Wellness > Health

Comparing Steam Room vs Sauna: Health Benefits and Distinctions

Explore the comparisons of steam room vs sauna, uncovering their distinct health benefits. Gain insights into the differences to choose the ideal option for overall well-being.

RedlightTherapyDigest Staff By RLTD Staff Updated March 8, 2024
Medically reviewed Medically reviewed by: Brendan Camp, MD
Advertising Disclosure: Our editors independently research, test, and recommend the best products; we may receive commissions on purchases made from our chosen links. You can learn more about our review process here.

What Are Saunas and Steam Baths?

Most likely you have already encountered saunas and steam baths at your local gym or at a spa and may have enjoyed the soothing heat they both provide. It’s important to note that they are not the same treatment, and differ in one primary way.

A sauna emits dry heat, usually via either heated rocks or a closed stove, while a steam bath generates both heat and humidity through a generator that boils the water. Both offer tremendous health benefits that differ slightly, so it’s a matter of which method is best for you.

Generally speaking, there has been more research carried out on the benefits of saunas. Ari Whitten, M.S, energy expert, author, and founder of The Energy Blueprint, explains:

The research on sauna use is just mind-blowing.” He says that if it were a medication, “Your doctor would look at you like you were absolutely nuts if you weren’t taking this drug. That drug exists—it’s just not in the form of a pharmaceutical. It’s a sauna [1].

Internal medicine physician Safdar Naueen, M.D. highlights one of the key steam room benefits: “Steam helps loosen phlegm and mucus, improving congestion and breathing [1].”

In this article, we’ll discuss the key advantages that both saunas and steam rooms can provide to your health, mood, well-being, and more.

Saunas vs Steam Room

The primary difference between a sauna and a steam room, as we’ve said, is that saunas emit very dry heat while steam rooms are very high in humidity. However, another key variation is temperature. At 160-220 degrees Fahrenheit, saunas are much hotter than steam baths. Typically the steam room temperature is only about 110-120 degrees Fahrenheit.

While saunas are always made of wood, a steam room tends to be enclosed in glass or tile and sealed airtight to hold in the liquid. Walking into a steam room feels like being in a tropical climate, while a sauna is a dry, desert-like atmosphere.

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Are Sauna and Steam Baths Safe?

Saunas and steam baths are safe for most people to use, as long as you do not stay for too long. Excess use of these methods can cause dehydration, and extended use could cause more serious side effects. With proper hydration before and after, a healthy individual can stay in a sauna for a maximum of 20 minutes, and a steam room for 15 minutes.

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There are some contraindications to sauna and steam room use, however. According to a review published in the American Journal of Medicine by M L Hannuksela and S Ellahham, individuals with recent myocardial infarction, unstable angina pectoris, and severe aortic stenosis should not engage in sauna use [2].

They also note that in some cases it could exacerbate the itchiness associated with atopic dermatitis. They also warn not to drink alcohol prior to use. [2]. While it’s wise to check with your doctor before engaging in regular use, in most other cases sauna and stream bath use are safe and have several key health benefits.

benefits of a steam sauna Benefits of a Steam Room and Sauna

What Are the Benefits of Saunas and Steam Baths?

Saunas and steam baths offer numerous health benefits when you use them safely, although for some issues one method is better than the other. As of yet, the majority of the research is on the use and advantages of saunas, with fewer studies conducted on steam baths. These are some of the key benefits of saunas and steam baths for health and well-being.

1. Reduces Stress and Improves Mood

Saunas and steam baths have benefits for mental health, including promoting relaxation, reducing stress, and boosting positive mood. They do this by reducing levels of the stress hormone cortisol and causing the release of mood-enhancing endorphins.

A global survey of sauna use published in Complementary Therapies in Medicine by Joy N. Hussain, et al concluded that frequent sauna users experience enhancements in mental health and sleep, and report few adverse effects [3].

Interestingly, a study of men published in Medical Principles and Practice by Tanjaniina Laukkanen, et al concluded that a sauna bath may reduce the risk of future development of psychotic disorders [4].

2. Boosts Skin Health

Both sauna and steam rooms cause you to sweat, although steam much more so, and this helps to improve circulation in the body and to the skin. The added flow of blood helps to transport oxygen and nutrients to the skin, for a healthier, more glowing complexion. In addition, the sweat and stream help to open up and unclog the pores, decreasing the risk of breakouts.

A study of healthy volunteers published in Dermatology by D Kowatzki, et al concluded that regular use of a Finnish sauna had a positive impact on skin physiology and in particular surface pH and the capacity of the stratum corneum to retain water [5].

3. Supports Heart Health

The heat increases your skin temperature leading to sweating and an elevation in heart rate as your body tries to cool. As we’ve said, saunas and steam rooms improve blood circulation and widen the blood vessels, and there’s evidence to suggest that they may lower blood pressure and help reduce your risk of heart disease.

