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Sauna vs. Steam Room: Which is Right for You?

There are many ways to relax and unwind after a long workweek, a physically demanding athletic performance or a tough workout. A quick nap, a stroll in the park or walking into the local watering hole for a cold one are all common ways to de-stress and take it easy. However, in many parts of the world, the most popular way to unwind is in the sauna or steam room. Saunas and steam rooms come from Northern Europe as a cultural meeting place and vessel of relaxation, but they have been around in the US for quite some time.

For the many of us who aren’t that familiar with saunas or steam rooms, the question remains: what is the difference? We’re going to address this question by defining both saunas and steam rooms, discussing the main differences, and also addressing the pros and cons of both and which is ultimately better for you.

How saunas work

When you open the door to a sauna, you are essentially walking into a desert. Saunas are heated using a stack of rocks or an infrared panel to create a dry heat, resulting in temperatures of 160-200 degrees Fahrenheit and ultra-low humidity levels. They even go so far as to have wooden seating inside to absorb any moisture in the air, as well as several vents in the walls and roof design to let out any excess humidity. There is often water source you can ladle over the rocks for a tiny bit of steam, but it dissipates quickly.

How steam rooms work

Unlike the dryness of saunas, steam rooms are quite humid – around 100% humidity, to be more specific. The steam is created by a machine called a steam generator that has one job: boiling water. While steam rooms have a much higher humidity level than saunas, they also aren’t run as hot, usually staying between 110-120 degrees Fahrenheit. All of this humidity would degrade wood, so the seating surfaces in steam rooms are made of non-porous materials like tile to withstand it.

The main differences

Heat and humidity are the main different factors at play here. Saunas are quite a bit hotter than steam rooms with low humidity, and steam rooms aren’t run quite as hot but have high humidity. There is also a difference in construction. Saunas are usually standard rooms with four walls built of wood, whereas steam rooms usually have domed, sloped ceilings so that water runs down the sides of the wall instead of dripping all over the folks inside.

The health benefits and risks of each room

Different levels of heat and humidity put your body in different environments to adapt to, which present different health benefits, as well as different risks. Below we’ll highlight the pros and cons of both saunas and steam rooms so you can figure out which is right for you.

Saunas

  • Pros
    In addition to providing an environment conducive to relaxation, saunas have several other benefits. There have been some studies that suggest sauna bathing can lower blood pressure if consistently performed, and it can also help alleviate pain – especially for those with rheumatoid arthritis. Heat has also been shown to be a great tool to relieve muscle soreness, which is why saunas are popular for soothing the body’s muscles after athletic performances like weightlifting or football. In addition to muscular and arthritic relief, the transient cardiovascular changes observed in saunas can soothe asthma and chronic bronchitis.
  • Cons
    Although sauna bathing is considered extremely safe, there have been studies that have exhibited risks for those with unstable angina pectoris, a recent myocardial infarction or severe aortic stenosis. If you have any heart condition, you should consult your doctor before engaging in sauna bathing.

Steam rooms

  • Pros
    One of the biggest benefits of steam rooms is congestion relief. Studies have shown steam therapy to be effective when it comes to congestion coming from allergies or illness. Respiratory distress relief is great, but another popular benefit is the fact that steam rooms help clear your skin – in fact, this is usually why most people head into the steam room in the first place. Humidity helps to open the pores in your skin so that dirt and excess oil can drain out, leaving your skin clearer and more evenly-toned.
  • Cons
    There are many joint conditions out there that are aggravated by humidity, one of them being rheumatoid arthritis. While saunas can help soothe rheumatism, steam rooms can often worsen the symptoms and cause even more aching and pain in the joints. Women who are pregnant should also avoid the steam room until after consulting their doctor, as there have been risk factors associated with using a steam room while pregnant.

Is one generally better than the other?

Although steam rooms and saunas both promote relaxation and do their part for muscle soreness, they do have some very distinct benefits and drawbacks from one another. That being said their pros and cons due to humidity level are pretty much polar opposites. Dry heat is good for rheumatism but bad for congestion, moist heat is good for congestion but bad for rheumatism, etc. Basically, depending on your symptoms or ailments, one will be definitively better for you than the other, but those symptoms will define which one it is.

Wrapping it up

Saunas and steam rooms both promote relaxation and aid in muscle soreness. For general, day-to-day rest and relaxation, steam rooms and saunas are great, and can both offer up additional benefits. Whether you enjoy saunas or steam rooms more, if you are a healthy individual using them for non-health specific causes and have no major health concerns, you’ll be best served by picking the one you prefer. There is often water source you can ladle over the rocks for a tiny bit of steam, but it dissipates quickly.

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