During the winter, one of my favorite activities is to spend a day at the spa. Whether you book a massage or simply try out the various pools and relaxation spaces, it’s the perfect way to stay warm and practice some always-needed self-care.
On a recent visit, I was struck by the variety of sauna and steam rooms available to explore. Though these environments were great for relaxation, I realized I had no idea what exactly sitting in these types of heat was doing to my body ― or even the optimal way to use them.
It turns out the answer is complicated. Below, experts break down the differences between saunas and steam rooms, how they affect your short- and long-term health, and the best way to make good use of these hot spaces.
What’s the difference between a sauna and a steam room?
“Saunas use rocks or a closed stove ― wood, electric or gas ― to provide dry heat,” said Dr. Barbara Bawer, a family medicine physician at Ohio State University’s Wexner Medical Center. “Think of a desert as the type of feeling you may bring to mind when walking into one.”
The tradition of sauna-bathing has roots in Finland going back thousands of years, but these days you can find saunas in spas, gyms and even homes around the world.
On the other hand, steam rooms are wet, steamy environments. The vibe is more tropical than desert.
“Steam rooms are moist,” said Dr. Brendan Camp of MDCS Dermatology in New York City. “A steam room is heated through boiling water that is pushed into the chamber that makes the air humid. Steam rooms are usually at a lower temperature than saunas, but the air humidity is maxed out so that your body may not generate as much sweat as in a sauna.”
What does a sauna do to your body?
“Upon entering a sauna, your body and skin temperature will rise, usually above 100 degrees Fahrenheit, with average sauna temperatures around 160 degrees,” explained Dr. Lauren Penzi, a dermatologist at MDCS Dermatology. “The heat triggers the body to sweat. Your heart rate increases, which consequently increases blood circulation, especially the amount of blood being pumped to your skin.”
The heat of the sauna environment dilates your blood vessels, which enhances blood flow to muscles, joints and organs, and optimizes the functioning of these systems.
“Studies have shown that with regular sauna use, there is more stable epidermal barrier function, an increase in stratum corneum [top skin layer] hydration, a faster recovery of both elevated water loss and skin pH,” Penzi said.
She also pointed to research on saunas that shows benefits including improved energy, pain relief, immune support, skin health, reduced stroke risk and lower all-cause mortality risk.
“The heat has shown the ability to reduce inflammation, relax muscles and decrease blood pressure,” Bawer said. “For individuals with arthritis, heat can penetrate muscle tissue and relieve stiffness of the joints to help make you more limber, decrease inflammation and therefore reduce pain.”
Although studies have also suggested saunas can lower stress and reduce the risk of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease, she emphasized that more research is necessary as the specific mechanism and other factors are unclear.
There are also potential adverse effects. You don’t want to spend too much time in a sauna or you could lose too much fluid and become dehydrated.
“In a traditional dry sauna, the hot temperature causes blood vessels to dilate, and while this can improve circulation, it can worsen redness in people with rosacea,” said Dr. Lauren Ploch, a dermatologist practicing in Georgia and South Carolina. “Because dry saunas have low humidity levels, they can pull water from the skin and exacerbate dry skin conditions, like atopic dermatitis or eczema.”
What does a steam room do to your body?
Steam rooms are generally not as hot as saunas, but temperatures tend to hover between 110 and 120 degrees, with humidity above 95%.
“The moist heat improves circulation in the body and releases higher levels of a hormone called aldosterone, which lowers blood pressure and therefore reduces heart disease and helps you to relax, especially if done frequently,” Bawer said. “Steam rooms also warm the mucous membranes and allow an individual to have deeper breathing, which can help to clear congestion and therefore improve headaches, a sore throat and cough stemming from drainage or congestion.”
While saunas can dry out your skin, the humidity in steam rooms can help hydrate your skin, among other benefits. It’s as if you’re using a facial steamer all over your body.
“Heat can open up pores, and the condensation from the humidity helps to wash away dirt and dead skin as well,” Bawer explained. “They help you to detox as well through open pores.”
Spending time in a steam room can also loosen up your stiff joints and relieve muscle soreness.
