The Sauna and the Full Monty

Is there something missing from your sauna experience? The sauna can capture lots of physical and psychological benefits. But if you were not born or raised in a country where saunas reign, you, like me, may stumble to understand what most second graders from those regions know. As a sauna enthusiast living in upstate New York, I've made an attempt to sort out a few of these basics in this brief overview as I continue with my learning process. Before we begin, let me acknowledge a couple of realities. The sauna is an individual experience, so ultimately, you are the expert on preferences. Also, I realize that full control of all elements can probably only be gained if you have your own sauna; but for discussion, let us focus on the optimum, and you can adjust for actual conditions.

First, let me submit that a prime purpose of the sauna is a psychological experience. Many will describe it as meditation. It is a time to slow down, clear the mind, and relax. In addition to the heat, the sauna accomplishes this through its isolated, peaceful, controlled environment. The interior of the sauna is natural and simple, a visual calm. Movements are limited, and bathers speak softly about positive, neutral topics. The dominant smell (and taste as your tongue also takes on the sensation) should be a sweet, deep, wood type. The experience lasts more than a few fleeting minutes, the hustle-bustle of life is put on hold, you are in another world. The key here is a conscious effort to relax yourself and to help others do the same. The sauna is designed for it. Think monk and monastery!

Now let's look at the heat that actuates the perspiration process that brings on that cleansed and rejuvenated feeling. The term "sauna bath" capturers this effect nicely. It took me some time to realize that it is not just about the heat, it is also about the cooling down period. We've all seen the images of the plunge into icy water after the sauna. You need not be so extreme, but you may consider a cooler place to relax after you have engaged sufficient heating. The outdoors may serve well in some geographic areas, and many sauna designs include a room or some form of lounging area for this cooling down activity. With a few cycles of heating up, then cooling down, an lasting effect similar to a workout session is created. This repetition is important and usually results in a head-to-toe feeling of melted butter!

Jon Harbison

Sauna and Health

One of the constant discussion topics that the North American Sauna Society is contacted about is the question of sauna and health. Is the sauna healthy for you and if so, are there clinical studies to prove this?

There has been extensive medical research done on the physiological and emotional effects of regular sauna bathing; the Europeans have mainly studied the traditional saunas and the Japanese the IR bathing, but we haven’t had wide-ranging North American studies. There are also many varying types of heated spaces out there that are marketed as saunas and even more creative ways to use them. Therefore, an important thing when considering the health benefits is the definition of what sauna bathing actually is. Particularly the American sauna bathing sometimes deviates from the more ethnic sauna bathing experiences, such as the Finnish sauna and the claims why people should do sauna are sometimes truthful, sometimes misleading in their promises of a healthy life style.

We have found three user types; there is the occasional newspaper reader that likes his sauna mild; then there is the gym sauna bather with her water bottle and an eye on the gym clock; finally, there is the sauna bather, who repeats the intervals of staying in the heat and cooling off as his/her body tells her to. One would assume that the potential health benefits would intensify, as the sauna experience gets more wholesome. Staying in a heated room for a predefined time is not possible but in lower temperatures. Dipping in a cold lake or a swimming pool for a couple of minutes to cool off craves higher temperatures inside the sauna room to feel comfortable.

The main point is that regular sauna bathing has proven medical benefits, but the results will vary depending upon the individual and the way in which he/she sauna bathes. You do what feels natural to yourself; with sauna bathing there is no place for the idea that it must be painful for it to achieve the benefits. Sauna truly is “not only good for you, it feels good too!” Most of us at the North American Sauna Society represent the idea that only a rejuvenating feeling of repeated rounds of staying in the heat, going out, getting back in, going for a swim or a shower, drinking something while taking a break, and doing this as many times as you yourself find enjoyable is what the sauna experience should be about. If you don’t get your endorphins flowing and you don’t get that fantastic feeling, then your sauna experience is not fully cooperating with you. Feeling of comfort is all that matters. If you are new to the sauna, start slow and work your way up. It will be very rewarding and being outright healthy can be a secondary though, it just makes you feel so good.

Sauna Design; a Heated Space That Should Be Just Right

A sauna in one’s home can be as simple as portable-plug-in type or can be custom-built on-site. Small traditional saunas and nearly all infrared saunas usually come pre-fabricated and just need assembly and an electric outlet to get them running. However, if you want your sauna customized to fit a specific space, or with an array of custom upgrades, and/or need the sauna to accommodate more bathers, say in a gym, you probably will go with a traditional sauna that is built to order. No matter what type, a sauna should be UL and code compliant. Mistakes due to lack of knowledge of design and build can make the sauna space impractical, prevent users from an enjoyable sauna experience and, in worst case, be outright unhealthy or even dangerous.

On the other hand, with proper planning and design, the sauna will be an amenity to add value and architectural appeal to the home or club and provide wellness enhancing benefit for years to come.

