For all the advances in modern medicine, when it comes to health, preventing illness is invariably better than curing it, which is why it’s so important to lead a healthy lifestyle and to invest in our physical and mental wellbeing. At the same time, the reality of 21st century life is that many people are operating under some degree of constraint in terms of free time, disposable funds and available space, quite often all of the above. Because of this, people often want to know where they’re going to get the best return on their investment (of time, money and/or space) when looking at health and wellness products.
With that in mind and out of respect for your time, we’d like to start by explaining the benefits of a sauna so that you can decide, right at the start, whether or not you think a sauna could benefit you. If you do, then please keep reading and we’ll do our best to give you all the information you need to choose the right sauna for you.
Key sauna benefits
It says a lot about the world we live in that we’d list the top benefit of a sauna as being a place where you are forced to detach yourselves from the electronic gadgets which fill our lives these days. We’re the first to acknowledge that modern technology has brought many benefits, but it’s also brought its drawbacks, which are now being increasingly acknowledged. For example in France, workers have recently won the “right to disconnect”, which essentially recognizes the fact that being “always on” can actually be detrimental to our mental and emotional health, which in turn can impact our physical health (particularly if it stops us from getting regular, quality sleep). A sauna can provide invaluable mental downtime.
It must also be noted that saunas are available in a variety of sizes, from those intended for use by one person at a time to those which can be shared by two or more people. Larger saunas give users the option to use the sauna either on an individual basis or in groups. They can be great social experiences and can be a wonderful way for families to spend quality time together.
In terms of physical health, sauna benefits begin with easing away the joint and muscle pain, which affects so many of us, particularly when modern lifestyles lead to us acting in ways which we know are bad for our health. Hunching over computer screens, squeezing into crowded trains, carrying heavy bags over one shoulder (or in one hand), we should all know better, probably most of us do know better and yet for many reasons we do it anyway.
Then there’s the stress of everyday life, which is often reflected in us physically tensing our bodies involuntarily and thereby creating stress on our muscles and joints. While it may be tempting just to try to ignore the pain and hope that it will take the hint, the reality is that pain of any sort is a sign that there is a problem and while some problems will just go away if you ignore them for long enough, when it comes to health problems, that’s often a really bad approach. The heat in a sauna causes muscles to relax and expand, thereby dealing with tension-related pain. It also encourages flexibility in the joints, which can be beneficial for treating anything from morning/cold-weather stiffness to chronic conditions such as rheumatism and arthritis.
Crime author Martina Cole suffers from severe rheumatoid arthritis (to the point that when she was in her 20s, a doctor told her she would be in a wheelchair by the time she was 40) and has had a sauna installed in her home for relief from its pain. Scientific studies indicate that this is far more than the placebo effect. For example, researchers at Saxion University of Applied Science in the Netherlands conducted a study in which patients with rheumatoid arthritis and/or ankylosing spondylitis had 8 sauna treatments over a 4 week period. They found that a statistically significant percentage of these patients reported reduced pain, stiffness and fatigue. This last could be accounted for by the fact that physical relief would presumably help them to sleep better. None of the patients reported any side effects or adverse effects whatsoever. This study used an infrared saunabut it is reasonable to suppose that the same effect could be achieved using a home sauna or outdoor sauna.
Another benefit of saunas which people is their positive effect on diabetes, specifically type II diabetes (which is currently the most common form of diabetes). Diabetes is becoming a matter of growing concern no surprise amongst medical professionals since it is closely linked with people being overweight and thus a classic example of a “lifestyle disorder” which is becoming increasingly prevalent in a modern age of sedentary lifestyles with little free time for exercise.
While it has yet to capture public awareness in the same way as other diseases such as AIDS and cancer, it is hugely dangerous and can literally be deadly. Sufferers can experience a whole variety of complications from heart disease to an inability to detect physical dangers (for example diabetics find it difficult to detect temperature accurately and hence can be easily burned or scalded). In short, diabetes is a condition which should be taken very seriously and saunas can help.
One study which demonstrates this was undertaken in 2010 by the Fraser Lake Community Health Center in Canada. The study lasted 3 months, during which time subjects had 20-minute sauna treatments 3 times a week. Based on the responses to patient surveys before and after the treatments, the study concluded that the sauna treatment had offered a number of benefits ranging from improved physical health to lower stress and fatigue (as mentioned above, these often go hand in hand). Again, this study used an infrared sauna but it is reasonable to suppose that the same effect could be achieved using a home sauna or outdoor sauna.
