure to limit your time spent in a sauna when first trying it.
If you are pregnant or have a fever it is not recommended to use a sauna. Nor if you are under the influence of drugs and alcohol.
Check with your physician if you are unsure or have used a sauna and leave feeling worse.
By now you know that a sauna is a very hot, very dry room while a steam room is a hot yet very humid room. They are both incredibly beneficial to your health when used properly so the decision is personal.
If you are looking to reduce stress levels, increase heart health and lower your blood pressure then either is a good choice. If you are looking to improve your skin health then maybe a steam room is the best choice for you.
Either way, they both promote great mental, emotional and physical benefits with regular use.
- Everett B et al. (2012). A comparison of whole-body vibration and moist heat on lower extremity skin temperature and skin blood flow in healthy older individuals. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3560772/
- Kukkonen-Harjula K et al. Haemodynamic and hormonal responses to heat exposure in a Finnish sauna bath. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/2759081
- Singh M et al. (1990). Evaluation of steam therapy in acute lower respiratory tract infections. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/2286438
- Petrofsky et al. (2013). Moist Heat or Dry Heat for Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness
- Petrofsky et al. (2013). Effect of heat and cold on tendon flexibility and force to flex the human knee. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3747018/
- UW Health. (2017). Sauna-Induced Sweating Offers Many Health Benefits https://www.uwhealth.org/health-wellness/sauna-induced-sweating-offers-many-health-benefits/51516