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Steam Shower Vs. Sauna: What’s The Difference

There is a decent amount of confusion out there about the differences between a steam shower and a sauna. Are there differences? Which is better for you? Has either one actually been proven to benefit your health and well-being? The answer to the first question is a simple “yes.” The other two questions are a bit more complicated.

In a word, the main difference between a steam shower and a sauna is moisture. While both options use heat, a steam shower uses moist heat and a sauna uses dry heat. The two share many applications, from relaxation and stress relief to the treatment of certain medical conditions. But the moisture in a steam shower can be helpful in ways that the dry heat of a sauna can’t and vice versa, making them appropriate for different situations. Let’s break it down.

Quick Tip: Doug Linz, Medical Director at TriHealth Corporate Health, advises that you limit steam shower and sauna use to 15–20 minutes at a time and cool down gradually afterward.

Steam Shower

At first glance, a steam shower doesn’t look that different from a regular shower. Typically it is constructed from ceramic tile, glass, and/or other waterproof, nonporous materials. But unlike a regular shower, a steam shower must be fully sealed in order to trap the steam inside. A steam generator is used to produce the steam (check out our post How Steam Shower Generators Work), and the bather then luxuriates in the misty space, which is kept at a temperature of around 110–116°F with roughly 100 percent humidity.

Why would a person do such a thing? There are many good reasons. As detailed in some of our other posts, a steam shower can assist with detoxification, circulation, skin care, exercise recovery, and even sleep. Plus, it provides a pleasant, relaxing experience, especially when you incorporate extras like aromatherapy into your steam shower. A sauna does share some of these benefits, as we’ll discuss in the next section, but not all. Here’s an example Linz offers: “Steam heat (not dry heat) can have therapeutic benefits for thinning mucous making it easier for some individuals to cough up phlegm. It can also free up sinus passage ways and Eustachian tubes in individuals with sinus and Eustachian tube problems.”

Saunas

While a steam shower uses a steam generator to produce steam, a sauna may use any of a number of heat sources, such as a woodstove, an electric heater, or an infrared lamp. (In the case of an infrared sauna, instead of the air being heated, your body is heated directly.) The sauna space is generally made of wood, which won’t get as hot as, say, stone, protecting the user from burns. This is important because saunas operate at much higher temperatures than steam showers do, generally 160–200°F with only 10–20 percent humidity.

Much like steam showers, saunas can do wonders for the mind and body. According to a recent Mayo Clinic report, “emerging evidence suggests that sauna bathing has several health benefits, which include reduction in the risk of vascular diseases such as high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease (CVD), stroke, and neurocognitive diseases; nonvascular conditions such as pulmonary diseases including common flu; mortality; treatment of specific skin conditions; as well as pain in conditions such as rheumatic diseases and headache.” This report specifically discusses the results of a study done in Finland, where sauna bathing has been a tradition for thousands of years and where even today nearly a third of adults take them regularly.

Comparisons

So which is better? That depends on your situation and preference. While a steam shower may be the right choice for a person dealing with allergies or congestion, a sauna may be more beneficial for someone with rheumatoid arthritis, because, as Robert H. Shmerling, faculty editor of Harvard Health Publishing, writes, humidity tends to exacerbate the condition.

So ultimately, the choice is up to you—and your health care provider.