The Finnish Sauna - traditional sauna use by the Finns explained

Here we’ll start with Finnish sauna basics then look at how and why body heating is so loved by the Finns – so loved that in Finland there are as many saunas as cars! Actually, as you’ll see, in Finland, perspiring and getting the blood circulating has become a bit of an art form over time.

Below you’ll find out ...
• What a Finnish style sauna is – the basics
• How a Finnish (traditional) sauna is different than an infrared sauna
• Finnish sauna customs
• What Finnish saunas were used for in days of old
• And why the Finns are the world’s greatest “connoisseurs of perspiratory entertainment”!

(If you’re new to saunas, start with our introduction to the sauna then come back to read more about sauna use by the Finns—the most experienced sauna users in the world!)

What is a Finnish sauna? – the basics

Of all the people in the world, it’s the Finns that have most embraced the dry sauna (as opposed to wet sauna, or steam room )— and are the most experienced sauna users in the world. Finnish saunas are the type of saunas you see in health clubs. That is, a wood-lined room or wooden hut heated jointly by a wood-fired (or electric) stove and a pile of heat-retaining stones set upon the stove.

Inside the heated room, sauna bathers sit on wooden benches (‘lauteet’ in Finnish) and enjoy the beneficial effects of body heating, a good sweat (see sauna benefits ) and the camaraderie of family and friends.

How Finnish home saunas are heated

Traditionally, Finns have heated their sauna rooms by wood-burning stove (kiua - say “kee’-wu”). While electric stoves have come into use, purists argue that the heat from these and their overall effect in the sauna is drier and ‘loses something’ relative to the traditional wood-fired heat source.(Burning wood actually releases some moisture into the air, so it’s not as dry a heat as that from an electric stove.)

The Finns keep the temperature in their saunas between 175-210º F (80 to 100º C). But despite the practice of splashing water on the sauna rocks to create steam, the overall humidity in the room is low—ranging between 10 to 15 %. This makes the Finnish sauna a dry sauna, relative to a steam room, or steam bath, which has a very high humidity level. Learn more about sauna vs. steam room.

What is the difference between a Finnish sauna and an infrared sauna?

Finnish saunas are all about getting the sauna’s very high heat environment (170-210º F, or 60 – 80 ºC) just right – using a variety of means – to produce a great, cleansing sweat…and get the blood circulating!

Other than just sitting in the heat, the Finns use three other methods of enhancing the effects of the sauna on blood circulation, and getting a deeper, more cleansing sweat:
1. Creating stimulating blasts of steam (loyly) and fluctuations in air temperature by splashing water periodically on the sauna rocks.
2. Exiting the sauna for a quick plunge into the cold (even ice-cold) water of a nearby lake, river, pond, or tub of water…before re-entering the sauna again.
3. Swatting the skin with leafy birch twigs (vihta) to stimulate circulation to the skin and underlying muscles.

More on these Finnish home sauna customs below.

Far infrared saunas (called FIR or just infrared saunas for short) also get you sweating – and even more heavily than a Finnish sauna – but at a lower, more tolerable temperature (100-140º F, 35-55º C). Infrared sauna heaters are the heat source in an fir sauna, as opposed to a stove. The ir heaters produce a heat wave like the heat you feel off a large stone outdoors that has been warmed by the sun.

This type of heat wave is known to reach deeper beneath the skin – reaching into muscle and other tissues - than the heat from a traditional sauna can. Because of this deeper reach into the tissues, infrared heat causes more toxins to be released with the sweat than in a Finnish style sauna. More on benefits of the infrared sauna.

The combination Finnish sauna and infrared sauna

Recently there has emerged a combination sauna that utilizes both far infrared heaters and traditional electric heaters to give the sauna bather exposure to both sources of heat at once or at separate times.

Finnish sauna use – now and in the old days

The first thing to know is that the Finns use the sauna a lot…and that there are a lot of saunas in Finland! Actually, it was estimated in 2002 that there are over 1.8 million saunas in Finland. That’s a lot of saunas for a country of only 5.1 million residents. In Finland, having a home sauna is the norm rather than the exception.

Nowadays Finnish saunas are found in corporate headquarters, government offices, universities, apartments, and country homes. They are used for recreation, relaxation, socializing, and numerous health benefits – including cleansing/detoxification.

In days of old, Finns used the sauna for birthing babies. After all, saunas were relatively sterile, and had hot water available. The Finnish sauna was also used for a purification ritual women went through before marriage, and a place that old people might go to die.

