Sauna vs. Steam Room Health Benefits & Risks – What’s the Difference?

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When it comes to speeding up the recovery process after a challenging workout, a good and very common way of doing so is by reaping the benefits of hyperthermic conditioning, which can be done by spending a couple of minutes in a hot environment, such as a sauna or a steam room. While many believe that the steam is the only difference, we’ll go into detail with everything you need to know when choosing the right room for you.

And if going to either isn’t an option for you, Winsor Pilates experts have concluded that portable saunas for at-home use can be an alternative that brings many of the same benefits, while also allowing you to enjoy a guaranteed alone time if crowded spaces are not your thing.

The Differences

To cut things a bit shorter, you shouldn’t expect too many differences between the two, but know that the few existing ones can make or break your initial thoughts.

Build Materials

You’ll find that saunas are typically made of wooden panels and there are good reasons for that. The type of wood used is heat resistant to withstand the higher degree range, it acts as a good insulator to keep the heat inside and prevent losses while still being safe to the touch, and it doesn’t suffer from splinting, changes in shape, or cracks.

On the other hand, steam rooms are made from non-porous materials, such as acrylic or certain tiles. The reason for this is to prevent the walls from absorbing the steam and having the mechanism do extra work to maintain the level of humidity. And, like wood, these materials act as insulators.

Heat & Humidity

The actual process that enables heat dispersion differs as well. That, coupled with the level of humidity, are the second and last difference we’ll address.

When it comes to saunas, you will experience what’s called dry heat, because the temperature comes from either heated rocks or a certain type of stove. The humidity around you will be in the 10 to 12% range and that is slightly influenced when in rooms heated by rocks because you can splash water over them to create a small amount of steam. Ultimately, the lack of humidity is what allows the heat to get to high levels, between 158 and 212° Fahrenheit (70 and 100° Celsius), which can cause your skin to heat up to a high of 104 degrees (40 Celsius).

With steam rooms, a generator is what provides the room with plenty of steam, as it is filled with boiling water. This “wet heat” brings the humidity to 100%, which makes the room feel way hotter, even though the degree range is lower, from 110 to 120° Fahrenheit (42 to 50° Celsius).

The Good

The benefits of using one or the other are largely the same, with very few exceptions, therefore we can display the majority of them in bulk. Without further ado, here are the pros of taking hot breaks:

  • A lower chance of developing vascular diseases (high BP, CVDs, CVAs, etc.) and lung diseases (fewer days a year battling the common flu). So, an overall lower mortality rate!
  • Lessening the recurrent issues stemming from rheumatoid arthritis (like stiff joints and aches)
  • Making intense headache pains more bearable
  • Soothing sore, post-workout muscles, or simply relaxing them if you’re not using the room after intense activities. This lowers the cortisol levels, meaning no more feeling stressed!
  • Encouraging the release of endorphins and allowing for a better sleep
  • Both hotter temperature and steam facilitate a faster leukocyte production, giving you an immunity boost to help fight off any colds or viruses.
  • Your skin will be glowing! Abundant sweating will help cleanse your skin of bacteria and dead cells, giving you better circulation and a brighter complexion.
  • Both create a relaxing, quiet, and even social enriching environment
  • Extra pros of the sauna: Consistent and specific use (19 min at 176°F with 4-7 sessions/week) might lower the chances of you developing Dementia or Alzheimer’s, and the dry heat can calm down psoriasis.
  • An extra pro of the steam room is the effect it has on breathing and congestion. Thanks to the humid environment, your sinuses get cleared and your allergies (or asthma) get better.

& The Bad

With the risks, we have the same situation of sharing the majority. The cons that can turn your relaxation moment into an unpleasant experience are:

  • Dehydration. This one is probably the most obvious since the main purpose of the rooms is that you sweat in them. Losing too many fluids too fast can cause dehydration, which in turn can result in headaches, urinary issues, or even seizures.
  • Dizzy feelings or sudden Nausea. These are caused by the difference in temperature, so you might want to start with a smaller level of intensity if you’re just beginning.
  • Blood Pressure Irregularities. While you’re inside, your BP drops because of the heat, and when you get out, if you practice thermic shocks (jumping into the pool, taking a cold shower), you’re in for a spike in BP. All these up and down jumps might cause cardiovascular problems down the line.
  • Might complicate the process of conceiving a baby. Raised testicle temperature can lower the sperm count. Not irreversibly, but it can last up to 5 weeks.
  • Fungal or Bacterial Infections. Hot and damp environments are the perfect breeding ground for tiny harmful organisms, and if the location you go to isn’t in tip-top shape when it comes to disinfecting, you’ll have another thing coming.
  • Burns. Although we’ve already mentioned that the build materials are completely safe, the heat producers (the stones, the stoves) can pose a burn threat. Always be careful not to slip.
  • Two extra cons with the sauna. The higher heat level because if your skin maintains a raised temperature for too long it can trigger serious issues (normal temperature is 98.6°F/37°C). The dryness of the air might worsen the symptoms of atopic dermatitis.

To conclude

To avoid an otherwise abrupt ending to our article, we will leave you with a short, general description of how to use these rooms and the cases in which you should avoid them altogether.
Both rooms can be used in short sessions, between 5 to a maximum of 20 minutes and you can practice cool-offs once you’re done. Cooling-off can be done in 3 ways:

  1. In a low profile way, by resting in a room that’s at a normal temperature
  2. More directly, by taking a lukewarm shower or swimming in a pool with a degree range between 98 and 105°F (36.5 and 40.5°C)
  3. The extreme way, by taking cold showers, or even plunging into the snow

It is recommended that you steer clear of hot rooms if you have: blood pressure that’s lower than normal; problems with your coronary artery; a history of strokes, TIAs, or irregular BPM; kidney issues, as dehydration is an immediate danger; and if you are pregnant, as use can cause abnormalities (especially during the first weeks) regardless of your baby’s developmental stage.

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