Learning all about saunas wouldn’t be complete without diving into their history and roots, which is most commonly attributed to the Finns. In Finland, saunas are so common that there is an average of one sauna for every household!
To get a full understanding of Finnish saunas, follow along as we will cover:
- Origins and history of the sauna
- How to use a sauna
- The proper Finnish sauna etiquette
- The three types of saunas you’ll find in Finland
- Some interesting Finnish sauna traditions
Origins of the Sauna
Saunas began as earthen pits covered with animal skins and warmed inside with heated stones, morphed into wooden shed-like structures heated by wood fires, and have evolved to the modern-day saunas inside homes and heated by efficient, convenient electric heaters.
While cultures around the world have employed various forms of sweat bathing, many of these practices died out, others disappeared for a long time and re-emerged later, but in Finland the tradition of the sauna has remained unbroken for for around 2,000 years. It’s because of this long-running practice, that the sauna has become such an integral piece of the fabric of Finnish culture and way of life…and also why the Finnish sauna is typically thought of as the authentic sauna.
According to Wikipedia, the first mentions in written history of saunas in the region now known as Finland, were in 1112 AD by Nestor the Chronicler, where he wrote of “hot wooden saunas in which naked bathers beat themselves with branches and finally pour cold water over themselves.”
Far back in time, the sauna was known as the “poor man’s pharmacy”, and was the place folk healers practiced their craft. Before hospital births became the norm in the 20th century, it was in the sauna where Finnish women gave birth, and where the new mothers were made to rest for several weeks afterward. And if that all weren’t enough to prove how much a part of their life it has been in Finland, it was even the place where the recently deceased were prepared for their final journey into the afterlife – literally making the sauna a facet of the Finnish life from cradle to grave.
While it’s always been a tradition of Finns to have, use, and enjoy saunas, their popularity has surged even more over the last century, as the number of saunas in Finland has more than tripled, going from 500,000 in 1938 to over 1.5 million in 1990!
How To Use
Before visiting Finland and using one of their saunas, whether private or public, it could help to know a little bit about the process of enjoying a time in the sauna. Here’s a quick overview:
- Remove your clothing
- Take a quick shower to rinse clean
- Go into the sauna naked or with a towel
- Pour water on the hot stones as much as you like. You want to fill the sauna with some moisture from the steam, not totally dry.
- Cool off outside the sauna, or by showering or swimming.
- Return to the sauna and repeat the process as long as you want.
Finnish Sauna Etiquette
Not only is it good to know a bit about the sauna process, but also a few Do’s & Don’ts, so you feel a little less like an outsider when you take part in a sauna in Finland…
- The person closest to the water bucket gets the job of throwing water on the rocks.
- It’s normally not acceptable to wear a swimsuit, because it may have chemicals in it that release into the wood or air with the extreme heat. If you feel shy or uncomfortable, use a towel. Plus, once you’re covered in sweat, swimsuits become uncomfortable anyway!
- Most public saunas in Finland have separate saunas for men and women.
- In Finland, it’s normal to be naked in a sauna among the same sex.
- It’s okay to talk in a Finnish sauna, but Finns normally stay quiet.
- One must always sit on a towel in a sauna, and public saunas provide disposable sauna tissues for sitting on, somewhere near the door to the sauna.
- While the sauna is typically heated to around 175 degrees Fahrenheit, you can choose to sit lower down if the heat is too intense, or closer to the door, where it typically is a bit cooler.
It may also be important to note that there’s nothing sexual about a sauna in Finland – despite that image some have developed from TV, movies, and such. In fact, they’re treated as sacrosanct, and children are taught to behave in a sauna just as they would in church. It’s a place of health, purity, and cleanliness.
The Three Types of Finnish Sauna
Smoke saunas are the kind you’ll see the least of, but they were the original kind when saunas were first used in Finland. As saunas evolved into wooden structures separate from the home – sometime around the 12th century – so to did the form of heating evolve…instead of simply a pile of hot rocks, they would heat the room with a stove without a chimney. Smoke would fill the room as the stove heated the sauna, but the smoke would later clear out, leaving the sauna’s walls coated with naturally anti-bacterial soot.
Considered the most authentic form of Finnish sauna, some say a traditional smoke sauna delivers an almost “religious experience” when done right. It can take 3 or 4 hours to heat, and another 1 or 2 hours for letting the smoke settle out.
The wood-burning sauna is the kind you’ll find most often throughout Finland, in summer cabins and out in the country. They take about 30 minutes to get started and for the room to get up to temperature, and the wood fire puts off a somewhat moist, comforting heat. While much more convenient, taking much less time to heat and prepare, wood burning saunas still require tending to the fire throughout one’s time in the sauna.
After wood-burning saunas, electric saunas came along, sometime in the 1930s. While the heat may be drier and more sharp, they offer the convenience and ease of simply heating up to the desired temperature with the flip of a switch, so you can enjoy your time in the sauna.
In Finland, the stove that heats the sauna is called a kiuas, and consists of a stove chamber heated by wood, gas, or electricity, topped with a thick layer of natural stones that absorb the heat and radiate it slowly and evenly into the room.
The heat dries out the room, so to keep some moisture in the sauna, one ladles water from a bucket over the stones, producing steam that fills the room. This steam that rises from the stones is called löyly.
Finnish Sauna Customs & Traditions
Saunas are such an integral part of Finnish life, that you’ll find them anywhere from houses to apartments, backyards to by the sea, at summer cabins and camping sites, and in sports centers and hotels. Businesses are even judged as successful or not depending on whether they have a sauna on site or not!
…and with that popularity, comes some interesting traditions and customs Finns have in their sauna practices…
Vihta – In this tradition, Finns take bundles of fresh birch twigs, and gently slap their bodies with them to help increase circulation. Doing so, draws blood circulation to the skin (which induces sweating sooner), and helps fill the sauna with a wonderfully soothing natural smell of fresh birch.
A common Finnish phrase is “a sauna without a birch whisk is like food without salt.”
You’ll often see saunas in Finland near water, and that’s primarily because of their tradition of ice-water plunges. The Finns love to exit the sauna to jump straight into the ice cold waters, or even roll in the snow, and then return to the sauna. This process of alternating hot & cold increases circulation in the body, as the heat of the sauna draws blood to the skin’s surface, and the shock of the cold causes the body to constrict blood vessels at the surface and direct circulation back to the core of the body.
Good for the Body, Good for the Soul
Not only is a sauna session good for the body – cleaning out toxins as you sweat, increasing circulation, improving heart function, and giving aid to the immune system – but it’s also good for the mind & soul. The time sitting and relaxing in a sauna helps the worries of life slip out of your mind, gives you peace, and can even leave you feeling euphoric.
You can see this page for more insight on the many benefits of saunas.
A Finnish Sauna In Your Own Home
After reading this, I know you may find yourself really wanting that experience of a Finnish sauna from the luxury of your own home!
If that’s the case, don’t worry, you’ve found just the right place for help with that!
There are two main ways to go about getting a sauna for your home: 1) Build your own from scratch or with a kit, or 2) Buy a sauna or sauna kit online (both indoor and outdoor models are available).
Either way, our goal here at Sauna School is to help you with both of those options.
At our Build Your Own page, we have How-To articles that walk you through the steps and process of building a sauna in your house or backyard, and give you ideas for designs & layouts.
Or you can browse our Pre-Built Saunas page for articles that give reviews of saunas available on the market, and ideas for how to integrate them into your house or backyard.