Using Essential Oils To Add Aromatherapy to Your Sauna Session

Medically reviewed by Dr. Justin Ternes
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Using essential oils for aromatherapy during your sauna session can make the room smell great and can be a very pleasing experience. Are there any true health and wellness benefits to it, though? 

You can use essential oils to add aromatherapy to your sauna. Scents like birch, lavender, and lemon pair well with a traditional sauna experience. Essential oils can be added to a sauna by diluting with water and pouring over the sauna rocks, heating in a tray, or using a classic reed diffuser. 

Aromatherapy with essential oils is becoming increasingly popular because of the positive, therapeutic effects it offers on the mind and body. Saunas are popular for similar reasons. As they both play a role in health and well-being, essential oils and saunas are a great combination. Together, they may be even more powerful than they are alone, boosting each other’s healing effects. 

Aromatherapy In Saunas

Beautiful serene Hispanic woman enjoys the aroma of essential oil

Aromatherapy refers to the practice of using specific scents to increase overall health and well-being. Therapeutic benefits are achieved from essential oils, potent extracts from any part of a plant, including the flowers, leaves, stems, bark, fruit, and roots. In aromatherapy, the fragrance of an oil is inhaled, but essential oils can also be applied to the skin for absorption. 

What we experience as the sense of smell is actually an elaborate chemical process. Tiny molecules from whatever it is we’re smelling, in this case, essential oils, enter our body through our nose where they attach to olfactory receptor cells and are then carried directly to the brain via olfactory nerves.

The molecules reach and stimulate different parts of the brain, including the amygdala (the primary emotional center). The brain, in turn, controls and influences activity in every part of the body as well as our emotions and behaviors. What reaches the brain ultimately affects the whole body, how we feel, and what we do. 

How a scent from a particular oil affects us depends on the chemical make-up of the molecules themselves, the receptors they attach to, and the part of the brain they reach. Essential oils can be invigorating and stimulating or relaxing and calming. They can detoxify the body, relieve aches and pains, and enhance the functioning of all systems in the body. 

Does the impact of essential oils sound familiar? While they do it differently, essential oils positively affect the body very much as saunas do. Saunas use heat instead of scent molecules, but saunas also provide tons of different benefits to our mental and physical health. People use saunas to detoxify, relax and reduce stress, relieve pain, help the skin, and enhance the healthy functioning of every body system. 

Combining aromatherapy through essential oils and sauna use is a great way to go deep and really boost your well-being. Since their benefits overlap, pairing these two health practices can enhance your experience and results. 

Which Essential Oils Should You Use In a Sauna?

Technically, you can use any essential oil in a sauna that appeals to you, but there are some that lend themselves especially well to sauna use. Each essential oil has its own unique signature scent and associated effects on the body.

Everyone experiences smell differently, and what one person finds delightful, another may find repulsive. Also, because our bodies are unique, oils affect people slightly differently. Therefore, there are no hard-and-fast rules when it comes to using essential oils in your sauna. 

While essential oils are a highly personal choice, there are some that do combine particularly well with the sauna experience. What makes an oil a great choice for the sauna depends on the type of scent and the way it affects the body. 

What are Some Great Essential Oils to Start With

Essential oils for aromatherapy are generally classified by scent category. Types of oil fragrance include:

  • Citrus
  • Camphoraceous (camphor-like)
  • Earthy
  • Floral
  • Herbaceous 
  • Resinous
  • Spicy
  • Woody

Some of these may be off-putting when used in a sauna. Oils with strong floral overtones, such as jasmine or rose may seem sickly sweet when combined with the intense heat of a sauna. Likewise, many people find camphorous oils like melaleuca (tea tree) and rosemary or resinous oils like frankincense and myrrh to be pungent and unpleasant in a small, hot room like a sauna. 

Oils that have woody, earthy, or citrus profiles are great for sauna use. Woody and earthy oils (arborvitae, cedarwood, patchouli, sandalwood, and Siberian fir are just a few examples) evoke loamy, forested environments and mimic a traditional Scandanavian sauna experience―outdoorsy, fresh, and natural. Citrus oils are bright and invigorating, boosting mood and vanquishing fatigue. 

There are nearly 100 different essential oils to choose from when you’re seeking to enhance your sauna time with aromatherapy. We suggest our top three favorites. 

The Three Best Essential Oils for Use in Saunas

Small glass bottles with essential pine oil

We have another great article on how to pass the time in your sauna, but there’s no disagreement that anything you do in the sauna may be a little more enjoyable if you have a nice sent flowing around in there with you. These oils are our favorites because of their crisp, clean scents and the specific benefits that match the health benefits of a sauna. 

  1. Birch oil. Birch oil (on Amazon) is the traditional oil long used in Finnish saunas. Its woody scent is vibrant, medicinal, and slightly minty, giving the sauna room a pleasant, natural smell. Like the sauna itself, birch promotes detoxification; lowers inflammation in the body;  helps the immune system fight infections; improves the skin; stimulates the circulatory, nervous, and digestive systems; and boosts the endocrine system for healthy, balanced hormone production.
  1. Lavender oil. While this essential oil does have a floral scent, it is more subdued and less perfumy than other florals. Lavender oil (on Amazon) is very popular in saunas for a good reason: It is incredibly calming and relaxing. Like the entire sauna experience even without aromatherapy, lavender reduces stress. It can ease tension and headaches and promote sleep, too. 
  1. Lemon oil. This citrus is well-known and respected for its energizing, uplifting, mood-boosting properties. Lemon oil (on Amazon) smells crisp, clean, and fresh and is very pleasing inside a sauna. Lemon can even ease mild respiratory irritation and discomfort, so if you’re using a sauna for your lungs or general respiratory system, lemon will enhance the breathing benefits. As an added bonus, lemon oil is a disinfectant. You can add some to a homemade cleaning solution or spray it on surfaces when you’re done cleaning your sauna for an extra burst of germ-killing freshness. 

