There’s nothing like a post-swim sweat session to soothe tired muscles and get the blood flowing again. Particularly if the water was especially cold. Most gyms nowadays offer the choice between a sauna and a steam room, both of which will stop those chattering teeth.
Having the option is great, but how do you know which one to warm up in? Does one offer more health benefits than the other or does it come down to personal preference?
The dry sauna vs steam sauna debate is ongoing. At a high level, we know that both promote sweating. We also know that both of them offer certain health benefits. However, that’s where the similarities end.
We’re going to take a closer look at the differences, benefits and potential risks to see if one is better than the other or if it simply comes down to personal preference.
What Is a Sauna?
When saunas first became a thing somewhere around 7000 BC, the structures were dug into the earth and lined with stone. Thankfully, a lot has changed since then.
Today, traditional or Finnish saunas are made from wood and use dry heat produced from a stove or hot rocks to get you sweating. While sauna temperatures can easily get up to 194 Fahrenheit (90 Celsius), the humidity only reaches around 5-15 percent.
Add a little löyly (the Finnish word for the steam given off by the heated rocks) to the mix and the humidity can quickly escalate to as much as 100 percent. The result is short lived however, as the heat will soon cause the steam to dissipate. (From this perspective, you could say they offer both a wet and dry experience.)
Saunas can be indoors or outdoors and it’s relatively easy to build your own. With outdoor sauna kits now widely available, backyard saunas are becoming increasingly popular.
Different Types of Saunas
There are essentially two different sauna types: dry and infrared.
Dry or traditional Finnish saunas, which can be wood fired or electric, heat up the room first, which then raises your body temperature. Conversely, infrared saunas heat up your body from the inside, while leaving the ambient temperature of the room relatively low in comparison.
It’s worth noting that the steam room is also sometimes referred to as a wet sauna, but for the purposes of this post we’ve chosen to keep it separate to make the distinction between wet and dry a little clearer.
Benefits of Saunas
If you’re willing to sweat it out in the heat, sauna bathing offers many health benefits. Research has shown that it can improve your sleep, flush toxins from your body and give your immune system a welcome boost. It can also supercharge your cell power, lower blood pressure and even slow the ageing process.
It gets better. Adding a sauna to your daily routine also does wonders for your mental wellbeing. Studies have shown that the ritual can lower feelings of anxiety and stress, boost brain function and generally improve your emotional health and mood.
What Are the Risks of Traditional Dry Saunas?
There’s no denying that sweating it out for 15-20 minutes can leave you feeling relaxed and rejuvenated. However, it’s important to recognise that there are potential risks involved in the pastime.
While rare, sauna-related burns do happen. People have been known to trip and come into contact with the heater. Burns caused by hot air are even more rare, but they too happen. They’re also potentially fatal.
ScienceDirect reported on six men all suffering from hot air burns due to excessive alcohol consumption in a hot environment. All of them lost consciousness and the prolonged exposure resulted in third degree regional burns.
There’s not much research on using saunas when pregnant, but HealthLinkBC has some practical advice to offer on the subject, such as lowering the temperature to below 102 Fahrenheit (38.9 Celsius) and not staying in for more than 15 minutes.
Pregnancy aside, it’s also not advisable to spend time in a sauna if you are sick or suffer from heart problems. The bottom line? Consult your doctor if you’re unsure, drink lots of water beforehand, don’t overstay your welcome and definitely don’t consume alcohol in the sauna.
What Is a Steam Room?
Steam rooms also raise your body’s core temperature from the outside in, but they do so with a wet rather than dry heat. The steam resulting from a generator boiling water creates a hot, humid environment.
Thanks to an entirely airtight environment, steam room humidity levels are 100 percent. However, this is offset by an ambient temperature somewhere in the region of 90 to 120 Fahrenheit (32-49 Celsius).
Despite the much lower temps, your body will heat up faster and with more intensity in a steam room. This is due to the fact that steam rooms reduce the body’s ability to sweat. What feels like perspiration is actually condensed water from the humid air.
Benefits of Steam Rooms
As with dry sauna bathing, regular steam room sessions are hugely beneficial for your overall health and physical wellbeing. Although many of the benefits are similar, sitting in the steam offers additional positive results.
The steam room’s high level of humidity will break up congestion in the sinuses and lungs, which means it can be used to help unblock sinuses and aid breathing. If you suffer from allergies or you have a cough, cold or bronchitis, sitting in a steam room can help.
Steam also has a wonderfully rejuvenating effect on the skin. The warm condensation opens the pores and helps rinse away dirt and dead skin. While the dry heat from a sauna offers similar benefits, the steam room goes a step further by removing the toxins trapped below the skin.
What Are the Risks of Steam Rooms?
There are significant benefits to spending time in a steam room, but there are also some risks to be aware of. Due to the heat and the fact that the body can’t cool itself by perspiring, there is a chance of dehydrating.
It is therefore not advisable to spend longer than 15 minutes at a time in a steam room. It’s also recommended that you drink plenty of water before heading into your steam session.
Be germ wise. Unlike the dry environment provided by traditional saunas, a steam room can be a veritable breeding ground for certain types of bacteria and germs, allowing them to grow and spread at will.
Athlete’s foot and various other fungal infections thrive in the warm, humid conditions typically found in a steam room. Wearing a towel and flip-flops or shower shoes is your best line of defence.
The extreme heat also poses additional risks for certain people. You’re better off avoiding the steam room entirely if you suffer from heart disease, high or low blood pressure and epilepsy, for example.
If you’re pregnant, taking antibiotics or are using mind-altering substances such as alcohol or other stimulants, it’s also strongly advised that you avoid getting in a steam room.
Dry Sauna vs Wet Sauna: Which Is Better?
Back to the million dollar question. Sauna or steam room? Is wetter really better or does dry heat win the race? As a place to hang out after a hard workout, the steam room and sauna are equally awesome. Even 15 minutes in either will soothe your aching muscles and leave you feeling relaxed.
Both cause a slight uptick in the burning of calories, but that doesn’t mean they can be relied on as a weight loss tool. Firstly, because you’d have to sit in them for much longer than is advisable to see any significant results. And secondly, it’s predominantly water that you’re losing anyway. As soon as you start hydrating, the weight will come back.
Since they offer largely the same in terms of health benefits, it really is a matter of preference. Some people prefer the intense dry heat of a traditional Finnish sauna, while others enjoy the moist heat resulting from the steam room’s extreme humidity.
If you’re thinking about installing either one in your home, there’s no question that the dry sauna is the better option. With no plumbing to worry about, it’s much easier to build a barrel sauna from scratch.
Compared to steam rooms, which require more attention, more cleaning and are more complicated to install, the upkeep and maintenance of a dry sauna is simple and easy.
Sauna kits are also a lot more affordable and don’t require much more than basic wiring to get them operational (and then only if you’re using an electric stove). A steam room is a lot more complicated and pricey to install.
Final Thoughts on a Hot Topic
The way we see it, if you want to spend time in a steam room you can always visit your local gym or spa. For everyday sweat sessions, a barrel sauna in your backyard is definitely the way to go.
Besides, with a traditional sauna there’s still the option of creating some löyly by sprinkling water onto the hot rocks. Plus, having a sauna at home means you can access its many health benefits whenever you like.
Go ahead and order your barrel sauna today. We offer delivery across North America. If you’re not sure which one to go with, get in touch and we’ll discuss your options. You can also browse our FAQs if you have additional questions.