Sauna Etiquette: A Guide to Being Naked with Strangers
When we sometimes make more eye contact with profile pictures than actual people, it can feel socially daunting just to share a cab. In a sauna, you share a hot, often humid space with pants-less strangers. And so, even with centuries of history behind them, these rooms can inspire sweatier palms than foreheads.
Luckily, editors Scott and Rebecca are here to help. He's a seasoned sauna-goer, who’s been cranking open his pores in steam rooms since childhood. (Read his guide to Chicago’s Russian-style Red Square Spa here.) She's a newer guest of this humid world, with just one, informative visit to the Korean-style King Spa under her belt. Together, they'll demystify the steam room, addressing sauna etiquette, health, and more with both basic and advanced-level tips.
What if you’re new to this?
Pick your seat carefully.
Heat rises, so those benches are reserved for those who really crave the heat.
Close the door.
Leaving it open sends all that precious heat and steam billowing out of the room.
Don’t make it a competition.
According to Scott, many guys try and prove their toughness by staying in as long as possible or trying to outlast their friends in the sauna. First off—this goes against the chief principle of sauna-ing: relaxing and letting go. But more importantly, it’s unsafe.
And nobody looks tough when they’re dehydrated or passed out.
Drink lots of water.
Because the steam prevents sweat from evaporating, you're losing fluid but not cooling down, so it’s easy to become dehydrated.
Limber up somewhere else.
Light stretching overhead is fine, but floor-quaking calisthenics distract other people in the sauna, and slippery floors can make it a dangerous game.
Don’t be scared to ask questions.
Saunas are part of a tradition that could stretch back to the Native American sweatlodge, the Finnish lake-side sauna, and the Russian banya. People feel culturally connected to the practice and are usually happy to explain it to newcomers. So if, for example, you’re intrigued by the sight of a platza treatment—in which one person "smacks" or bathes another with a bushel of eucalyptus—ask somebody about it (preferably not those busy with their platza treatments.) You’ll likely get an answer; you might get a cultural lesson; and perhaps you’ll even even a platza treatment.
What to wear
Don’t be nervous about being naked.
No one is looking at your body—seriously. Scott adds that it’s important to remember that sense of comfort and liberation you can feel from shedding your clothes is proportional to the comfort you allow others. Don't stare—there's nothing you haven't seen before, and there are too few spaces in the world where we can feel free of shame and judgment.
Nudity might not be expected, anyway. Every sauna is different, so take a peek at what others are doing and follow suit (or birthday suit, as the case may be).
Still shy? Grab a towel.
In fact, even if you're nude, you should have a towel on hand for sanitary sitting. Expect some pronounced frowns if you come in wearing street clothes or athletic wear (or, especially, shoes), which bring outside cooties into the warm, humid haven.
And don't even think about swimsuits.
First, the man-made textiles trap heat and moisture, negating that pore-opening catharsis so many crave. Second, no one wants to relax in a cloud of atomized chlorine. And third, the moist heat can actually leach dyes from the suit, leading to some party-colored pores.
Take a shower.
The number one best thing you can wear in a sauna is clean, freshly sudsed skin. Some places, such as King Spa, enforce this rule with shower-supervising attendants, and with signs that encourage you to snitch on soap-skipping guests. Other saunas expect guests already know the score.
metal jewelry or hooks. Ouch.
What to say
Feel free to talk … within reason.
From the Hollywood screen to multilingual bathhouses, saunas have always been seen as a place for banter, bonding, and even making power-deals. This is true, to an extent—even Finland’s official tourism site says:
“Sharing a sauna with someone is about bonding, about discussing real issues—no small talk.”
That said, it’s best to read the room. It might be less appropriate to talk loudly and openly in the spa-sauna, for instance, than the Turkish bathhouse. And regardless of where you are, remember that there are limits. Cursing and colorful language? Sure, go ahead, if the vibe calls for it. But remember this—being buck-naked with a bunch of strangers doesn’t mean they’re automatically cool with hearing about your exaggerated sexual conquests or questionable views of women.
Use the right terminology
Sauna, originally a Finnish word, can refer to a room with wet or dry heat. Conventional saunas warm the air, while infrared saunas heat objects and surfaces, allowing the heat to emanate from those panels. Steam rooms, by definition, always use wet heat.
If you need to escape the heat
If you'd like a massage or a facial:
Pick a sauna with spa-like amenities. King Spa invites guests to add massages, facials, and even V-Steams to their visits, but Rebecca didn't know that at first. "So I turned the corner, already anxious, naked save for a one-square-foot washcloth—and nearly collided with a grandma in a Michael Myers sheet mask. It was all I could do to not shriek." Rebecca had been nervous about the experience already, what with the washcloth square and all.
"But after that? Nothing could freak me out."
Try the cold pool.
Use it! Why not? There's no etiquette rule that says you have to take a chilly dip, but adherents of the centuries-old, gasp-inducing tradition report feeling detoxified and reinvigorated after a quick dive. After heating the whole body with hundred-degree toastiness, spa-goers leap into the heart-stopping water, then repeat.