After years of experimenting with different sauna types, I’ve developed strong opinions on the subject. The purpose of this article is to share these opinions with anyone who is interested in them and, hopefully, help others get more out of their sauna experience.
I’m certain my opinions will offend some, including all the people who (in my view) are doing it wrong. I know that saunas are important to many cultures around the world and that my strongly held opinions may offend some of those cultures.
Mind you, although I grew up in South America, I do have a fair amount of slavic blood in me. When I was a child, my grandfather regularly took me with him to the shvitz. One of my fondest memories from this time was the “Scottish Bath”, which involves standing against the sauna wall, execution-style, so that someone can spray you with freezing water from a high pressure hose. I’ve never heard of this outside of South American and can’t attest to whether it has any real Scottish origins.
The various health claims about using a sauna are beyond the scope of this article. All I have to say is that, like many things in my life, like Bitcoin, the meat/keto diet, and fasting, I find sauna to be yet another cheat code to life: it’s a simple thing that just makes life a lot better. If you want a good primer on scientific health benefits of sauna, I recommend starting with this article by Rhonda Patric. She goes in depth.
To be clear, it should go without saying that I am not a medical expert or professional. None of the opinions below are, or should be interpreted as, medical advice. There are many people for whom sauna use is not recommended. It would be prudent for any sauna user to consult with his or her doctor before entering a sauna.
Thanks to S. for taking the time to do a very helpful first review of this article. And thanks to The Wife for helping make my words legible and helping me make time to sauna–I don’t know which sacrifice was bigger.
When I talk about saunas, I’m talking about a sauna with a stove, either wood or electric, that allows for steam. I call this “Banya style”. To be clear, I’m distinguishing between saunas and steam baths. Steam baths have their own place, but they aren’t my thing and I don’t consider them saunas.
A breakdown of the main types of saunas may be helpful, so you know which to avoid:
In my opinion, it’s Banya style or nothing. I’m not a huge fan of dry saunas, and I don’t even bother with infrared saunas. Infrared is a fiat-shitcoin. I want steam!
If you read no other part of this already-too-long-article, read this.
Saunas are social places. There are proper ways of being in a sauna with others, and there are ways to do it wrong. You don’t want to be the person who ruins it for everyone. Here are some important etiquette tips:
Silence vs. Chatting: It’s not a question of whether you have to stay silent in a sauna or if it’s ok to talk. It depends on the circumstances and who else is around. If you’re using a sauna that isn’t your own, ask the staff about the preferred custom. The noise level in a sauna differs depending on the group in the sauna at a particular time. If you do want to chat with others, there’s nothing wrong with that. But, pay attention to whether there are others in the sauna who'd prefer it quiet. And definitely do NOT be obnoxiously loud – yes, I’m looking at you bachelor(ette) group who just discovered the Russian Banya.
Coming and Going: People rotate in and out of the sauna at different paces, so there will be people coming and going during your shvitz. But there are ways to come and go that are considerate and proper.
Keep the f-ing door closed (which was the working title of this article). Once you leave, don’t come back inside moments later. Doing so disturbs your fellow sauna users, lets out the all-important steam, and prevents the sauna from reaching an appropriate temperature.
If you’re in the sauna with a group of friends, try to coordinate your comings and goings so you’re all on the same cycle.
If you can only last 5 min at a sauna, don’t go in too often at the risk of ruining it for others (assuming it’s not your own private sauna).
Be fast when closing the sauna door when you come or leave. Otherwise, you will get dirty looks from others and may even hear mumbles of “quick quick, fast fast” from a Gray Beard. And you will deserve it.
Never open the door right after someone puts water on the stove to make steam. It’s all about the steam. Don’t waste it.
Controlling the heat: if you can’t handle the heat in the sauna, don’t just turn the heat down, because it ruins it for others. Instead, go to a lower bench or get out and take your break. Saunas are meant to be hot. That’s the whole point.
Personal Hygiene: Shower before you go into the sauna. Don’t wear perfume, smelly deodorant, or fragrant lotions. Smells get amplified in a sauna.
Some saunas sell body scrubs and masks for you to apply before or in the sauna. Note that once in the heat, these can get goopy and drippy and may melt into your eyes and mouth. So (in this opinionated guides’ wife’s opinion), they are better in theory than reality.
Adding Oils and scents: As discussed below, it can be nice to add certain oils and other scents to the steam. But if there are others in the sauna, ask first before you do.
