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What to Wear in a Sauna – Overview for Beginners

by Max
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What to Wear in a Sauna - Overview for Beginners

There is a rich history of clothes worn in the sauna going all the way back to ancient Scandinavia and ancient Greece. And one could argue that there is just as rich a selection of possible sauna wear today! Choosing the right clothes for a sauna as a beginner can be quite an involved process. Depending on the type of sauna, whether or not you expect to soak with other people, and most importantly where you sauna will likely influence what you ought to wear when you are in the sauna. Further, wearing the proper clothes can have a big impact on your overall comfort and experience when using the sauna. So let’s take a closer look at what you should wear in a sauna.

What to Wear in a Sauna

In this section, let’s talk about all of the potential dress codes that you may see in saunas today. There are some key differences between dress codes when it comes to the major sauna types.

Traditional Finnish Sauna Dress Code

The most traditional attire for using the sauna is, well, nothing at all. Old school Finns have been using the sauna naked for centuries. This, however, only represents a small number of people who use saunas today. But more recently, there is wiggle room about dress code. Finnish sauna etiquette says that there is a step after spending time in the heat of the sauna that is just as necessary to the process. After spending time in the heat of the sauna, sauna users are then supposed to quickly jump into a lake or a pile of snow to give the body a cold sensory shock. The experience can be quite electrifying. Many modern Finns or Finnish expats also say that using a pool instead of a lake is fine. At that, die-hard Finns say that the only way to get the most out of a sauna is to use it completely naked. But don’t treat this like a rule. This is based on ancient practices; while the most hardcore sauna users may speak the praises of nude soaks, there are many places and reasons why wearing a swimsuit or a towel may even be required.

Because traditional Finnish wood-burning saunas expect you to probably go swimming afterward, modernly many people wear swimsuits. But because traditional Finnish saunas are often communal, meaning that any number of people could be using the sauna at one time, it is perfectly fine to wear even a T-shirt if you aren’t comfortable wearing only a swimsuit in public.

Modern Wood-Burning Sauna Spa Dress Code

If you are using a wood-burning sauna at a spa, you will likely have to directly consult the dress code layed out by the establishment themselves. But there are some further steps you can take to make sure that your spa experience goes smoothly.

First, be certain that you sit on a towel. Your towel should fully cover where your legs would meet the sauna’s bench. Especially in spas where many people may be sitting on the same bench throughout the day, it’s wise to make sure that your skin isn’t directly touching that surface. Wooden benches in saunas are able to hold quite a few germs, and especially unsanitary ones can even develop mold. While spa staff will undoubtedly try to keep their saunas clean, taking personal precautions is also very important.

The Right Footwear for a Spa

Another important piece of the spa sauna dress code is sandals that cover the entire sole of your foot. While it’s likely OK for someone to skip footwear when using their own sauna, spas are one of the places you ought to be concerned about the cleanliness of the floor. Even at an exceptionally clean spa, it’s inevitable that the ground can get dirty, especially the floors in saunas. But when you actually use the sauna itself, you ought to go barefoot. When walking around the spa facilities, use comfortable sandals but be prepared to take them off before getting into a sauna. The heat of the sauna is not the best in combination with plastic sandals, so just leave them outside. Also, wearing plastic or leather sandals, for example, in a sauna can be extremely uncomfortable.

What to Wear in an Infrared Sauna

This is actually a bit of a more challenging question. Infrared saunas may give off heat quite similar to traditional wood-burning saunas, but the way that the sauna creates that heat is quite different. Infrared saunas radiate heat from a central heater that points directly at the person using the sauna. Because the heat from an infrared sauna comes from radiation, the less fabric in the way of the radiating heat would then lead to a full sauna experience.

Here’s one way to look at it: wearing less clothes in an infrared sauna will likely mean that you’re getting the most out of the radiating heat of the sauna but that doesn’t necessarily mean that you’ll get the most out of your experience. Infrared saunas are so efficient that it actually does not matter very much what clothes you choose to wear as long as they are both comfortable and don’t lead to overheating. If you would like to wear a T-shirt and a swimsuit, that is likely fine, but keep a close eye on your comfort, as overheating can happen quite quickly in an infrared sauna; this is because infrared saunas are so small and concentrated.

