Finnish Sauna

The sauna is a small room or hut heated to around 80 degrees Celsius. It is used for bathing as well as for mental and physical relaxation. While a hot sauna may seem a cruel punishment to unexperienced bathers, it is actually a very pleasant experience. All you need is a towel and at least half an hour of time. Start with a shower, then enter the sauna for a few minutes, listening to your senses. When you've had enough, take a refreshing shower, cool off for awhile and repeat once or twice. And no need to worry, it's entirely safe.The sauna has a long history and close relatives in other cultures: the Russian banya, the Native American sweat lodge or inipi, the Turkish hamam, even the Japanese onsen. In Finland it has at least a thousand years of history.There are 1,212,000 saunas in private apartments in Finland (2002 statistics). With another 800,000 installations in summer cottages and public swimming pools that makes for more than 2 million saunas for a population of 5.2 million. For comparison, we have just under 2.5 million cars and trucks. If you are thinking of building a sauna of your own, start with these ideas and guidelines.

Finnish sauna customs

Saunas are an integral part of the way of life in Finland. They are found on the shores of Finland's numerous lakes, in private apartments, corporate headquarters, and even at the depth of 1400m (Pyhäsalmi Mine), and at the Parliament of Finland. The sauna is an important part of the national identity and those who have the opportunity usually take a sauna at least once a week. The traditional sauna day is Saturday.

The sauna tradition is so strong that even Finns abroad enjoy a good sauna, probably the reason the Finnish Church in Rotherhithe, London, has its own sauna. Finnish soldiers on peacekeeping missions are famous for their saunas; even on the UNMEE mission in Eritrea, a sauna was one of the first buildings to be erectet. (A Second World War-era Finnish military field manual states that a rest of eight hours is all that is required for a battalion to build saunas, warm them and bathe in them.)

Finnish vihta (in East Finland called vasta), made of birch. It is used in traditional sauna-bathing for massage and stimulation of the skin.

Taking a sauna begins by sitting in the hot room, typically warmed to 80-110 degrees Celsius(170-230 degrees Fahrenheit), for some time. Water is thrown on the hot stones topping the kiuas, a special stove used to warm up the sauna. This produces steam, known as löyly, which increases the moisture and heat within the sauna. The word löyly is used for this steam only in the context of the sauna and not the word höyry ('steam, vapour'). Its orignial meaning was 'spirit, breath, soul' and it is still seen in, for example, Udmurt lul, Komi lol, Mansi läl 'life', Khanty lil and Hungarian lékek. Occasionally one uses leafy, fragrant boughs of silver birch called vihta in West Finland and vasta in East Finland to gently beat oneself. This has a relaxing effect on the muscles and also helps in calming the effects of mosquito bites. When the heat begins to feel uncomfortable it is customary to jump into a lake, sea, or a swimming pool, or to have a shower. In the winter rolling in the snow or even swimming in a hole cut in the ice, an avanto, is sometimes used as a substitute. Then one usually sits down in the dressing room or the porch of the sauna to enjoy a sausage, along with beer or soft drinks. After cooling one goes back to the hot room and begins the cycle again. It varies by people how many times this cycle is repeated. Usually one takes at least two or three cycles, lasting between 30 minutes to two hours. In Finland's numerous summer cottages bathing might go on well into the night. This is especially true in the summer when there is virtually no darkness. For many Finns, the sauna is almost a sacred place. It is usually considered especially rude to swear in sauna, even in company that doesn't usually shy on swearing. Thorough washing will end the session of sauna. Conversation is relaxed and arguments and controversial topics are avoided. It is also rare to use titles or other honorifics in the sauna. In Finnish folklore, the sauna is the home of the sauna-elf, a spirit of the sauna (saunatonttu in Finnish).

Sometimes men and women go to the sauna together, sometimes not. For someone brought up in Finland, the rules are instinctive but they are difficult to put into words. Depending on the size, composition, relationships, and the age structure of the group three basic patterns can emerge: Everyone can go to the sauna at the same time, men and women may take sauna separately, or each family can go to sauna separately. Mixed saunas with non-family members are most common with younger adults, and are quite rare for older people or on more formal occasions. It is common for teenagers to stop going to sauna with their parents at some point; younger people, especially men, also favour hotter saunas than older.

In the sauna it is a faux pas to wear clothing in the hot room, although it is acceptable to sit on a small towel or pefletci, a disposable tissue designed to endure heat and humidity (it can be mandatory in a public sauna, such as at a public swimming pool). While cooling off it is common to wrap a towel around your body. Though mixed saunas are quite common, for a typical Finn the sauna is, with few exceptions, a non-sexual place. In Finland "sauna" means only a sauna, not a brothel, sex club, or such. In public saunas one also sees signs prohibiting the wearing of swimming suits in the hot room. In some indoor swimming pools chlorine is added to the water for hygiene reasons. If swimwear used in such water is brought to the hot room, the chlorine will vaporize and cause breathing problems for people with asthma or allergies. The oldest still active public sauna can be found in the Pispala district of Tampere. Rajaportin sauna began its operation 1906 and is currently owned by the City of Tampere. It is however run by the local Pispala Sauna Association (Finnish: Pispalan saunayhdistys ry.)

Foreign visitors to Finland often get invited into the sauna. This may even happen after business negotiations and other such events. On these occasions it may be acceptable to refuse, although it may not impress one's Finnish hosts. Such an invitation in a business setting may indicate that the negotiations have gone well and a joint business effort is anticipated. In private homes or summer residences the sauna is usually warmed to honour the guest and refusal may be more difficult. However, Finns will not typically be offended by declining the sauna.


The savusauna (smoke sauna) is a special type of sauna without a chimney. Wood is burned in a particularly large stove and the smoke fills the room. When the sauna is hot enough, the fire is allowed to die and the smoke is ventilated out. The residual heat of the stove is enough for the duration of the sauna. This represents the ancestral type of sauna, since chimneys are a later addition. Smoke saunas have experienced great revival in recent years since they are considered superior by the connoisseurs. They are not, however, likely to replace all or even most of the regular saunas because more skill, effort and time (usually many hours) are needed for the heating process.

The sauna in Finland is such an old phenomenon that it is impossible to trace its roots. Bath houses were recorded in Europe during the same time period, but Finnish bathing habits were hardly documented until the 16th century. Because of the years of habitation and variant rule by Russia and Sweden, it is possible that the sauna custom evolved from them. It was during the Reformation in Scandinavia that the popularity of saunas expanded to other countries because the European bath houses were being destroyed. Hundreds of years ago, when bathing was something to be done only rarely or never at all, Finns were cleaning themselves in saunas at least once a week. One reason the sauna culture has always flourished in Finland has been because of the versatility of the sauna. When people were moving the first thing they did was build a sauna. You could live in it, make food in the stove, take care of your personal hygiene and most importantly, give birth in an almost sterile environment. The sauna smoke contained tannic acid, an anti-bacterial polymer, which was the main reason saunas were the most sterile places. Another reason for its popularity is that in such a cold climate, the sauna allows people warmth for at least a short period of time. However, it is just as popular in the summer as in the winter.


Christmas sauna

The sauna has a special place in the Christmas traditions of many Finnish families. In past times, peasant families started heating their saunas two days before Christmas so that everybody could bathe before the sun set on Christmas eve. It was believed that once the darkness set in, the sauna would be used by the invisible folk, the previous inhabitants of the house. In lighter versions of the tale, the visitors would be sauna elves, who also brought good fortune to the house.

Even in modern times, many families go to the sauna as part of the Christmas eve preparations. After the sauna, they visit the graves of their families and friends before settling down for the festive dinner.