When planning your sauna you should make sure you are dealing with people knowledgeable about sauna. It would be even better if these people also had personal experience regarding sauna bathing. Even though sauna bathing is a growing worldwide trend, there are still many architects and contractors who are not too familiar with it and don’t know the difference between a sauna and any other room. Compromises are made due to lack of understanding and can end up causing an uncomfortable sauna experience due to poorly designed benches, improper materials, improper lighting and ventilation. Even basic design flaws such as doors opening inwards or sauna rooms with too high ceilings can cause safety risks and prevent users from enjoying the rejuvenating heat.

Proper design of commercial sauna rooms is particularly important due to heavy day-long use. Not only does the club owner want the sauna to look stunning, it’s equally important sauna comfort, safety and maintenance issues are properly addressed upfront in the planning of the sauna project. Important design criteria include ventilation, proper plumbing to ensure easy cleaning, handicap accessibility features and properly matching the heater kW rating with the room size per UL standards.

Yet, North American Sauna Society’s mission is not to police sauna builders, but to promote sauna bathing. Even though all these issues should be addressed, our concern is that every sauna or infrared room that is not built up to standards prevents users from getting a genuine sauna bathing experience and thus blurring general public’s understanding of what sauna bathing really is.

When you are purchasing or renovating your sauna, in need of replacing your heater, or about to make other improvements, it is a good time to check that your sauna meets the code and doesn’t have operational issues. Check North American Sauna Society’s dealer list, or contact us directly to find a knowledgeable sauna professional to work with.

Sauna Bathing in North America; Similar or Different than Abroad?

A conservative estimate is that there are over a million saunas in North America. There is often a sauna in hotels, gyms, and private clubs and to an increasing extent, also in private homes. North America is a melting pot of most cultures in the world and American sauna bathing can be seen as a mixture of many ethnic and other influences that have consolidated and made the American way of sauna. Besides this, a great and growing trend in American sauna bathing is health conscientiousness/ wellness, which has increased particularly the popularity of infrared rooms (saunas) during the past 10 years.

Sauna-bathing experience differs whether the sauna is traditional, or infrared. It’s a matter of taste which one finds better, but sometimes it can happen that a devoted sauna bather misses some elements in an American sauna that s(he) is used to, regardless of the type. In both cases you should take breaks, and particularly with a traditional sauna you will be highly rewarded if sauna bathing takes place in a space that allows repeated visits to the hot room, relaxation in between, and an ability to take a shower or go for a swim during and after.

Some people say that the modern sauna originates from Finland. There are no such words in the Finnish vocabulary as “dry sauna” at the same time there is no “wet sauna” either it is just “sauna”. Sprinkling water to the heater is a welcome part of sauna bathing, since by it you control the humidity in the room, i.e., the feeling of heat. The most stubborn misunderstanding is that you can’t throw water on to an electric heater. While there can be heaters that are poorly built, all the heaters sold by members of North American Sauna Society are built to take water, and are meant to be used in this way. Not only is it OK to sprinkle water on the heated rocks, it’s an essential part of the sauna bathing experience.

American sauna bathing is sometimes a “side product” of something else; you sauna for the purpose of exercise, weight loss, beauty, etc., and this can sometimes lead to less than optimal locations for sauna rooms. They can be in the far corners of locker rooms, next to exercising equipment, and so forth. For many people abroad sauna is the main attraction and even after a good long exercise it still has its own distinctive purpose. You enjoy the heat, taking breaks and taking it easy. If you are lucky, you even enjoy beautiful scenery both through the sauna window and while cooling off outside. Also, a traditional sauna has to be warm enough to raise your core body temperature to get your endorphins flowing.

There are an increasing number of magnificent saunas in the United States and to back this trend North American Sauna Society is contemplating the idea of starting to certify American saunas and sauna dealers. There is a sauna that fits everybody’s bathing needs and it is paramount that both sellers and buyers know what the customer really wants and needs. Saunas are more affordable than ever, but they are space-consuming dis-investments if they don’t live up to buyers’ expectations. A sauna bathing experience is something intangible and very difficult to convey to people with less knowledge on the topic. The North American Sauna Society’s mission is to be the trusted third party and make sure that objective, unbiased information and advice is given to the general public in the matters of sauna.

More Than a Million Saunas in the US But Still Misunderstood

More Than a Million Saunas in the US But Still Misunderstood…TyloHelo partners with the North American Sauna Society to Educate US Sauna Bathers.

