Saunas and steam rooms are both facilities set up so people can enjoy the benefits of heat therapy. They have a similar purpose, but they have different types of heat.
A sauna is a room or small building set up to offer an enclosed area for experiencing a dry heated environment. The name sauna is of Finnish origin, and this heat therapy is still a daily ritual for many Finnish people. In other parts of the world, saunas are often associated with fitness centers and spa facilities.
The sauna room is filled with dry heat (produced by a wood or electric stove) to a temperature of about 175 degrees Fahrenheit. There is a box of heated stones in the sauna. Water can be poured over the heated stones to produce steam and add a little humidity. One should never use a sauna with completely dry air, as this can be damaging to the respiratory system. Sometimes an aromatic scent is added to enhance the experience. Most saunas are set up with different level benches. Due to the tendency of heat to rise, upper level benches are hotter than lower level benches.
In contrast, a steam room has an electrical steam generator to produce an environment maintained at near 110 degrees Fahrenheit, with up to 100% humidity. It is, in fact, a steam-filled room. Steam rooms must be kept at lower temperatures than saunas, because higher temperature steam could cause scalding. Steam was a routine feature of ancient Greek and Roman baths in a room called a caldarium, heated by a hypocaust, an underfloor heating system.
In public saunas and steam rooms in the United States, participants usually wear a bathing suit or wrap a towel around themselves. In Europe and other places, participants are most often nude. Most people use a towel to sit on for hygiene and comfort.
There is some controversy about the purported health benefits of using these facilities. Certainly, they will make you sweat profusely and the heat will relax your muscles. They can produce a feeling of well-being. They are dimly lit and quiet, so they could be considered restful and possibly reduce stress. They can lower blood pressure, at least temporarily, by causing the blood vessels to dilate. They won’t help you lose weight, since any water you sweat out will be replaced as soon as you drink something. And sweating doesn’t remove toxins through the skin; that’s the function of your liver.
It’s recommended to spend at most fifteen or twenty minutes at a time in one of these heated environments. Cool down for a few minutes afterwards and drink a couple glasses of water. Don’t use saunas or steam rooms if you are ill, and leave immediately if you start feeling ill while you’re using these facilities.
If you enjoy the experience of a sauna or steam room, there is no reason you can’t spend time in one regularly. And, since one is no better than the other, the choice of wet or dry is up to you.