Where and how to sit: Hot air rises. So, the higher benches are hotter and the lower benches are cooler. If you are a newbie, pick a lower bench so you don’t have to leave as quickly and open the door unnecessarily.
It’s great to lay down in the sauna, but if it gets crowded, sit up to make room for others.
When moving around to find your seat, don’t walk on the benches in your sandals. Leave your sandals outside the sauna or on the sauna floor.
In most proper Russian style Banyas you will find temperatures of 80-95 degrees celsius, which, in my opinion, is the best range. But sometimes you want to take it a little easier or last a little longer in the sauna. In these cases, 65-85 degrees celsius will do.
However, if your sauna is below 65 degrees celsius, you might as well just go hide under your bed sheets and not waste your time.
At some saunas in hotels, gyms, or spas, you may not be allowed to set the sauna as high as you’d like (see below). There are many tricks to circumvent these frustrating restrictions, but my legal counsel has advised me not to go into any details here.
The amount of time you spend in the sauna is a matter of personal preference and depends on the number of cycles you do (more on cycles, below).
For your first round, my opinion is that most people should try to last 15 minutes in the sauna. If a sauna is at the proper temperature, most people will struggle to stay inside any longer. If you can stay inside for 20-30 minutes, your sauna is probably too cold and/or there is not enough steam. Many saunas have hourglasses inside to keep time, and I’ve never seen a sauna hourglass with more than 15 minutes, which should be a good hint.
For subsequent rounds, hydration starts to play a bigger role in how long you stay inside. Most people seem to last longer on their first round than on their second or third. If you can do 15 minutes on your second round, great. But 5-10 minutes is also fine.
The traditional Russian Banya method (and in this writer’s opinion, the best method) is to do sauna cycles. Go into the sauna and just stay as long as you can take it (up to 15 minutes or so). Then take a cold shower and/or cold plunge (see below). Then robe-up and go relax with water, tea or beer. Once you start feeling “normal” again, repeat. For me, three cycles is the sweet spot. I’ll do more cycles if I’m spending the day at the Banya facility. If I’m at home, where I often sauna every other day, I find just one or two cycles does the trick. Sometimes I add a cycle or two on the weekend.
Occasionally, I like to go into the sauna as it’s warming up and before it reaches optimum heat (i.e. at around 50 degree celsius). This way, I can stay longer in the sauna for my first round (about 30-40 minutes). If I take this approach, I generally only do one more short round after my cold plunge.
In my experience, you want to take a cold shower or a cold plunge (or both) after the sauna cycle, never before. After you come out of the sauna, immediately step under a cold shower for a few seconds. Some Banya facilities will have a bucket filled with cold water that you can pull with a string to let the water pour over you. The banyas may also have a cold pool of water into which you can plunge for a few seconds.
If I’m at my country property, after I get out of the sauna I jump into the cold lake. If it’s winter, I like to roll in the snow, which is satisfying. Some cultures would say that it’s not a real sauna experience unless you roll in at least one foot of snow.
After your cold shower or plunge, put on a warm robe and go relax before going back into the sauna. I like to relax for 5-20 minutes, depending on how much time I have. This allows the body’s temperature to decrease slowly. I do not recommend going directly back into the sauna after your cold plunge. If you don’t give yourself enough time after the cold plunge, you will overheat and won’t last very long when you return to the sauna.
There really are no rules here. The way you position yourself in the sauna depends on your mood and preference, and there are many options. For example, you can sauna seated with your legs hanging down or with your knees up. You can lie down if there’s room. My favorite position is to lie down on my back with my legs up against the wall and, assuming the ceiling is low enough, with my feet stretched against the ceiling. This is a great way to stretch the hamstrings (check out stretching under “Sauna Activities”, below).
Choosing whether to sit on a higher bencher or lower bench is the best way to control the temperature you experience without adjusting the room temperature itself. You will notice the heat in the sauna increases exponentially every inch you go up. If you are struggling to stay in the sauna but don’t want to get out just yet, try moving down to a lower bench to last a little longer. Lying on the floor is the coolest spot and a great place for kids to start getting exposed to saunas.
Without steam, the sauna would just be a sad, hot oven (I’m looking at you, infrared sauna).
The steam in the sauna has many benefits but most importantly it increases the thermal coupling of your body to the air and it feels great.
The amount of steam in the sauna is a matter of personal taste. You don’t want to make it into a steam room (remember, steam rooms are NOT saunas). But, you do want the sauna to be very moist. I find that two to four ladles of water in a mid-size sauna every five to seven minutes does the trick. Keep it between 50-60% humidity.
