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Sauna Etiquette: A Guide for First-Time Sauna Goers

by Max
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Sauna Etiquette - A Guide for First-Time Sauna Goers

Saunas have been around for thousands of years and are deeply respected in the cultures that created them; it is natural to expect that saunas have a specific etiquette. Especially if you are a first-time sauna user, it can be nerve-wracking to step into a sauna, fearing that you’re already doing something that sauna pros may look down on. But before getting too worried, understand that most people who use saunas are calm and friendly. Further, many people who sauna regularly would likely be more than happy to teach you more about the hobby! But nonetheless, there are some key sauna rules that all first-time sauna goers ought to know ahead of time both for their safety and the comfort of the other people using the sauna.

Guide to the Most Important Sauna Rules and Etiquette

The basis of sauna etiquette is knowing the most common rules and best practices for using a sauna.

Take a Shower Before Getting Into the Sauna

While many clubs and spas have this rule printed where patrons can see it if you are using a private sauna, it may be easy to miss this rule: always take a shower before going into a sauna. This rule comes down to the importance of keeping the sauna clean. The hot air of the sauna is very good at spreading germs. Even the germs that sit quietly on your body and serve no harm to you could easily become a major problem for saunas. And another thing, if you are planning on exercising before getting into the sauna, as this is a great way to extend the value of your workout, you still absolutely must shower before getting into any kind of sauna. More than just being unsanitary, a person fresh from a workout is likely to stink up an enclosed sauna which is impolite to the other sauna users.

Sauna showers should focus on scrubbing the areas that are likely to make contact with surfaces in this sauna. This usually means giving your legs and behind an extra soapy scrub. If you are planning on wearing a swimsuit in the sauna (and the sauna owner has told you that wearing a swimsuit is OK), then make sure to shower without the swimsuit and scrub the suit separately.

Be Mindful of the Doors

One of the biggest giveaways for a sauna beginner or someone who doesn’t understand sauna etiquette is keeping the door to the sauna open longer than absolutely necessary. Saunas are enclosed heat spaces that only filter out the air by small shafts in the room. If someone opens the sauna door for longer than one or two seconds, that is enough air to drop the temperature drastically in the sauna. The people who are already soaking probably won’t like having their sauna interrupted. So to avoid an awkward first-time sauna experience of people telling you to “close the door!” with a touch of sternness in their voices, note this etiquette rule well.

Do Not Bring Your Cell Phone Into the Sauna

This particular rule has grown into a few different camps of sauna users. Many sauna users believe that cell phones interrupt the meditative and isolated environment of the sauna. In the same way you wouldn’t take your phone out during a silent meditation retreat out of respect, you also shouldn’t take it out in the sauna. There are, however, several facilities (usually spas) in North America and Western Europe that allow phone use in saunas but usually in spa-owned phone bags that prevent them from getting wet. With the coming of fully waterproof phones, the question of cell phones in the sauna has quickly reached a maxim; this is another piece of etiquette where you should ask someone in charge before choosing on your own.

The trick is cell phones don’t add anything to the sauna experience, and you are likely to annoy the other people in the sauna with you if you start texting or, at worst, take a phone call. Waterproof or not, bagged or not, cell phones can still easily be damaged just from the heat of the sauna itself. It’s just not wise to take the chance. And if you are expecting some kind of urgent call or need to stay close to your phone for other reasons, it may be smarter to postpone the sauna rather than risk breaking etiquette. Remember that your comfort ought not to be at the expense of the other people in the sauna.

Be Mindful of Food and Drink Rules in the Sauna

Saunas can quickly lead to dehydration if you are not careful. As long as you are respectful about it, there is no etiquette issue with bringing your own bottle of water into a sauna. If anything, more people ought to bring their own water into the sauna. The only problem with bringing your own bottle of water into the sauna is that your bottle is certainly going to get quite warm over time. Also, be careful when using thin plastic water bottles in the sauna as some hotter saunas may affect the plastic and let it seep into your water. You may notice that almost all sauna buckets are made of wood for this reason. Try to use a metal water bottle if you can. Or, set up a pitcher of water outside the sauna, which can stay cool while you heat up.

When people say drink, they often aren’t just talking about water. Alcohol and saunas have a long history in Finland, but first-time sauna-goers ought to know that drinking alcohol in saunas can actually be quite dangerous. Alcohol speeds up dehydration and slows our motor skills. An intoxicated person is much more likely to slip in the sauna or burn themselves on the wood stove than a sober person. But when it comes to the etiquette of drinking alcohol in the sauna, it is usually only OK when the alcohol is shared among all of the people in the sauna and mutually accepted by them as well. Bringing your own personal bottle of alcohol into a sauna of strangers is rude and certainly a breach of etiquette. Note that this does not mean that you should use the sauna when hungover.

On the same note, never bring your own personal food into a sauna. The only time food is acceptable in the sauna is when people have agreed to share it ahead of time. Many traditional Finnish sauna groups actually use the stove in the sauna to cook up meat. If you want to try cooking over your wood stove, however, be certain to cover it in tin foil. This way, nothing falls into the stove.

If There is a Bucket, Fill It Before You Leave

Traditional wood-burning saunas tend to have a bucket filled with water for splashing the rocks on top of the wood stove. Splashing the rocks kicks up steam from the stove, which both raises the humidity in the sauna and drops the temperature a bit. In a regular saunas session, it’s more than normal for the bucket to be spent and need refilling. Even if you personally didn’t use the water from the bucket, be certain that if you are the last person in your group to leave the sauna, you fill the bucket for the next group coming in. This little rule is also another way for a sauna beginner to look like a sauna master instantly. Just a little thing like this, so easy to overlook, can bring out the biggest ire from sauna users. And in that same camp, remembering to fill the bucket is one of the warmest signs of courteousness you can offer in the sauna.

