Are Saunas and Steam Rooms Good for Your Health?

two women in a sauna
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Have you ever wondered about the health benefits of using a sauna or steam room? Many of us enjoy these treatments at our local health club or spa because they feel good after a tough workout or a long day at the office. But it turns out that using these heated rooms can provide additional health benefits, as well. But in the sauna vs. steam room debate—which treatment wins?

Steam Room

What Is a Steam Room? 

A steam room (sometimes called a Turkish-style bath) provides moist heat. These rooms are usually tiled (or sometimes another non-porous material like glass or plastic is used) and are airtight to trap all of the moisture that is created by a steam generator. When you enter a steam room, you'll immediately notice the presence of steam both on your skin, making it will feel damp, and in the air, which often feels thick.

Steam rooms are designed to accommodate 95 to 100 percent humidity. The temperature in a steam room may range from 100 to 120 degrees Fahrenheit, but it may feel warmer because of the high humidity. In some steam rooms, you'll find a spray bottle of eucalyptus oil or another scent to enhance your steam experience.

Because steam rises, you'll find that sitting higher in a steam room provides more intense heat and steam. Sitting lower in a steam room offers less steam and heat.

Health Benefits

Anyone who has spent time in a steam room will immediately see benefits to the skin. Moisture helps the skin to look refreshed and dewy in the short term. But the benefits don't end there.

Moist heat may help relieve symptoms of colds and congestion (especially when combined with eucalyptus oil) and people with sore muscles often feel relief after sitting for a few minutes in a steam room.

Studies have shown that moist heat is more effective than dry heat for relieving delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS), the muscle pain that often occurs in the days after a hard workout.

Lastly, many steam room users will tell you that the experience helps to reduce stress. Some even describe it as a "high." It's hard to say, however, if the steam actually reduces stress or the simple act of sitting quietly for ten minutes provides that benefit—or it may be a combination of the two.

Health Risks

It's possible to overheat in a steam room, which is why it's important not to overstay in the room. When you sweat in a steam room, the sweat, which is intended to cool you, doesn't evaporate efficiently due to the moisture in the air. This leads to an increase in skin and core temperature.

Some people (especially those not accustomed to steam heat) may experience dizziness, nausea, or in severe cases fainting while using a steam room. Experts advise that you stay hydrated, limit your time in the room to a few minutes (especially when you are new to the experience) and avoid using these heated rooms when you are under the influence of alcohol, drugs, or certain medications. You may also find that using a steam room after a meal causes increased dizziness.

It is also never wise to exercise in a steam room as this will further increase your core temperature. Women who are pregnant and those with certain heart conditions should avoid using a steam room altogether. If you're not sure if a steam room is safe for you, speak to your physician for further guidance.

If you are using a steam room for weight loss, you're likely to be disappointed. While sweating in a steam room may cause short-term weight loss due to lost water weight, the weight will return once your body is rehydrated.

Sauna Room 

A traditional sauna provides dry heat. Depending on the sauna you use, you might experience moisture as low as 10 percent or as high as 60 percent. The amount of moisture you experience is often dependent on the sauna style you choose. Some saunas allow you to increase the humidity by pouring water on hot rocks to create steam.

Different Types

According to the North American Sauna Society, a sauna is a room heated to 150 to 195 degrees, with humidity ranging from around 10% to 60%. There are many types of saunas, the most common of which are detailed below.

  • A wood-burning sauna uses rocks or wood to produce heat and is closest to the traditional Finnish sauna. Users can modify the amount of heat in the room by adjusting the rate of burn.
  • An electric sauna creates heat with a wall or floor mounted electric heater. You can usually find a remote control with a temperature display to adjust the heat to your desired temperature.
  • A wooden manufactured sauna room is a freestanding or modular unit often made out of different types of wood including western red cedar, Nordic white spruce, aspen, alder, hemlock, or pine.
  • A smoke sauna utilizes a wood-burning stove to heat rocks in a room without a chimney. After the heating process is complete, the room is ventilated before users enter it. 
  • Infrared saunas are often described as infrared heat therapy rooms. In these rooms, heating elements reflect heat in the form of light directly onto a user's body. Infrared saunas (or far-infrared saunas) are often used by athletes or by those trying to gain exercise-like benefits. Far-infrared saunas are also the type often used in studies evaluating cardiovascular benefits of sauna.

Health Benefits 

Researchers have been studying the impact of sauna use on cardiovascular health and other outcomes. Some studies have shown a modest impact on chronic conditions including high blood pressure, congestive heart failure, dementia and Alzheimer's disease, headache, type 2 diabetes, and rheumatoid arthritis. Regular sauna use may also help you live longer.

