Saunas vs Steam Rooms: What are the Main Differences?

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If you want to relax, soothe sore muscles, or find a sense of peace, you may be interested in visiting the steam room or the sauna at your local health club. I’m sure you’ve heard through the grapevine about some of the benefits. However, you may not know if those benefits apply to saunas or steam rooms and how they differ. It’s important to note that there are significant differences between them.

Saunas and Steam Rooms differ mainly on their humidity content, or how much moisture is in the air. While a steam room is full of steam, with the air totally saturated with moisture, a traditional sauna may have some steam but the humidity is far lower. Though traditional saunas operate at higher temperatures, steam rooms may feel hotter due to the increased humidity.

The terms, “sauna” and “steam rooms” are often incorrectly applied to both types of rooms, which further leads to the misunderstanding of the benefits of each. It can get even more confusing when you start to look into the different types of saunas as well like what’s shown in our guide. The names are sometimes used interchangeably, but if you focus on the temperature, humidity, and steam, it’s easy to tell these sauna types apart.

Heat Source of Saunas vs. Steam Rooms

The main difference between saunas and steam rooms is their heat source. The heat source is really why all the other differences exist in the first place since they are tied into the type of heat. Saunas are traditionally heated by wood-burning stoves that heat rocks in a central area of the steam room. The heat from the stones is then transferred to the air, which heats the room. The rocks are kept very hot relative to the air temperature, and a bucket of water is usually nearby that can be used to ladle water onto the rocks, letting some steam into the air.

Steam rooms are heated by – you guessed it – steam! Steam rooms always have a steam generator that is connected to the building’s water supply. It takes in water, heats it, and releases it as steam into the room. The amount of steam pumped into the rooms is variable; this is how the temperature is adjusted. While both rooms have heat and steam, it’s important to note that in a steam room the steam is the source of the heat, not just something used to generate a bit of humidity in the air. 

Temperatures of Saunas vs. Steam Rooms

Interior of Turkish sauna, classic Turkish hammam

Saunas are usually kept around 150-160°F (67-71°C) but can go higher if the user chooses. While sauna novices should start at a lower temperature and work up to higher heat levels and time duration, some sauna enthusiasts enjoy temperatures up to 200°F (93°C) for limited amounts of time.

On the other hand, Ideal steam room temperatures are between 100-120°F (38-50°C). While not nearly as hot as saunas, steam rooms typically feel hotter. The temperature feels hotter due to the high humidity of steam rooms. This is because the high humidity levels transfer their heat to your body more effectively than hot air with low moisture.

The comparatively dry heat found in saunas, whether traditional or infrared (more on the differences in our guide), feels much different from the steam rooms’ humid heat. While it is hard to explain exactly how this feels with experiencing it yourself, saunas are akin to laying inside a hot oven, and steam rooms are similar to perching yourself above a boiling pot of water. Although it’s not exactly the same, these analogies should give you a good idea of how they feel different.  

Humidity Levels of Saunas vs. Steam Rooms 

Saunas and steam rooms have vast differences in the amount of humidity they provide. Saunas have anywhere from 20-40% humidity levels, which are increased by splashing water onto the hot sauna stones. On the other hand, steam rooms have maximum humidity, i.e., 100% humidity or close to there. Steam rooms are entirely saturated with hot steam. There is often so much steam that it hangs in the air like a cloud.

Everyone has different preferences, but whether you prefer the low humidity of saunas or the high humidity of steam rooms, you will undoubtedly sweat a lot. So make sure you are hydrating, especially so in steam rooms. Since they have a high moisture content, it will be harder for you to notice if you stop sweating or become very. If you notice you have stopped sweating in saunas or steam rooms, you should leave immediately and hydrate yourself.

Interiors of Saunas vs. Steam Rooms

The interiors of saunas and steam rooms are explicit identifiers of which one is which. There is no mistaking a sauna for a steam room if you take a look inside. Saunas have a wooden interior; the walls, the benches, the ceiling, and even the door are made out of wood, usually, a cedar type. They also include sauna stones somewhere near the center or one of the walls. If the sauna is on, you will notice a high temperature, and you will be able to see across the room with no difficulties.

