A sauna, the wet version also called steam bath, is a small room or house designed as a place to experience dry or wet/dry heat sessions, or an establishment with one or more of these and auxiliary facilities, or the act of using a sauna. Taking a sauna is usually a social affair in which the participants disrobe and sit or recline in temperatures of over 80 C. This induces relaxation and promotes sweating. It is believed by some that heavy sweating helps to remove 'toxins' from the body. It is also believed that exposure of the skin to heat stimulates the production of white blood cells and strengthens the immune system.

inside a Sauna
inside a Sauna

The Finnish sauna (generally 70-90 degrees Celsius, but can vary from 60 to 120 degrees) is the most widely known, but many cultures have close equivalents, such as the North American First Nations sweat lodge, the Turkish hammam, Roman thermae, Maya temescal and Russian bania or banya. Public bathhouses that often contained a steam room were common in the 1700s, 1800s and early 1900s and were inexpensive places to go to wash when private facilities were not generally available. Most North American college/university physical education complexes and many public sports centers include sauna facilities. They may also be present in a public swimming pool. This may be a separate area where swimming wear is taken off or a smaller facility in the swimming pool area where one should keep the swimming wear on.

Under many circumstances, temperatures approaching and exceeding 100 C would be completely intolerable. Saunas overcome this problem by controlling the humidity. The hottest Finnish and Swedish saunas have very low humidity levels, which allows temperatures that could boil water 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. The "wet heat" would cause scalding if the temperature were set much higher. Finer control over the temperature experienced can be achieved by choosing a higher level bench for those wishing a hotter experience or a lower level bench for a more moderate temperature. Good manners requires that the door to a sauna is not kept open long enough to cool the sauna for those that are already in it. A draft, even if at 100 C, may still be unwelcome.

Infrared saunas are growing in popularity, using far infrared rays emitted by infrared heaters to create warmth.

The sauna can be so soothing that heat prostration or the even more serious hyperthermia (heat stroke) can result. The cool shower or plunge 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). In Finland sauna is thought as a healing refreshment and has been used to cure people from many diseases through the times. 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)

Alcoholic drinks are usually not used in the sauna, as the effects of heat and alcohol are cumulative, although in the Finnish sauna culture a beer afterwards is thought to be refreshing and relaxing. You can try pouring a few centiliters of beer into the water that you pour on the hot stones. This releases the odor of the grain used to brew the beer, and can at best bring a wonderful smell of freshly baked bread into the air.

Social and mixed gender nudity with adults and children is quite common in the conventional sauna, with a strict prohibition of any form of sexual activity. In fact the sauna is considered not only a sex-free, but also almost a gender-free zone. It may also be noted that practicing sex in an environment where the temperature approaches 100 C would be impractical at the least. In the dry sauna and on chairs one sometimes sits on a towel for hygiene and comfort; in the steam bath the towel is left outside. Sometimes draping the towel around the waist is required in the restaurant area.

As an additional facility a sauna may have one or more jacuzzis.


Finnish sauna customs

Missing image
A Finnish wood-heated sauna

Saunas are nowadays an integral part of the way of life in Finland. They are found everywhere: in private apartments, corporate headquarters and even in the Parliament. The best saunas, however, are located on the shores of Finland's numerous lakes. The sauna is an important part of the national identity and those who have the opportunity usually take a sauna at least once a week.

Taking a sauna begins by sitting in the hot room, typically warmed to 80-90 degrees Celsius (175-195 degrees Fahrenheit), for some time. Water is thrown on the hot stones topping the kiuas, a special stove used to warm up the sauna. This produces steam, known as löyly, which makes the sauna feel even hotter. Occasionally one uses leafy, fragrant boughs of silver birch to gently beat oneself. The boughs are called vihta or vasta. This has a relaxing effect on the muscles. When the heat begins to feel uncomfortable it is customary to jump into a lake, sea, or a swimming pool. In the winter rolling in the snow or even swimming in a hole cut in the ice on a lake is sometimes used as a substitute. Then one usually sits down in the dressing room or the porch of the sauna to enjoy beer or soft drinks.

After cooling one goes back to the hot room and begins the cycle again. One cycle usually has no noticeable effect. Usually one takes at least two or three cycles, taking one or two hours. In Finland's numerous summer cottages taking sauna might go on well into the night if the company is good. This is especially true in the summer when there is virtually no darkness. For a Finn, the sauna is almost a sacred place. Thorough washing will end the session of sauna. Conversation should be relaxed and arguments and controversial topics should be avoided. Also it is rare to use titles or other honorifics in the sauna.

Sometimes men and women go to the sauna together, sometimes not. For a Finn the rules are instinctive but they are difficult to put into words. Depending on the size, composition, relationships, and the age structure of the group three basic patterns can emerge: Everyone can go to sauna at the same time, men and women may take sauna separately, or each family can go to sauna separately. Mixed saunas with non-familymembers are most common with young people and are quite rare with older people and in more formal occasions. It's common for teenagers to stop going to sauna with their parents at some point.

In sauna it is a faux pas to wear clothing in the hot room, although it is acceptable to sit on a small towel or pefletti, a disposable tissue designed to endure heat and humidity (it can be mandatory in a public sauna, such as one of a swimming hall). While cooling off it is quite common to wrap a towel around your body. Though mixed saunas are quite common, sauna for a Finn is a completely non-sexual place. In Finland "sauna" means only a sauna, not a brothel, sex club, or such. In public saunas one also sees signs prohibiting the wear of swimming suits in the hot room. There are some hygienic reasons for this. Also, in some indoor swimming pools hygiene is taken care of by adding chlorine to the water. If swimming wear used in such water is brought to the hot room, the chlorine will vaporize and cause breathing problems for people with relevant disorders (asthma, allergies).

