The world is full of people selling products that purport to be full of health benefits. Some of them genuinely are and some of them really aren’t.
Looking at the science behind them is usually a good way to tell which is which.
The facts you need to take a decision
We understand that steam showers and home saunas are big-ticket purchases, so we’ll tell you what you need to know about their health benefits so you can make an informed decision about whether or not they are right for you.
Understand different options for different medical conditions, living situations and budgets
Everybody is different and getting real value for money depends on picking the right option for you. The good news is that there are options for just about every combination of medical needs, living situations and financial budgets. You just need to know what they are.
Be clear about different treatments for different conditions
You may be looking for an all-round holistic treatment or you may be looking to treat certain medical conditions or you may be looking at steam showers and saunas as potential beauty treatments. We’ll cover all of these so you know the facts - backed by science.
Let’s start with the basics of steam showers and saunas
Steam is what you get when you heat water, so any steam treatment has to involve heat and water. Given that there’s only so much the body can take, the basic rule of thumb is that if you raise the humidity, you lower the temperature and if you raise the temperature, you lower the humidity.
Steam showers have high humidity and low temperature (although it doesn’t necessarily feel that way), while saunas have higher temperatures and lower humidity (although again it doesn’t necessarily feel that way).
You can now buy infrared saunas, which are pure heat treatments. This means that you lose the benefits associated with the steam, but the advantage of this is that you can fit them into much more compact spaces, plus there are some people who just don’t like steam treatments regardless of how healthy they are.
In simple terms, therefore, the health benefits of steam showers and saunas are the health benefits of heat plus the health benefits of steam, unless you opt for an infrared sauna, in which case you will have a pure heat treatment, which is still very beneficial.
The health benefits of heat
Heat speeds up the circulation of the blood. Blood may be something you generally only notice when you cut yourself, but actually, it’s a very important part of the body and performs several functions which are crucial to health.
Your blood is composed of red blood cells, white blood cells, platelets and plasma.
Red blood cells carry oxygen around the body
White blood cells protect against infection and foreign substances entering the body
Platelets assist with blood clotting
Plasma transports carbon dioxide, digested food, urea, hormones and heat
In short, when your blood is transported around your body more quickly, everything it does happens more quickly. Obviously, there is a limit to how long your body can work at this faster pace, which is one of the reasons why we can’t spend all day in a steam shower or sauna.
The basic idea, however, is that you use heat treatments to give your body a regular boost and that continues to have beneficial effects long after the treatment is over.
We’ll talk more about some of the specific ways heat can help you later in this article.
Using heat treatments safely
Increased blood circulation means the heart has to work faster, hence if you have any kind of heart condition, are prone to fainting, or have any other condition which affects your circulation, then you should consult a medical professional before trying a heat treatment.
Likewise, if you have an injury that has caused swelling, it is best to avoid heat treatments until the swelling has gone down. We’ll explain why when we talk about using steam showers and saunas for pain relief.
The heat will make you sweat, which will mean you lose water. Because of this, it is highly advisable to drink plenty of water before, after and after a steam shower and you can also drink it during a sauna.
If you don’t like plain water then a similar, light drink with a high water content could be a reasonable alternative. Avoid the likes of energy drinks, caffeine and, of course, alcohol.
The health benefits of steam
Water is possibly the ultimate cleanser. It can be used for cleaning the outside of the body and also, at least as importantly, it can cleanse the inside of the body. In fact, water vapour, otherwise known as steam, can get right into the tiniest crevices inside the body, to give it a real deep clean. In particular, it does a great job of cleaning out the respiratory system, which is why it is so often used to relieve respiratory conditions.
Using steam safely
The key point to remember about steam is that the more steam you have, the lower the temperature must be. If the temperature gets too high, the body can overload. This is why saunas usually have hygrometers (which measure humidity) sometimes in combination with thermometers.
Steam and aromatherapy
We actually have a full guide to using aromatherapy in steam showers and saunas, so we’ll just cover the basic facts here. Anything you breathe in enters your respiratory system. What happens next depends on the size of the molecule.
Larger molecules, such as dust particles, are too big to enter the bloodstream and hence stay in your respiratory system until you find some way to get rid of them, such as by coughing or by drinking water to get them into your digestive system, which will process them as waste.
Smaller molecules enter the bloodstream and hence can influence the body’s systems. The molecules released when you diffuse essential oils in steam are small enough to enter the bloodstream, which is the basis of their medical effectiveness.
We’ll cover the science behind this in more detail in the full article, for now, we’ll just point out that, while it is true that there are many highly improbable claims made about natural healing, it is also true that plants have been used effectively in healing for most of human history and that even today, many common medicines are based on plant extracts.
Even if you’re still cynical about aromatherapy as a medical treatment, we’re sure you’ll have had a chance to experience, first-hand, how your surroundings can influence your mood. This is exactly why businesses pay so much attention to the overall sensory impact of their buildings.
Scent can be challenging to deploy effectively in a commercial environment, but if you can do it, it can be massively effective. Think we’re exaggerating? Imagine going into a foul-smelling public toilet and then imagine going into a well-kept toilet in a hotel, from which nasty odours have been banished.
Then think about the scents of common household products, for example, how often citrus scents like lemon are used to evoke a feeling of upbeat freshness.
Given that mental wellness is a huge issue for many people today, it makes sense at least to research the basics of aromatherapy as an aid to dealing with emotional challenges and you can read more about this in our full article on aromatherapy.
Using steam showers and saunas for common health and wellness issues
Here are some common health and wellness issues and how steam showers and saunas can help.
