Why I Love a Steam Room and Sauna
Right before my wedding, I had some of the best skin of my life. I know that most of that was due to the fact that I stopped drinking alcohol and started eating a bit healthier, but part of that was because I was consistently working up a sweat at the gym. And not just while exercising—I was also frequently sweating it out in the steam room.
Why I Love Steam Rooms (And Saunas)
I love, love, love steam rooms. I also love saunas, which are basically just drier versions of steam rooms. I love how relaxing they are, how you calmly sit on a bench and reflect on life while intense heat penetrates your bones. I especially love how much I sweat. It makes me feel like I'm expelling all of the bad things in my body.
Let me clarify: I don't believe in the nebulously evil toxins certain spa and wellness people like to claim are running rampant in our bodies. But I do believe that vigorously sweating in an insanely hot room can be good for you.
You know who else believes that? The Finns, who are so serious about their saunas that most of them have a personal sauna in their homes. They're also consistently ranked among the happiest people in the world. I'm inclined to believe the saunas have something to do with that.
Scientific research coming out of places like Finland and Germany seems to support that, too.
Steam Room and Sauna Benefits
There's some scientific evidence, for instance, that the extreme heat can help reduce or prevent cold symptoms. And there's no doubt that it's highly relaxing. But those aren't the only sauna and steam room benefits.
According to the North American Sauna Society, extreme heat forces the body to quickly adapt in order to protect itself against heat stress. Those adaptations may:
Improve resting blood pressure
Improve cardiac function
Improve sleep and mood
Plus, large amounts of sweat can force out dirt and oil trapped in your pores, which is why I believe I had such great skin after working out and steaming at the gym.
How to Sauna Like a European
I'm lucky enough to have been to a couple European bathhouses, including the gorgeous Széchenyi Baths in Budapest. Here, multiple steam rooms and saunas hide inside a palatial Neo-Gothic spa building. There's nothing particularly special about the designs of the heated rooms, but they stun with their insanely hot temperatures.
Two really stand out in my mind, a 122 degree F steam room and a 212 degree F sauna.
In the steam room, my lungs felt like they were being smothered in a hot, wet blanket. As soon as I started taking shallow breaths, however, I relaxed and zoned out for a bit. My husband, meanwhile, walked in and immediately walked back out. He did much better with the dry heat in the sauna, and was able to relax next to me.
Followed by Intense Cold
Upon exiting, we jumped into a nearby 65 degree F plunge pool. It felt like an ice bath, a complete shock to the system. It also felt totally refreshing.
European sauna culture embraces this hot-cold sequence, and it's common for sauna-goers to follow up a sauna or steam with a dip in a nearby body of water, even in the winter. My Swedish brother-in-law says that while growing up, he and his family would jump into the ocean after their sauna visits.
And in places where there are no nearby bodies of water, there are cold plunge pools or at the very least, cold misters—something we saw at the Blue Lagoon in Iceland on a recent trip. But what's the purpose of the hot-cold sequence?
The Hot-Cold Sequence Explained
Basically, Europeans believe that the cold water can accentuate the physiological benefits caused by intense heat. Though there has not been a lot of research to confirm this, Europeans have been following the hot-cold sequence for hundreds of years and swear that they are healthier for it.
The way I see it, even if there are no health benefits, it still feels really refreshing.
Embrace European sauna culture, find deals on trips to Europe.
If You Can't Make It to Europe
Don't worry if you can't make it to Europe because there are European-style bathhouses in North America, including Archimedes Banya SF in San Francisco and Russian & Turkish Baths in New York City. Korean spas, like King Spa and Sauna in Chicago and Dallas and Imperial Health Spa in Fullerton, California, also contain multiple sauna rooms and pools.
It can be hard to breathe in a steam room. To make it easier, take shallow breaths through your mouth.
Stick to a sauna if the wet heat in a steam room makes you feel like you're suffocating. It's much easier to breathe in the dry heat, even when people ladle water onto the hot rocks to produce steam.
If you're worried about the heat, sit on the lowest bench. Heat rises, so you're better off as low to the ground as possible.
Drink 1–2 glasses of water before you enter a steam room or sauna. Drink plenty of water again when you leave.
Hop in the shower and wash with soap before you start your session. This is especially important in Europe, where it's considered extremely rude to skip the shower beforehand. This should be a naked shower, and you should wash both your body and hair. If it's a co-ed sauna/steam room, you'll put your bathing suit on after your shower.
If it's a naked sauna/steam room, and you're uncomfortable being naked, feel free to wrap a towel around yourself and take it inside the heated rooms. Towels can also help keep your skin protected from hot benches.
It's a lot less scary than you think.
Everything you need to know to navigate a Russian banya
Don't worry, we'll tell you if you really have to get naked.
Plus, how an infrared sauna compares to a traditional sauna