On the other hand, steam rooms usually have a tiled interior. You will find no wooden elements because the high humidity (i.e., moisture content) would not play as nicely with the wood as the lower humidity does. If you were to crack the door to a steam room that is up and running, you would quickly notice the steam leaking out, which is the tell-tell sign that what you’re looking at is a steam room.

Health Benefits of Saunas vs. Steam Rooms

Both saunas and steam rooms provide many health benefits. Besides unfounded claims of “clearing toxins from your systems,” saunas and steam rooms have been shown by many scientific studies to be advantageous to your health and mental well-being. Most of the health benefits of saunas and steam rooms are the same, so long as you start slow and work up to the appropriate times and temperatures for each. When using a sauna properly and regularly, here are some of the health benefits you can look forward to:

  • Delay of the onset of Alzheimer’s disease and dementia — Studies have shown that saunas clearly help your brain function. The high heat boosts cell production and delays the onset of Alzheimer’s and dementia by multiple years. 
  • Pain relief — Saunas help relieve chronic pain by reducing inflammation and increasing blood flow. Studies show a reduction in pain and stiffness in individuals with rheumatoid arthritis after as little as eight sauna visits. 
  • Improved blood circulation — As you get hotter, your heart beats faster to dissipate the extra heat and regulate your body temperature. If you use saunas frequently, this will improve your circulation over time. 
  • Relaxation and tension relief –– The high temperature of saunas has the same tension-relieving benefits as yoga or a good stretching session. Relieving tension is a great way to improve relaxation. 
  • Improvement of your immune system —  Since saunas reduce your stress levels, they will also boost your immune system. They have also been shown to reduce inflammatory biomarkers. 
  • Improvement in cardiovascular health — Saunas improve cardiovascular health by reducing blood pressure in people that visit them regularly. 
  • Alleviate nasal congestion — The high humidity of steam rooms coupled with the heat warms the mucus membrane, helping break down any congestion in your lungs and sinuses. If you are congested, a steam room is an excellent option for immediate improvement. 
  • Immune System improvement — Exposure to warm environments stimulates the production of leukocytes in your body, one of the infection-fighting cells in the front lines of your body’s immune defense. Going to steam rooms regularly will significantly boost this defense mechanism. 
  • Improved skin health — The higher temperatures of steam rooms bring more blood to the surface of your skin and make you sweat. Increased blood flow and sweat both improve your skin quality and health. 

Mental and Social Benefits of Saunas and Steam Rooms

Saunas and steam rooms also provide mental health benefits. For example, they both help relax your body and relieve tension, which reduces overall stress. One way this is achieved is via high heat which increases the production of endorphins, a stress-relieving hormone. Additionally, one often understated benefit is that saunas and steam rooms have social aspects. In other words, because of the social nature, you can hang out with friends, meet new people, and enjoy the company of others. Or, you can simply meditate and practice mindfulness during your session.

Can You Have a Steam Room or Steam Sauna at Home?

If you’re considering an at-home sauna, you can purchase or build almost anything you can think of. There are portable saunas like the Smartmak Far Infrared Sauna (on amazon), that use an electric heat source to fill a smaller room with hot air. You can also purchase a more expensive kit for an infrared sauna (like the HeatWave 2-Person Infrared Sauna (also on Amazon)) that will come as flatpack and can be relatively easily assembled into a full-room infrared sauna. If you’re really gung-ho, you can even build your own DIY sauna that uses electric heaters and even has that characteristic stone pile and water bucket.

However, when it comes to steam rooms, you should modify your expectations about an at-home experience. The thing about a steam room is that the heat source is literally steam. That means you need a boiler system that takes in water and produces steam in some way, then pumps it into the room. This is not impossible, and it’s not even that hard, but at the residential scale, it’s easily the most complicated and expensive option.

You’re better off getting an electrically heated sauna made of wood, then ladling plenty of water on the rocks to raise the humidity as much as you’d like! If you really prefer the steam room, you can try a portable sauna that is based on steam generation, like the Durasage Portable Steam Sauna (on Amazon). This will be the simplest way to get a steam-sauna experience at home, without having to build or install a large steam-producing apparatus for a steam sauna.

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