Infrared saunas are not paired with taking a swim quite like traditional saunas, so there is less of an expectation for you to wear a swimsuit. Many people wear just a thin towel while using infrared saunas. But the good news is, since many infrared saunas are private, there is absolutely no risk of being the odd one out, or being the only one wearing swim trunks.

What to Wear in a Steam Room

Steam rooms usually have very specific dress codes depending on what type of steam room you are using. More involved steam rooms like the Turkish Hammam may actually not give you a choice of dress and instead demand that you wear the Hammam’s smallclothes. This is usually because Hammam has a several-step detox process that includes a steam room. In general, however, steam rooms have a quite similar dress code to that of a wood-burning sauna.

Because steam rooms are both incredibly humid and make users sweat quite a bit, wearing less clothes is your best option. Most steam room users wrap a towel around their bodies and enter the room like that. But it is more than understandable why that may make some steam room users anxious. There is nothing wrong with wearing a swimsuit in a steam room, even under a towel. But the more layers and fabric you wear, the more likely you’ll overheat or get uncomfortable from the moisture. Spas and clubs in many parts of the world will probably expect you to use a steam room nude, so be sure to check club rules before settling on a steam room.

When going to a steam room, be certain to bring a swimsuit, change of clothes, and a towel if not supplied by the steam room staff.

Public Sauna Dress Code Vs. Private Saunas

In your private sauna, your only concerns should be your overall comfort and cleanliness. While those ought to also be your concern in a public sauna, you also need to be aware of the people who are soaking with you. When it comes to public saunas, start with the most modest option for dress and work your way down from there. This means probably packing a swimsuit and towel in your gym bag, just in case. As for private saunas, you have more freedom to experiment with your overall comfort level. Also, since you are responsible for the cleanliness of your sauna, you can feel free to sit directly on your bench. Of course, it’s your responsibility to keep those benches germ free with regular washing and disinfecting.

What Not to Wear in a Sauna

While saunas are often quite good at laying out exactly what you should wear while using their facilities, there is often a lack of information on the opposite: what you shouldn’t wear. There are more than a few types of clothes you should avoid wearing while using any kind of sauna.

What Not to Wear in a Wood-burning Sauna

A hat is the number one thing to avoid wearing while using a wood-burning sauna. Do not wear hats in wood-burning saunas. Wearing a hat in a sauna can lead to overheating very quickly, as most of the body’s heat leaves through our ends, either feet or head. For the same reason you wouldn’t wear shoes and socks in a sauna, wearing a hat is very uncomfortable and, in severe cases, can lead to quicker dehydration. There is, however, one exception to the hat rule: the lahtiset hat. Lahtiset hats are traditional Finnish headgear made for saunas. The lahtiset is made of wool and actually regulates the heat of your head, unlike a cotton or polyester hat which would restrict your overall heat release. If you are interested in trying out a lahtiset, there are several weavers online who make them by hand and to your proper size. But be sure to ask your club or spa before using a lahtiset hat in a public sauna.

Because wood-burning saunas are so hot, you ought not to wear anything that holds in too much heat. This can mean anything from a long-sleeve t-shirt all the way to sandals that cover too much of your feet. Your goal in a wood-burning sauna should be to leave as much of your skin open to the air as possible.

While it’s not strictly clothes, some people may keep sunglasses on while using a wood-burning sauna but this may actually lead to some pretty serious discomfort. If you keep a pair of sunglasses on while using a hot wood-burning sauna, you may see red marks on your face where the sunglasses were resting. This is also true for metal jewelry. This is because the heat in the sauna and the increased blood flow it brings about make things pressed against the skin feel more pressure. Wearing heavy metal jewelry often in the sauna or for a long time may lead to painful marks on the skin. This is also true for watches or any other accessory you wear directly on your skin.

What Not to Wear in an Infrared Sauna

Since infrared saunas are usually private, there are not too many others to worry about when it comes to clothes that aren’t ‘allowed’. But since the heat from an infrared sauna comes from radiation, any piece of clothing that gets in between the radiating heat and your body ought to be highly scrutinized. For example, wearing clothes that are already wet while using an infrared sauna may lead to discomfort because the sauna may heat up the water in your clothes faster than your overall body. Similar to a wood-burning sauna, having most of your skin open to the air will likely lead to your best experience in a sauna. Of course, since the heat from a wood-burning sauna and an infrared sauna come about for wholly different reasons, it’s a coincidence that the advice for both saunas’ dress codes is the same. But if wearing fewer clothes makes you feel uncomfortable, there is nothing wrong with wearing light and flowing clothes while using an infrared sauna.

