Do you know the difference between a sauna and a steam room? While these heat therapies have a lot in common, there are some key differences. (Plus, one is *great* for cold and flu season.)

By Dominique Michelle Astorino
December 31, 2019
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Freezing your body with Cryotherapy may have been the breakout recovery trend of the 2010s, but heating your body has been a tried-and-true recovery practice since, like, forever. (It even predates Roman times!) The ancient and global bathhouse culture is the inspiration behind what we experience now as a modern spa—particularly, saunas and steam rooms. Now, thanks to wellness trends and the desire for more recovery treatments, you can now find a sauna or steam room in a wide variety of gyms and recovery studios other than ritzy day spas.

Athletes and wellness enthusiasts alike have long been rejuvenating and relaxing with heat therapy, but these two methods provide very different experiences. Here's how saunas and steam rooms vary, and the benefits of each.

What Is a Steam Room?

A steam room, sometimes called a steam bath, is probably exactly what you think it is: a room filled with steam. A generator with boiling water creates steam (or, in a manual steam room, boiling water is poured over hot stones), and the room is filled with hot humidity.

"A steam room's ambient air temperature is ideally between 100-115 degrees, but with humidity level close to 100 percent," says Peter Tobiason, founder and CEO of LIVKRAFT Performance Wellness, a recovery and health center in La Jolla, CA.

It's typically recommended (by spas and healthcare professionals) to spend no more than 15 minutes in a steam room.

What Is a Sauna?

A sauna is the steam room's dry counterpart. "A traditional sauna or 'dry sauna' utilizes a wood, gas, or electric stove with heated rocks to create a very low-humidity, dry environment with temperatures between 180 and 200 degrees," said Tobiason. This type of dry heating has been used since the neolithic age, according to historical resources.

It's recommended that you spend a maximum of 20 minutes in a dry sauna.

You may also be familiar with infrared saunas, the modern upgrade to the ancient sauna. The heating source is infrared light—not a stove—that penetrates the skin, muscles, and even into your cells, says Tobiason. "This raises your core body temperature to produce sweat to cool the body, versus your body strictly reacting to the outside ambient air temperature of a dry sauna or steam."

In an infrared sauna, the body heats at a lower air temperature, between 135-150 degrees. This means you can spend more time in a sauna with a reduced "risk of dehydration and any cardiovascular concerns," says Tobiason. You can spend upwards of 45 minutes in an infrared sauna depending on your tolerance, physical condition, and clearance from your healthcare provider.

The Benefits of Steam Rooms

Where do steam rooms really shine? In your sinuses.

Alleviate congestion: "Steam has the edge over both dry and infrared saunas in the stuffy nose department," said Tobiason. "One of the major benefits is alleviating upper respiratory congestion. The combination of inhaling steam, usually mixed with eucalyptus oil, increases vasodilation in the sinuses allowing nasal passage to clear and relieve congestion." It's almost like you're climbing into one big essential oil diffuser.

Tobiason gave a heads up for cold and flu season. Keep in mind, if there are a lot of people with stuffy noses in a public steam room, you could increase your risk of "picking up bugs and viruses from everyone who has the same idea." Instead, you could try a long, steamy shower with some eucalyptus essential oil, or one of these other home remedies for sinus infections.

Promote mental and muscular relaxation: Being in a steam room can feel like you're melting stress off of your body. Your muscles relax from the heat, and you can slip into a more peaceful state (for 15 minutes, that is!). As mentioned, some steam rooms use eucalyptus and essential oils to enhance the relaxing experience. (Hot tip: if you're at an Equinox location, take one of those cold eucalyptus towels with you into the steam room.)

Improve circulation: "Moist heat" (gross, but okay) can improve circulation, according to a 2012 study published in Medical Science Monitor. This helps with overall wellness and organ function, as well as a healthy immune system.

The Benefits of Saunas

These benefits partially depend on which type of sauna you choose—traditional or infrared.

Improve circulation: Like with steam rooms, saunas also help increase circulation. A recent Swedish study even showed that saunas could provide "short-term improvement in cardiac function."

Relieve pain: 2009 study conducted at the Expertise Center of Health, Social Care and Technology at Saxion University of Applied Sciences in the Netherlands had rheumatoid arthritis patients undergo eight infrared sauna treatments over the course of four weeks. Researchers found that infrared sauna use led to statistically significant reductions in pain and stiffness.

Boost athletic recovery: A study on infrared saunas from the Department of Biology of Physical Activity at University of Jyväskylä in Finland examined 10 athletes and their recovery. After a strength training workout, they spent 30 minutes in the hot box. The conclusion? Infrared sauna time is "favorable for the neuromuscular system to recover from maximal endurance performance."

Enjoy longer relaxation sessions: In an infrared sauna, you can "give your body more time to experience a deep, detoxifying sweat," says Tobiason. This is because you can stay in there for much longer than both a steam room and a traditional sauna. "This means your muscles, joints, and skin are receiving more time with helpful infrared rays."

For guided meditation and entertainment: "Certain infrared saunas also include tablets with the ability to cue up guided meditation apps such as Calm and Headspace during the sessions, which helps aid in relaxation."

Tips for Getting the Most Out of Your Session

Tobiason shared some of the tips for maximizing your heat therapy. He also noted the importance of checking in with your doc: "As always, consult with a qualified medical professional before participating in any type of infrared sauna, steam, or dry sauna session."

Hydrate: "The main thing to remember with any heat therapy is to make sure you're hydrated!" he says. "Hydration is key for safety and session optimization. Proper hydration allows your body's processes to work efficiently. Bring a bottle to fill with water and trace minerals or electrolytes for before, during, and after your session." (Related: Everything You Should Know About Sports Drinks)

Quick pre-game shower: This one is for infrared sauna sessions. "Showering beforehand can speed up your sweat in an infrared sauna by opening the pores on your skin and relaxing your muscles," he says. "This is essentially a 'warm-up' for your session."

Get cold first: "Try whole-body Cryotherapy or an ice bath before your sauna session," says Tobiason. "This can increase the circulation of all the 'fresh' blood that just was brought to your by the cold therapy." (Also: Should You Take a Hot or Cold Shower After a Workout?)

Dry brush: Before your session, spend three to five minutes dry brushing to amplify your sweat," he said. "Dry brushing increases circulation, encouraging the detoxification process." (Here's everything you need to know about dry brushing.)

Rinse off after: "Take a cool shower [afterward] to close the pores," said Tobiason. "This stops you from sweating and reabsorbing toxins you just released."

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