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Finnish Sisu article | 19.04.2023

Good to know about the Finnish sauna and culture

Good to know about the Finnish sauna and culture | Finnish Sisu
Image: Helsingin kaupunginmuseo CC-BY v4

The Finnish sauna is a substantial part of Finnish culture. It is estimated that there are three million saunas in Finland. The president has an official sauna, as does the prime minister. Saunas can be found in city apartments and country cottages.

You can still find people in Finland who were born in a sauna. Not when it was heated up, of course, but it was a sterile place where hot water was available.

Origins of the sauna

The sauna in Finland is an old phenomenon and its roots are difficult to trace, but its earliest versions are believed to be from 7000 BC. Bath houses were recorded in Europe during the same time period, but Finnish bathing habits were poorly documented for most of history.

One reason the sauna culture has always flourished in Finland has been because of the versatility of the sauna. When people were moving, the first thing they did was to build a sauna. Finns have used the sauna to live in, eat, address matters of hygiene, and, most importantly, give birth in an almost sterile environment. Unlike many other, more densely populated places in Europe, the availability of wood needed to build and warm the sauna has never been an issue. Another reason for its popularity is that in such a cold climate, the sauna allows people warmth for at least a short period of time. However, it is just as popular in the summer as in the winter.

Finnish sauna etiquette

Basic etiquette in the sauna is quite simple. You first take all your clothes off – something you have to try not to be shy about. It is considered polite to shower before going in. Otherwise, there are few rules. Stay in as long as you feel comfortable, and return to the sauna several times if you wish.

When you enter and exit a sauna, do so quickly. Don’t be the guy who opens the door all the way, steps halfway into the sauna, and then proceeds to have a conversation with his bud who’s still in the locker room while the sauna door hangs open. So always remember shut the door!

It is polite make room for others. If there’s no one else in the sauna, feel free to lay down on the bench. It’s relaxing. But as more people enter the sauna, sit up and make room for others.

Ask before you pour water on the rocks. When you pour water on the sauna’s heated rocks, it creates a powerful burst of hot and soothing steam. It feels amazing and hot! So before you pour water on the sauna rocks, ask everyone in the sauna if that’s okay. You need unanimous consent for this one.

Types of sauna

Traditional saunas are heated by wood, in a stove with a chimney. Today, however, it is very common for a sauna to run on electricity.

A smoke-sauna is the original sauna, and most Finnish people believe it to be the best kind. The door is closed after the wood has burned down (and most of the smoke has escaped), leaving the embers to heat the sauna to the proper temperature, yielding a soft heat and an aroma of wood smoke.

Smoke sauna

The savusauna (smoke sauna) does not have a chimney and thus as wood is burned smoke fills the room. After the sauna reaches the appropriate temperature, the fire is extinguished and the room is ventilated. Given the construction of the room, the sauna retains sufficient heat for the duration of use. Although smoke saunas are considered a more traditional type, there has been a significant increase in construction in recent years. However, due to the amount of effort and time required to operate them (heating can take most of a day) they are not likely to replace most regular saunas.

Wood stove sauna

The wood stove sauna is more common in rural areas, whereas the electric sauna is more common in urban areas. The metal stove with stones on top (kiuas) is heated with birch wood fire, and this heats the sauna room to the required temperature. If birch wood is not available any other wood will do, but well dried birch wood is preferred because of its good quality and smell, and long lasting burn. The important thing is to have a good löyly, that is when the stones are hot enough to evaporate the water thrown on them into steam that rises to the bathers. The bather in every type of sauna sits on a high bench near the ceiling where the hot steam reaches them quickly.

Electric sauna

In city apartments, and in most public saunas, an electric sauna stove (kiuas) is used, as it does not require open fire and offers additional features like time delay settings, thermostat and temperature limiter. Also electric saunas usually do have kiuas stones piled over or around the heating element to allow löyly thrown onto them; either as an open, air circulating set-up or as a closed and insulated heat-storing one. Electric sauna offers a possibility for the property manager to control the sauna independently from occupants and limit sauna’s electricity use. The control can be remote and wireless and can offer additional settings for sauna lighting, ventilation and steam generating devices.

Mobile saunas

Scouts and various other youth organizations often have portable tent saunas. Saunas have been built into cars, buses, car trailers, tractor trailers or even bicycles and boats. In Finland, there are companies that rent mobile saunas and heated bathtubs.

Benefits of the sauna

Sauna is good for everyone, young and old. Most complications in the sauna come from heart problems and it is not recommended. Sweating in a sauna cleans your skin and your body of toxins. The heat will help your muscle pains and your quality of sleep will increase. The most important benefits of the sauna are to help you relax and relieve stress.

Going ice swimming after the sauna is also good for your health. Regular swimming in ice-cold water increases your mood and energy balance, your tolerance for cold temperatures will improve, reduce blood pressure and decrease stress. Apparently, the change between cold and hot also helps maintain your skin elasticity by slowing down the cellular ageing process.

Tales from Finland video - Good to know about the Finnish sauna

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