Sauna or Steam Room: Which is Right for You?
Saunas, steam rooms and other types of heat therapies have been an integral part of bathhouse culture for several centuries. We wouldn’t be surprised if our simian predecessors didn’t love a little dip in a hot spring after a hard day of hunting.
Today there are two main go-to destinations for heat therapy: saunas and steam rooms.
Many people use the terms “saunas” and “steam rooms” interchangeably, but they aren't the same! Steam rooms are heated by pumping the vapor from boiling water (aka steam) into an enclosed space, creating moisture in the air that condenses on your body like hot air on a cold window pane.
Traditional Finnish-style saunas (like the bathhouse saunas) are heated with a central stove. Stoves either heat rocks or burn wood to generate heat. In saunas with rock heaters, water can be poured over rocks to create steam and increase the heat. These saunas are usually made with either cedar or aspen, which is why they smell so good!
The table below summarizes the main differences between saunas and steam rooms. These have an impact on how they affect your body and the specific benefits they provide:
Sauna vs Steam Room Benefits
You can choose either one, and reap several benefits. But the difference between moist heat and dry heat can mean different results for different goals.
Why do you want to incorporate sauna therapy into your lifestyle? Do you want to lose weight, improve your skin, recover after a workout, or manage pain?
In this article, we’ll compare the effectiveness of saunas and steam rooms for five common wellness goals, and give you our verdict on which we think works better. We’ll compare sauna vs. steam room for:
- Fat loss
- Skin health
- Respiratory health
- Muscle Recovery
- Pain Management
Let’s dive in.
Sauna vs Steam Room for Fat Loss
Verdict: Neither, unless combined with cold therapy.
Earlier we wrote about the Soeberg Principle, which is that “To enhance the metabolic effects of cold, force your body to reheat on its own.”
Exposing your body to heat, then to cold, triggers brown fat thermogenesis, which means your body begins to burn your ‘baby” fat.
This effect takes place irrespective of the type of heat you’re exposing your body to. Whether you use the sauna or a steam room, if your goal is fat loss, follow up a sauna session with a cold plunge. And our hot-cold-relax rooms at Sauna House create the perfect environment for that.
Sauna vs Steam Room for Skin
When you perspire and vapor condenses on your body, it strengthens your skin’s moisture barrier and has a positive effect on its surface pH. The sweating opens up your pores and improves blood circulation, giving you a lovely afterglow.
Both saunas and steam rooms work the same way on your skin. However, because of the higher intensity of humid heat in the latter, it can increase the chances of burns, especially if you have very sensitive skin.
Note: If you struggle with rosacea, it can flare up when you go to a sauna or steam room. It’s best to consult your dermatologist first if you are planning to use it as a therapy for your skin.
Sauna vs Steam Room When You’re Sick
Verdict: Saunas are safer, but steam rooms are just as effective
When we’re feeling under the weather, finding relief is top of mind. If you have a steam room or sauna at home, you may want to use their benefits to feel better.
In steam rooms, the effect of the high humidity is immediate. So, if you have a cold, the steam loosens the mucus and phlegm buildup in your nostrils. You’ll sneeze, your nose will run a marathon, and you’ll struggle not to swallow whatever is dripping from your nose’s backdoor into your throat. Not very sexy, but very effective.
There are some who like this picture but it’s not suitable for all, especially those with certain types of respiratory issues that can be aggravated by humidity, such as COPD or asthma.
Taking a respite in your home sauna might be a better idea.
Saunas are not as theatrical in their results, but are more of a long-term investment in your lungs. A 2018 review of several studies suggests that sauna usage may improve lung function in the long term.
Sauna vs Steam Room for Muscle Recovery
A Finnish study looked at hGH levels in 55 healthy individuals before and after a sauna session. It found that hGH levels (which help repair injured muscles) were on average 140% higher immediately following a sauna session than they were before.
We’ve gone more in depth into how saunas help with muscle recovery here.
A good 15-20 minutes should help you feel a difference post workout, but for better results you might want to skip the dry sauna for the infrared sauna. Infrared saunas use far-infrared radiation to penetrate more deeply into the neuromuscular system, which may have additional positive effects on recovery. But you’ll have to spend more time there.
Studies suggest that both saunas and steam rooms are effective for muscle recovery and have various health benefits. But we would recommend saunas precisely for the fact that they’ve been around longer, and have been more extensively researched than steam rooms.
Sauna vs Steam Room for Pain Management
What happens when you have a muscle ache? You get your heat pad or lay in a hot tub until it feels better. This is because when exposed to heat, your blood vessels relax and dilate and blood flow increases, which helps reduce joint tension and relieve sore muscles — the very mechanism that works to manage pain. Another study on patients with low back pain found that dry sauna therapy improved their quality of life and reduced pain overall.
People with fibromyalgia, rheumatoid arthritis, and lower back pain have shown statistically significant reductions in pain and stiffness after using infrared saunas.
Again, here, it is all up to your individual preferences. Pick whichever one you’re more comfortable in.
So what will it be, sauna or steam room?
In the end, both saunas and steam rooms offer a sanctuary for relaxation and potential health benefits. Once you’ve evaluated both for their efficacy in reaching your own unique goals, grab your towel and go – whichever you choose, you’ll have a great time either way!
If you still can’t decide, ask yourself: Which do you prefer? The dry, wood-scented heat of the traditional Finnish sauna, or the feel of hot vapor on your body?
If you ask us, we’re biased to the sauna, and not just because we’re Sauna House. In most cases, saunas are safer and much more well-studied — and nothing beats the woody scent of löyly!If you agree, come along and experience this millennia-old tradition at Sauna House!