Dry Sauna Ultimate Guide: Health & Finnish Culture

Even as a sauna enthusiast, I’ll admit there is a lot of terminology in sauna culture that can get confusing. After all, there are infrared, steam, “traditional”, Finnish & dry saunas… but wait aren’t infrared saunas technically “dry”? And what about traditional and Finnish saunas?

Let’s clear the air (sorry we like puns) and dive into what a dry sauna is and how it differs from other types of saunas. In this article, we’ll explore the key differences between the different types of saunas and clarify some of the terminology so you’ll sound like a pro in no time.

Oh an a quick life pro tip, dry saunas, Finnish saunas and traditional saunas are all the same thing. They can be used interchangeably. Oh, and another thing to point out: Finns don’t even consider infrared units to be “saunas” at all.

Let us explain…

What is a dry sauna?

Traditional steam sauna with wood paneling, water bucket and steam heater

A dry sauna, a.k.a. a “traditional”, “Finnish” or “traditional Finnish” sauna, is a small, enclosed room or building heated by a stove or electric heater to create a hot, dry environment. The temperature inside a dry sauna usually ranges between 160°F (70°C) & 195°F (90°C). While the air inside a dry sauna is hot, it is also very dry, with humidity levels ranging from 5% to 20%.

Traditional Finnish saunas are a point of pride in Finland. Get this… there are an estimated 2 million saunas for a population of around 5.5 million people. They are often found in private homes, apartment buildings & public facilities. It is legitimately their national pastime (although they’ve had some great hockey teams over the years).

The best part about all of this is that the history of Finnish saunas dates back over 2,000 years(!!) Yes, they have evolved over time to incorporate modern conveniences such as electric heaters & digital controls but the core concept of löyly (“steam from water”) and kiuas (“stove” or “heater”) has remained  consistent.

How do dry saunas work?

Dry saunas use a heating mechanism, typically either an electric heater or wood burning stove to raise the temperature of the air inside the room. This provides a perfectly hot, dry environment that promotes relaxation & sweating.

Wood-fired stoves:

These units often use wood-fired stoves. As the name imply, they heat the sauna by burning wood. The stove heats a pile of rocks (kuas), which in turn radiate heat throughout the sauna room.

Sauna purists would argue that this is the way to experience a traditional sauna. While typically more work than an electric heater they tend to provide a more authentic sauna experience. Plus who doesn’t like a nice wood aroma?

Electric heaters:

Modern dry saunas typically use electric heaters. For obvious reasons, these units tend to be more convenient & easier to control than wood-fired stoves. Electric heaters also heat a pile of rocks (kiuas), but they do so using electric heating elements. The temperature in an electric sauna can be easily adjusted using digital controls. They also heat up faster than wood-fired saunas.

Ventilation & air circulation

Ventilation & air circulation are vital for dry saunas to maintain a comfortable & safe environment. Fresh air is drawn into the sauna through an intake vent, while stale air is expelled through an exhaust vent. This air circulation helps to maintain a consistent temperature and humidity level inside the sauna.

Comparing dry saunas to other types of saunas

Infrared & steam saunas are two other popular types of saunas. Each offers a unique experience and has its own set of benefits & drawbacks. I apologize in advance to any Finns who may be reading this when they see infrared on this list.

Infrared saunas:

Sleek infrared sauna with wood paneling in a tile bathroom

We’ve talked at length about infrared saunas, but here’s the Sparknotes. Rather than heating the air, they utilize infrared light to heat the body directly. This results in a lower overall temperature, with infrared saunas typically operating between 120°F (50°C) & 140°F (60°C).

They’re known for their deep heat penetration, which can provide relief from muscle aches & joint pain. However, they do not provide the same high-temperature experience as dry saunas and the overall “sauna” experience can be lacking.

Steam saunas:

Steam saunas, also known as Turkish baths (or “hammams”), use steam to create a hot, humid environment. They are typically heated to a temperature of around 110°F (45°C) with a humidity level of around 100%.

Steam saunas are known for their benefits to the respiratory system & skin. The high humidity can help to open airways & cleanse the skin. It can be a wonderful experience, especially in the dry Canadian winters we experience here every year.  

However, they definitely don’t provide the quite the same experience as traditional dry saunas. Some people may find the high humidity uncomfortable or overwhelming.