External heat also causes the body to sweat and the action of sweating stimulates the circulation, thereby causing the heart to work a little harder. This means that another benefit of a sauna is that it can actually be used for a light workout without any strain being put on the muscles or joints (quite the opposite in fact). This in itself can be a great benefit to those who have difficulty exercising or who need to be particularly cautious about damaging their bodies, for example, older people.
With regards to the heart specifically, various studies have shown that using a sauna benefits people with certain heart conditions. For example, the Department of Family Practice at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver found that saunas could help to normalize blood pressure and cholesterol levels, which assisted in the treatment of congestive heart failure and thereby helped chronic pain. Likewise the Journal of The Japanese Circulation Society published a study showing that sauna treatments could help people who suffered from heart arrhythmias and/or chronic heart failure.
Which is better a steam room or sauna? This video looks to answer that question
At the same time, the combination of sweat and increased blood flow helps to purge toxins from the body, with all the resulting benefits that brings. You know the old saying “you are what you eat”, well that is very true. Having clear, fresh skin and lustrous hair starts with putting proper nourishment into your body.
Ideally good, healthy nutrients are all that should ever go into our body, but in the real world, it’s only too easy for damaging toxins to creep in too, even if we ourselves live a healthy lifestyle. For example, even though smoking is now banned inside pretty much every public space, it’s almost impossible to avoid some degree of passive smoking just by walking about the streets and car fumes are another everyday pollutant most of us have little choice but to face. Add in a few “treat foods” which contain alcohol, salt or unhealthy fats and even if your skin and hair don’t actually look exactly bad, they are highly unlikely to look as good as they could, regardless of what pampering cosmetic treatments you put on them. Sauna treatments, however, will help get those toxins out of your body and really get you glowing again.
If you’re still reading, we’re guessing you’ve decided that a sauna is the right choice for you, so you now have to decide which particular type of sauna is appropriate for your needs. Probably the first and most important decision to take is whether you want a traditional sauna or an infrared sauna.
Both types offer all the benefits of heat treatment, while traditional saunas add in the health benefits of steam. While steam can be very good for the body, some people find it unpleasant and prefer infrared for that reason, while others prefer infrared because of the specific nature of the heat treatment. We suggest you read our description of the differences between the two main types of sauna, which may tell you enough for you to decide that you’re only interested in one or the other. If, however, you think you could enjoy either, then we’d strongly recommend that you try each of them out at least once to see which you prefer.
In a traditional sauna, rocks are heated to the desired temperature (usually around 80-90°C) and water is splashed over them to create the desired level of humidity. As a rule of thumb, the higher the temperature inside the sauna, the drier the atmosphere needs to be to prevent the sauna users from being overcome by the heat. Traditional Finnish saunas have very high temperatures and low humidity compared to their close relatives Turkish baths, where the temperature is much lower but the humidity is close to 100%.
The element of steam enhances the heat treatment in a number of ways. In particular, steam, by its very nature, can get right into the body’s tiniest cavities, including those in the lungs. This is why old-fashioned steam treatments are still the first port of call for many respiratory conditions from colds to bronchitis. If you find yourself exposed to air borne pollution of any sort, from pollen to exhaust fumes, then steam treatments can be of great help in getting these ingested pollutants out of your body. Added to all of this, for many people the element of steam quite simply adds to the fun of the sauna experience, particularly in the case of home saunas where you are free to add your favourite essential oils for both a beautiful scent and their health-enhancing properties.
Depending on your point of view, infrared saunas, which work without steam, are either saunas with all the fun sucked out, or a vast improvement on their traditional counterparts. They work at much lower temperatures (typically 50-60°C) and apply the heat directly to the body, rather than heating the air around the body. Some people have suggested that as infrared heat penetrated deeper into the body it may be more effective at removing toxins and also at breaking up cellulite, however at this point in time, we are unaware of any meaningful scientific studies which support this claim.
It is true that the technical differences between infrared and traditional saunas mean that infrared saunas can be slightly more energy efficient on a like-for-like basis, however, again at this point, the difference is minimal. Ultimately for most people the choice of traditional sauna versus infrared sauna boils down to how they feel about steam.
Once you have decided on whether you want a traditional sauna or an infrared sauna, your next decision should probably be what size you need and this will implicitly determine whether you need to look at a home sauna or an outdoor sauna.