I keep a bucket of water in the sauna at all times so that I can continue to ladle water as I shvitz. Make sure to get a wood bucket and a metal ladle with a wooden handle. Wood ladles will crack, and if the handle is metal, it’ll burn you when you grab it.
If, when you enter the sauna, it’s already been on for a while, the wood is likely to already be wet and the sauna full of steam, so you may not need to add too much water. However, if you’ve just turned on the sauna and the wood walls are dry, you will need to ladle more water to make the air moist enough. If the sauna is too moist for comfort, open the door and let it dry out a bit (obviously, only do this in a private sauna).
Essential oils and even beer can all be added to the water to create scented steam. I recommend starting your sauna with just water, and add the scent as you get going.
You can try all sorts of different essential oils. I’ve tried everything from oak and cedar to tangerine and cinnamon (gag) essential oil. In the end, there are really only two oils that are worth it, in my opinion. The first is eucalyptus. I’ve experimented with different types of eucalyptus oil, and the variety you use makes a difference. My favorite is eucalyptus globulus. I also like diluted pine tar oil.
When you settle on your essential oil, add a healthy dose of the oil to the ladle filled with water. Never put the oil onto the oven directly. It’ll just burn.
In a few Russian facilities, I’ve seen Gray Beards pour Russian beer onto the oven and it was actually quite nice. It’s almost like being in a cozy bakery while you sweat
Some people like to place a salt brick or compressed solid blocks in their sauna from time to time. Put the salt block on the stove and pour water over it. The steam takes on a saltiness that feels nice. If a salt block is not available, you can get a cast iron teapot, fill it up with salt water, and place it on top of the stove.
And for my most important steam tip, I recommend using the “towel spin”. This is an effective and underrated technique to help circulate steam in the sauna. After creating steam, take your towel above your head and spin it around hard, like a ceiling fan. This movement works like a convection oven and spreads and equalizes the heat and steam throughout the room. It might make the folks sitting lower down in the sauna a little hotter, but that's what they’re there for, isn’t it?
Being hydrated is important to having a positive sauna experience. You will lose a lot of your body’s water in the sauna. Ideally, start to hydrate well up to an hour before your sauna. I like to add a pinch of salt to my water to encourage water retention.
Do not bring any drinks into the sauna (the exception being a dedicated steam-beer, see above). Have your water or beverage when you’re outside the sauna, resting. If you find you need to drink water inside the sauna in order to cool yourself down, then it’s time for you to get out and allow your body a cool-down.
When you’re outside the sauna, don’t immediately down a glass of super cold water because you will cool down your internal body too fast. Personally, I like to drink warm tea after my first two cycles. After my second cycle, I enjoy a beer (pre-keto days), soup, or vodka drink.
If you are doing a sauna while on a multi-day fast, you need to have water and salt, at a minimum. Otherwise, you will deplete your natural reserve of electrolytes and not be able to think straight.
When it comes to frequency, I’ve come to the conclusion that every other day is my sweet spot. I don’t recommend using the sauna every day. I don’t know the research on this, but I can tell my body is not very happy when I do a daily sauna. In the summer, living in hot and humid Canada, I sauna a lot less frequently. My desire to sauna is greatly diminished because I spend a lot of time in the sun and heat.
Sauna Hat: I highly recommend wearing a Russian/Finish style wool hat when you’re inside the sauna. It may seem counterintuitive, but wearing a hat keeps your head cooler. An overheated head is not good for your brain. Wearing the hat stops you from overheating and lets you stay longer in the sauna. The temperature in a sauna is significantly hotter the higher in the room you are, and one’s head is at the top of the body (for most people). So protect your brain in style with a felt sauna hat. If you don’t have a felt sauna hat, buy one. They are easily found online. But in the meantime, you can wrap a dry towel around your head. Don’t forget to take your sauna hat off as you relax between cycles so your head can cool down.
Clothing: These days, many public saunas will have family days, men-only days, and women-only days. For obvious reasons, you’re only allowed to sauna naked if you’re attending one of the single-sex days.
If you’re at home, there’s no good reason to wear shorts or a bathing suit. Sauna naked. It's a lot more pleasant.
If you do wear clothing in the sauna, be careful with items with materials like metal or plastic attached. Things like pins, buttons, or string-ends will get very hot and probably burn you. Remember to take off any heat-conductive jewelry and leave your smart watch outside, as the heat will ruin its battery.