How hot does a dry sauna get?

Dry saunas typically operate within a temperature range of 160°F (70°C) to 195°F (90°C). The exact temperature inside a dry sauna can vary depending on factors, like the heating mechanism, room size, insulation & user preferences.

Personally, we subscribe to the mantra “the hotter the better” around here but within reason!

Benefits of a dry sauna

Aside from being awesome in general, dry saunas offer a range of documented physical & mental health benefits. Let’s explore a few shall we?

Physical health benefits:

  1. Improved circulation:
    Causes blood vessels to dilate. This can improve blood flow & oxygenation throughout the body. It also promotes healing & reduced inflammation.
  2. Muscle relaxation and pain relief:
    Helps to relax tense muscles & alleviate pain associated with conditions such as arthritis, fibromyalgia & muscle strain.
  3. Skin health:
    Sauna use induces sweat and helps to open pores. This assists in removing impurities from the skin, leading to improved skin texture & a healthy glow.

Mental health benefits:

  1. Stress reduction:
    Reduces stress levels by promoting relaxation. A feeling of relaxation causes the body to release of endorphins. which are the body’s natural “feel-good” chemicals.
  2. Improved sleep:
    Improves sleep quality by promoting relaxation & reducing stress. This can make it easier to fall asleep & stay asleep.
  3. Enhanced mood:
    Release of endorphins contributes to a sense of well-being & improved mood.
Smiling woman sitting in wood panel traditional steam sauna with heater and coals in foreground

Supporting research & studies:

There have been many studies that have explored the potential health benefits of dry sauna use. Many of these studies have found positive correlations between sauna use & improved physical & mental health. Some of these studies include:

  1. A 2015 JAMA Internal Medicine study found that regular sauna use was associated with a reduced risk of cardiovascular disease & all-cause mortality. The study involved over 2,000 middle-aged men in Finland and observed that those who used a sauna more frequently had a lower risk of developing heart disease, heart attacks & sudden cardiac deaths.
  2. A 2018 American Journal of Hypertension study found that regular sauna use may help to lower blood pressure. The study participants, who used a dry sauna four to seven times per week, experienced a significant reduction in both systolic & diastolic blood pressure.
  3. A 2016 study published in the journal Age & Ageing proposed that regular sauna use could reduce the risk of developing dementia & Alzheimer’s disease. The study observed that men who used a sauna more frequently had a lower risk of developing memory diseases compared to those who didn’t sauna or did so infrequently.

Who should consider buying a dry sauna?

To be honest, if you can fit it into your budget, we recommend almost everyone should consider buying a dry sauna. The physical & mental health benefits alone are enough to entice virtually anyone. If you are considering buying one, though, there are a few things to consider:

  1. Space & location:
    Determine whether you have a suitable location for a dry sauna. Typically they fit best in a basement or backyard. Keep in mind that a dry sauna will require proper ventilation & access to electrical outlets or a wood-burning stove.
  2. Local electrical & plumbing codes:
    Prior to investing in a sauna, make sure you’re able to install a sauna in your desired space. If you plan to install it indoors, make sure you have proper electrical wiring & ventilation. If it’s outdoors, ensure it meets building & electrical codes for your municipality. If in doubt, we recommend consulting licensed tradespeople.
  3. Budget:
    You’ll be looking at anywhere between $2,500 on the low end to $10,000+ for a high end, customized model. Determine your budget & explore options within your price range.
  4. Personal preferences:
  • If you prefer a high-temperature, dry heat experience, a traditional dry sauna may be the best choice.
  • Alternatively, if you prefer a lower temperature, deep heat penetration experience, an infrared sauna may be more suitable (sorry, Finns)
  • If a hot, humid environment is more appealing, consider a steam sauna.

3 types of traditional dry saunas

Outdoor wooden barrel sauna in backyard

There are several types of dry saunas to choose from depending on your budget and preferences.

1. Barrel saunas:

We’ve covered this already, but pre-built or modular barrel saunas are available in various sizes & styles, designed to be installed in a spare room, basement, or outdoor area. You can check out our article on the top 5 best on the market in 2023.

