What is a sauna and how does it work?


A sauna, originating in Finland, is a small room or building designed to allow its occupants to experience a dry or wet heat session. The sauna’s main purpose is to subject the body to extreme heat, which leads to intense sweating. This process has many health benefits, which will be discussed later in this article.

Different sauna types

We can divide saunas into different types, depending on the way they generate heat, the level of humidity and the materials they are constructed from.

The Finnish sauna, also known as a dry sauna, is the most traditional type. In a Finnish sauna, the temperature can reach 70 to 100 degrees Celsius and the humidity is usually low, below 20%.

The steam sauna, also known as a Turkish sauna or hammam, differs from the Finnish sauna in that the heat is generated by steam. The temperature in a steam sauna is usually lower, around 40-50 degrees Celsius, but the humidity can reach 100%.

An infrared sauna is a relatively new type of sauna that uses infrared rays to heat the body without significantly heating the room.

The smoke sauna, also known as savusauna, is a traditional Finnish type of sauna without a chimney. Wood is burned in a special cooker with lots of stones, and when the room is warm enough, the fire is extinguished and the smoke is let out of the sauna before it can be used.

Each of these saunas has its own unique features and benefits, but all aim to promote relaxation and health through sweating.

You can read about all sauna types in our detailed article.

History of saunas

The sauna has a long and rich history, with roots dating back to ancient civilisations. It is believed that the first saunas were probably used by people as early as 2,000 years ago, especially in northern European regions such as Finland. In Finnish, the word ‘sauna’ literally means ‘hot room dug into the ground’.

In ancient Finland, saunas were often used not only for relaxation, but also as a place to purify the spirit, give birth to children, care for the body and prepare the dead for burial. For the ancient Finns, the sauna was a sacred place, comparable to a church.

The development of the sauna over the centuries is fascinating. Traditional saunas, known as smoke saunas, had no chimneys and were heated by hot stones. Smoke from burning wood filled the room and, once the right temperature was reached, the smoke was expelled from the room before entering the sauna.

History of the sauna in the world

Over time, chimneys were introduced, making it possible to use the sauna while burning wood. This led to the modern saunas we know today. In the 19th century, saunas began to become increasingly popular in Europe, especially in Germany, and have since gained popularity throughout the world.

In different cultures, saunas were used in different ways. For example, in ancient Rus, saunas, known as bani, were used for purification and spiritual rituals. In Korea, saunas, known as jjimjilbang, are a popular place for social gathering and relaxation.

Today, saunas are popular around the world for both health and relaxation purposes. Whether it is a traditional Finnish sauna, a Turkish steam bath or a modern infrared sauna, the benefits of the sauna are appreciated by people all over the world.

You can read more about the history of the sauna in our article.

How does the sauna work?

The sauna works on the principle of heating the body, which leads to intense sweating. The heating can occur through direct body contact with hot air (dry sauna) or steam (steam sauna), or through infrared radiation (infrared sauna).

In a dry sauna, the so-called Finnish sauna, the air is heated by means of a cooker, which is often filled with hot stones. When the air in the sauna becomes very hot, the body reacts by starting to sweat to regulate its temperature. This process helps to cleanse the pores of the skin and improves blood circulation.

How does the sauna work?

A steam sauna, also known as a hammam, works a little differently. Instead of heating the air to high temperatures, a steam sauna uses steam to heat the body. Steam is usually created by heating water and then distributed around the room. The moist heat is easier for many people to bear and can help to relax muscles and clear the airways.

An infrared sauna is another type of sauna that works differently. Instead of heating the air in the sauna, infrared rays directly heat the body. This allows the body to sweat at lower temperatures, which is more comfortable for some people. Infrared saunas can also provide deeper cleansing, as the infrared rays can penetrate deeper into the skin.

Whichever type of sauna you choose, it is important to remember that sweating is the body’s natural response to increased temperature. This sweating is one of the key elements of the health benefits that saunas can bring.

Health benefits of sauna use

Using a sauna has a number of potential health benefits as a result of the intense sweating and increased body temperature. Here are some of them:

  1. Improved circulation: While you are in the sauna, the heat causes the blood vessels to dilate, which increases blood flow. Therefore, regular sauna use can help to improve circulation, especially in people with cardiovascular diseases such as high blood pressure, coronary heart disease or heart failure.
  2. Relaxation and stress reduction: The heat and steaming in a sauna can help relieve muscle tension and stress. Many people use the sauna as a form of meditation and relaxation.
  3. Improve skin health: sweating helps to clear skin pores, which can help to improve the appearance of the skin. Heat can also increase collagen production, which helps keep skin supple and youthful.
  4. Body detox: Sweating is one of the ways the body removes toxins. Therefore, regular use of the sauna can help to detoxify the body.
  5. Supporting the immune system: Research suggests that regular sauna use can increase the production of white blood cells, which are key to a healthy immune system.
  6. Improving mental health: Using a sauna can help increase levels of endorphins, known as ‘happy hormones’. This can help fight depression and improve mood.

However, it is worth bearing in mind that sauna use may not be suitable for everyone, especially for people with certain health conditions. For example, people with uncontrolled high blood pressure, severe heart disease, skin conditions or for pregnant women should consult their doctor before using a sauna.

How to use the sauna?

To reap the full benefits of the sauna and to ensure safety, it is important to know how to use it correctly. Here are some tips:

Preparation: Make sure you hydrate your body before entering the sauna. Drink plenty of water before, during and after your sauna session, as sweating causes fluid loss. Remember not to enter the sauna on a full stomach, but don’t use it on an empty stomach either.

Time in the sauna: For beginners, it is recommended to spend no more than 5-10 minutes in the sauna to start with. You can gradually increase this time, but most people should not spend more than 15-20 minutes in the sauna per session. Remember that everyone is different and what works for one person may not necessarily work for another.

After the sauna: After leaving the sauna, give your body time to cool down. You can do this by showering or bathing in cool water. Remember to replenish your fluids after your sauna session.

Frequency: using the sauna 2-3 times a week is usually safe for most people. However, if you have any health problems, such as heart disease, you should consult your doctor before starting to use the sauna regularly.

Remember that the sauna is for relaxation and to improve your health. If at any time you feel uncomfortable, dizzy, nauseous or uncomfortable, leave the sauna immediately and give yourself time to cool down. Listen to your body and use the sauna in the way that is most comfortable and safe for you.

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Since 2011 I have had my own business selling sauna building materials, sauna cookers and sauna accessories. I know all about building a quality sauna!