Don’t wear your robe inside the sauna. A robe is what you wear outside when relaxing or eating. If you wear it inside, you’ll overheat (and look like an idiot). Go ahead and sweat out that body shame robe-free. You can bring a towel into the sauna to sit on, if you want.
Shoes or sandals are highly recommended in public facilities. I mean, there are many people walking around wet. Ew. But keep your sandals outside the sauna itself, or on the sauna floor.
Don’t overthink it. Sitting in a sauna is activity enough, in my opinion. But there are some sauna activities you can do:
Veniks/Viht beating: these are bundles of leaves (commonly birch, oak, or eucalyptus) that are pre-soaked in hot water. Someone with both strength and capacity to exert themselves in the heat will beat your whole body with the leaves. This exfoliates your skin and also gets the plant oils to permeate your skin. And it’s very relaxing. If you’re at a sauna facility, don’t just grab any bundle you see lying around - that belongs to someone else and veniks aren’t shared. You have to bring your own or buy them at the front desk.
Stretching: this is a great activity to do in the sauna, but make sure to go very easy. Your muscles will be super warm and you don’t want to overdo it and hurt yourself.
Exercise or Sex: your heart better be in good shape if you try out these high intensity activities in the sauna. If you engage in the latter, you better be in your own home sauna. With respect to the former, I think doing some leg-ups can be very satisfying.
Phone use: If you’re at home, it’s nice to use your sauna time to shit-post on Twitter or read an article, if you feel like it. Just keep your phone close to the colder, lower parts near the floor or it’ll overheat and shut down. You can also place the phone outside of the air vent and play a podcast! The Bitcoin.review is great ;)
Napping: I don’t recommend this. If you fall asleep or pass out, you will probably die due to overheating or dehydration.
Chatting: Saunas are great places for conversations (subject to the caveats I address above). Note that nowadays, microphone modules are both very tiny and can withstand high temperatures, so it’s no longer recommended to reenact mafia movie sauna scenes.
Eating and Drinking: As discussed above, never have food or drink inside the sauna. But when you finish your sauna, take advantage of whatever snacks the facility offers. For Russian joints, the soups, fish roe and dry salty fish snacks are great. Again, don’t eat before your sauna; wait until you’re done. Some places will have bottled salty-ish lake water, and beer seems to be a good source of salts and re-hydration. Vodka drinks are nice sometimes, too. My favorites are vodka with beet juice and horseradish, vodka with pickle juice, or just a chilled shot of Zubrowka (vodka infused with bison grass). Teas are also very enjoyable post-sauna. I prefer non-caffeinated berry teas. Some Banyas even offer free tea to patrons.
Thanks to this fantastic guide to sauna, you’re now feeling confident and excited to seek out a solid sauna. So where do you go?
Spas: Spas are not the best place to have an optimal sauna experience. Saunas at spas are typically not hot enough and spas have annoying staff whose job it is to enforce idiotic rules and practices that prevent you from having a real sauna experience.
Gyms & Hotels: These are some of the worst places to sauna. For liability reasons, these saunas tend to be too cold and there are often mechanisms that prevent you from raising the temperature. Here, you’ll often see saunas with glass doors, which may look chic, but are inefficient and stupid because they don’t seal properly and leak steam. Gyms and hotels are high traffic areas, so people who don’t know what they are doing are constantly coming and going from the sauna, which, as we discussed, is a sauna no-no. If you still want to try the sauna at your gym or hotel, I recommend going in naked. It’ll deter people from joining you and ruining the little steam you managed to get going.
Traditional bath houses (Banyas): These usually offer a great experience because they deliver a super hot sauna, good cold baths and plunges, delicious food and drinks, and knowledgeable staff.
Home: Yes, you can build a great sauna in your own home! You can create a small space in your basement, turn a closet or cold room into a sauna, or just add an outdoor hut or barrel sauna in your backyard. This is the best way for you to control the whole experience and do it often. As with anything, the easier it is to access, the more you will do it.
Build it. They will Come
Many people have asked me for details about sauna building. If you’re ready to build your own personal home sauna, here are some important considerations.
Saunas are insulated rooms, most commonly finished with cedar tung and groove slats. Cedar is used because it doesn’t rot with moisture. You don’t want treated wood as it will release all the bad stuff that keeps the wood from rotting into the air when heated. Cedar interior is often placed over a vapor barrier, followed by insulation and then the outer wall. Many outdoor saunas are not insulated. They simply have a single layer of cedar 2x6 planks functioning as both the interior and exterior. Non-insulated saunas need much more heating power in the winter.
