Sauna vs. Steam Room: Which Is Better?

Compare Health Benefits and Risks of Each Treatment

Enjoying the 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 certain health and medical advantages, 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 made from tile (or sometimes another non-porous material like glass or plastic) 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 (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.

Steam Room Health Benefits

Anyone who has spent time in a steam room will immediately see benefits to the skin. Moisture helps 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.

Steam Room Health Risks

According to a published report, "In the damp conditions of steam baths and whirlpools, sweat does not easily evaporate. Stifling the means for dissipation of heat drives the skin temperature up, which in tum increases the core temperature" Therefore, many of the risks of using a steam room are associated with the high heat and moisture. 

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 it will further increase your core temperature. Women who are pregnant and those with certain heart conditions should avoid using a steam room. If you're not sure if a steam room is safe for you, speak to your physician for further guidance.

Lastly, 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 pounds will return once your body is rehydrated.

Sauna Room 

Different Types of Sauna

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 rocks to create steam.

The North American Sauna Society describes the most common types of saunas.

  • 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.

    Sauna Room Health Benefits 

    Researchers have been studying the impact of sauna use on cardiovascular health and other outcomes. According to a report published by the Mayo Clinic, 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 a 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.

    Lastly, the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health reports that sauna use may increase the benefits you gain from regular exercise. In a published article, Dr. Adam Rindfleisch, 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 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.

    Sauna 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 everyone should check with their physician before using a sauna.

    Sauna vs. Steam Room: The Bottom Line

    Even though the difference between sauna and steam room is fairly simple (one is dry and one is moist), your visit to a steam room may feel more intense than a visit to a sauna. The author of a comparison published in Physician and Sportsmedicine describes the difference.

    "A steam bath feels hotter than a sauna because the steam helps prevent sweat from evaporating and because humid air stores more heat than does dry air. In addition, when steam vapor hits the skin, it condenses, with the sweat already on the skin, to release what is known as the heat of condensation. A sauna, on the other hand, has a low humidity, so the body's core temperature stays cooler, even though the temperature range is about 170° to 190°F." 

    But since both the sauna and the steam room provide benefits, the one that you choose is up to you. Both experiences are likely to help reduce stress and increase enjoyment of your gym or spa experience. But regular use is likely to produce the greatest rewards. 

    To decide which one is better, you might want to ask yourself, which steam room or sauna is closest to me? Do I prefer dry heat or moist heat? Which facility am I likely to use on a regular basis? 

    If you are new to the sauna or steam room, start with 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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