Finnish Sauna Etiquette: A Guide for First Timers
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An indisputable part of the Finnish culture is the traditional Finnish sauna. Historically, saunas have been a part of Finnish life from birth to death. Mothers gave birth in a sauna and saunas have also been a place for purification rituals before marriage. Nowadays, saunas are meant for well-being and relaxation just like spas.
A traditional Finnish sauna is hot as the temperature rises to 100 centigrade. On the lower benches, the temperature is more tolerable for first-timers. Even though people in Finland tend to sit on the highest bench, a lower bench is a better option to get used to the sauna. Electric heaters are common in modern saunas but wood-burning and smoke saunas are still used especially in summer cottages. Steam makes the sauna softer.
Also Roman-style steam saunas have arrived in Finland but the sauna etiquette in a steam sauna is different. You don't need to throw water on stones and there is no need to cool down outside now and then. Steam saunas can be found in many swimming halls and spas around the country. Compared with the traditional Finnish sauna, the steam sauna has a more tolerable temperature of up to 50 centigrades. It is therefore a suitable alternative if you can not withstand long time the high temperature of the traditional Finnish sauna. Though Finns also like to visit steam saunas.
How to Behave in a Finnish Sauna?
In a Finnish sauna, you should not wear any clothes. The reason is simple. A bather would not wear anything in a shower either as every part of the body needs to be properly cleaned. Traditionally, a Finnish sauna is a place where your spirit and body get cleaned. Usually, in swimming halls they are making a public announcement to remind them regarding this too, to take showers without underwear and also when going to the sauna room. You may use your seat covering like a small clean towel. Usually, in hotels and spas, disposable seat coverings are provided. After a sauna, you must take a shower again.
In a Finnish sauna, it is recommended to be nude.
People coming from certain cultures may feel uncomfortable being nude. Luckily, there is a simple workaround: You can always wear a towel even though it is not a common habit in Finland. Local people will understand that foreigners and immigrants are not as used to nudity among strangers as Finns are. It is important to have a clean towel for the sauna and another towel for drying after the shower. Avoid wearing a swimsuit in a sauna because it is considered a bad habit.
A sauna is a place to clean your mind but you need to wash your body before going to the sauna. That keeps the sauna more hygienic. Naturally, washing up is also necessary after the sauna since your body gets sweaty.
Throwing Water on Stones
In a Finnish sauna, people throw water on stones. That increases the humidity and the sauna feels hotter. Water is thrown every 5 minutes but the internal can be shorter or longer depending on personal preferences. It is highly impolite to throw too much water without asking for permission from the other people inside the sauna. It does not matter whether the water is cold or hot.
The sauna goer who sits closest to the water bucket is responsible for throwing the water. If you do not want to take this responsibility it is better to sit far away from the bucket. It is also polite to ask for permission before throwing water on the stones since not all people like hot steam. Throwing too little water is better than too much. Throwing much water makes the sauna too humid and uncomfortably hot.
When the bucket gets empty, it is the water thrower's task is to fill it up.
You should fill the bucket for the next thrower when you exit the sauna.
In German culture, people tend to be quiet in a sauna and concentrate only on relaxing. In Finland, it is the opposite. It is allowed or even recommended to talk with strangers. Everyone in the sauna is equal and social statuses are forgotten. A sauna visitor can initiate a discussion with anyone. You can have relaxed small talk with strangers or discuss politics or religion if you know others well. Avoid talking about your job. The most important rule is to respect others even though you may disagree with them. If you do not like talking with strangers, staying quiet is perfectly fine too. However, remember to greet people when entering a small sauna where there are only a few people inside.
A sauna could be a great place for a traveller to meet Finns and start interesting discussions.
Eating and Drinking
Eating in a sauna is not a good idea. Drinking inside a sauna is not recommended either because the drink will quickly get warm or even hot. However, it is common to exit the sauna temporarily and cool down outside on a balcony or terrace with a drink. Many people enjoy having a beer or cider even though alcohol and hot temperature are not a good combination. If you drink alcohol during a sauna session, remember to drink plenty of water too. Being drunk in a public sauna is not tolerated.
Etiquette in a Finnish Home Sauna
The sauna etiquette in a home sauna is quite similar to one in a public sauna. If someone invites you to his home sauna, do not reject the offer easily. The invitation is a sign that the friendship is getting stronger.