2. Cabin-style saunas:

These units have the classic Finnish sauna look. They’re standalone buildings and typically custom built, either via DIY project or by hiring a good quality contractor. A lot of brands like Almost Heaven & Clearlight offer modular units.

3. Custom-built saunas:

These units can be designed & constructed to your exact specs and can truly be works of art. They can be built with the latest technology and with either a wood-fired stoves or electric heaters. They can also be built to match the feng shui of your backyard or basement.

Traditional dry saunas & Finnish culture

We would be remiss if we didn’t discuss the close connection between dry saunas and Finnish culture. As mentioned at the top, the history & significance of saunas in Finland date back over 2,000 years.

In Finnish culture, saunas are not just a place for relaxation & cleansing. They also hold social & spiritual significance. Traditional Finnish saunas were historically used for various purposes, including childbirth, healing & even as a place to prepare the deceased for burial.

Sauna rituals & customs:

Woman in towel and head towel lying in traditional Finnish dry sauna enjoying löyly

Although these may vary place to place in Finland, there are generally some commonly held sauna customs & rituals found throughout the country. Let’s take a peek at a few of these customs and rituals:

  1. Löyly:
    is the Finnish term for steam created when water is poured onto the hot stones in the sauna (kiuas). The release of steam helps to increase the humidity level in the sauna, enhancing the heat & instantly inducing sweat. Löyly is an essential part of the Finnish sauna experience & is believed to have spiritual significance.
  • Vihta or vasta:
    A vihta or vasta is a bundle of fresh birch branches used to gently whip the skin during a sauna session. This practice helps to stimulate circulation, exfoliate the skin & release the aromatic scent of the birch leaves. The use of a vihta or vasta is a deeply rooted tradition in Finnish saunas & is still practiced today, especially during the midsummer season.
  • Cooling off:
    After spending time in the hot sauna, it’s customary to cool off by taking a dip in a cold lake or rolling in the snow, depending on the season. This practice of “contrast therapy” alternating between hot & cold temperatures is believed to improve circulation, boost the immune system & enhance the overall sauna experience.
  • Socializing:
    Finnish saunas have traditionally been a place for socializing & bonding with friends & family. In Finland, it’s common for people to gather in a sauna to discuss personal matters, share stories & enjoy each other’s company in a relaxed and intimate setting.

Sauna etiquette in Finland (and abroad)

It’s been a dream of mine for a long time to do a pilgrimage of sorts to Finland. I’d love to get that truly authentic experience.  When visiting a Finnish sauna, it’s essential to be aware of & respect local customs & etiquette.

Some general guidelines include:

  1. Be respectful of others:
    Saunas are considered a sacred space in Finnish culture. Show respect for others by maintaining a quiet & peaceful atmosphere.
  2. Remove clothing:
    In Finland, it’s customary to sauna naked or wear a towel or a bathing suit, depending on the setting & company. If you’re unsure of the appropriate attire, ask the sauna owner or observe what others are wearing.
  3. Rinse off before entering:
    Before entering the sauna, it’s customary to shower or rinse off to remove any dirt or sweat. This helps to keep the sauna clean & ensures a pleasant experience for all users.
  4. Sit on a towel:
    We covered this previously, but when sitting on the sauna benches, always sit on a clean towel or a disposable seat cover to maintain hygiene.
  5. Don’t wear jewelry:
    Metal jewelry can become extremely hot, causing burns or discomfort. It’s best to remove any jewelry before entering the sauna.

Article wrap-up

Well, we learned a lot about dry saunas in this article, friends. Let’s do a quick recap of what we’ve learned:

  • Dry saunas have been part of Finnish culture for more than 2,000 years (!!)
  • They’re awesome! And they offer a relaxing space with a hot, dry atmosphere that promotes sweating & a range of health benefits.
  • Regular dry sauna use can improve circulation, relax muscles, reduce stress, enhance sleep, & support skin health.
  • When choosing a sauna, consider factors like space, budget & personal preferences. Options include barrel, cabin-style & custom-built saunas.
  • Finnish sauna traditions like the use of löyly (steam) & vihta (birch branches) are extremely important to the sauna experience in Finland.

A message from Sauna Squad

We hope we’ve provided some value in your research. But if you have any questions or concerns, hit us up on Instagram @thesaunasquad or feel free to fire us a message on our contact page.

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