What are those sauna rocks for? Finnish saunas and ‘löyly’

In a Finnish sauna, the stove heats not only the air but a group of sauna rocks set upon it. The sauna rocks - anywhere from 30-100 lbs. worth, depending on the size of the room – range in size, but average the size of your fist. The sauna rocks retain heat from the stove (reaching 1000 degrees F or more in temperature) and radiate it evenly into the room.

The Finns splash water on the sauna rocks periodically during the sauna. This water is absorbed by the rocks, then returned to the air a moment later in a burst of steam – called löyly - temporarily raising the air temperature in the sauna still higher. The stimulating ‘shock’ of this blast of heat invigorates while promoting circulation in the body—and adding more moisture to the room. (Plus, negative ions, are generated during this process.)

Tip for traditional Finnish sauna users: true steam is not visible, so when adequately-heated sauna rocks are splashed with water, there is no vapor to see, only a hiss to be heard a moment later as the water is released as steam. It’s water vapor that is visible, and when water vapor is seen coiling off the sauna rocks, it’s a sign that the rocks haven’t yet reached a high-enough temperature to produce proper “löyly”.

Does adding moisture to the air by splashing water on the rocks make the finnish sauna a wet sauna?

No, löyly doesn’t make the Finnish sauna a wet sauna — in fact, Finnish saunas are known as dry saunas and generally don’t offer a greater than 15% humidity. Wet saunas, or steam rooms, are spaces which are heated entirely by having steam pumped in. The steam sauna, sometimes referred to as a steam bath or Turkish steam bath, has humidity levels near 100% and an air temperature of between 110 – 125 º F. The correct term for this type of room is actually ‘steam room’ or ‘steam bath’, not ‘steam sauna’. More on sauna vs. steam room.

Stimulating circulation Finnish-style by alternating heat (sauna) and cold (the ice-water plunge)

A considerable number of Finnish saunas are constructed by lakes, rivers, and the sea. We were surprised to learn, actually, that Finland has tens of thousands of Lake. These numerous lakes make it easy to carry out another well-known Finnish sauna custom – that of exiting the sauna to plunge into a cold body of water before returning back inside again. This very common custom, done during of after sauna use, causes circulation to shift outwards, then inwards, and outwards again (if the sauna is re-entered). This is not only – as you can imagine! – invigorating to the system, but it helps pull more impurities out of the internal organs to be excreted in the perspiration.

While the temperature change during a sauna-plunge-sauna cycle can be extreme, the effects of the cold plunge is blunted somewhat by the raised body temperature the sauna user . As well, there some moments pass as the sauna bather spent moving from the sauna to the water … so by the time the cold plunge takes place, the body has hopefully adapted somewhat to the cool outside temperature.

Swatting the skin with birch twigs (vihta, or vashta) to enhance circulation in the sauna

Nowadays, most people think of a loofah sponge or soft long-handled brush when they think of a tool for stimulating the skin. The Finns, however, discovered long ago that the twigs of the birch tree in spring with their delicate new leaves (a whisk of which is known as vihta, or vashta), were the ideal, ready-at-hand tool for the same purpose. Birch trees are abundant in Finland, and birch wood – with its lovely fragrance - has long been a preferred wood source for the sauna stove.

From an experienced Finnish sauna user)we learn, “The vihta can be stored in the frozen or dried state and revived by soaking in warm water, so you can enjoy it any time of year. And there is nothing like the smell of birch leaves in a sauna, and the bather too comes out smelling so natural.”

He describes using the vihta in a sauna:

“I went through my ritual of dipping the leaves in water and turning them over the rocks as the water dripped onto the hot rocks. The birch aroma of the forest filled the sauna. It was wonderful, and everyone was surprised by how it happened by steaming the vasta on the rocks.”

Finally, the author uses “the supple, soaked vihtas”to smack the surface of his skin from head to toes, thereby dislodging dirt and dead skin cells and promoting circulation. Can’t wait to try it myself..!

Did you Know?

• A normal healthy person sweats between one half and one quart per day.
• In a Finnish sauna you will lose about one quart of sweat per hour.
• Before the rise of public health care and nursery facilities, almost all Finnish mothers gave birth in saunas.
• In Finland the traditional sauna day is Saturday.
• Sex almost never occurs in the sauna. You behave in the sauna as you would in church.
• In Finland there are so many saunas that it averages one sauna per household.
Learn what the benefits are of Finnish sauna use.