One long-term study of nearly 2,300 men published in Annals of Medicine reported that while frequent sauna usage was independently associated with reduced mortality risk, frequent sauna usage combined with increased cardiovascular fitness provided additional survivor benefits. Frequent use was defined as 3-7 sauna visits per week.

The University of Wisconsin (UW) School of Medicine and Public Health reports that sauna use may increase the benefits you gain from regular exercise. Dr. Adam Rindfleisch, a UW Health Family Medicine physician, says that sauna therapy is beneficial after exercise to soothe and relax the muscles. "Exercise is a form of active, internally-induced sweating, and a sauna is a form of restful externally-induced sweating," he says, suggesting that it's important to use the sauna as an addition to exercise rather than a replacement for exercise.

Health Risks

Using a sauna requires the same common sense as using a steam room, as high heat can cause faintness or dizziness. Pregnant women, especially those in the early stages of pregnancy are generally advised to avoid high heat and should speak to their physician before considering the experience. Also, Dr. Adam Rindfleisch advises that "people with a high-risk medical history—including kidney disease, liver failure or cardiac conditions—may not be able to use sauna therapy." He suggests that anyone with a health concern should check with their physician before using a sauna.

Sauna or Steam Room Alternatives

In addition to a traditional sauna or steam room, there is an alternative that celebrities and beauty bloggers have made popular: the urban sweat lodge. A sweat lodge experience is similar to a steam room session but varies in a few significant ways.

For example, at Shape House locations in California and New York, clients spend 55 minutes wrapped in an infrared cocoon—a sweat blanket that uses FAR infrared heat to increase the temperature to 150 degrees. FAR infrared energy penetrates the body approximately four to six inches, heating you from the inside out, as opposed to the outside in. This means you reach a higher core temperature faster than a traditional steam room.

Another significant difference between the urban sweat lodge experience and a traditional steam room is that your head is not exposed to steam. Shape House founder Sophie Chiche explains that this may help you to increase the benefits you experience from sweating. "It’s a far deeper sweat because your head is out (and most of your nerve endings are in your head) you’re able to stay in longer."

Lastly, in a sweat lodge, you can watch television or even use your cell phone—an experience that is not likely to happen in a traditional steam room. For some users, this difference may be a benefit. Having a distraction can help you to tolerate the heat for a longer time. For others, it may be a drawback. Many people appreciate the quiet disconnection that is required in a traditional steam room.

Can I Sweat Away Excess Weight?

If you try an urban sweat lodge, it's important to keep the benefits of the experience in check. Many clients visit locations to lose weight. You are likely to experience weight loss in the form of water loss. But water loss is temporary.

You are also likely to experience many of the other benefits that steam and sauna room users gain, such as reduced stress, improved sleep, and fresh glowing skin. However, there is little scientific evidence to support some of the other claims, such as purification and spiritual awakening, made by these destinations.

For example, while you may be able to rid your body of some nasty toxins, the amount of toxins that you sweat out is exceptionally small. And your body is equipped to rid itself of toxins, without having to sweat them out.

You may not burn as many calories as you hope while resting in a sauna, steam room, or sweat lodge. Researchers have not found that the numbers are as impressive as reported by some sweat aficionados. While extreme heat may be able to double your caloric expenditure, that doesn't amount to that much as laying at rest only burns about 28 calories per 30 minutes if you are a 155-pound person. If you stay home and work in your garden, you are likely to burn 170 calories per half hour. And if you cook dinner, you'll likely burn almost 100 calories in 30 minutes.

The calorie expenditure experienced in a sweat lodge has also been called into question by scientists. While your body is likely to burn extra calories managing the heat, there is little (if any) peer-reviewed scientific evidence to support the calorie counts promoted by some sweat lodge locations.

Even though the difference between sauna and steam room is fairly simple (one is fairly dry and one is moist), your visit to a steam room may feel more intense than a visit to a sauna. The humid air in the steam room keeps the sweat on your skin from evaporating (which would induce cooling), which ups your skin and core body temperature. 

A Word From Verywell

As both the sauna and the steam room provide benefits, let your personal preference dictate which one you choose.  To decide which one is better for you, research of offerings of the steam rooms and saunas closest to you and consider if you prefer dry heat or moist heat. Both experiences are likely to help reduce stress and increase the enjoyment of your gym or spa experience—and regular use is likely to produce even greater rewards. 

If you are new to the sauna or steam room, start with a short exposure and gradually increase the time you spend inside the rooms. And remember to check with your physician if you have any health concerns or if you experience dizziness or other symptoms. 

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Article Sources
Verywell Fit uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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Additional Reading
  • C. Frank Consolazio, Ralph Shapiro, John E. Masterson, Philip S. L. McKinzie; Energy Requirements of Men in Extreme Heat, The Journal of Nutrition, Volume 73, Issue 2, 1 February 1961, Pages 126–134, https://doi.org/10.1093/jn/73.2.126