What Not to Wear in a Steam Room

One of the most significant risks a person could face in a steam room comes from something that someone may choose to wear in the room. Especially during the COVID-19 pandemic, some people may have chosen to wear a mask while using public sauna facilities. Wearing a mask in a steam room can be extremely dangerous because the water vapor in the air can quickly make a mask plaster to its user’s face. If you are uncomfortable using a steam room without a mask, consider asking the steam room’s staff what kind of accommodations they can make for you. While enclosed spaces like steam rooms may be better for spreading viruses compared to the open air, wearing a surgical mask in a steam room won’t only hurt your experience, it may hurt you outright.

Also, when using a steam room, it is not uncommon for the skin to expand slightly. While this expansion wouldn’t be major enough to make someone’s clothes uncomfortable to wear, small articles like rings or tight bracelets may become difficult to wear after spending a long time in a steam room.

What Not to Wear in a Public Sauna

When it comes to public sauna dress codes, there are luckily not many things prospective sauna users would need to look out for. Similar to wood-burning saunas outright, people using public saunas should avoid wearing hats, but even more importantly, do not wear outside shoes or sandals while using the sauna. Even sandals that you have worn outside ought not be used in a public sauna. Once a shoe or sandal makes contact with the average slab of pavement or ground, it is already caked in more germs than you can imagine. Bringing those germs into a sauna simply by stepping in could put everyone in the sauna and the entire facility at risk. Invest in a pair of sandals specifically for use at your public sauna, and regularly wash them after each visit. Treat your public sauna with the same respect and attention to cleanliness that you would expect from others.

Public Sauna Expectations in Europe Versus North America

So we know about how the purist Finns like their saunas but what about the rest of Europe and the Americas? There is actually a fair bit of nuance between how different parts of the world sauna, so it’s worth exploring what you can expect depending on where you plan to soak. The vast majority of Europe will follow the Finnish method and expect sauna-goers to enter the hot room naked. This comes down to the health and safety of sauna users, as even a washed swimsuit will certainly bring bacteria into the sauna. But this, once again, will be a final decision for the club.

Let’s look at an interesting example: Iceland has several major sauna and hot spring facilities across Reykjavik and the entire island. Depending on the expected clientele, dress code rules can vary. The Blue Lagoon natural hot spring and sauna resort south of Reykjavik attracts a lot of tourists from Western Europe and the Americas and thus has very relaxed rules about wearing swimsuits in the hot springs and showers. It’s very clear to see who is Scandinavian and who is from the Americas by spending a few minutes in the shower room. But if you go to a public sauna in Reykjavik used by Icelanders, there will be no budging on nudeness and showering without a swimsuit. Another example: public facilities in Paris often have relaxed rules about swimsuits in saunas but the city of Strasbourg in the far East bordering Germany tends to be very strict about going nude for sanitary reasons.

As it comes to the Americas, expect an even more case-by-case system. Traditional saunas and steam rooms in New York City and Boston, for example, often have rooms for those who prefer going nude and other rooms for swimsuits. But the further West you go, the more relaxed the rules tend to get.

Conclusions on What to Wear in a Sauna

Luckily, it’s rather hard to go wrong when it comes to wearing the proper clothes in a sauna. The biggest mistake a person can make is likely either forgetting their swim trunks where they are required or not bringing clean sandals. Either way, the most important thing to keep in mind while using a sauna is your own comfort. Your sauna dress should be inspired by whatever makes you feel most comfortable within common sense limits. If wearing a thin T-shirt makes you feel more comfortable in the sauna, there is no major part of the sauna experience you are missing out on by doing so. Further, if you are interested in dressing down while using the sauna, it’s a good idea to ask the other people you are using the sauna with whether they are OK with wearing less clothes than a swimsuit. As it stands, your gym, spa, or public sauna’s individual rules are king when it comes to dress codes, so be certain to pay very close attention to those rules when using a public facility.

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