The smallest saunas will fit one or two people. These are the easiest to fit in a family home and the most economical to run. On the other hand, very compact saunas do drastically curtail the owner’s ability to turn having a sauna into a social experience and some users may even feel uncomfortable in such a constricted space.
The next size up of sauna will fit two to four people comfortably and essentially the size of your property will determine whether or not you can use a home sauna or whether you will need to look at an outdoor sauna. Their larger size does mean that they will cost a bit more to run than the smaller versions but the payback for this is that they offer enough space for taking a sauna to be a social experience as it is in many cultures across the world.
For most people, realistically, these are very definitely outdoor saunas rather than home saunas and they are also the most expensive saunas to run, but with space for six (or even more) people, these are great for anyone who wants to be able to share their sauna with family and friends.
Now that you know what size you want, you’ll need to decide on a style.
Precut saunas are specifically customized to the room in which they will be assembled, which means that you will need to leave them behind if you move (although on the plus side they can be a great selling point). If you intend to put the kit together yourself, then you’re going to need some decent DIY skills. You may therefore want to look at the cost of having the supplier or other professional do it for you and factor this into your calculation.
Modular saunas are supplied partially assembled and the customer simply finishes them on site. These require much less in the way of DIY skills and should be well within the capabilities of anyone who can assemble flat-pack furniture. You can take them with you when you move (or use them to enhance the attractiveness of your home to potential buyers).
Home-constructed saunas are built on site to the owner’s exact specifications and are typically intended to be left on site if the owner moves (although as with pre-cut saunas, they can be great sales features). As they are designed and built from scratch they usually take longer to put together than saunas with an element of pre-construction and can be more expensive, but their key selling point is that the owner has complete control over the process.
Only infrared saunas can be portable (at least at this time) and, obviously, their small size means that the experience of using them is somewhat different to a regular sauna, but they do offer all the health benefits of their larger counterparts and in purely practical terms they have a lot to offer in addition to their economical price and lower running costs. To begin with, they can easily be fitted into small homes where there would never be space for even the smallest regular sauna. They can also be used as “companion saunas” when the main sauna is an outdoor sauna and the household want to have an alternative, indoor, solution in case it becomes impractical for someone to use the main sauna, even on a temporary basis (for example if they are full of the cold and don’t want to go outdoors at all). Likewise, they are very useful for people who may need to move house and/or who like to travel.
Now have all the information you need to make the right choice of sauna, so we thought we’d finish with a little fun and suggest some accessories you could buy to enhance your sauna experience.
Thermometer and hygrometer
A thermometer will allow you to keep an eye on the temperature in your sauna, while a hygrometer will keep track of humidity. Both of these help to ensure that you operate your sauna safely and should arguably be top of your list of accessories.
If there is any likelihood that saunas will be used by people who are new to them, or even just inexperienced, it can be helpful to put up some robust and visible wall signs so that it’s easier for them to understand how to operate the sauna safely.
It’s worth checking what kind of flooring comes as standard with your sauna and, if necessary, upgrading it to plastic material (which is broadly similar to linoleum). This is both comfortable and safe, in the sense that it reduces the likelihood of slipping (remember that the water used in the sauna will ultimately condense on the floor). As well as being easy to clean, it is intrinsically very hygienic since it is resistant to bacteria, mildew and mould.
Like flooring, the lighting in a sauna needs to be practical and safe, but it can also be used as a design element to make your sauna even more attractive.
Buckets and paddles
If you’re using a traditional sauna, you’ll need to add water to the rocks. Buckets and paddles make this easier and can also make it just that little bit more stylish.
While wearing a towel in a sauna is a matter of preference, having towels handy inside the sauna means that users can wipe away sweat promptly if they wish and are also ready to dry themselves as soon as they leave the unit.
Just as sitting in a good armchair is usually more comfortable than sitting on a bar stool, so adding head and back supports and/or pillows (preferably both) can take the comfort of your sauna experience to a whole new level.
The molecules in essential oils are so tiny they can actually penetrate the surface of the skin, which is why they’re so valued in the health and beauty industries. A little research on the net will tell you all about what oils can be used for what purposes. As a free tip, anything menthol (pine, mint, eucalyptus…) is great for clearing blocked sinuses, citrus oils (lemon, orange…) are good for brightening mood and lavender is very calming and relaxing.