The host gives usually instructions on how to behave in his sauna. It is important to shower before but not consume too much water.
Trying the Sauna Etiquette in Practice
The easiest way to learn the sauna etiquette is to try a real sauna yourself in Finland or somewhere else. There are saunas everywhere in the country. As long as you remember the basic rules, the sauna experience will be rewarding.
Rules of Finnish Sauna
- Shower before entering the sauna.
- Be nude or wear a towel.
- Throw water on stones and fill the bucket for the next one.
- Don't eat or drink inside the sauna. Drinking outside is allowed.
- You may talk or be quiet. There are no social classes in the sauna.
- Cool down outside when you feel too hot. Remember to rehydrate. If you feel unwell, exit the sauna right away.
Rules for Bulding a Finnish Sauna
It is common to have a sauna at home in Finland, but saunas are getting popular also in other countries. Building a Finnish sauna is not rocket science. There are only a few simple rules you need to follow to make the sauna safe and comfortable. If you are not an experienced sauna builder, we recommend hiring a professional to achieve the best results and make sure you follow also local regulations.
A stove filled with stones is the most important part of the sauna. It can be heated with electricity or wood. In cities, electricity is the most common solution. Always let a professional electrician connect the stove to the electricity network to avoid a shock or fire. The stove gets hot so it must be installed far enough from the wooden parts.
Benches are the second most important element of the sauna. Usually, there are three levels of them in the sauna. The highest bench must be 1.2 metres from the ceiling. The second level must be above the stones - otherwise, the sauna feels too cold for your feet. You can decide on a practical height for the lowest bench yourself.
If you wish your sauna to be an authentic Finnish sauna, benches must be wood. Wood is hygienic sauna material because it dries fast. It is recommended to use softwood in main structures because it tolerates humidity better. The benches can be made of hardwood. Wood in the sauna looks nice and feels good for the skin.
A perfect sauna has an outside window but that is not always possible. It's not a big drawback having a sauna without windows. In every case, an electric light must be installed below the benches.
The size of the sauna does not matter. Usually, home saunas are small having space only for a few people.
The sauna should be heated to 70 to 100 centigrade according to your preferences. You need to fill a bucket full of pale water and make sure there is also a scoop to throw water on the stones. It is important to confirm that the air circulates well in the sauna because otherwise, sauna-goers may easily feel sick. Bad air circulating is a mistake which ruins your sauna experience.
Remember to clean the sauna well after use because no one likes dirty saunas.
Best Saunas in Helsinki
All public swimming halls in the Helsinki area have traditional electric Finnish saunas and bigger swimming halls have also a steam sauna. Swimming halls are the most affordable places to try saunas in Finland. If you prefer a real public sauna, head to Löyly Helsinki where you can swim right at the Baltic sea or Kulttuurisauna at Hakaniemi.
In the summertime, trying a smoke sauna is an excellent choice. It is possible to try one at Kuusijärvi in Vantaa. If you wish to give a try to a wooden sauna, head to Kotiharjun sauna or Sauna Hermanni near Helsinki centre.
People who prefer a more international atmosphere should visit one of the best spas in Helsinki. For example, the open-air Allas Sea Pool is a great option.
- Can I wear clothes in a Finnish sauna?
- No, you can't but wearing a towel is allowed.
- How hot is a Finnish sauna?
- Typically it is from 70 to 100 centigrade.
- Why is water thrown on the stones in the Finnish sauna?
- The water thrown on the stones increases the humidity and makes the sauna feel hotter.
- Where can I find saunas in Helsinki?
- Every public swimming hall has a sauna. There are also a few public saunas and spas in Helsinki.
- Where can I find a smoke sauna in Helsinki?
- You can find one near Helsinki at Kuusijärvi, Vantaa.
- Where can I find a wooden sauna in Helsinki?
- Give a try, for example, Kotiharjun sauna or Sauna Hermanni.
- Is the Finnish sauna mixed?
- No, it is not. Men and women have typically different saunas.
Finnish sauna is a place for relaxation, it improves blood circulation and reduces stress. The sauna etiquette is simple. Clean yourself well before the sauna and behave politely. If you feel shy or uncomfortable about being nude most probably due to cultural factors, then remember wearing a clean towel is allowed. If you start feeling unwell in a hot sauna it is recommended to exit right away to cool down.
Have you visited a Finnish sauna yet? Are there saunas in your home country? How do they differ from a Finnish sauna, comment below!