Saunas have been around in Finland since just after the Ice Age, about 10,000 years ago. They have evolved through the Ages from simple earthen pits with wood fires to the modern-day versions of wooden boxes heated by electric or wood stoves. The first sauna used only heat from the fire, the smoke was allowed to escape. Around the 1930s, the smoke was kept in the sauna to add to the overall experience.
Saunas have been used for a variety of purposes through their evolution, from women giving birth in them (before there were hospitals) to old people going into them to pass away. They are still used for purification including the purification of brides prior to their weddings.
Here are some great things to know for those of you who are new to the whole sauna experience so you can get the most out of your time in one.
1. Check Health Requirements
Saunas can be used by the very young (no less than 4 months old since babies can’t self-regulate their body temperature) to the very old. There are two main exceptions to this rule: those with heart problems and those with serious open wounds (sweating can cause infection in the wounds). It’s been used for the treatment of various respiratory illnesses as well as for anxiety and acute stress.
2. It is Clean
Not only are saunas routinely cleaned by the owners, but they are also sterile by their very nature. The heat is kept so high it kills a wide variety of bacteria and viruses.
3. Expect Simplicity
Unlike what you see in the movies, commercial spas, and gyms, traditional Finnish saunas don’t have the fancy colored lights, the aromatherapy scents, or music of any kind playing. They are usually dimly lit, quiet except for the occupants, and only smells like tar and birch trees.
4. Nudity is Natural
Finns don’t see anything wrong with nudity. They think it’s natural. This doesn’t mean you have to get fully naked, you can wear a towel or a swimsuit.
5. Keep Your Behavior in Check
Just because nudity is accepted don’t think lewd or salacious behavior is accepted by the Finns. This is a huge misconception brought on by movies, and it couldn’t be further from the truth. You’re actually supposed to be respectful and behave yourself unless you’re in a private sauna of course.
6. Grouping Might Not be Allowed
Men and women typically sauna separately, but there are exceptions for groups (like families) going in together. It depends on the owner of the sauna. Public saunas have different times for use of their saunas with women going at certain times, and men going at other times.
7. Talking Should Be Limited
Talking is allowed, but it should be noted Finns tend to prefer quiet for mental relaxation.
8. Socializing is Great Bond Time
Being invited to a sauna with someone is considered a sign of respect and honor. In fact, socializing in a sauna is considered a bonding experience.
9. Check Seating Requirements
Most saunas are two-tiered with wooden benches. The spot closest to the door will always be the coolest while seats in the upper tier will be the hottest — heat rises. Also, you need to sit on a towel, a sauna pad, or a disposable tissue. Some places offer a sauna towel called a pefletti.
10. The Heat Is On
Saunas are incredibly hot. They are kept at about 85 degrees Celsius or 175 degrees Fahrenheit. The temperature in modern public saunas is regulated with an electric thermostat on the stove.
11. Just Relax
This experience is supposed to be fun and relaxing!! If you don’t feel comfortable, you don’t have to stay.
In keeping with the goal of relaxing, there are no hard and fast rules for what you are supposed to do and not supposed to do. That said, common sense and respect are your guides.
13. Check the Different Types
Saunas are found in public places all over Finland, and more are being added to homes for privacy and greater access. Public venues offer private and public saunas with electric or wood stoves. Saunas using gas stoves are rare — for safety reasons.
14. Shower before Entering
Saunas are hygienic, and they require you to shower before entering. It’s also easier to work up to the heat of the sauna if you take a hot shower beforehand.
15. Check Towel Requirements
Obviously, you can’t wear clothes in a sauna, but you don’t have to be completely naked. It’s acceptable to wear a towel and outside the sauna, you have to wear a towel. In addition, some public saunas require you to wear a bathing suit. It’s considered better to wear a towel or be nude because some swimwear has chemicals in them that react badly to the heat.
16. Check Heat Wave Rules
Seen in a lot of movie scenes, the act of throwing water on stones heated up on a stove creates a large wave of steam. This rush of wet heat is supposed to be the best part of the sauna. While anyone can put water on the stones, there are a couple of rules to follow:
- Use the spoon provided not the entire bucket.
- Water goes on the stones, not on you.
- The bucket should be kept full.
17. Hydrate Beforehand
Because of all the sweating, you’ll be doing in the sauna, you need to keep hydrated. It’s recommended you drink plenty of water before going into the sauna and while you’re in there. Traditional drinks include beer and cider but lemonade is being offered in many public saunas. In addition, sausages cooked on the stove are also offered in some saunas.
18. Vasta or Vihta
Depending on what region of Finland you’re taking a sauna in, these are the names of the bundles of fresh birch twigs you’ll find in the sauna. These are meant to be lightly struck on your skin — the movies show self-flagellation but it’s not the same. This is supposed to help with your circulation, help you relax and smooth your skin. There’s nothing that says you have to do this, but the Finns highly recommend it.
19. Take Breaks
Staying in the sauna for a long time isn’t recommended for anyone but especially for beginners who aren’t used to the heat. Staying in for three cycles of 15 minutes each is the norm. You stay in for 15 minutes, go outside to cool off for 15 minutes, and repeat. Cooling off can take place by swimming in the sea or lake, playing in the snow, going for a walk, or taking a cold shower.
20. Finishing Tips
When you’re done in the sauna, you should take a warm to a cold shower to cool off and cleanse you of all the sweat. Your pores will be open, and you don’t want any acne. Once you’re clean and cooled off, you can dress. It’s important to be fully cooled off before you dress so you don’t continue to sweat.
Saunas are a lot of fun and healthy as well. Go with friends or go alone, it doesn’t matter. You just have to remember to relax so you can have the best sauna experience in your life. While saunas at home are great, there’s nothing like having a traditional sauna in beautiful Finland.