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Steam Shower vs. Sauna. What's the Difference?

Updated on October 17, 2009

One of the key differences between a steam shower, or steam room, and a sauna is the type of heat they produce.

A steam shower produces very moist heat, with high humidity.  A sauna produces very dry heat that is higher than a steam shower, but with lower humidity.

Both have been around for a long time.  Ancient Greeks and Romans used both steam rooms and saunas.  But so have other cultures.  The Aztecs had their temazcalli, or sweat house.  The Native American Indian had their sweat lodges.  The Mexican culture had the temescal.  There were also the Islamic hamman and the Russian bania.  And, of course, the Finns are credited with the first wooden sauna.

Now let's look at the differences in more detail. 

Wooden sauna
Wooden sauna

The Steam Shower

Steam showers have a steam generator with built in heating coils. Cold water passes through the heating coils and is heated to boiling. This produces the steam which is then released into the shower room through steam jets.

The steam shower enclosure is built of materials that can withstand the extreme heat of the steam. The waterproof enclosures are also fit tightly together to keep the steam in.

The moist heat given off by the steam is usually around 100 to 115 degrees Fahrenheit. (38 to 46 degrees Celsius). The humidity level is at about 100%.

The modern steam shower is available in different sizes and shapes and with many different options. These include music, aromatherapy, foot massage, and more.

Here is a link to more information about steam showers.

The Sauna

The sauna is also an enclosed room but most often built of wood panels. Soft wood is recommended so it remains cool when the sauna is on.  Inside the sauna, there are wooden benches of different heights for people to sit on.  The ceiling is slanted so the steam that builds up doesn't drip on people sitting in the sauna.  Traditional saunas have a wood burning heater.  More modern sauna rooms have an electric or gas heater.  The purpose of the heater is to heat rocks, which are typically some type of volcanic rock.  When the rocks are heated, the heat from the rocks then radiates throughout the sauna.

In a "wet" sauna, water is splashed over the rocks.  The water quickly vaporizes and forms steam, called löyly by Finns.  The steam then disappears into the soft wood of the sauna.

The temperature in a sauna is usually from 160 to 200 degrees Fahrenheit (71 to 93 degrees Celsius). The humidity ranges around 5 to 20 percent.  In the wet sauna, the humidity climbs to 30 percent.

Other Differences

Both steam showers and saunas make you sweat.  But because of the high humidity in the steam shower, sweat doesn't evaporate as fast.  This can make you feel that the steam shower is actually hotter than the sauna. 

In the sauna, with its dry heat, your sweat dries faster, giving you the feeling that the sauna is not that hot.

However, because of the dry heat, you may feel it more difficult to breathe in the sauna than in the steam shower. 

Depending on size, a sauna can take 20 to 30 minutes to heat up.  A steam shower can be producing steam in a matter of minutes. 

Steam Shower and Sauna Benefits

The primary benefit of both the steam shower and the sauna is to help you relax and unwind. 

The heat produced in both types of rooms tells your body it needs to cool down.  This widens your blood vessels and improves your circulation.  Your pores open and your skin gets rid of toxins and dirt.  Afterwards, your skin feels cleaner and softer. 

The improved circulation also helps relax your muscles and joints by getting more oxygen to them.

Steam increases the moisture that reaches your bronchial tubes, nose, and throat.  This can help if you suffer from respiratory conditions such as asthma.  On the other hand, the dry heat of a sauna may be too intense for some people's lungs.

Used properly, you leave a steam shower or sauna feeling refreshed and calm.  This can improve both your physical and mental states.  Using a steam room or sauna before bedtime can help you more quickly fall into a comfortable sleep.


Safety Considerations

Despite the benefits of steam showers and saunas, you should take precautions before using either.

First and foremost, if you are pregnant, or have blood pressure, heart, respiratory, or other physical problems, always talk to your health care provider before using either a steam shower or sauna. 

Limit your time in the steam shower or sauna to about 15 to 20 minutes, at least until you know your steam and heat toleration limits.

Keep in mind that the dry heat of the sauna can cause dehydration.  But sure you drink lots of water before and after using a sauna.

Finally, if you feel dizzy or have a problem with breathing, leave the steam shower or sauna immediately.



Both steam showers and saunas can provide mental and physical benefits.  Now that you understand the differences between them, try both out to determine which one makes you feel better.   

The Sauna Championships – Finland

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    • Billsnotes profile image

      Billsnotes 7 years ago

      Thank you for your comment.

    • Nicolas Simons profile image

      Nicolas Simons 7 years ago from San Francisco

      Both the steam shower and sauna are a great way to de-stress, and I love that you included health considerations, which are very important. Nice hub.