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6 different types of saunas - Secret Saunas

6 different types of saunas

What is a sauna anyway?

A sauna is a heated room or building -the intention being to create excessive sweating.

While we can trace the origin of the modern sauna back to Northern Europe some 4,000 years ago, the concept of gathering in an enclosed space with your community and heating yourself up to the point that your whole body is dripping with sweat has been practised for much longer (1, 2). From Europe to Africa and from Japan to the Americas, humans seemingly love this tradition and have been practising the ritual for centuries. Even the Ayurveda, the oldest known medical document to man, knew the benefits of a sauna. It endorsed sweat bathing as it deemed sweating such a vital component of human health. 

woman in traditional sauna

Today, different kinds of saunas have proliferated with modern touches such as timers, Bluetooth and mood lighting - a far cry from what would have been man-made caves draped with animal skins. 

Still, modern saunas provide the same benefits of heat exposure they did thousands of years ago (3). 

Discovering the right sauna for lifestyle wishes means matching priorities: be those cost, convenience or heritage upholding beloved ritual. This article takes a deep dive into different types of saunas from traditional wood-burning sauna to infrared saunas, you'll understand all 6 types of sauna so you can find one that suits your home sauna needs.

While the scope of this article does not cover every type of sweat bathing, you can read more about that here.  

Bottom line: A good option if you don't have the space for an outdoor sauna, we'd recommend getting a full-spectrum infrared sauna for maximum heath benefits. 

Traditional Finnish sauna, wood-burning sauna or dry sauna

Many sauna purists will tell you this is the only real sauna and are what many envision when thinking of an authentic sauna. This is because of something the Finns call löyly, a word for which we in the English speaking world don't have a direct translation, but describes the steam and humidity that arises when you pour water over sauna stones. 

Traditional Finnish sauna utilise wood stove-fueled heat to warm stones on top of the heater. These saunas take 30-60 minutes to heat and the temperature inside the sauna typically reaches 160 - 220 degrees (3).  

Authentic wood-fired saunas have wide ranging cost between $5,500-18,000 including the heater, depending on size and materials, and are among the most common type of sauna available. 

wood burning HUUM sauna

Pros: 

Design: There's no doubting that traditional Finnish dry saunas are the prettiest to look at, making them a great addition to any health-conscious and stylish home, indoors or outdoors. 

More than a  sauna: Beyond performance metrics lies the essence of community – gathering with others to feel the heat, enjoying the fire in a wood stove lap around the logs, the sigh of steam off stones, scent of cedar transporting one through time and conversation are all unique to Finnish wood burning saunas. 

Cons: 

Convenience:  With the time investment to split wood, clean ashes, and properly air out - buying this type of sauna aligns more to lifestyle than cost alone. Those valuing convenience may prefer alternative heating methods.

Control: Unlike with electric or infrared saunas, wood-fired saunas don't have finely tuned temperature controls beyond feeding the fire, making it difficult to lower heat in the sauna. 

Bottom line: The additional time commitment and lack of control over the temperature makes traditional saunas annoying, but for those who bask in the process of preparing the sauna, it adds to the experience of an in-home sauna. 

Savusauna or smoke sauna

Although not a common sauna in the US, the smoke sauna or savusauna as it is called in Finland is a very old, traditional type of sauna. These sauna room are regarded by many Finns as the ultimate sauna experience.

Savusaunas are similar to traditional steam sauna as they are heated with open wood-burning heaters, however they do not have chimneys.  Instead while the wood is being burned the smoke from the sauna is left to circulate in the room and heat up huge amounts of rocks and wood that make up the structure of the sauna. Once the sauna is heated up (to around 212 degrees), the fire is left to be extinguished. The leftover coals and ash get tossed, and water is thrown on the rocks to create a steamy vapor, or löyly as the Finns call it, helping clear out the smoke and fumes (2). After a thorough airing out, the sauna is finally good to go.

authentic savusauna in Finland

Pros: 

Incomparable experience: Savu sauna users have said the experience is unparalleled, largely because of the amount of stones which create the perfect löyly (8). In addition, the smoke sauna is considered a softer heat by many, making it perfect for those who find the traditional sauna too harsh. 

Cons:

The whole process usually takes around 4 - 6 hours and is highly labour intensive (8), making it mostly out of reach for many with modern lives. Although savusauna is still practised in Finland,  you are very unlikely to find a savusauna expert who is able to properly heat and look after a savusauna in the US. 

Bottom line: It's an amazing opportunity to experience the savusauna but don't expect to have this in your backyard. 

