The Health Benefits of Saunas vs Steam Rooms, Explained

young black woman enjoying in sauna
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As uncomfortable as your dewy sheen can be, feeling a good sweat can have significant benefits to your health. Aside from hot yoga or an intense workout (like an AMRAP workout), both a sauna and a steam room can level up your sweat sesh, no physical exertion required. But when it comes to sauna vs steam room, which should you choose?

Sweating is how your body cools itself. When your body starts to sense that it’s overheating, it starts sweating as a way to control its temperature. As the sweat evaporates, it cools your skin and your blood beneath your skin.

Beyond controlling our body temperature, our bodies can reap several health benefits from inducing some serious perspiration. Here, we’ve asked doctors what the difference is between a sauna and a steam room, how they benefit our health in different ways, and what safety precautions you should know before stepping into a particularly hot environment.

What is a sauna vs a steam room?

Saunas and steam rooms are both rooms designed to create a heated environment, which then causes sweating and elevates your core body temperature, says Samuel Mathis, M.D., assistant professor in the Department of Family Medicine at University of Texas Medical Branch.

The differences between a sauna and a steam room are twofold: temperature and humidity, says Mindy Pelz, M.D., holistic health and women’s health expert. “A sauna is usually about 150 to 200°F, with around 10% humidity. A steam room is around 110°F, but with 100% humidity,” Dr. Pelz explains. Therefore, saunas create a dry heat and steam rooms create a moist, steamy atmosphere, says Dr. Mathis.

Both saunas and steam rooms provide whole-body heat, but they do so in different ways, says Dr. Pelz. “As a result, they have slightly different benefits.”

Sauna health benefits

Saunas make you sweat more than steam rooms do, says Dr. Pelz. And “One little-known benefit of sweating is that it flushes cholesterol out of your system, which is why studies show that regular sauna use improves cardiovascular health.”

The various benefits of using a sauna include reducing the risk of a cardiovascular event (heart attack or stroke), lower blood pressure, and improved immunity against common infections like colds or flus, adds Dr. Mathis.

There are also several studies that show it may help with some skin diseases as well as arthritis and headaches, Dr. Mathis adds. “It also reduces stress and improves relaxation which is its own health benefit.”

Some studies even indicate that saunas are helpful with weight loss, too, Dr. Mathis notes. However, “most of these benefits come from combining sauna use with other healthy lifestyle choices.”

Steam room health benefits

Steam rooms work similarly to saunas in that they create a heated environment, says Dr. Mathis, but the addition of steam does create a difference in the benefits.

You actually don’t sweat much in a steam room, though it may feel like you do because of water droplets from the steam condensing on your skin, says Dr. Pelz. “The water droplets block your sweat and prevent your body from cooling itself. As a result, steam rooms raise your core temperature much more quickly than dry saunas do.”

There are health benefits to raising your core temperature, including greater activation of heat shock proteins, which are special proteins throughout your body that decrease inflammation and lower blood pressure, says Dr. Pelz.

Steam rooms seem to work better to help joint pain, improve circulation, and may be more effective with skin issues as well (think facial steamers), says Dr. Mathis. “Steam rooms also have been shown to help improve sinus congestion and improve breathing issues because of the warm, humid air.”

Which is better for your health?

Both saunas and steam rooms are great for you, says Dr. Pelz. “Saunas may be slightly better for reducing cholesterol, while steam rooms may be slightly better for reducing muscle soreness.”

In general, there is more evidence for saunas than there is for steam rooms, says Dr. Mathis, and the potential risks associated with saunas are lower than they are with steam rooms as well. “The addition of steam creates an environment that is more susceptible to bacteria and fungus growth. Additionally, with the steam, many people are less aware of how hot they are becoming and could stay in longer than they should.” From a health risk perspective, saunas are probably better for us to use, says Dr. Mathis.

While there may be minor differences between saunas and steam rooms, both fundamentally do the same thing, and either one is a good choice if you want to relieve stress and improve your cardiovascular health, says Dr. Pelz.

Safety concerns for saunas and steam rooms

The biggest safety concern with both sauna and steam room use is overheating, says Dr. Mathis. “Make sure to drink plenty of water before, during, and after use of the sauna or steam room. Additionally, the recommended time to stay in a sauna or steam room is only 15-20 minutes max.” Obviously, if you start to have symptoms of overheating (dizziness, lightheadedness, fatigue, palpitations, excessive thirst, or nausea), you need to get out of the sauna and cool off, says Dr. Mathis.

People who should be cautious or not use a sauna are pregnant patients, people with a history of heart disease or aortic stenosis, or even people who regularly get chest pains, says Dr. Mathis. Also, if you have asthma, other breathing conditions, or epilepsy, you may want to avoid saunas and steam rooms, says Dr. Pelz. If you have or had a recent severe infection, saunas and steam rooms are not appropriate until you are fully well, adds Dr. Mathis.

If you use a steam room, make sure to always wear shoes to prevent possible fungal infections on your feet as the moist heated floor could be a breeding ground for bacteria and fungi, notes Dr. Mathis.

Never drink alcohol in a sauna or steam room, warns Dr. Pelz. “Alcohol decreases your body’s ability to maintain stable blood pressure, and combining that effect with the heat of a sauna or steam room can cause you to pass out, which can be dangerous or even fatal,” she explains.

Children should not use a sauna without parent supervision and should not be in it for as long as adults, adds Dr. Mathis. “Older individuals should also use saunas and steam rooms with care given the risk of heat stroke in the sauna.”

Finally, “if you are pregnant or wanting to get pregnant, I would hold off on the sauna,” Dr. Mathis advises. For women, the elevated body temperature could hurt the mother or the fetus. For men, saunas have been shown to temporarily lower sperm count due to the heat, he explains.

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