How Saunas and Steam Showers Work

In the chilling cold of Finland, the people discovered more than 2000 years ago that there was no better way to relax, soothe aching muscles, and cleanse the body than to luxuriate in a super-heated sauna hut.

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Today, in cold and warm climates alike, people are discovering the benefits and pleasures of saunas–and saunas have become more affordable and easier to install than ever before.

Most Finnish sauna enthusiasts bathe in their birthday suits, seated on a folded towel. Some switch their bodies with birch branches to stimulate circulation and open pores; all shower after (and sometimes in between) sauna sessions. A complete sauna experience may involve an initial shower, two or three 5- to 10-minute sessions in the hot room, and then a shower afterward.

The word “sauna,” pronounced “sow (like cow) nah,” is Finnish for bath or bath house; it is both process and place. Today, the traditional sauna is a compact, softwood-lined room with wooden benches and a special stove or heater (“kiuas”).

Rocks arranged on and inside the heater are an essential part of the true Finnish sauna; they provide a very even, consistent heat that normally ranges from about 165 to 195 degrees F. Ladling water over these hot stones produces a humidifying vapor (“loyly”) that is the essence of a traditional sauna’ sometimes given a natural fragrance, this steam helps to open pores.

The bathing process is relaxing and refocuses and cleanses the body from the inside out by releasing impurities through perspiration. As the skin warms, blood vessels dilate, encouraging blood flow and opening sweat glands. Oils, dirt and impurities–including toxins such as nicotine, mercury, and lead’are drawn to the surface. A shower washes them away.

Of course, many people sauna (the word is also a verb) simply because it feels great. When our bodies are surrounded by heat, endorphins–a class of hormones that create a feeling of well being–are secreted by the pituitary gland, giving us a natural high. Warmth also soothes muscles, relieving aches and pains. And people tend to sleep better after a sauna. A 10- to 20-minute sauna increases the heart rate, providing a similar metabolic result to mild exercise.

A Finnish sauna may offer both dry and moist heat. When using a heater without added moisture, the humidity is only about 12%, which is too dry for some people. If that’s the case, water can be poured on the heated stones to bring humidity up to about 24 to 28 percent. Even though this is still a relatively low humidity, one’s body senses the moisture more because of the heat. Doing this makes pores open quicker. And it helps a person to breathe easier.

Sauna Safety

The intense heat of a sauna isn’t for everyone. Because the human heart must work hard to send blood to the dilating capillaries, people with heart conditions should avoid saunas.

Those with diabetes, multiple sclerosis, hypertension, auto-immune diseases, thyroid or kidney problems, or obesity should also check with their doctors, as should pregnant women in the first trimester.

A cool shower or swim afterwards increases blood pressure, so moderation is advised for people with a history of stroke or high blood pressure.

During a sauna, your body can release up to a quart of water; avoid dehydration by drinking water or fruit juice before and after. Never deprive your body of water in an attempt to lose weight.

Replace minerals lost during saunas by eating foods rich in iron, zinc, magnesium, and copper such as vegetables and leafy greens.

How a Steam Shower Works

What is a steam shower? Basically, it is a small, enclosed room with a vapor-tight door that is equipped with a steam shower generator.

The steam generator heats water to a boil and then delivers the resulting vapor into the enclosed room. The room’s walls, ceiling, and floor must be made of a material that is impervious to the hot, moist vapor.

A seat or bench gives you a place to relax while you enjoy bathing in the steam. In addition, nearly all steam showers are also regular showers with water controls and one or more showerheads.

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