Foreign visitors in Finland often get invited into the sauna. This may even happen after business negotiations and other such events. In these occasions it is possible to refuse, although it will not impress your Finnish hosts. Such an invitation (in a business setting) may in fact indicate that the negotiations have gone well and a joint business effort is seen probable - hence the invitation. In private homes or summer residences sauna is usually warmed to honour the guest and refusal may be more difficult. However, Finns will not be offended for declining to take a sauna bath.

The savusauna (smoke sauna) is a special type of sauna without a chimney. Wood is burned on a particularly large stove and the smoke fills the room. When the sauna is hot enough, the fire is allowed to die and the smoke is ventilated out. The residual heat of the stove is enough for the duration of the sauna. This represents the ancestral type of sauna, since chimneys are a later addition. Smoke saunas have experienced great revival in recent years since they are considered superior by the connoisseurs. They are not, however, likely to replace all or even most of the regular saunas because more skill and effort is needed for the heating process.

Sauna in Finland is such an old phenomenon that it is impossible to trace its roots. Hundreds of years ago, when bathing was something to be done only rarely or never at all, Finns were cleansing themselves in saunas at least once a week. One reason why sauna culture has always flourished and is so highly honored in Finland is the many uses of sauna. When people were moving the first thing they did was build a sauna. You could live in it, make food in the stove, take care of your personal hygiene and most important give birth in an almost sterile environment. One thing that has also affected the spreading of the sauna is the almost endless resources of wood to burn. Another reason is that in such a cold climate, the sauna allows people to feel warm at least for a short period of time. It is just as popular in the summer as in the winter, though.

Saunas and sex

In some countries there are adult-only saunas that have different rules and customs, the term "sauna" being used for a bath-house or "health club", sometimes with facilities like a standard sauna, but where people go to find sexual partners and have sex on the premises (however not in the sauna itself!). Some such saunas rent out small rooms for this purpose: others are disguised brothels. This euphemistic usage generally applies to establishments that advertise themselves as being a sauna rather than those that have a sauna on the premises. This generally happens more frequently in inner city areas in the US and the UK than in Continental Europe where a sauna is generally seen as a family or social event.

Several urban legends exist on what the Scandinavians, and particularly the Finns, do in the saunas that are a part of many or most homes and summer houses. However, there exists neither any taboo against sex in sauna, nor the opposite. While saunas in modern apartments as a rule are too small, saunas of old farm houses are separate buildings. Such a cabin offered privacy when living in confined quarters — and comfortable temperature after finished bathing. In Finland and Northern Scandinavia, many teenagers and young adults have sauna parties. Mixed sex bathing occurs. Covering towels may be optional or may alternatively be considered prudish. Regardless of whether the participants are completely nude or not, unwelcome sexual advances in the sauna are considered to be a major social blunder. Like at other social gatherings, pairs inclined for sex usually retreat away from the group.

See also: gay bathhouse

Modern sauna culture around the world

Public perception of saunas, sauna "etiquette" and sauna customs vary hugely from country to country. In many countries sauna going is a recent fashion and attitudes towards saunas are changing, while in others traditions have survived over generations.

In Finland and Russia sauna going plays a central social role. These countries boast the hottest saunas and the tradition of beating fellow sauna goers with birch branches. In Russia public saunas are strictly single sex while in Finland both types occur.

Benelux and Scandinavian countries, where public saunas have been around for a long time too, generally have a moderate, "live and let live" attitude towards sauna going with few traditions to speak of. Levels of nudity vary, single sex saunas are as common as mixed sex saunas and people tend to socialise.

In Germany and Austria on the other hand nudity is strictly enforced in public saunas, as is the covering of benches with towels. Single sex saunas are rare. Loud conversation is not usually tolerated as the sauna is seen as a place of healing rather than socialising. Cold showers or baths shortly after a sauna are considered a must.

In much of southern Europe, France and the UK nudity is strictly forbidden, a cause of confusion and argument when nationals of these nations cross the border to Germany and Austria or vice versa. Sauna sessions tend to be shorter and cold showers are shunned by most. In the UK, where public saunas are becoming increasingly fashionable, the practice of alternating between the sauna and the jacuzzi in short seatings (considered a faux pas in Northern Europe) has emerged.

Hungarians see the sauna a part of a wider spa culture. Here too attitudes are less liberal, mixed-gender people are together and they wear swimsuits. Single-sex saunas are rare, as well as those which tolerate nudity.

In South America saunas are an exclusively upper class affair. As in Africa on the whole, saunas are kept at a much lower temperature than in Europe, and nudity is forbidden.

In Japan, many saunas exist at sports centers and public bathhouses (sentos). The saunas are almost always gender separated, often required by law, and nudity is a required part of proper sauna etiquette. While right after World War II, public bathhouses were commonplace in Japan, the number of customers have dwindled as more people were able to afford houses and apartments equipped with their own private baths as the nation became wealthier. As a result many sentos have added more features such as saunas in order to survive.

See also


da:sauna de:sauna fr:sauna nl:sauna sv:Bastu ja:サウナ風呂 fi:sauna pl:sauna


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