Sauna culture in Finland is part of the life of the majority of the Finnish population. For Finns, the sauna involves much more than just washing. People go there to cleanse their body and mind, relax and spend time with family and friends.
Finland has about 3.3 million saunas throughout the country, which is home to 5.5 million inhabitants. The sauna is therefore easily accessible to all.
Although after the 1950s most of the traditional public saunas disappeared from the cities, new public saunas have been built in recent years thanks to the collaboration of municipalities and various private companies.
History of the Finnish sauna
The oldest Finnish saunas were built as pits in the ground and date back several thousand years. Although there is no written history of how the first sauna in Finland came into existence, it is possible to find remains of those first saunas that were used during the Stone Age.
These early saunas were pits dug into hillsides and heated with hot stones. The entrance was covered so that the hot air was trapped inside so that people could also use it in winter.
Over time, saunas began to be built above ground level and the sauna was usually the first building in the house. These constructions were very basic and only had a floor, three walls, an entrance that could be covered, a roof made of grass or animal skin, and rocks heated by fire.
The next step in the history of the Finnish sauna is the kiuas, a wooden house with a cooker and a stone basin called kiuaskivet in Finnish. The kiuas used birch to heat the room for long periods of time, and by pouring water over the kiuaskivet, the humidity in the sauna increased, creating steam or löyly.
Since then, the sauna has been improved to what we have today: wood-burning cookers, quality constructions that keep the heat in better, electric saunas, and many other advances that can be found today.
Types of saunas and main differences
There are many different types of sauna in Finland. They are differentiated by the building in which they are located or by the type of cooker inside.
The three main types of Finnish saunas are the smoke sauna, the wooden sauna, and the electric sauna.
The smoke sauna is one of the oldest types of sauna still in use. They take several hours to heat up and do not have a chimney.
The interior of this type of sauna is filled with smoke as the wood burns, giving the room a smoky aroma and covering the walls with black soot. When the sauna has heated up, the fire is extinguished, the smoke is released through a vent in the ceiling and the sauna is opened.
This type of sauna is a favourite of Finns and is usually found in public areas. More modern saunas are installed in homes.
The wooden sauna or wood-fired sauna is considered the traditional Finnish sauna. It is heated to 80-110°C by burning wood in a cooker inside the sauna. This type of sauna takes about 45 minutes to reach the right temperature.
The rocks that generate steam by throwing water on them are placed on top of the sauna cooker to heat up. Thus, the wood must burn at all times, even when it is in use so that the sauna rocks stay hot and continue to create steam.
Saunas of this type are mainly found in country houses and individual dwellings, but not in apartment buildings.
Electric saunas have been in use since the 1950s and are commonly found in flats, even small apartments, and residential buildings.
It is much easier to use than other saunas, as you only have to press a switch to start heating and there is no need to cut wood.
As in the wooden sauna, the rocks on which the water is poured are located above the main heat source, which keeps them warm and allows them to generate the steam that covers the entire room.
How to use the Finnish sauna?
If you are going to enter a sauna in Finland, you should know some of the Finnish sauna rules. The most important thing to know is that the sauna is a place to relax, so you should not make noise, discuss controversial topics, eat or drink inside.
All this applies to public saunas and traditional sauna culture. However, private saunas often become ideal places for drinking and chatting with friends and family.
If it is your first time in the sauna, the best thing to do is to go in and observe the behaviour of the other people. If you see that no one is talking, it is best to respect the silence and relax in the same way.
As for what to wear, Finns usually go to the sauna naked, even in gender-segregated public saunas. However, in mixed-gender public saunas, swimming costumes are required.
When you go to the sauna with family and friends, you usually go naked if everyone feels comfortable, even if the sauna is mixed. It is also possible to find families and groups of friends who have separate sauna shifts for women and men.
It is advisable to shower with hot water before entering, as it helps to keep the space clean and also removes dirt from the skin, which facilitates perspiration. When you leave the sauna, you should take a cold shower to help “close” the pores and increase blood flow.
Another aspect to consider is where you sit. As the heat rises, sitting on the upper benches will allow you to enjoy a higher temperature. The same goes for the corners of the room. If you prefer a quieter experience, sit on the lower seats.
In addition, the person sitting next to the water bucket is usually the one in charge of pouring the water on the hot rocks. It is therefore advisable to sit away from the bucket if you are not familiar with how it works.
Each sauna session usually lasts between 5 and 20 minutes. Between each of the sessions, it is common to cool down with cold water in the shower or in the frozen lake, for the braver ones. The sudden change between the heat of the sauna and the cooling in the water provides different benefits.
What are the benefits of the Finnish sauna?
As well as being used as a place of leisure, the sauna has numerous health benefits:
- Eliminates toxins and purifies the body through sweat.
- Strengthens the immune system.
- Relaxes muscles and reduces stress levels.
- Cares for the skin and eliminates dead cells.
- It expels excess retained fluids and promotes weight loss.
- Improves breathing by clearing the airways.
The Finnish sauna also has some risks, especially for those with cardiovascular problems. This is due to the high temperatures found inside the sauna and the sudden change in temperature when entering the icy water.
Where can I find a sauna in Finland?
Most Finnish houses, both individual houses and flats, have their own sauna. It is also common to find a common sauna in all apartment buildings for the use of all the people living in the building.
If you do not live in Finland and do not know anyone who can invite you to their sauna, you can find public saunas in most cities and towns in Finland. If you are staying in a hotel, it is quite possible that there is a sauna on the premises or you might even have a sauna in your hotel room.
Try Finnish sauna in Helsinki
If you’re sightseeing in Helsinki, you can try some of the most impressive saunas in the country.
The most popular sauna in Helsinki is Löyly, a wood and smoke sauna by the sea. You’ll need to book in advance to gain access.
For a more traditional experience, head to Helsinki’s last public wooden sauna, the Kotiharju sauna, which has been in operation since 1928.
Are Finnish saunas mixed-sex?
This is one of the most frequently asked questions among tourists. Not all Finnish saunas are mixed. If they are, everyone must enter the sauna in a swimming costume or towel. In single-sex saunas, it is common to enter the sauna completely naked, especially if visiting with family or friends, although you can enter with a swimming costume or towel if you are not comfortable.
Do all houses in Finland have a sauna?
Not every house in Finland has a sauna, although it is possible to find one in most homes. It is estimated that there is approximately one sauna for every two Finns.
Almost every single or detached house has its own sauna, as do holiday cottages. Many Finns also have their own sauna inside their flat. Even large companies have their own saunas where employees meet for networking sessions.