Sauna Rules that are Up to the Sauna Owner

The next collection of sauna rules will always be up to the sauna owner, let that be a single person or the owners of the public sauna you are using. If you are unsure how to move forward on any of these rules in the sauna you’re planning on using, always ask.

Sauna Etiquette by Dress Code

There are two main schools of sauna dress codes to consider. The most traditional sauna users bathe completely nude. This is a long-standing Finnish tradition that lives on strong across several countries now. But there are also several saunas that require either a towel covering private areas or swimsuits. But the only way to know what clothes your sauna requires is to ask. Using the sauna nude is widely considered the best way to get a full soak out of your session. Also, using the sauna nude is actually one of the best ways to keep bacteria and germs out of the sauna wholesale. Swimsuits and the clothes we wear in the sauna are always the germiest things we bring in the sauna, so a post-shower body is respectful for sauna use in many cases. But there are more than a few reasons why someone may not be comfortable using the sauna nude. It could be an embarrassment to top all embarrassments to assume a dress code that ends up being wrong, so always ask the person in charge of the sauna what they require you to wear in the sauna.

As it stands, many saunas in North America and Western Europe require coverings in some way. There are, however, just as many traditional spas in North America and mainland Europe which require nude use. France is a good place to draw the border, as public bathhouses in Paris, for example, uniformly require at least a towel when using sauna facilities. But Strasbourg, a city bordering Germany in the East, has multiple sports clubs and saunas that require sex-separated nude sauna use.

And if you are using a private sauna that isn’t yours, it is essential that you ask the sauna owner their dress code preference out of respect.

Sauna Footwear

The sauna owner gets to decide what kind of footwear is allowed in their sauna. Usually, the answer as to what kind of footwear is right for the sauna is no footwear at all. Plastic sandals can get very uncomfortable in the heat of the sauna, and for the same reason that swimsuits are unsanitary in saunas, you better believe that shoes are just as dirty, if not more. If you are using a public sauna, it is very common to leave your sandals on while walking around the club and then leave them by the door of the sauna when you go in.

Total Sauna Occupancy

Overcrowding in a sauna is a real problem and can ruin the sauna-going experience, especially for beginners. Many clubs will post an occupancy limit for saunas, but in private saunas, it is essential to ask before getting into an already crowded sauna, as people may feel uncomfortable asking you to leave once you’re already inside. A good strategy is to knock on the door if there isn’t tempered glass on the door and ask if there is space. You don’t want to open the sauna door unless you absolutely have to.  If a sauna is too full, don’t get discouraged; waiting a few minutes is good etiquette for the people in the sauna right then. It is also, however, good for you, as you’ll likely enjoy your sauna experience better is a less crowded space.

Splashing the Sauna Rocks

This one is a bit of an unspoken rule but actually has a long history in Finnish tradition. There is usually one person who is in charge of splashing the rocks on top of the wood stove in saunas. Especially since not everyone is likely going to be sitting directly next to the bucket, it would be a touch awkward if everyone had to get up and walk over the bucket every time they wanted to splash the rocks. If you’re a beginner, it’s unlikely you’ll be responsible for the bucket, but you still have to be responsible for voicing when the sauna gets too hot. Unlike leaving the doors to the sauna open, no one has the right to be mad if you respectfully ask to splash the rocks.

If you are using a sauna with strangers in a public facility, of course, this rule is a bit tougher to live by. But in the public sphere, it is once again good etiquette to ask the people in the room and find out if everyone else is OK with splashing the rocks. People have different heat tolerances so while you may find the heat a bit over the top, especially as a beginner, there are maybe others who prefer the temperature as it is.

Are There Different Etiquette Rules for Steam Rooms?

Luckily, almost all of the etiquette rules that apply to saunas also apply to steam rooms. While many people have their own wood-burning saunas, it is much less common to have a personal steam room. This means that most steam room users will also adhere to the club or spa rules that apply to their facility. The rules for dress code are identical to saunas in almost all cases. Specifically, Turkish Hammam steam rooms are likely to be even more strict about entering nude or using a Hammam-supplied covering when in the steam room. You’re also far less likely to want to eat food in a steam room; if you haven’t tried it, don’t. Food turns vile very quickly in a steam room. And don’t even think about taking out a cell phone in a steam room. Even if you have the best waterproof phone on the market, your screen will fog up faster than you can imagine.

Are There Different Etiquette Rules for Infrared Saunas?

There is one key etiquette rule for infrared saunas that will not apply to either saunas or steam rooms. If you use a public infrared sauna in a spa, you are very likely responsible for disinfecting the bench you laid on during your soak. While club and spa rules can vary, it is very often the patrons’ responsibility to keep the sauna bench clean between users. Similar to cleaning exercise machines in a public gym, this is a matter of treating the public property with the same respect you’d hope others would offer to you.

Conclusions on Sauna Etiquette

Luckily, the biggest etiquette rules to consider in the sauna mostly come down to just asking when you don’t know the answer and being respectful of the rules that are clearly stated. Saunas aren’t places for separating those in the know and those out of it; saunas have been community gathering spaces for thousands of years. Once you’ve used the sauna a few times, these rules will feel like second nature, and you’ll quickly find yourself in the place of explaining them to the next sauna beginner. And simply by asking the question as to what proper sauna etiquette is, you’re demonstrating the same inquisitive attitude and tendency toward respect that defines the best sauna users.

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