If you’ve ever spent time in the locker room of a gym or fitness club, you’ve likely seen a dry sauna or steam room. While the point of going to the gym may be to sweat on a treadmill or weight machine, you might want to add a sauna or steam room session to your next visit. These toasty rooms can be really beneficial to your mental and physical health in ways you might not realize. But when comparing the two, there are some key differences you need to know about.
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Sauna vs. steam room
The main differences between saunas and steam rooms are temperature and humidity. According to the North American Sauna Society, a traditional Finnish sauna is heated to a temperature between 150°F and 195°F. Water can be sprinkled on a pile of hot rocks in the sauna to create some water vapor, but the humidity level may stay around 10% if no water is added (and then surpass 60% if it is). On the other hand, the temp in a steam room (also known as a Turkish bath) is usually between 110°F and 120°F with 100% humidity. “
In a nutshell, both involve whole-body exposures to hot air, but dry saunas stimulate sweating and steam rooms reduce our ability to sweat,” says Joy Hussain, M.D., a physician and acupuncturist in Brisbane, Australia, who has studied saunas. You may feel like you’re sweating more in a steam room, but the droplets on your body are more likely to be condensed water from the humid air than perspiration.
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Sauna health benefits
Research shows that regularly spending time in a sauna can improve your cardiovascular health, lower your stroke risk, boost your immune system, help control blood pressure, aid in your body’s relaxation process and provide opportunities for socialization. “The range of benefits attributed to sauna bathing seem remarkably similar to those of exercise,” says Dr. Hussain. “Many of us in clinical practice think it might even be easier to get someone to follow a sauna regimen as opposed to, or perhaps in synergy with, an exercise prescription, especially with populations that have difficulty exercising.”
“Further research shows that frequent sauna baths can reduce your risk of developing blood clots in the legs or lungs and lower your risk of lung diseases such as pneumonia and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease,” says Setor Kunutsor, M.D., Ph.D., an associate professor at the University of Leicester Diabetes Research Centre and co-author of these studies. “In a recent randomized controlled trial, we have shown that when sauna bathing is combined with exercise, it produces substantial beneficial effects on fitness levels, blood pressure and total cholesterol compared to just exercise alone.” Another study Dr. Kunutsor worked on showed that frequent sauna bathing can offset the increase in mortality risk associated with lower socioeconomic status.
Additional research has found that resting in a sauna may even help alleviate lower back pain, lower risk of psychotic disorders and reduce a person’s risk for dementia — but more studies are needed to confirm the results. Dr. Hussain notes that sadly, the research needed to validate sauna use for particular ailments is lacking and tends to fall outside the scope of pharmaceutical funding.
Steam room health benefits
Unfortunately, not as many studies have been done on steam rooms. “However, I would suspect that the health benefits are quite similar to dry saunas,” says Dr. Hussain. “Both saunas and steam rooms increase your skin and core body temperatures, causing various physiological changes, but these changes happen a lot faster and with more intensity in steam rooms because your sweating responses are dampened, literally.” Two recent studies from Poland — a 2014 one on 10 men and a 2019 one on 10 women — show how steam rooms put extra stress on the body. “Anecdotally, from many I have met in my research travels who prefer steam rooms to dry saunas, there are probably those who metabolically, physiologically and/or culturally respond better to the higher intensity thermal stress, much like there are individuals who prefer high-intensity exercise to lower-intensity forms,” explains Dr. Hussain.
Which one is better for you?
It all comes down to personal preference and how your body reacts to the thermal stress of a dry sauna or steam room. “There is not enough good-quality evidence directly comparing the two types to make any kind of meaningful statements about health differences yet,” says Dr. Hussain. “I know there are research groups actively studying this topic so we should definitely watch this space.”
If you have a history of fainting or low blood pressure, be careful to avoid falls in the sauna or steam room. You’ll want to steer clear if you suffered from a heart attack or stroke within the last several months, or you have a valvular disease such as aortic stenosis where dramatic fluctuations in heart rate and blood pressure can be harmful, advises Dr. Hussain. “But this is based on a precautionary approach more so than actual evidence.”
If you’ve been told you are at increased cardiovascular risk or you are not sure of your health status, it’s best to speak with your physician before taking on a sauna or steam room regimen. Dr. Hussain notes that a lot more research needs to be done, especially on women, to determine all of the benefits and risks.
Currently, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists and the American Pregnancy Association recommend that pregnant women avoid saunas and hot tubs because they have a higher risk of dehydration, dizziness and low blood pressure. On top of that, an increase in core body temperature has been associated with birth defects.
Can using a sauna help you “detox” or lose weight?
While spending time in a sauna may improve your health in other ways, these aren’t science-backed benefits. “It has been reported that sauna bathing facilitates increased secretion of heavy metals such as aluminum, cobalt and lead via sweating. However, there is not much evidence to support this,” says Dr. Kunutsor. “Saunas can increase metabolism and hence can theoretically cause weight loss. However, there is no research evidence showing that a sauna causes weight loss.” Any weight that you lose immediately after leaving a sauna room is just water weight.
Weight loss, health and body image are complex subjects — we invite you to gain a broader perspective by reading our exploration into the hazards of diet culture.
Should you go in a sauna or steam room after a workout?
“Yes, it helps one to relax and enhances recovery,” says Dr. Kunutsor. Research suggests using a sauna may even enhance your performance. In one study from New Zealand, competitive male runners ran 5 km on a treadmill at their fastest speed (for a total of about 15 minutes) and then sat in a sauna for about half an hour. Over the course of three weeks, the athletes improved their endurance by 32%, potentially because measurements showed that sauna bathing also increased their blood volume.
Should you shower before or after using a sauna?
Most experts recommend taking a warm shower before entering a sauna and then a cool shower afterward. The first shower helps ensure you don’t bring dirt and sweat into a shared sauna, and it also promotes the opening of your pores and relaxation of your muscles. The second shower kickstarts your body’s return to its normal temperature.
Should you drink water before you go in a sauna?
Yes, drink water before, during and after every sauna session. “Excessive sauna bathing can lead to dehydration so there is a need to keep rehydrating all the time,” says Dr. Kunutsor. “You always need a bottle of water when in the sauna room.” Want one that will stand up to the heat? Check out the best water bottles, according to experts at the Good Housekeeping Institute.
How long should you stay in a sauna or steam room, and is it safe to do every day?
“Average stays range between five and 20 minutes,” says Dr. Kunutsor. “The duration depends on the comfort of the individual and the temperature of the sauna room.” Many of the studies mentioned above showed the greatest effects in participants who completed four to seven 15-minute sauna sessions every week. That said, much of that research was done in Finland, where saunas are pretty popular and people are used to using them. If you’ve never been in one before, it’s smart to get the green light from your doctor first and only spend a few minutes at a time in the sauna or steam room until you know how your body handles it. As you get more comfortable, you can work your way up to longer sessions — but you probably shouldn’t exceed 30 minutes at once.
Kaitlyn Phoenix is a senior editor in the Hearst Health Newsroom, where she reports, writes and edits research-backed health content for Good Housekeeping, Prevention and Woman’s Day. She has more than 10 years of experience talking to top medical professionals and poring over studies to figure out the science of how our bodies work. Beyond that, Kaitlyn turns what she learns into engaging and easy-to-read stories about medical conditions, nutrition, exercise, sleep and mental health. She also holds a B.S. in magazine journalism from Syracuse University.