Saunas and steam rooms are fixtures in spas, gyms and even some homes. The purported benefits of range from relaxation to weight loss to cleansing, but research comparing the benefits of each heat treatment is mixed. If you are considering adding steam room or sauna treatments to your health or wellness routine, educate yourself regarding the differences between the two heat rooms and evaluate your specific health needs before choosing.
Both saunas and steam rooms invoke the therapeutic use of high heat to relax muscles and promote sweating. The most significant difference between the two is the type of heat. Saunas use dry heat generated from a stove or hot rocks to increase the room temperature to between 160 and 200 degrees. Steam rooms operate at lower temperatures, typically around 110 degrees, but keep humidity at 100 percent to maintain moist heat.
Heat has an analgesic, or pain relieving, effect due to its ability create more effective blood flow. Painful conditions caused by inflammation such as arthritis and fibromyalgia can be temporarily managed through heat treatments like those found in both saunas and steam rooms. For managing pain, saunas may be preferable for people who are negatively affected by humidity as are some sufferers of acute rheumatoid arthritis. However, Dr. Harvey Simon of Harvard Men’s Health Watch contends that "there is little evidence that [saunas and steam rooms] have health benefits above and beyond relaxation."
Saunas and steam rooms may provide emotional and physical relaxation benefits. Wet and dry heat simulate sedative effects that generate feelings of calmness and relaxation, and some people who suffer emotional or mood disorder may find relief with regular trips to saunas or steam rooms. Saunas and steam rooms also promote muscle relaxation, which can provide pain relief from muscular injuries such as those from overuse or exercise.
One health advantage that can only be provided through the wet heat of a steam room is an expectorant effect, according to Dr. Doug Linz of the TriHealth Pavilion. Wet heat thins and opens the mucous membranes in your body, including in your sinuses, throat and lungs. If you suffer chronic congestion or sinus infections, a steam room can help loosen and clear the mucous from your nose, chest and throat. Conversely, steam heat can aggravate asthma, in which case a sauna would be a preferred choice.
Some of the health claims made by manufacturers or users of steams rooms and saunas are not supported by research. Both saunas and steam rooms cause sweating, which some naturopaths, like author Susan Smith Jones, claim removes toxins from the body. Jones says that saunas are more effective because they "remove more toxic metals" from the blood stream due to the higher temperatures. However, Linz of the TriHealth Pavilion notes that claims regarding the cleansing properties of saunas and steam rooms are not supported by research and are simply "not true." Likewise, claims that saunas are more effective in aiding weight loss due to greater caloric expenditure from higher heat are also not supported by scientific research. Though temporary water weight may be lost through sweating, it is not an effective or long-term method of weight reduction.
Protecting Your Safety
According to Columbia University, neither saunas nor steam baths exert a clear advantage in terms of health benefits. Certain health conditions are not compatible with either heat room. If you have any sort of compromised breathing condition, like asthma, steam rooms can irritate your condition. Heart and blood conditions, such as hypertension, low blood pressure and heart disease, are generally not compatible with high levels of either dry or moist heat. Women who are pregnant, epileptics and people under the influence of any mood-altering drug or medication should also avoid saunas and steam rooms. If you are in good health, limit your time in either a sauna or steam room to 15 minutes for your first several visits. Rehydrate with several glasses of water after a treatment to avoid dangerous dehydration.
- Tri Health Pavilion: Health Benefits and Risks Associated with Use of Steam Rooms and Saunas
- Health Bliss: Susan Smith Jones
- Columbia University: Steam Room Versus Sauna
- Straight Dope: Does a Sauna or Steam Room Do You Any Good?
- Up North Health: Sweat it Out
- Journal of Rheumatology: Weather Effects in Rheumatoid Arthritis
- Harvard Health Publications: Sauna Health Benefits
Hannah Wahlig began writing and editing professionally in 2001. Her experience includes copy for newspapers, journals and magazines, as well as book editing. She is also a certified lactation counselor. She holds a Bachelor of Arts in English from Mount Holyoke College, and Master's degrees in education and community psychology from the University of Massachusetts.