“Mental health can be improved due to the relaxation, the fact that you are focused more on your breathing and therefore practice mindfulness, but this can also be true in a sauna,” Bawer added.
Be mindful of potential negative consequences of steam room use, however. As with saunas, they can worsen rosacea, and it’s best not to spend more than 20 minutes in these heating environments.
“Steam rooms can make people lightheaded if they reduce the blood pressure too much or you become dehydrated from water loss related to sweating,” Bawer said.
When should you use a sauna or steam room?
There are no hard-and-fast rules about the best time and scenario for using a sauna or steam room, but the experts who spoke to HuffPost generally recommended heading to the steam room after a workout.
“Heat overall is good to use after a workout when you have sore muscles, with some added benefits seen in steam rooms as compared to saunas,” Bawer said, noting that warm heat penetrates muscle tissue better than dry heat. “But both can help to alleviate soreness and relax muscle by getting more blood flow to the muscles and joints and therefore more oxygen and nutrients to help with recovery.”
“During a spa day, head to the sauna, as this has been shown to promote long-term wellness and mental relaxation,” she advised. “You can certainly try both consecutively. They both have the same main goals: raising your body temperature up, dilating your blood vessels and increasing circulation while lowering your blood pressure and promoting overall calmness and relaxation.”
Some experts recommend incorporating a steam room into your routine before you exercise.
“Using the steam room before a workout can be beneficial because it can help loosen your joints and increase flexibility,” said Dr. Aanand Geria, a dermatologist based in New Jersey.
The choice of sauna vs. steam room simply comes down to whether you prefer a dry or moist heat experience. The time of day or order in which you use them is also subject to personal preference.
“It depends on what benefit you’re trying to get from it,” Bawer said. “For example, elderly patients with especially stiff morning joints may benefit from use in the morning to help get their joints and muscles relaxed and limber.” She added that someone who works out “may benefit from using it after a workout to prevent soreness.”
What’s the best way to try them out?
“If you do a steam/sauna session, drink plenty of fluids afterward, since sweating is profuse and can cause dehydration and dizziness,” said Dr. Brunilda Nazario, chief physician editor of medical affairs at WebMD. “While there’s no guidelines, I’d say they can be used at any time. However, you’ll likely get the best benefits after a hard day or a hard workout and limit sessions to 15 to 30 minutes three to four times a week.”
If you decide to use a sauna and steam room consecutively, be sure to hydrate and be mindful of timing.
“Limit your time in each to 10 to 15 minutes on average,” Bawer urged. “There is no preferential order for which to do first or second, but sauna first and then steam room may be optimal, as the moist heat will rinse away dirt and grime to help cleanse skin after the dry heat, help with any congestion and, due to the moisture and lower temperatures of the steam room, will allow you to spend more time in the steam room.”
She recommended following up with a shower to close your pores and wash everything away.
“I recommend showering with a gentle cleanser after using a sauna or steam room, then immediately applying a moisturizer,” Ploch said.
Many aficionados also point to the value of following a traditional process involving a combination of hot and cold exposure.
“Sauna at its best is a process, and it can take hours done right ― hot, cold, rest, hydrate, repeat,” said Eero Kilpi, president of the North American Sauna Society. “It’s about contrast therapy ― a traditional sauna and some type of cold plunge or shower. It’s a major stress reliever, and afterwards you will feel like a million bucks.”
Consider talking to your doctor before you make sauna or steam room sessions part of your routine, since this may not be a good idea if you have certain health conditions.
“Many medications can make you more sensitive to the heat, so find out what specific precautions you should take,” Nazario said.
Do not use saunas or steam rooms if you’re feeling sick or are pregnant.
“Neither a sauna nor steam room heats up to the level that can kill most bacteria, so you can spread [an illness] to others or promote growth of your own bacteria or viruses and make your illness worse,” Bawer said. “You should always consult with your provider if you are pregnant on whether any activity is safe, but typically your body is undergoing so many changes, including increase in blood volume and dilation of your vessels, that heat to this level can cause unwanted side effects.”