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Wet Versus Dry Heat for First Time Steam Sauna Users

Aug 17, 2007
How you take your sauna is a matter of preference and tolerance. Americans who would feel comfortable in a rain forest would probably like the 100 percent humidity of steam baths; people for whom the desert conjures up visions of paradise would prefer the dry--10 to 12 percent humidity--heat of saunas.

The Finnish method not only lies between the two extremes but also varies constantly because of the loyly--the steam created by throwing a ladleful or two of water on the hot stones of the sauna heater every few minutes, temporarily raising the humidity to between 12 and 40 percent. Finns always create loyly, for a number of good reasons. Superdry sauna air can irritate mucous membranes. Increasing the humidity also produces a sharper, more intense heat, a panacea for knotted muscles, stiff joints and nerves stretched to the breaking point. Intensified heat opens pores and increases perspiration, which helps flush impurities and excess oils from the skin.

For the uninitiated, loyly is usually an acquired taste--if you can get it. Most health clubs and spas in this country don't provide a bucket of water and a ladle. Some lack electric sauna heaters that can take water without shorting out; others cite maintenance problems or lack of interest on the part of members.

Perhaps the greatest barrier to taking saunas the Finnish way, however, is ignorance about how it's done. For those who want to try the real article (and assuming they've checked the water tolerance of the sauna stove), Bruce Cohan, a manager at New York Health & Racquet Club, offers encouragement: "Of course, you wouldn't be breaking any rules by bringing your own water into the sauna. Just ask an attendant to instruct you." (Plastic or paper cups won't survive the heat.) After all, part of the pleasure is participating in the process--being in charge of your immediate environment.

For First-Timers

The sauna's low-tech heritage means there's not much a novice need master to get the most from it. Basic procedure starts with a brief shower before entering the sauna, and you need to bring a towel to sit or lie on. Bathing suit or birthday suit? That depends on which you feel more comfortable in, physically and psychologically. It's common practice in public saunas in the United States (which are usually segregated by sex), as in Finland (where they always are), to go in naked. If modesty prevails, a covering is acceptable--perhaps a bath towel to remove, or not, as you become acclimated to the sauna.

Heat rises, and sauna temperatures are hot--ranging from possibly 90 degrees Fahrenheit at the floor to 175 to 194 degrees near the top (as compared to wetter but cooler steam-bath heat, which is about 120 degrees)--so start your steam sauna on the lowest bench. Or, instead of sitting, lie on the platform, feet raised--your feet can take the heat better than your head can. If you're in a private sauna, aim for a lower temperature, say, 160 degrees. If you choose to create loyly, throw small, infrequent splashes of water on the stones.

A session in the sauna is generally limited to about 10 minutes, followed by a cool rinse. Alternating a warm-up in the hot sauna with a cool-down under a shower (better yet, with a dip in a cool, clear lake) can be repeated as often as you wish. Many Finns whisk themselves with a vihta in the sauna--a little broom made of birch twigs--to increase blood circulation. You can approximate the custom and rev up your circulation by using a bath brush or loofah. Always end your final sauna with a cool-down--a shower or just a rest in a quiet place--before dressing.
About the Author
Joe has enjoyed outdoor sports for over 2 decades and knows which ones bring the greatest health benefit as well as the proper recovery therapies needed. For his favorite steam sauna resource, see: Steam Saunas
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