Though savusauna is rare this side of the pond, sauna brands Saunum and HUUM have found clever ways to recreate the evocative savusauna experience through convenient, everyday home products. Saunum has focused on reimagining the gentle soft heat of the savusauna, while HUUM has prioritized capturing its deeply lingering steam.

Electric sauna

For those desiring sauna benefits without the hands-on wood stove routine, electric models bring convenience. Powerful heaters rapidly warm specially constructed rooms in 30 minutes up to 195°F. Installation flexibility allows indoor or outdoor placement and frequently includes lighting, audio and chromotherapy options.

harvia electric sauna with controls

Pros: 

Ultimate convenience: Electric saunas provide, at the press of a button, to activate heating elements that quickly warm the space, no need to haul firewood or clean ashes after. Programmable controllers give owners customizable and reliable control over their sessions.

More choice: Since electric models do not produce smoke or require ventilation for coals and ashes, they can be conveniently incorporated into a wider variety of indoor and outdoor sauna without extensive customization.

Cons: 

Loss of character: The lack of traditional fire elements sacrifices the comforting crackling ambient noise and infusing of cedar walls with authentic smoke essence. 

Recurring cost: While electric heaters use energy very efficiently, operating costs may be slightly higher than wood options depending on usage frequency.

Bottom line: Electric saunas offer much of the same benefits as traditional wood-burning saunas however they come with much of the added convenience for everyday use. 

Steam room, steam bath or wet sauna

Steam saunas or Turkish baths are heated with water-filled generators and are generally kept around 100-120 degrees (9). As the name suggests, steam saunas create steam, and thus humidity, in the room and this humidity level is the key difference between saunas and steam rooms, often reaching 100% rather than 10-20% in a traditional Finnish sauna. 

steam room

Pros:

Additional benefits, including - 

Improved circulation: Lohman et al (2012) found that wet saunas were able to improve circulation by dilating small blood vessels and capillaries thus allowing easier transportation of blood and oxygen in the body (10). 

Skin: Another benefit of steam is that by soaking skin in moisture, steam baths can alleviate problem skin that’s exacerbated by dry conditions, such as eczema or dermatitis (10). 

Sinuses: Just like the classic head-over-boiling-water trick when you’ve got a cold, the steam from a Turkish bath is excellent at anti-congesting and therefore is a great choice when you’ve got a cold. 

Cons:

Problematic for in-home installation: While installing any sauna can be tricky, a steam room is probably the most difficult, requiring that you create an entirely new room through using a polyethylene film water barrier to ensure no water escapes into the rest of your home (11). This makes it costly and inaccessible for many - you'll likely have to go to a spa or gym in order to experience a steam room. It's best to go for another of the options if you'd like a sauna for your home. 

Scalds: While burns may be caused by dry heat - like a fire or iron, a scald is caused by something wet like hot water or steam. It is therefore important that you treat a steam room with caution due its ability to scald you. 

Germs: In contrast to the traditional Finish smoke sauna, steam rooms humidity results in an environment which lends itself to the proliferation of germs and fungus and therefore its is important to ensure you keep a high level of hygiene and clean the steam room (11). 

Bottom line: A steam sauna is a excellent choice for those with skin conditions normally exasperated by dry heat. 

Infrared sauna

An infrared sauna uses a different type of heat in order to get you sweating. Infrared saunas heat the body directly, instead of heating the air around you. They create heat by Infrared light passing along infrared waves (a type of electromagnetic radiation) to heat the body (4,5). As a result, the temperature in an infrared sauna is lower than that in other types of sauna - typically falling around 110 degrees and 135 F (6), this means you'll want to stay in an infrared sauna for around 25 minutes - more than double that of other types of saunas. 

Rather than using wood or coals to heat up, infrared saunas typically use electricity and can be plugged in at home.

Finmark designs infrared sauna

Pros: 

Heat: As mentioned, Infrared sauna's don’t reach as high a temperature as other types of saunas - making them great for those who dislike the heat of other saunas.

Convenience: You won’t be needing to drive down to your local tree surgeon or chopping down wood in your local forest, lumberjack style to experience the health benefits of a sauna- rather, most infrared saunas are low enough voltage to be plugged in at home, making them super easy to install and run. 

Perfect for any sized space: Infrared saunas are much smaller than traditional saunas and can be placed inside the home making them a great choice for those in apartments or limited outdoor space.