For indoor saunas, you may want to find a bricklayer to build something for you. Traditional facilities often have brick-lined rooms and very large wood-burning stoves.
You can buy prefab outdoor saunas, which are often sheds or barrels. After experimenting with both, I’ve concluded that barrel saunas are inferior, even though that’s what I have at my country property. This is because barrels have concave ceilings and inner walls. This means the benches are lower and the curve makes the topmost part of the ceiling (and the hottest part) the furthest from you, or inaccessible. The spinning towel trick really helps in the barrel.
When it comes to buying a sauna, go with the most traditional structure possible. They are based on thousands of years of evolution and knowledge.
Portable tent saunas are fun, but impractical because you have to set them up before each use.
Bench height inside the sauna is important. I think the top-most bench should be very near the ceiling. This way, when you’re lying down, you can use the ceiling to stretch the hamstrings. As a rule of thumb, bench length should allow you to lie down completely. It is also nice to have at least one lower bench for visitors or less intense sauna days.
There are two main types of sauna ovens: wood burning and electrical (with gas heating being available, but not common). If the location you are building allows for it, go with electrical. It’s practical and easy to get going quickly. This means you will use it more often. Wood burning saunas are romantic and smell great, but it is a lot more work to get a fire going, especially in the winter.
Opt for oven sizes that are recommended or above recommended for the size of the sauna. A larger oven means more thermic inertia, more rocks for steam, and therefore less time to warm up the room. Bigger is better. The Scandinavians make the best quality ovens.
There are two types of temperature control devices: the analog cooking-style or the digital type. I think, due to liability and safety, all ovens have a timer that max out at one hour.
The digital oven controllers are fantastic and I have one in the city in my basement sauna.
However, you have to consider your environment. For me, temperatures in the winter can reach below -30C and in the summer, over 40C. This massive range can take a toll on outdoor equipment and materials. For this reason, I opted for an analog controller for my outdoor sauna in the country, since the weather will likely ruin the electronics of the digital controller.
I would avoid ovens with analog pre-heat timers. They are great in theory, but the implementation is utter garbage. The timer won’t be precise and it’ll just lead to frustration, for example, when you thought you set the oven to start in three hours, but it actually started in two hours and already turned off.
Windows are nice to have, especially if you have a view to enjoy. Opt for at least a cedar door with a little window. Do not go with modern glass door styles. They are crap. They have gaps, no insulation, and let in too much light.
Saunas need thermometers and hygrometers (to measure humidity). The thermometers should be rated for saunas and be visible inside. This is both for safety and bragging rights.
I think having an hourglass inside your sauna is a must. Being able to know for sure how long you’ve been inside is important, since your sense of timing inside the sauna may be off depending on the state of your mind and body on a given day. You shouldn’t wear a watch inside the sauna, since it’ll overheat or break. Having a clock visible from the inside is also a good idea, especially if you sauna often and have a wife and kids who you don’t want to leave you.
Air circulation is an often-overlooked but important part of a sauna design. Saunas should not have stale air. The best sauna design creates natural “real convection” by placing an air intake under the oven wall and another at the top opposite wall. This allows fresh air to enter the sauna while in use. Be sure to add regulators, since you don’t want to cool the sauna or expel all steam. Without regulators you may get too much or too little air in. With too much air, you may cool the sauna down too much and/or lose too much steam.
Lights are optional but welcome additions. It can be unpleasant to have no lighting at all, especially in an outdoor sauna on a cold, dark night. Lights should be warm-temperature and low power. I recommend an oven light, since they don’t sweat the heat (get it?) and are often low power.
Put a baking tray under your oven–thank me later.
Wood “pillows” for your head are nice and don’t get sweat-stained and stinky, like a fabric pillow.
Keep some extra felt hats near your sauna so when you or your guests forget their hat, you still have easy access to one.
I like to keep a couple of essential oils on the floor of the sauna, for easy access. If you keep the oils too high in the sauna, they’ll get too hot and spoil.
I place some duck boards over floor tiles in the sauna to prevent cold feet.
I also like to keep a small, natural broom inside the sauna to sweep up any dirt or leaves that come into the sauna on people’s feet.
As you can tell, I have some strong opinions when it comes to the proper way to enjoy a sauna. My hope is that my musings will help you to maximize your own sauna experience.. If you follow this guide, I’m certain you will benefit from and enjoy the sauna as much as I do and, just maybe, you too will develop your own strongly held opinions that will most definitely offend me.
ps, you can get a Bitcoin Honey Badger Sauna Hat here