Buying Guide – How to Shop for a Home Sauna
In the modern sauna market, you’ll come across home saunas of many different heat sources, shapes, sizes, and special features. To help you choose the best product for your unique needs, we’ve included a comprehensive guide to choosing a home sauna below.
What is a Sauna?
From Mayan sweathouses to ancient Roman baths to the modern saunas of today, sweat rooms of many forms have long been used for relaxation, health benefits, and spiritual purposes. The sauna is of the oldest and most popular sweating therapy technique, originating in Finland where the sauna is an integral part of life — a gathering place to refresh the body and mind.
A typical Finnish sauna is a room heated by a fireplace or stove between 158 to 212 degrees Fahrenheit (70 to 100 degrees Celsius). The Finnish sauna relies on a dry heat with a low humidity of between 10 and 20 percent. The traditional Finnish sauna raises the skin temperature to around 104 degrees Fahrenheit (40 degrees Celsius), resulting in heavy sweating and increased heart rate. Users are advised to remain in the sauna for a maximum of 15 minutes, but additional sessions may be added when interspersed with cooling sessions.
Originally, Finnish saunas used a wood fireplace to heat stones to a high temperature. Water was thrown on these stones to create steam. Over time, the sauna evolved from fireplaces to metal and electric stoves. Today, there are many variations on the traditional Finnish sauna — the most popular of which is known as the infrared sauna, which uses light to warm the body from within rather than from an outside heat source.
Saunas should not be confused with steam rooms, though the two therapies may deliver similar benefits. Saunas emit a dry heat, while steam rooms release vapor into an airtight setting to build humidity to 100 percent compared the sauna’s 10 to 20 percent. Steam rooms generally are kept at a lower temperature than saunas at around 110 to 120 degrees Fahrenheit (38 to 48 degrees Celsius), though they may feel hotter because of the high level of humidity.
As noted, saunas and steam rooms share similar associated benefits, including relaxation and improved circulation. A steam room experience may feel more intense than a sauna session because the steam helps keep sweat from evaporating, though they may be preferable for users with allergies or congestion. Saunas, by comparison, might be more comfortable for users sensitive to humidity, such as rheumatoid arthritis patients.
Potential Benefits of Using a Sauna
Although saunas have been used to promote health and relaxation for thousands of years, to date, the medical benefits of sauna bathing are still being explored.
A review of clinical studies since 2000 found a number of potential benefits associated with sauna use, including:
- Heart health: A study on the effects of sauna use by bathers demonstrated sauna sessions were associated with reduced risk of heart disease, stroke, and neurological decline. Bathers who underwent two to three sauna sessions per week had a 23 percent lower risk of dying from a cardiovascular disease compared to those who underwent one session per week. Bathers who used the sauna four to seven times a week had a 48 percent lower risk of fatal heart disease compared to those who used the sauna once a week.
- Enhanced respiratory function: In a study on respiratory conditions like asthma and bronchitis, sauna bathing was found to help improve lung capacity and function. The same study found evidence that suggested that regular sauna use can improve the body’s immune response, warding off colds and the flu.
- Pain relief: According to some studies, sauna use can help reduce pain associated with osteoarthritis, rheumatoid arthritis, fibromyalgia, and other musculoskeletal conditions, as well as chronic headaches. When sauna use is combined with cooling sessions, the effect may improve the body’s painkilling response.
- Sports recovery: Additional research found that infrared sauna bathing may be able to help the neuromuscular system heal from endurance training.
- Improved mood: Research on sauna use and mood suggests that sauna sessions can incite the production of endorphins and other mood-enhancing hormones. Thermal therapy was linked to improvements in appetite loss and other symptoms in patients with mild depression.
- Better sleep: Numerous studies have shown that saunas, in addition to warm showers and baths, have positive effects on sleep. Body heating prior to bedtime was found to increase sleepiness and reduce the time it took to fall asleep. In addition, research on infrared sauna therapy found this type of sauna in particular was effective in reducing poor mood, feelings of tiredness, and other symptoms of those living with chronic fatigue.
One way saunas may help you fall asleep faster by influencing the body’s thermoregulation process. The body is warmed by the sauna, then rapidly cooled once you exit the sauna. This cooling can help prepare you for sleep, signaling the brain to start generating the sleep hormone melatonin.
What to Consider when Purchasing a Home Sauna
Modern saunas can be categorized into two primary styles: traditional wood or electric stove saunas and infrared light saunas. Below, we’ve explored traditional and infrared saunas, including their benefits and drawbacks.
Wood or electric stove
Traditional saunas rely on a heater fueled by wood or electricity. The most common traditional saunas of today feature electric stoves.
Whether fueled by wood or electricity, the stove of these saunas heat a compartment of volcanic rocks so warmth is radiated throughout the room. Traditional saunas reach high temperatures, with averages ranging from 150 to 194 degrees Fahrenheit (65 to 900 degrees Celsius) depending on the setting you choose.
As traditional saunas heat the air, the body absorbs the heat and begins to increase in temperature. Just as the user can control the temperature, the bather can control the humidity of a traditional sauna by tossing water on the compartment of volcanic stones heated by the stove. By pouring over the rocks to release steam, the bather can add comfort, moisturize the nasal passageways, and facilitate the use of essential oils by mixing them in with the water.
In order to use a traditional sauna, the wood-burning or electric stove must preheat the rocks to reach the set temperature. Once desired temperature is achieved, the stove heater will cycle on and off to maintain it. Meanwhile, the heated volcanic stones and insulated sauna walls help keep the temperature stable.
A newer, increasingly common type of sauna, infrared light saunas provide similar benefits as traditional sauna but through a dramatically different technique. While a traditional sauna heats the air around the user, an infrared sauna directs radiant energy to raise the core body temperature. The infrared energy is able to bypass the the skin to warm the body from within, including muscle tissues and joints.