A review of the research published in the Mayo Clinic Proceedings by Jari A. Laukkanen, MD, PhD et al examined the evidence supporting the cardiovascular and other health benefits of sauna bathing [6].

4. Eases Congestion

While a sauna may help ease some of the congestion associated with having a common cold, inhalation of steam is one of the best steam room health benefits. The hot air helps to loosen mucus in the sinus and lungs and widen the nasal passages to improve breathing and reduce congestion.

While study results vary in terms of how effective these methods really are for easing cold symptoms and some say it may not help with chronic congestion, there is research showing the benefits of steam inhalation.

A study on post-operative hospital patients published in the Research Journal of Pharmacy and Technology concluded that inhaling steam helped to relieve chest congestion [7].

5. Promotes Calorie Burning

Does regular use of a sauna or steam room really help you lose weight? It may temporarily, but it will mostly be water weight that will come back once you replace the lost fluids.

However, the heat does speed up your heart rate, and this could help burn more calories. This is especially true after a workout when your heart rate is already elevated. Therefore there’s a possibility that regular sauna or steam room use after exercise may help your weight loss efforts – and it could even help if you don’t work out.

A study of young men and women who lead a sedentary lifestyle published in Scientific World Journal by Robert Podstawski, et al showed that 2 sauna sessions decreased body weight and BMI in participants, with the greatest loss in overweight and obese subjects [8].

6. Relieves Pain and Inflammation

The intense heat from both saunas and steam baths improves circulation, and the added flow of blood to muscles and joints can help to ease pain and inflammation. Both methods also lead to the release of hormones called endorphins which both enhance mood and block key pain receptors.

A 5-day study of patients with lower back pain published in Anesthesia & Pain Medicine by Eun-Hee Cho, et al concluded that dry sauna therapy decreased lower back pain and may be a useful complementary treatment [9].

7. Strengthens Immunity

Sauna and steam baths help to remove harmful toxins from the body, stimulate the immune system, and boost white blood cell count. With regular use, they may help reduce your risk of illness and even some chronic conditions like heart disease.

A study of both athletes and non-athletes published in the Journal of Human Kinetics by Wanda Pilch, et al concluded that a single session in a Finnish sauna increased white blood cell count and lowered cortisol levels, with a more pronounced effect in athletes [10].

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Frequently Asked Questions

How Long to Stay in Sauna vs. Steam room?

A: While both saunas and steam rooms offer benefits to your health, it is very important to note that if you stay in too long you can become dehydrated. Limit your sauna use to a maximum of 20 minutes, and don’t stay in a steam room longer than 15 minutes per session. In addition, make sure to drink water before and after use.

Is a Steam room Better Than a Sauna For Your Skin?

A: If you’re trying to boost your skin hydration, the humidity provided by a steam room is much better than a sauna. The steam is ideal for people who have dry skin, as it can boost moisture levels and relieve dryness. The heightened moisture levels may also plump the complexion and help smooth wrinkles and fine lines.

Do You Burn More Fat In A Sauna or Steam Room?

A: When it comes to burning calories a steam room is more effective. However, there’s evidence to indicate that saunas help regulate fat and lipid levels for weight loss benefits. As there is more research supporting the efficacy of saunas for weight loss, most people choose this method, but it’s completely up to you as both offer benefits.

Does a Steam room Feel Hotter Than a Sauna?

A: No, in fact, the dry heat in a sauna feels hotter, and the temperature is also higher than in a steam room. Saunas are kept at about 160-220 degrees Fahrenheit, while a steam room is at 110-120 degrees Fahrenheit.

Is a Sauna or Steam room Better For a Cold?

A: When it comes to reducing the congestion associated with a cold, steam rooms are significantly better than saunas. The steam and humidity help ease upper respiratory symptoms, while the dry heat of a sauna is less effective.

Conclusion

Many of us enjoy using a sauna or steam room, be it after a long workout or simply to relax and rejuvenate. While a sauna offers a dry, desert-like heat, a steam bath is a moist, humid environment with a more tropical feel.

Besides their potential to ease stress and promote calm, saunas and steam rooms may offer several other health benefits including supporting heart health, strengthening the immune system, rejuvenating the skin, improving mood, receiving pain and inflammation, and even helping to reduce cold symptoms.

While it’s important to make sure you don’t overdo your sessions, when used safely on a regular basis both a sauna bath and steam room may provide tremendous advantages. If you have a medical condition or take medication, check with your physician first. Then join the millions who are already experiencing the joys of saunas and steam baths!

By Brendan Camp, MD

Brendan Camp, MD, is double board-certified in dermatology and dermatopathology and sees patients at MDCS Dermatology.

**This is a subjective assessment based on the strength of the available information and our estimation of efficacy.

*Result may vary. The information contained in this website is provided for general informational purposes only. No medical claims are implied in this content, and the information herein is not intended be used for self diagnosis or self treatment of any condition.

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