Since the first saunas built in the US by Finnish immigrants, through the broader mass-introduction of Finnish saunas during the last half century through health clubs, hotels, and homes, the sauna has enjoyed growth in popularity; however saunas remain misunderstood with regard to use, to misuse, to health benefits, and to what IS a sauna. TyloHelo Inc. has partnered with the North American Sauna Society, a not-for-profit organization, with the goal to educate sauna bathers about the sauna experience and proper sauna design, and to foster continued interest in sauna traditions. TyloHelo Inc. is the US subsidiary of the TyloHelo Worldwide Group, manufacturer and distributor of industry leading global sauna and steam brands Finnleo, Amerec, Helo, and Tylo.
When the first Finns came to the United States, they brought with them the tradition of sauna. Though an important part of Finnish culture, the sauna remained relatively unknown to the rest of the United States. In the 1952 Olympics in Helsinki, the sauna was highlighted as a key training tool for the Finns. When the American athletes returned home with reports of the Finnish Sauna and its use in athletic training programs, the United States received its first lesson on the Finnish tradition. By the 1960’s, several manufacturers were established in the United States to bring saunas to US consumers. Since then, annual sales of saunas have steadily grown. Eero Kilpi, Chairman of the North American Sauna Society reports there are now well over one million Finnish saunas in the US. Kilpi added, “While the popularity of saunas continues to grow, there remain many general misunderstandings of what a sauna is and how it is to be used.”
For an education and recommendations on what a sauna is and how to use a sauna, visit
the North American Sauna Society, but for a brief lesson continue reading. What is a sauna? The term “sauna” has become a confusing term, as it has been applied to traditional saunas, steam rooms, infrared heat therapy rooms, and even to sauna suits, sauna belts, and facial saunas. For our purposes, we will discuss sauna rooms, starting with traditional Finnish saunas, moving to steam rooms, and ending with infrared heat therapy rooms or infrared saunas.
A traditional sauna is a wood lined room in which a heater, fueled by wood, gas, or electricity, heats a collection of stones which radiate heat to the rest of the room. By heating the rocks, the heat is “softened” to allow for an enveloping heat that is comfortable even at temperatures exceeding 180 degrees. There is dual benefit in heating the rocks is it allows for humidity to be added to the room for added enjoyment. By sprinkling water over the rocks, the water turns to steam adding pleasant humidity to the sauna room. Kilpi further explained, “The Finnish Sauna is the only bath in the world where the user controls both temperature and humidity.” If desired, essential oils can be added to the water for aromatherapy. What is often misunderstood by homeowners and commercial establishments is that water can be and should be used on the electric sauna heaters, as the loyly, or steam, is essential to a proper sauna. Sauna heaters that are safety listed in the US by either UL or ETL have been tested to safely allow for use of water. A bucket and ladle are provided with most sauna kits. Bather comfort is a function of temperature and humidity. As a general rule of thumb, TyloHelo uses its “Rule of 200”that simply states the maximum combination of air temperature and humidity combined should not exceed 200. It’s totally up to user preference to find what is comfortable. For example, if the air temperature is 150°F, then the humidity should approach 50%, or less. If the air temperature is 180°F, then the humidity should not exceed 20%.
A steam room, sometimes referred to as a “steam sauna” or “wet sauna”, is constructed of tile, glass, or acrylic. As the name “steam room” suggests, the room is heated by supplying steam to the room. The average temperature ranges between 105-120°F, and the humidity level is 100%. Though the bather may have control over temperature by way of a thermostat—which increases heat by introducing more steam—the bather cannot control the level of humidity. Like a sauna, aromatherapy can be used in a steam room by adding a few drops of essential oils to the dimple on top of the steam head, though one must be careful to not approach the steam head while steam is being dispersed. Except for being a heat bath, a steam room does not share other defining qualities of a sauna, and therefore, a steam room should not be referred to as a “steam sauna” or “wet sauna”.
Infrared Heat Therapy Rooms or Infrared Saunas, introduced into the US in the mid-80s have become increasingly popular, particularly in regard to holistic health enthusiasts. Many users are attracted to IR saunas because of their ease of assembly, quick heat-up times and lower operating temperatures. Most IR saunas can be plugged into 120v household outlets. In an infrared sauna there are no rocks, and, thus, no water and steam are part of the sauna bathing experience. The heat is transferred from the in-wall heaters directly to the bather’s body—causing perspiration at lower temperatures than in a traditional sauna. In a traditional sauna, the rocks are heated, which in turn heats the air and the air heats the room and the bather. While there has been some resistance to the term “Infrared Sauna”, it has been accepted and used by the worldwide sauna industry. Today, the most common use of sauna terminology differentiates the two types as Traditional Finnish Saunas or Infrared Saunas.
To learn more about saunas and the deep traditions of sauna bathing, visit the
North American Sauna Society’s website. If you are a traditional sauna owner, consider donating $35 for a plaque indicating you own a traditional sauna. The proceeds help to continue sauna education. If you are interested in learning more about installing a traditional sauna, steam room, or infrared sauna, visit or call 1-800-346-6536.