Steam room versus sauna?

Dear Alice,

I am wondering what is the difference between a steam room and the sauna, is one better than the other? My gym has both and I am interested in trying them out.

— Confused

Dear Confused,

It’s great that you’re open to trying out both saunas and steam rooms. They both may support health in various ways, but they do differ in their mechanisms, mostly related to humidity. While saunas utilize dry heat with low humidity, steam rooms provide moist heat and very high humidity. With the similar health benefits, testing each may be a great way to recognize which method you prefer! 

Starting with saunas, they provide whole-body thermotherapy through dry heat. There are various types, but the most common and most researched type of sauna is the traditional sauna, or the Finnish sauna. These are wood-paneled rooms with temperatures that range from 80 to 100° Celsius (C). This is accomplished through short exposures to dry air for 5 to 20 minutes. Typically, these intervals are interspersed by periods of increased humidity that is achieved by splashing water on heated rocks. The relative humidity of this sauna varies and can be anywhere from 10 to 20 percent. Now, there is an increase in the popularity of infrared saunas which are more commonly found in gyms. These saunas are at a temperature range from 45 to 60° C and function by heating the body directly through infrared wavelength emitters. While this utilizes more modern technology, both provide whole-body heating in a dry environment.

Saunas have been studied to understand the benefits they may have to support many different health conditions. However, it's inconclusive as to whether or not they may be recommended for specific clinical conditions and more research is needed. However, there has been some research to show the ways in which it may support a healthy heart. Since the body is heated up, the brain, the nervous systems, and endocrine systems work together to respond to this external stimulus by increasing blood flow, heart rate, cardiac output, and sweat production in order to cool the body down to maintain balance in the body. This has been linked to direct benefits for both cardiovascular diseases in general, and in assisting with reducing inflammation. This could provide relief for conditions such as rheumatoid arthritis and allergic rhinitis. There is also evidence that the heat provided by saunas increases the amount of nitric oxide metabolized in the body. Nitric oxide can help to keep blood vessels flexible, which can help to support healthy blood pressure. It can also help reduce the likelihood of plaque developing on the blood vessel walls, which also lowers cardiovascular risk. Additional benefits that could be provided by saunas are improved hunger and relaxation levels as well as increased insulin sensitivity. If you’re concerned if a Finnish or infrared sauna is better able to provide these benefits, research hasn’t shown a significant difference in the two.

Where saunas provide dry heat, steam rooms provide moist heat usually from a water-filled generator pumping steam into an enclosed room. The temperature of these rooms are at about 50° C and have a relative humidity of 100 percent. While steam rooms haven’t been studied as much as saunas, the research that has been done shows they provide similar benefits. There is, however, one caveat. At the moment, the health benefits of increased sweating in saunas can’t be applied to steam rooms since the increased humidity in these rooms affects sweating rates. As such, many studies have excluded steam rooms from their investigations.

Despite the difference in humidity levels, saunas and steam rooms both provide whole-body heating, and there is helpful information to keep in mind for both:

  • Hydration: Drinking plenty of water is recommended due to the increased risk of dehydration caused by heat exposure.
  • Timing: Try limiting your exposure to 5 to 20 minutes for the first few times to help you become accustomed to the experience.
  • Sanitation: Wearing a towel and shower shoes or flip flops can provide protection from the microbes that favor the conditions in saunas and steam rooms.
  • Health status: If you have a heath condition that could make you more sensitive to heat exposure (e.g., pregnancy, high or low blood pressure, epilepsy, or cardiovascular disease), then a health care provider may provide more recommendations and guidance.

Whether you decide to use a sauna or steam room, both can be relaxing experiences with similar health benefits. Still, thinking through their key differences may help. What temperature range are you comfortable with? Would you rather be in low or high humidity? Maybe you'll need to test them both out for a bit, but what better way to make sure you get the most out of that gym membership. 


Last updated Dec 11, 2020
Originally published Jan 04, 2008