STATEMENT OF POSITION: Saunas and Steam Rooms

What’s the difference between a sauna and a steam room?  Is one better than the other?  Are they enjoyed differently?  Do they have the same effect?   

Short answer : they are different – but both fantastic!

READ ON TO LEARN MORE!

 

In the midst of these saunatarian ramblings, it’s important to clarify something: the difference between SAUNAS and STEAM ROOMS.  Although this blog is mainly about “sauna”, that isn’t because steam rooms are regarded as inferior.   They don’t need to be be mutually exclusive.  You can love both!

Here’s a quick overview:

Sauna

  • Primarily uses DRY HEAT in a range anywhere between 70-110ºC.  Often takes an hour or more to heat up.
  • Many public saunas (especially in the US) don’t allow water on the rocks – the heater is usually hidden from view – so it’s pure dry heat.
  • However, traditional sauna involves conjuring steam by putting water on the hot rocks.  For most people, this is the best part.  A sauna is nice completely dry, but it’s HEAVEN when you can hit the steam.
  • So if you get a traditional sauna, it’s like the best of both worlds: dry heat till you break a sweat, then soul-cleansing vapour when you put water on the rocks.  It’s a great combination.  This is how I do it at home.
  • The most powerful example I’ve experienced of how a sauna can become a steam room was at Vabali in Berlin.  Their Russian Banya is cranked to a crazy humidity every few hours in the ritualistic “infusion” sessions that take place in German saunas (more on this later).   It was insanely steamy and therefore insanely hot.   Loved it!

** Note:  Click here for Statement of Position on Infrared Saunas.

Steam

  • Uses WET HEAT in a range from about 40-55ºC.  (I like it nice and hot – over 50ºC.)
  • The temperature is much lower than sauna because water conducts heat better than air.  For example, you can stick your hand in a hot oven as long as you don’t touch the metal.  This is why a sauna is close to 100ºC (and why it suddenly gets so hot when you create steam from the rocks).  It’s also why a steam room heats up much quicker.
  • Steam rooms are usually very misty – it’s a lovely atmosphere to relax in.  I found some artful pictures here.
  • Steam rooms are usually tiled, often in a nice mosaic, which can make them pretty epic.
  • Because the humidity is close to 100%, you get very wet in a steam room.

RECOMMENDATION:  Steam rooms a fantastic option at home.  It’s great if you can build a freestanding sauna in the backyard, but any normal shower can be converted into a steam room pretty cheaply.  All you need is a floor-to-ceiling glass door, a steam generator, and a small fold-out seat.  It’d be tricky in a really tiny space, but absolutely possible for anyone who is committed.  Imagine coming home from work and having a 15 minute steam to decompress!  Your life would change dramatically if you did this regularly.  Perfect hangover cure too.  And a magical escape from crying children.  

You should seriously consider this.  These guys make a compelling argument!

** Note:  Click here for a statement of position on use the terms “steam” and “vapour”.

 

SOME MORE QUESTIONS YOU MIGHT HAVE:

  • Is one better than the other?

  Short answer, NO.  People have preferences, which is fine – but I think it’s silly to play hierarchy.  Being a connoisseur does not mean being a purist.

–  I use to think steam rooms were inferior to saunas – but that was only inexperience.  Visiting Vancouver in 2013, I stayed at The Sutton Place Hotel, which had an outstanding steam room in the male dressing room that left me just as happy and rosy-cheeked as a good sauna.  I felt clean, refreshed, relaxed.

–  If the steam room is hot enough, you’ll get the same buzz as a good sauna.  That’s the most important point.

  You can see from the above recommendation that I think everyone should have a steam room at home.  All showers should be designed to double as steam rooms.  The world would change for the better.  Architects take note!

–  With very few exceptions, good bathhouses have multiple saunas and at least one good steam room.  This is true of Wi Spa in LA, The Russian Turkish Baths in New York, and the Hotel Adlon Kempinksi in Berlin.

  • Are they different?

–  Yes.  Dry heat and wet heat feel different.  It’s hard to describe, but the difference is big.  Even if you pour water on the rocks in a sauna, it feels different to a steam room.  A steam room is damp.  The air is heavy.  The humidity is close to 100%.   I really love the dry heat of a sauna, especially because you can get steam cranking when you want.  It can be easier to lie down and relax for longer in dry heat.  But I also love a hot misty steam room.  Really love it.

–   But it’s not only the heat that feels different – it’s how you use them.
–  A steam room is almost always part of another facility – usually a gym, pool, hotel, or bathhouse.  By contrast, saunas are free-standing devices found much more often in home environments, and they have ancient roots as places of communal hygiene.  This means sauna has a much richer tradition than modern steam rooms, and a people’s passion for sauna goes well beyond anything felt about steam rooms.  Just ask a Finn.
–  It’s also more common to enjoy sauna as a stand-alone, not attached to another activity – meaning you typically make more of it.  This is how I enjoy sauna in my backyard, for example.  The process is much longer than if I had a quick steam in the shower, but I like taking slow time.  And you can relax better in a backyard than a dressing room.

–  Another difference is that saunas are typically enjoyed in multiple sets, e.g. three belts of heat with a short  break after the first and second.   It’s less common to use steam rooms like this, primarily because they’re usually part of a bigger facility, which means your time is more divided.
–  Having said that, I treated the steam room in The Sutton Place Hotel (Vancouver) exactly the same as a sauna (i.e. multiple breaks with a cold shower), so again: everything depends on context.  A sauna is more likely to be set in a relaxing environment.

–  The other key difference is that sauna allows you to modulate between hot and dry heat by creating löyly (by putting water on the rocks).  This makes sauna more versatile, depending what you like.

  • So which one do you prefer?

If I had to choose, I’d take sauna.  After all, I’m a Saunatarian, not a Steamite.  My preference is to cook dry for 10-15 minutes, getting nice and sweaty, then start hitting the rocks with water for 5 minutes of power.  Then take a break, and do the same a few more times.  I also like the typically more relaxation-oriented nature of saunas.

But I don’t want this to reflect badly on steam rooms.  There’s no need to play opposites here.  Both are outstanding and it shouldn’t be a competition.  Steam rooms can be just as effective for stress relief, and they make you feel just as good as a sauna.  And as noted, good bathhouse often have steam in addition to sauna.

Plus – steam has a potential for domestic incorporation well beyond sauna.  Saunas take up space.  But everyone has a shower, and with the right design, most showers could be rigged as steaming pods.  Again, these guys know what they’re talking about.  The ability to bring sweat bathing into more confined spaces should not be sniffed at.  I haven’t done it yet, but it’s part of my dream house design.  Interior steam room for when I don’t have time for the dry box to heat up, and the backyard sauna for longer sessions.

 

The overall message?  I love sauna and have named this blog for it.  The traditions are more ancient and widespread, so it’s more fun to write about.  But in terms of Bullshit Neutralization Therapy, a steam room can be just as effective.  

Go forth and do both!

Join the fun by answering this poll:

Do you prefer SAUNAS or STEAM ROOMS?

 

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