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Hot Rocks: The Rolling Stones define a dry sauna, a wet sauna, and a steam sauna

The term “sauna” gets thrown around differently, and with different meanings.

Dry Sauna

A dry sauna is a traditional Finnish sauna.  A wood lined hot room with a stove, usually wood fired in rural areas or at lake cabins and cottages.  Generally, a dry sauna gets its name because there is no running water in a dry sauna.  With traditional Finnish saunas, rinse off’s are typically strictly an outside affair.  This is usually where magic happens: cooling down with a lake plunge or outdoor backyard shower or similar cold plunge.   Where dry sauna becomes a misnomer is in health clubs or hotels, where there are rules and regulations like “don’t toss water on sauna rocks!, this is a dry sauna!”  But here’s the rub.  All decent sauna stoves are meant to take water on the rocks.  And water for a dry sauna is most often obtained by a simple sauna water bucket that sits down on the floor, where it’s cooler.  Telling a sauna bather not to toss water on sauna rocks is like telling a swimmer they can do laps, but they’re not allowed to get wet.

Wet Sauna

A wet sauna is best described while sitting on the bench in a Russian Banya.  Russian Banyas have ice cold water spigots strategically located down low – and with plastic handles – so the user can fill up a plastic bucket and dump it over their head while sweating their ass off inside the hot room.  The floor of a wet sauna is typically tiled, with a drain in the center so as to capture the run off.  Like a dry sauna, the walls are typically wood paneled.  The benches, typically soft wood like cedar.  An example of an awesome wet sauna is Red Square in Chicago, Archimedes Banya in San Francisco, or Chicago Sweatlodge.  Jim turned his Upstate New York shed into a Russian style wet sauna, and you can read about it here.

Steam Sauna

A steam sauna is a steam room.  A steam sauna is also called a Turkish Bath.  A steam sauna is not a sauna.  A steam sauna is a steam room.

Infrared

While we’re at it, Infrared is not a sauna.  Infrared is a light bulb closet.

As the Rolling Stones figured out, a sauna is all about Hot Rocks.  You Can’t Always Get What You Want, but now you can tell people that the answer to the question: what is a sauna?  is right “Under My Thumb.”

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11 Comments on This Post

  1. “With traditional Finnish saunas, rinse off’s are typically strictly an outside affair.”

    Have you ever even BEEN to a traditional Finnish sauna? You wash and rinse yourself INSIDE the sauna, not out, often even next to the stove. You certainly won’t go outside to wash when it can be freezing outside, the water is cold enough already unless heated. Before you have a sauna you carry buckets of water inside and often warm some of it, so it would be nicer to wash and rinse yourself.

  2. lol! i was the one who coined the ‘outside affair’ comment that glenn references. it relates to MY sauna setup and routine. due to a variety of reasons, i have a wood floor in my sauna and also enjoy a very dry experience. combine these two factors and for ME, rinse offs are strictly an outside affair.

    rinse off inside, outside, both, whatever floats your boat…

  3. Right on Miller!

    Sauna stove makers – folks that work with metal everyday – understand the principle of how and where water collects on metal. This happens as a humid hot room cools, releasing water vapor that collects first on the colder metal, starting at the bottom of a sauna stove. And in the case of an electric stove, water vapor works its way in and settles on the electrical panel and heating elements. So, if one’s boat is floated towards bathing in the hot room, it’s a good idea to get that humidity out of the hot room before the hot room starts cooling. Like the Finnish saunas i’ve taken across the big pond and in North America, there are tribesmen with many vowels in their last names who dig minimal hot room soap, shampoo, and maximize their smiles after a dump of cold water outside or lake plunge via the Miller theory of “strictly an outside affair.”

  4. Glenn: Not all saunas are next to a lake, and why would you leave the sauna when you can rinse there? Besides, it’s not good for you to put your head under the water during the winter. It’s not even good for the environment to let all that soap into the lake.

    I really don’t understand what that stuff about an electric stove has to do with anything. A sauna without water is not a sauna at all. If you can’t throw water on the rocks of the stove in a sauna, then it certainly shouldn’t be called a sauna. It doesn’t make any difference whether it’s an electric or wood heated stove. After all that’s the whole point of a sauna!

    miller: Wood floor? Many saunas have wood floors, that’s normal. But I would like to see how you to wash yourself, shampoo your hair etc. with ice cold water in a snow when it’s -30 degrees outside…

    But what do I know, I am only a Finn who have used several saunas (electric and wood heated, many have been decades old, one even over 100 years) with several other Finns. None of whom have rinsed outside, unless it has been a modern sauna with showers in the next room.

  5. Maybe you don’t use soap in saunas but Finns do and have used, as long as there has been some kind of soap available, first self-made of course. And one can hardly send babies or small children to rinse in a freezing water.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lm3WXCaaCxQ
    So Finns do wash and rinse themselves IN a sauna, that’s how it has been done for centuries.

  6. Seems like we’re splitting hairs! I love a sauna at -30 (F) and at 80! Sometimes its a soap up in the hot box, sometimes its outside in the winter! Nothing (I really mean NOTHING) beats a slip into hole in the ice on New Years Eve! All things said, I’d rather be out than in, even during a chilly Northern MN winter! BTW..if you are thinking about building a new sauna, Glenn’s downloadable book is spot on and the PERFECT guidance for the ultimate sauna.

  7. Finns have saunas weekly all throughout the year, it’s a part of everyday life. It might be the only place to wash yourself at a cottage, so yeah, it’s used no matter the outside temperature. Also I don’t have to build a new sauna, every house already has one. That’s how I know that “a dry sauna” is a contradiction in terms because everyone uses water in one so it also has to be built accordingly as it is meant to be a wet place.

  8. i don’t use the interior of my sauna for true bathing. it just isn’t necessary with a shower in the house. my routine is to sweat it up, rinse off outside, dry off and go about my day. i don’t sauna every day so the ‘off days’ are when i take a more traditional shower. i’ll even take a shower before getting in the sauna, if i’m all dirty from working outside or whatever. i see no point in bringing excessive amounts of dirt and grime into the sauna when i can easily clean that off before getting in. and i get that many saunas traditionally had wood floors but for me, i’d rather not have excessive water in the sauna, just a preference.

    again, this is just my routine and works for me. if this makes my sauna or sauna routine not ‘authentic’, then so be it, i’m not going to get too hung up on labels.

  9. miller: But that is in no way traditional or the norm. You can use the sauna that way but that’s not how Finns have used it for centuries. A Finn wouldn’t think of it as a real sauna because the steam is the spirit of the sauna, literally, that’s what it means. There are several buckets in all the saunas without running water and before going in you first fill them, so people can use that to wash themselves. One has to remember that saunas existed before showers. Foreigners also often think that the main point of sauna is to sweat but it’s not really. It happens but Finns don’t care how much they sweat, after all we are usually wet anyway so no one pays any attention to it.

    Here you can see how people do sauna in a traditional sauna: https://youtu.be/i_rNFsHruDU?t=36m55s

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