A quick note on eucalyptus is in order. This essential oil often tops people’s lists of favorite oils, and it is one of the most popular oils right now. Many people do like it in their sauna. Many others, though, dislike its strong, camphorous scent.

It may be a great choice if you personally like the scent and want to clear your sinuses or reduce congestion to breathe better, but if you’re looking for the traditional woodsy and relaxing sauna experience, eucalyptus might not be the best choice for you. 

Lesser-Known Essential Oils to Consider Using in Your Sauna

You might enjoy experimenting with a variety of essential oils to see which scents you prefer. You also can select oils based on the benefits they provide. If desired, you can combine oils and use several different oils during your session for your own personalized aromatherapy experience. 

Woody oils that pair well with sauna use plus their unique benefits:

  • Arborvitae (purifies the air)
  • Cedarwood (great for skin health)
  • Copaiba (protects cells from damage and calms the nervous system to reduce stress)
  • Cypress (balances emotions and reduces anxiety)
  • Douglas fir (purifies skin and clears airways for improved breathing)
  • Juniper berry (good for the kidneys and urinary tract as well as detoxifying the body)
  • Petitgrain (calms and relaxes, releases tension and stress, promotes sleep, and supports the cardiovascular, digestive, and immune systems)
  • Sandalwood (lowers stress, induces relaxation and sleep, and good for healthy hair)
  • Siberian fir (soothes and relieves stress)

Sauna-friendly citrus oils and their benefits:

  • Bergamot (decreases stress and soothes the nervous system)
  • Grapefruit (energizes, uplifts, and motivates)
  • Lemongrass (boosts awareness and enhances positive feelings)
  • Tangerine (purifies and cleanses the air)
  • Wild orange (supports a healthy immune system)

Earthy essential oils and benefits include:

  • Arborvitae (purifies the air)
  • Patchouli (balances emotions; reduces skin blemishes, imperfections, and wrinkles
  • Spikenard (uplifts while simultaneously calms)
  • Vetiver (grounds emotions and balances mood)

As you select the oils you want to use during your own sauna experience, consider the types of scents you like, what therapeutic benefits you desire from both the sauna and your oils, and how your own body reacts to the oils. The key to aromatherapy in the sauna is to find essential oils that appeal to you and help you get the most out of your sauna experience. 

Cautions When Using Essential Oils with Your Sauna

When using essential oils in your sauna or anywhere else, there are some important precautions to keep in mind. Everyone reacts differently to a given oil, so try just a small amount of an oil at first and watch for your own adverse reactions. 

Consider peppermint oil as an example. It can be a sauna favorite because of its invigorating, fresh fragrance. It can seem cooling, which can feel refreshing in the sauna room. It is said to relieve headaches, but it can actually cause headaches in some people.

A side-effect of peppermint, while fairly rare, is a quickened heart rate. Saunas naturally increase heart rate, so if someone is vulnerable to this side-effect of peppermint oil, they could dangerously strain their heart. 

The use of essential oils, in general, isn’t recommended for some people with certain medical conditions, such as asthma, high blood pressure, and epilepsy. Aromatherapy can also be harmful to an unborn baby, as can saunas, so pregnant women should avoid the use of both essential oils and saunas unless approved to do so by their doctor.

It’s a good idea to check with your doctor before using essential oils in your sauna just to be sure that it is safe for you personally.  

Avoid using essential oils directly on your skin. They can be used topically, and those that have skin benefits (like birch, cedarwood, Douglas fir, and patchouli) can be great if you’re using a brush to massage your skin while in the sauna. Ra

ther than dropping them right onto your skin, dilute them in a carrier oil, such as fractionated coconut oil (on Amazon), first. 

How To Use Essential Oils In a Sauna?

It’s important to use essential oils correctly in a sauna to avoid problems. While it’s common to use an electric oil diffuser in homes and offices, you want to avoid using them in a sauna.

They’re not made to withstand high temperatures, and they’ll likely break. As a basic safety rule, high heat, steam, and electricity don’t play well together. 

So if you can’t use an oil diffuser, what can you use? You have lots of options for aromatherapy in the sauna. 

A sauna with sauna stones will also have a bucket of water for you to periodically scoop and pour over the rocks to produce a burst of steam. Adding several drops of essential oil to this bucket makes it easy to experience the pleasant smell and benefits of aromatherapy because every time you ladle the water over the stones, the steam will be permeated with the essential oils.

Never add the essential oil directly to the stones themselves because volatile oils and hot stones combine to be a fire hazard. Stick to pouring infused water over your stones. 

Some sauna heaters have a small reservoir designed to hold essential oils to make aromatherapy convenient. If yours does, you can simply add a few drops of oil, and the heat will release them into the air. 

Other Options

Infrared saunas don’t have a stove, but you can still experience aromatherapy while inside. Place a small tray with several drops of essential oil near you, and the molecules will be released into the room. You can add some water to the tray if desired. It’s not necessary, but it may slow evaporation. 

Finally, you can use a reed diffuser (on Amazon). This is a special jar or tray holding multiple reed sticks. Place essential oils in the tray, and the reeds will absorb them and release them into the sauna room. 

Know that essential oils are very strong, and a little goes a long way. Start small, by adding just a few drops of an oil to your bucket, tray, or reed diffuser. You can gradually add more until you reach the strength of scent you want. 

On their own, both saunas and essential oils are therapeutic, offering numerous benefits to physical and mental health. Pair them, and you’ll create a total mind-body-senses experience for your optimal well-being. 

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