Steam room versus a traditional sauna

It’s easy to see why people might get confused about the difference between steam rooms and traditional saunas, particularly when they are often both lumped together as “heat baths”, actually there are fairly significant differences between them even though they both offer compelling health benefits.

Steam rooms

As their name suggests, steam rooms are all about steam. Although steam has been used throughout history for its health-promoting properties, steam rooms as we understand them are a relatively modern concept because they require the use of steam generators, which are powered by electricity. Steam rooms are built to be almost airtight so the humidity builds up to almost 100% and when the steam touches the walls of the steam room, the reduction in temperature (as compared to the air), causes it to turn into condensation. This level of humidity means that steam rooms have to be kept at lower temperatures than saunas (typically around 40C to 50C) because the humidity stops your sweat from evaporating off your body as it normally would and so you feel a whole lot hotter than the thermometer suggests you should.
Another reason why steam rooms are a modern invention is that they need to be built out of material which can resist high levels of moisture. Wood is therefore totally unsuitable. Tile and stone are suitable but expensive and therefore generally kept for commercial facilities, while home steam rooms typically have plastic seating (although the plastic used can look very like wood).

Traditional saunas

Traditional saunas do use steam, but while it’s important, it’s not the be-all-and-end-all of the experience. Quite simply traditional saunas date back to a time long before electric-powered steam generators and therefore are designed to be effective with much lower levels of steam. For the sake of completeness, we should probably mention that the traditional method of providing steam in a sauna was to heat rocks and then toss cold water over them. Modern implementations of traditional saunas sometimes use this method and sometimes use a steam generator (some have both so users can choose which one they prefer), but when a steam generator is used, it is used at a much lower level than in a steam room. It has to be because traditional saunas run at around 70C to 90C and at that sort of temperature a high level of humidity would be dangerous, in fact it could easily be fatal, which is why well-designed saunas are built with temperature control in mind. This sort of temperature, of course, makes you sweat and unlike with steam rooms, your sweat will come off your body, thus cooling you. Saunas are typically built out of wood for the simple reason that it remains at a comfortable temperature in spite of the searing heat of the sauna, whereas coming into contact with tiling would probably leave you with a nasty burn and while plastic wasn’t around when traditional saunas were first invented, it’s unlikely to be used for their modern counterparts any time soon, since it is easily damaged by heat.

So which is better?

As always it depends on your own needs and wants. Here are three questions to help you decide.

How do you really feel about steam?

Steam has all kinds of benefits but for some people the experience of being in a steam room comes under the heading of “too much of a good thing”. If you have a respiratory condition, there may be an argument for going down the steam room route, even if you don’t really like it, because steam is just so beneficial for respiratory conditions, otherwise you might want to opt for traditional saunas which have much lower humidity. In fact, if you really don’t want steam at all and are prepared to accept the fact that you’re missing out on its health benefits, then you could even use a traditional sauna simply as a dry heat treatment or even go one step further and opt for an infrared sauna, which bypasses the steam element completely.

What’s your boredom threshold?

Basically when you are in a steam room, you have the use of your ears but not your eyes, at least not to any significant extent, the steam acts like a thick fog so visibility is very limited. This is why the best modern steam generators offer Bluetooth connectivity so you can partner up a device (at a safe distance from all the moisture) and listen to your favourite tunes (or whatever else takes your fancy). If you have someone in the steam room with you, you can also talk to them. You can, however, forget about reading or watching TV (obviously one designed to be waterproof) or, in short, doing anything which involves using your eyes). In a sauna, however, you can most certainly read (on paper, ereaders are best kept elsewhere) in fact you could say that the peaceful, gadget-free environment of a sauna is the perfect place to catch up on some reading.

Do you have any conditions which might be aggravated by high humidity?

Saunas have long been used as a treatment for rheumatoid arthritis and famous crime author Martina Cole had one installed in her house to help her manage her condition and continue her work. Now science is finally validating the use of saunas for this purpose however it would appear that the benefits come from the heat rather than the steam, as shown by the fact that infrared saunas are just as good at treating rheumatoid arthritis as their traditional counterparts, in fact they may even be slightly better as humidity is a known trigger for rheumatoid arthritis.
Because of this, if you have rheumatoid arthritis, or even if you simply have a family history of it and believe you could be vulnerable to it in the future, an infrared sauna or a traditional sauna would almost certainly be a far better option than a steam room. If you went for the infrared option, you might be able to benefit from steam for localized treatments such as steam face masks.

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