When it comes to everyday pain relief for musculoskeletal pains, there are two remedies we probably all reach for, possibly without even thinking about it. One is a hot water bottle and the other is ice. At first glance, this is a complete contradiction, but, as always, there is an answer.
Heat treatments boost circulation. In so doing, they increase the rate at which nutrients reach the sore area and the rate at which toxins are removed. Cold treatments do the opposite.
They reduce circulation and therefore reduce the rate of inflammation since inflammation depends on blood flow to the sore area. By controlling the swelling, cold treatments help to limit the extent of any tissue damage (or even eliminate it completely).
A hot water bottle may be a good choice for stiff muscles after exercise (getting that lactic acid moving along), but it’s not going to have much of an impact on chronic medical conditions such as arthritis.
A sauna, on the other hand, can provide a great deal of relief from rheumatoid arthritis, even if you opt for an infrared version and eliminate the steam. It’s basically the heat you want, getting the blood flowing into your muscles and joints and generally loosening them up.
If your problem is tension headaches then the solution is to relax and heat can help a lot here, so a home sauna may be a good option.
Having said that, if you enjoy relaxing in a cloud of steam, then this will probably do the job just as well since the treatment for tension is relaxation.
As mentioned previously, heat increases your circulation, which means your protective white blood cells travel around the body more quickly and your immune system is given a boost.
This reduces your chances of getting ill in the first place and helps you to get over any illnesses you do catch in the shortest, possible time.
If you do find yourself dealing with anything which affects your respiratory system, then steam can help unblock sinuses and clean up your lungs and the internal pathways by which air travels, basically helping you to breath more easily and cough less.
Skin conditions/hair conditions
Whether or not a steam shower or sauna can help with skin or hair conditions will depend on what is causing the condition in the first place.
In very simple terms, your hair and skin reflect your overall lifestyle and if you’re leading an unhealthy lifestyle then just having steam showers and saunas is not going to make that much of a difference (in fact it may not make any difference at all).
If, however, you’re generally good, but not perfect, then steam showers and home saunas can certainly help to get the “naughty” toxins, flushed out of your body as quickly as possible.
We have certainly heard of them being used to speed up recovery after the occasional wild night out, (not that we’d ever need to use them like that ourselves of course).
Similarly, if your skin and hair are suffering from the effects of poor circulation, especially in the colder months, when your body’s systems can really slow down unless you prod them along, then either a steam shower or a sauna will help improve their condition.
As an added bonus, heat causes the skin’s pores to open (to let sweat out) and that is the perfect time to apply skin treatments of any sort. Likewise, it lifts the cuticle on the hair, which is exactly what you want when applying hair masks.
Heat encourages both physical and mental relaxation and this is one of the reasons why both steam showers and saunas promote mental wellness. Another reason is that they both offer private “me time” for a person to tune out without distractions, human, animal or electronic.
In a domestic environment, steam showers tend to be places where you spend time on your own.
This is purely because steam showers need to be small enough to fit into the average household bathroom. Saunas are generally used outdoors, which means that they can be sized to hold more than one person, thus giving you the option to turn your sauna experience into a social event.
For the sake of completeness, we should point out that it is, theoretically, possible to install a traditional sauna indoors, but that this is very rarely done because of the amount of space required.
You can buy “mini saunas”, which are available in the form of tents or mats (obviously infrared rather than traditional), but unless you are specifically looking for a heat treatment to relieve a condition such as arthritis, we think you’ll get a better overall experience with a steam shower.
Another plus point of steam showers is that they come with hydrotherapy massage jets, which not only offer some physical benefits in that they also boost circulation, but also promote mental relaxation.
Basically think about using a hot tub, but standing up (or sitting down if you prefer).
We’ve already touched on this, but for the sake of completeness, we’ll mention that high-quality steam showers come with aromatherapy modules, to make it easy for you to infuse your steam with your preferred fragrance.
Saunas have different heating mechanisms and so may or may not have integrated diffuses but if they don’t it’s usually easy enough to use an alternative approach, for example, you can buy wax melts with essential oils in them, which you can take into your sauna in a heat-resistant bowl (remember, you’ll need to pick it up afterwards!) and use essential oils in that way.
Steam showers and home saunas do not, in and of themselves, cause weight loss.
They make you sweat, which causes water loss, but as soon as you drink (which you should do immediately after having a steam shower or sauna), your body will rehydrate and the water-related weight will return.
Having said that, the overall mental and physical benefits of steam showers and saunas can definitely complement other weight-loss measures such as exercise and hence can assist in a weight-loss or weight-maintenance programme.
The practicalities of steam showers and saunas
Steam showers can be fitted into just about any bathroom, the only requirements are decent plumbing and an electrical connection.
They are housed in self-contained shower cabins to ensure that all the steam stays in one place rather than turning your entire bathroom into a steam room.
This means that you don’t need to tile the area around the shower, which saves both money and hassle.
Speaking of money, steam showers are available at various price points, but if money is tight, you could invest in a hydrotherapy shower cabin and then retrofit a steam generator at a later date when funds allow.
Saunas are, realistically, best suited to those who have their own outdoor space as they are rather too big for the average family home.
If you don’t have outdoor space for a sauna, then we’d recommend a steam shower over an indoor tent sauna or a sauna mat, unless your main priority is to treat a specific medical condition, such as arthritis.
Sauna and spa expert with years of experience in the field. You can see me featured in many leading publications as well as my own published research papers. Fitness, health, home improvement and Psychology are my main interests. I’ve worked in many roles from product designer to purchaser for spa products, garden furniture and tech to a hands-on webmaster.