Cons: 

Time: Because of the lower temperatures you will need to spend longer in the sauna (around 25 minutes, as opposed to the 10-15 minutes recommended for a traditional sauna) so think about the amount of time you have available to sauna. 

Dehydration for some: The dry, infrared heat created from this type of sauna can lead you to become overheated potentially causing heat exhaustion and dehydration if used for too long. This is particularly important for older adults who are more prone to experiencing dizziness and dehydration in dry heat (7).  

Sauna blanket

A sauna blanket is effectively a giant heating pad which folds over your body and uses infrared waves to heat your body. Sauna blankets reach much lower temperatures than all other sauna types with temperatures ranging from 80 degrees Fahrenheit to 160. 

woman lying in sauna blanket

Pros:

Controlling the temp: A sauna blanket’s temperature is much more easily controlled, with blankets commonly having different ‘levels’ of heat at set temperatures, controlled by you. 

Accessible: Blanket saunas cost an average of $100, making them a more realistic option for many. Also, this is the most convenient and accessible method of experiencing a sauna since it is portable and thus is great if you’re low on space. 

Health benefits: I'm sure the sauna purists amongst us will tell you some of those portable infrared contraptions are what we’d call sauna-ish...but not quite saunas in their hearts. There's evidence to suggest that sauna blankets  match the same health benefits found in traditional saunas - improved blood circulation and the metabolism of the whole body, accelerated detoxification, aid joint pain and a triggering of the consumption of calories and fat burning (13). 

Cons:

Won't help with facial concern's: Although you might be able to wear your airpods, sauna blankets aren’t great if you’d like to cleanse your acne away or some other facial skin concern since your face isn’t in the sauna. It therefore might not be the best fit for those with facial skin concerns. 

Not quite the same: While the blankets do the trick in terms of getting you heated up quickly and conveniently, a room of hot air or cozy crackle of a kiuas fire is largely what makes the sauna experience so special and is what sauna blankets miss. 

While we don't sell sauna blankets for this reason, we know that for many, bringing the sauna experience into your home can be costly and time consuming. At secret saunas, we believe everyone should experience some form of heat therapy - no judgement here!

Bottom line: If you can't manage a typical saunas cost, or the faff of installing a sauna but you'd still like a sauna in your home, sauna blankets are a good option. They are also the most portable saunas, making them a good choice if you travel a lot.      

Conclusion

Whether one finds resonance with the primal draw of a wood fire sauna evoking connection to nature through the ages, or more aligned to modern living choosing convenient electric heat at the touch of a button, decelerating within any steaming sanctum proves restorative as ever. As integral to wellbeing as to getting lost in the presence of being. When buying a sauna or steam room, the type of sauna you choose depends much on lifestyle as the desire for benefits from improved health to hosting friends within our own personal oasis. For a customizable solution matching unique needs, be sure to explore our wide selection of quality pre-built and DIY sauna kits for bringing the tradition home. Just maybe leave room in your plans for stillness as much as steam, and see what emerges. 


References

  1. Aaland, Mikkel (1978). Sweat. Capra Press. ISBN 0-88496-124-9.
  2. ‘Here’s why the history of sauna is deeper than you think’ 
  3. Clinical Effects of Regular Dry Sauna Bathing: A Systematic Review.  2018 
  4.  ‘What is an infrared sauna? Does it have health benefits?’
  5. Is an Infrared Sauna Better Than a Traditional Sauna? 
  6. Infrared Saunas: 6 Health Benefits – Cleveland Clinic
  7. Are Infrared Saunas Safe?
  8. A savusauna enthusiast lets out all the smoke from his smoke sauna, and feels great describing the process
  9. Steam room: Benefits, risks, and differences to sauna 
  10.  A comparison of whole body vibration and moist heat on lower extremity skin temperature and skin blood flow in healthy older individuals - PMC
  11. Skin Benefits of Steam Rooms
  12. Steam Room Disadvantages | LEAFtv 
  13.  Use of infrared-based devices in aesthetic medicine and for beauty and wellness treatments - ScienceDirect
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Jasper Knight the Founder of Secret Saunas photographed in an Auroom Sauna in Estonia

About the Author

I'm Jasper Knight, the founder of SecretSaunas.com. During my travels through Finland and Scandinavia in 2018 I was introduced to the thrilling local ritual of taking daily hot saunas and then cooling off by plunging into the dark icy waters of a frozen lake. This experience was so fulfilling that it felt like an addiction. My desire to return to the forests and lakes of Northern Europe led me to set up Secret Saunas with the mission of bringing that authentic Finnish sauna experiences home.

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