Do you know the difference between a sauna and a steam room? Although these thermal therapies have much in common, there are some important differences.
Freezing your body with cryotherapy may have been the recovery trend of the 2010s, but warming up your body has been a proven recovery practice ever since. (It even predates Roman times!) The ancient, global spa culture is the inspiration behind what we now experience as a modern spa – particularly saunas and steam baths. Now, thanks to wellness trends and a desire for more recovery treatments, you can now find a sauna or steam room in a wide range of recovery gyms and studios, as well as sophisticated spas.
Athletes and wellness enthusiasts have long rejuvenated and relaxed with heat therapy, but these two methods offer very different experiences. See how saunas and steam baths vary and the benefits of each.
What Is a Steam Room?
A steam room, sometimes called a steam room, is probably just what you think: a room full of steam. A generator with boiling water creates steam (or, in a manual steam room, boiling water is poured over hot stones) and the room is filled with hot moisture.
“The ambient air temperature of a steam room is ideally between 100 and 115 degrees, but with a humidity level close to 100%,” says Peter Tobiason, founder and CEO of LIVKRAFT Performance Wellness, a health and recovery center in La Jolla, CA.
It is usually recommended (by spas and health professionals) to spend no more than 15 minutes in a steam room.
What Is a Sauna?
A sauna is the counterpart of the steam room. “A traditional sauna or ‘dry sauna’ uses a wood, gas or electric stove with heated stones to create a dry, low humidity environment with temperatures between 180 and 200 degrees,” said Tobiason. This type of dry heating has been used since the Neolithic era, according to historical resources.
It is recommended that you spend a maximum of 20 minutes in a dry sauna.
You may also be familiar with infrared saunas, the modern upgrade to the old sauna. The source of heat is infrared light – not a stove – that penetrates the skin, muscles and even cells, says Tobiason. “It raises body temperature to produce sweat to cool the body against your body by reacting strictly to the outside ambient temperature of a sauna or dry steam.”
In an infrared sauna, the body warms to a lower air temperature, between 135-150 degrees. That means you can spend more time in a sauna with a “risk of dehydration and any reduced cardiovascular concerns,” says Tobiason. You can spend more than 45 minutes in an infrared sauna, depending on your tolerance, physical condition and your doctor’s release.
The Benefits of Steam Rooms
Where do steam rooms really shine? In your breasts.
Relieve congestion: “Steam has an advantage over dry and infrared saunas in the stuffy-nose department,” Tobiason said. “One of the key benefits is relieving upper respiratory congestion. The combination of inhalation vapor, usually mixed with eucalyptus oil, increases vasodilation in the sinuses, allowing the nasal passage to clear and relieve congestion.” It is almost as if you are entering a large essential oil diffuser.
Tobiason has warned of the cold and flu season. Keep in mind that if there are too many people with a stuffy nose in a public steam room, you could increase the risk of “catching bugs and viruses from anyone who has the same idea.” Instead, you can try a long, wet bath with some eucalyptus essential oil or one of these other home remedies for sinus infections.
Promote mental and muscle relaxation: Being in a steam room may look like you are melting the stress out of your body. Your muscles relax with the heat and you can enter a more peaceful state (for 15 minutes, that’s it!). As mentioned, some steam rooms use eucalyptus and essential oils to enhance the relaxing experience. (Tip: If you are at an Equinox location, take one of these cold eucalyptus towels with you to the steam room.)
Improve circulation: “Humid heat” (raw but correct) can improve circulation, according to a 2012 study published in Medical Science Monitor. This helps in overall well-being and organ function, as well as a healthy immune system.
The Benefits of Saunas
These benefits partly depend on which type of sauna you choose – traditional or infrared.
Improve circulation: Like steam rooms, saunas also help increase circulation. A recent Swedish study even showed that saunas can “improve heart function in the short term”.
Relieving pain: A 2009 study conducted at the Health, Social Care and Technology Specialization Center at Saxion University of Applied Sciences in the Netherlands led rheumatoid arthritis patients to undergo eight infrared sauna treatments over four weeks The researchers found that the use of infrared sauna led to statistically significant reductions in pain and stiffness.
Boost Athletic Recovery: A study of infrared saunas from the Department of Physical Activity Biology at the University of Jyväskylä in Finland examined 10 athletes and their recovery. After a strength workout, they spent 30 minutes in the hot box. The conclusion? The infrared sauna time is “favorable for the neuromuscular system to recover from maximum endurance performance”.
Enjoy longer relaxation sessions: In an infrared sauna, you can “give your body more time to experience deep and detoxifying sweat,” says Tobiason. This is because you can stay there much longer than a steam room and a traditional sauna. “This means your muscles, joints and skin are getting longer with useful infrared rays.”
For guided meditation and entertainment: “Certain infrared saunas also include tablets with the ability to suggest guided meditation applications such as Calm and Headspace during sessions, which helps you relax.”
Tips for Getting the Most Out of Your Session
Tobiason shared some tips for maximizing his heat therapy. He also noted the importance of consulting with his doctor: “As always, consult a qualified medical professional before attending any type of infrared, steam or dry sauna session.”
Hydrate: “The main thing to remember with any heat therapy is to make sure you’re hydrated!” he says. “Hydration is critical to session safety and optimization. Proper hydration allows your body processes to work efficiently. Take a bottle to fill with water and trace minerals or electrolytes before, during and after the session.”
Quick shower before game: This is for infrared sauna sessions. “Taking a shower beforehand can accelerate sweat in an infrared sauna, opening the pores of the skin and relaxing the muscles,” he says. “This is essentially a warm-up for your session.”
Get cold first: “Try full-body cryotherapy or an ice bath before the sauna session,” says Tobiason. “This can increase the circulation of all the ‘fresh’ blood that was brought to you by cold therapy.”
Dry brushing: Before the session, spend three to five minutes dry brushing to increase your sweat, “he said.” Dry brushing increases circulation, encouraging the detoxification process. “
Rinse later: “Take a cold shower [later] to close the pores,” said Tobiason. “This prevents you from sweating and reabsorbing toxins you just released.”