Saunas have been used for thousands of years – a sauna is typically a room heated to between 70° to 100° Celsius.
Traditional Finnish saunas typically use dry heat, with a relative humidity that is often between 10 and 20 per cent. Steam baths, such as a Turkish bath where humidity approaches 100 per cent, are set to a much lower temperature of around 50° Celsius. Sweating has long been used as therapy. Sauna use raises our skin temperature to roughly 40° Celsius and as the skin temperature rises, heavy sweating occurs. The Mayans used sweat houses 3000 years ago. In Finland, saunas have been used for thousands of years and most Finns still use them.
A sauna can help people to unwind and relax, and it may have other health benefits.
However, the heart rate rises as the body attempts to keep cool, which is why anyone who has a cardiovascular problem or pregnant should seek medical advice before using a sauna. Drinking alcohol before or during a sauna also carries risks.
Saunas can be set up indoors or outdoors depending on your lifestyle choices. There are several types of sauna, based on how the room is heated.
Wood burning: Wood is used to heat the sauna room and sauna rocks. Woodburning saunas are usually low in humidity and high in temperature. Water is spilled onto the rocks with a ladle to increase the heat and humidity, if so desired. Similar to wood-burning saunas, electrically heated saunas have high temperatures and low humidity. An electrical heater, attached to the floor, heats the sauna room. Far-infrared saunas (FIRS) are different to wood-burning and electrically heated saunas. Carbon fibre heating panels are used to heat a person’s body – this method of heating is now the leading trend in saunas. Interestingly, temperatures are typically lower than other saunas, but we sweat in a similar way. Usually, infrared saunas are typically 30-60° Celsius. They deliver therapeutic heat more efficiently. This means that they operate at a more comfortable, lower air temperature than other sauna types.
Steam room: Instead of dry heat a steam room involves high humidity and moist heat.
Regardless of how a sauna is heated, or the humidity level, the effects on the body are similar.
When we sit in a sauna, our heart rate increases and blood vessels widen. This increases circulation in a similar way to low to moderate exercise depending on the duration of sauna use. Heart rate may increase to 100-150 beats a minute while using a sauna. This may bring some health benefits. Increased circulation may help reduce muscle soreness, improve joint movement and ease arthritic pain.
As the heat in a sauna improves circulation, it may also promote relaxation.
This can improve feelings of wellbeing. Some people with psoriasis may find their symptoms reduce while using a sauna. People with asthma may find relief from more open airways, loosening phlegm and reduced stress.
Two myths should be quickly dispelled. One is that sweating removes toxins from the body. There is no scientific evidence that such as alcohol, mercury and aluminium are mainly removed by the kidneys, liver and intestines. Another myth is that sauna use leads to weight loss. It is possible to lose about a half a kilogram after using a sauna, but that weight loss is due to fluid loss, not fat. The weight will be replaced as soon as we eat or drink something.
A critical factor to consider when purchasing a sauna – other than the price – is the timber used in its construction. Cedar is widely used in saunas due to its resistance to warping. As a softwood, cedar easily expands and contracts in response to heat and humidity. This means softwoods serve for a long time without warping or cracking. Cedar also emits a wood smell that is liked by many people. Therefore, cedar is also an expensive timber. So, unless you don’t like aromatic woods, cedar proves sweating detoxifies the body. Toxins will probably be the best wood option for any sauna.
Basswood is a hardwood and thus isn’t as resistant to warping and cracking as cedar. Basswood is a preferred sauna wood for those who have sensitivities to fragrances and other irritants. It is a hypoallergenic wood that does not emit any fragrances or toxins and is completely safe for those with allergies.
Eucalyptus also doesn’t emit any fragrances, so saunas with this wood should be hypoallergenic. Eucalyptus tends to cost less than basswood because it’s easy to grow. It’s valued in sauna-making for its consistent colour, which makes it easy to stain.
Hemlock, spruce or pine – these are pretty cheap hardwoods that are typically used in inexpensive saunas. They are more likely to warp and crack than the other woods, especially in extreme temperature fluctuations. Therefore, these woods might not be the best choice for heavy sauna use.
Some common features that you may like to look for in your sauna include an audio and speaker system, programmable temperature, a timer, size of the seating area, backrests and roof vents.
We can relax in a sauna to the soothing sounds of music, day and night. The better saunas enable you to access and control all functions remotely via any device. Control panels for the heating and sound systems (FM stereo, Bluetooth player with internal speakers) are fitted internally and externally. Great saunas also have innovative LED lighting that can be used to highlight design features, soothe or energise you. There is a swathe of technological advances in lighting that allow you to dim, brighten or change the colour of the lights. What’s more, a good lighting system can be pre-programmed beforehand.
Saunas can be built to specification. Otherwise, off the shelf models can accommodate up to six people and their cost varies based on brand, technology, size, options and components used. Expect to pay anywhere from $2000 to $12,000.
They generally do not come in one piece, so you need to assemble them. To be on the safe side you may consider getting a sauna that has a more modular and easy-to-assemble design.
Some states require a sauna installer to hold a licence. For example, in NSW a builder’s licence is required. You may also require a licensed electrician or plumber, depending on what type of sauna you install or the connections you need. Ask your local licensing authority what applies where you live, and ensure your contractor is licensed if this is required. Of course, it’s also important to ensure that the sauna complies with Australian Standards and to know the warranty inclusions.
Most importantly, know that you like saunas before buying one. Take a friend or loved one to a retreat/wellness centre near you and try one out for the day. You will be refreshed, relaxed and reinvigorated.