Because infrared rays are directed at the body rather than heating the entire room, users feel hot and sweat intensely at lower temperatures. Infrared saunas tend to be much cooler than traditional stove saunas, with average temperatures falling between 110 and 130 degrees Fahrenheit (43 to 54 degrees Celsius).
While traditional saunas may take up to 40 minutes to reach desired temperatures, the infrared sauna can be used virtually immediately once the infrared light emitters are turned on. Rather than cycling on and off, the infrared emitters run at full capacity to charge the body with deep, penetrating infrared energy. Although the recommended usage time for both infrared and traditional saunas is 10 to 15 minutes, many bathers are comfortable with longer infrared sauna sessions because of the lower heat.
In addition to perks like improved relaxation, heart health, and sleep, studies suggest that infrared sauna use may come with additional medical benefits. Research suggests infrared sauna could have a positive impact on conditions like rheumatoid arthritis, systolic hypertension, congestive heart failure, and chronic pain. An additional study found decreases in stress and fatigue following infrared exposure. Research has also found infrared sauna therapy can help improve symptoms of chronic fatigue.
Beyond what has been suggested through preliminary research on infrared therapy, both traditional and infrared saunas share nearly identical therapeutic benefits. Choosing between the two largely comes down to personal heat tolerance. Those who are uncomfortable in high temperatures may want to opt for an infrared model, which allows you to experience the same benefits at a lower heat. Alternatively, those who prefer higher temperatures or are interested in the benefits of steam may prefer a traditional Finnish wood or electric stove sauna.
As noted, home saunas come a wide variety of designs and dimensions. To determine the best type for your home, consider the space you have available as well as how many family members and guests are likely to use the sauna at once. Also consider whether you’d prefer to lie down or remain seated when sauna bathing.
Traditional, pre-built saunas may vary widely in size, but average around 5 x 6 feet. These dimensions typically hold between two and three seated bathers or one bather who is lying down. Infrared saunas, on the other hand, tend to be a bit smaller — around 4 x 4 feet. Larger size infrared saunas come to around 7 x 8 feet.
In addition to size variances, saunas are available in a huge variety of shapes. A popular, aesthetically pleasing option is the barrel sauna, which is essentially a barrel-shaped wooden room perched on top of legs. These types of saunas can typically fit up to four and may be kept indoors or outdoors.
Single-use saunas are also an option, often made of wood and designed for lie-down sessions. There are also portable personal saunas, which are typically made of a foldable, zippable tent-like material. These saunas are easy to set up, and may be heated by an infrared or steam heater attached to the unit.
Other Important Considerations
Indoor vs. Outdoor: Saunas can be installed inside your home — often in the bathroom, where water, power, and drain lines are readily available — or outdoors. Many consumers prefer indoor saunas because of the privacy and convenience afforded by being able to access their sauna without leaving their home. On the other hand, others opt to install their outdoors for the additional space and a more natural setting.
Safety: When purchasing any kind of sophisticated equipment intended for regular use in your home, it’s important to be aware of potential risks and familiarize yourself with its safety features. A home sauna should include a sensor to prevent overheating as well as sufficient lighting to prevent trip-and-fall accidents. The control panel should be straightforward and easy to operate. A timer is also recommended to avoid overextending your time in the sauna. Proper ventilation is needed to allow fresh, clean air to circulate through the sauna.
Although the bathroom is often the most convenient, you can generally install a home sauna safely anywhere outside or inside your home, including an attic, basement, or garden.
Pre-built vs. Kit: Commercial home saunas are available pre-built or in a ready-to-assemble kit. Pre-built saunas are typically manufactured as free-standing rooms with finished exterior walls. Alternatively, DIY sauna kits generally include the parts needed to assemble the sauna yourself, including interior walls and ceilings, pre-hung doors, door trims, benches, handles, accessories, etc. Before purchasing a ready-to-assemble kit, be sure to review the instruction manual to ensure you understand the ease of assembly and have the tools and number of helping hands required.
A third option is to convert an existing room into a sauna. Advisable for the experienced DIY-er only, converting a room in your home may involve installing an installation system, paneling, rocks, benches, and a special sauna door.
Added Features: Home saunas can come with a wide array of special added features such as ergonomic backrests, speakers, reading lamps, and oxygenizers. Some models may come with chromotherapy lights, which are thought to enhance relaxation, ease anxiety, and help those suffering with seasonal affective disorder. For all the attractive extras that exist, be sure to review what’s included in your potential sauna purchase to avoid paying for any unneeded or unwanted features.
Cleaning: The ease at which you clean and maintain your sauna may depend on the variety and model you purchase. Be sure to follow manufacturer instructions for cleaning and maintenance carefully.
Most traditional saunas should be quickly wiped down after each session to combat any residual humidity. A thorough cleaning may be necessary one to several times a month depending on how often you use the sauna to prolong its life and reduce bacteria growth. Sauna cleaning supplies can be purchased online, though a mixture of rubbing alcohol and warm water often works well.
Alternatively, infrared saunas may see less humidity, but should be cleaned periodically according to manufacturer instructions. Non-toxic cleaners, such as a mixture of apple cider vinegar, regular vinegar, and warm water, are generally recommended.
With both traditional and infrared, occasional sweeping and vacuuming is recommended to eliminate dust and dirt.
Warranty: A reputable brand may include a warranty on sauna products that covers the structure, heating elements, and electronics against defects in material and workmanship. Damage due to modifications or elemental damage are not typically covered by warranty. Similarly, when a DIY sauna kit has been assembled incorrectly, any resulting damage may not be covered under warranty. Be sure to review your potential sauna warranty carefully and ensure you understand the terms before making a buying decision.