A visit to a steam room or sauna can be a powerful way to relax. It’s a practice that has evolved over centuries from people using steam and hot water as a self-care tool. But are the warm, damp locations we sit in after a good gym session or as a way to unwind actually sanitary and safe?
HuffPost chatted with a few experts to get the breakdown on what you need to know about steam rooms and saunas, from the bacteria you may encounter to what you should do to protect yourself from anything that might be lurking. Check out their advice:
Know that saunas and steam rooms can be a breeding ground for germs
The steamy environment in your favorite spa has the potential to cause a few issues, said Robin Evans, a dermatologist based in Stamford, Connecticut.
Bacteria thrive in warm and moist areas, making a steam room a hot spot for risky organisms. Contact with them can cause a variety of health complications, such as skin problems or upset stomachs. You can lower your bacteria exposure by sitting on a towel. Don’t allow your skin to come into contact with any porous, damp wooden benches, which can harbor germs.
“One could readily develop infections on the skin due to these microorganisms including fungal or yeast skin rashes, impetigo or other bacterial infections,” Evans said.
If you have a cold, the warm air can also make your nose run and set off a coughing fit, increasing the chance that you could spread germs to others around you. It’s a good idea to step outside if you or your spa neighbors look or sound unwell.
Choose spas that follow healthy protocols
Kirsi Bhasin, a health and wellness expert and author of the forthcoming book The Power of Being Mindful: How to Be Happier, Calmer & More Productive at Work, is a longtime sauna user. She stressed that traditional sauna rooms are perfectly healthy and sanitary as long as they’re maintained properly.
“A good sauna should have a special latch or vent inside for air circulation,” Bhasin said. “The latch should be kept closed when heating the sauna up and open at all other times. This prevents mold from forming which can be very detrimental to our health.”
She also suggested that food and drink should be kept out of the sauna, that everyone should use their own towel and that the sauna should be kept clean. Spas should also be wiped down and cleaned thoroughly with cleaning agents on a regular basis, Bhasin said.
Consider wearing sandals when you use a sauna or steam room
Steam and saunas can ease muscle aches and promote relaxation, said Helen Ewing, a health care expert and the dean of nursing at Carrington College’s Mesa, Arizona, campus. However, she suggested going to a spot where shoes are permitted.
“To limit exposure to infectious disease, it is important to wear footwear to avoid fungal infections such as athlete’s foot,” she said.
Do a body scan for any injuries before using the spa
If you have any open wounds, you’ll need to be more vigilant, said Christopher Dietz, a physician at MedExpress. Either skip the steam room or sauna altogether or take precautions to protect yourself from infection.
“If you have any open cuts or scrapes, make sure they’re covered fully with a Band-Aid before you sit down. These open wounds, if left uncovered, are an easy way for germs to get inside the body,” he said.
Be mindful of how long you’re spending in the heat
You should be conscious of your body’s tolerance and not overstay your welcome in steamy rooms, Ewing noted.
“It is important to limit your time in the heat-intense environment to avoid too much stress on the body,” she said.
Ewing suggested keeping your session to 10 minutes to start and added that dehydration can develop quickly. “Drink plenty of water to replace the fluid loss,” she said.
Ultimately, spending time relaxing in the soothing warmth of a sauna or steam room can help you unwind after a hard week at work or a grueling workout. But it’s important to follow simple hygiene tips to make sure you stay healthy and germ-free.