Discover the best sauna experience for you by understanding its many variations, options and types. I've tried every type of sauna imaginable. Here are your options.
I’m writing this after a 20-minute session in the infrared sauna in my gym. The infrared works in a pinch, but I prefer a hot sauna.
Speaking of infrared vs. heat saunas, that’s not the only distinction. There are many different types of saunas based on a variety of categories. This article breaks it all down into detail.
FYI, I’ve been an avid sauna-goer for more than 25 years. I go 2 to 6 times per week and have tried every type of sauna imaginable (including 100+ year old wood-burning sauna huts in Sweden and a sweat lodge in Canada).
Sauna is the only Finnish word that’s included in the English dictionary. Meaning “bath” and “bathhouse,” it’s derived from the Finnish word savuna which means “in smoke.” For over 2000 years, saunas have become a part of life for the Fins who were originally a nomadic people.
The first record of the sauna appeared in 1112. The Fins believed so much in its cleansing, restorative, and health benefits that they considered it “the poor man’s pharmacy.” It’s also the place for childbirth and for women’s purification ritual before marriage. The sauna tradition remains strong in Finland where it’s home to a population of 5 million people and about 2 million saunas.
A. Five Main Sauna Types
I’m kicking off the first batch of sauna options distinguished by heating source.
1. Dry Heat Sauna with Electric Heater
Electrically heated saunas are very common. These are actually even simpler to use than wood-burning sauna heaters because you don’t have to concern yourself with supplying wood into the unit in order to keep things heated. Once you have everything wired in properly, all you will have to do is push a button and your sauna room will heat to the desired temperature. There are quite a few benefits of these sauna room types as well.
The biggest benefit that people enjoy about electrically heated saunas is that they allow you more control over the temperature of the room. It can be a bit more difficult to control the temperature of the room when using a wood-burning sauna heater. You can be very precise when using electrical heat, as it will have buttons for you to push, and you can program the desired temperature manually. You will also find that many of these units will come with a remote control so that you don’t have to get up just to adjust the temperature.
These electrically heated saunas are quite energy-efficient as well. You won’t have to worry about them negatively impacting your power bill too much, as they are made to adhere to strict energy standards. The more modern your electrically heated sauna is, the better it will be at energy conservation, in all likelihood. This makes deciding to purchase one of these types of saunas a much easier decision.
Electrically heated saunas are used in some spas, although they aren’t quite as common as steam rooms. These are very desirable saunas that have a reputation for being able to help people relax conveniently. If you want to have the easiest time possible with your sauna experience, then there is some merit to purchasing this type instead of others. Electrically heated saunas and infrared saunas are similarly easy to set up, so those are your two simplest options.
2. Wet Sauna (Just Add Water)
A slight twist on the dry heat sauna is what’s called a wet sauna. This is a fancy way of terming a sauna that you can toss water onto the heating element. When water hits the hot rocks, it turns to steam making the room humid and hot. This type of sauna speeds up the sweating process. It’s my favorite type of sauna.
Please note that a wet sauna is different than a steam room. A steam room is one where steam is emitted into the room. A wet sauna uses a heating element which produces hot humid air by splashing water on the heating element.
Unfortunately, most commercial saunas do not permit splashing water on the rocks because it’s an electric heater. Water usually ends up damaging the element, especially when some people go nuts and pour an entire bucket of water on it at one time. If people applied a little water at a time, there wouldn’t be any problems, but sadly this isn’t the case.
You will sweat profusely while in this very hot and humid space. The temperatures can reach up to 212 degrees Fahrenheit, in some cases, so you can understand why you will sweat so much. The sweat is released in an attempt to cool your body down, and your heart rate will increase as your body continues to try to cool down. As a result, you receive some of the benefits of exercising rigorously without having to do anything but sit there.
It should also be noted that some people don’t consider a steam or wet sauna to be a normal type of sauna. It differs from the other types substantially because the steam provides a moist and humid heat. Other types of saunas will produce a dry heat that will bring about the same results but will feel completely different. Steam saunas are most commonly used for the purpose of relaxation, and this is probably why they are so popular.
3. Infrared Sauna
My gym has an infrared sauna which I use on occasion. Far more often I go to the community center near my house because it has a fantastic electric-powered dry heat sauna (and they keep it hot).
I’m not a big fan of infrared saunas because you don’t get that cookin’ heat that makes saunas so great. Yes, you can sweat in an infrared sauna, but I don’t get the same type or quality of sweat as I do with a hot sauna.
That said, infrared saunas have started to become more prevalent in recent years. Many people, at first glance, don’t even know what these types of saunas are. These sauna rooms use a unique method to heat you up, and they actually don’t even heat the room up at all. Powerful infrared lights are used to heat up your body specifically, giving you the same effects that you would experience in a traditional steam sauna.
Interestingly, the infrared sauna will not produce temperatures that are nearly as high as other sauna types. Due to the fact that the heat targets your body, you will still experience the exact same benefits. Whether or not you find this type of sauna to be as relaxing is a personal preference, but it is undeniable that the experience feels much different. You will still produce ample amounts of sweat and can use it as a way to access all of the benefits of going into a sauna.
There is a large number of people who simply don’t enjoy infrared saunas in the same way that they do the other types. The atmosphere is definitely different and it doesn’t have the same feeling. Purists are probably always going to vastly prefer the other methods, but that doesn’t mean that infrared saunas don’t have their fans. You can purchase home saunas that make use of this infrared technology at very affordable prices, making them quite prevalent.
The affordability of these personal infrared sauna rooms makes them a good deal. Even if you would prefer to have a traditional steam sauna at your home, it might not be as economical to purchase such a unit. Everything seems to come down to money, so these types of saunas most definitely have their place. If you want to socialize in your sauna area, then going with one of the other options might be a better fit for you.
4. Wood-Burning Sauna
Since saunas have been around far longer than electricity, the original heat source was good ole fire. The fire heats up the rocks which heats up the room. Add some water and presto, you’re cookin’.
I guess you could say there are two main types of wood-burning saunas, but they really do function the same. Here they are.
a. Traditional wood-burning sauna
b. Contemporary Wood-Burning Sauna Heater
If you like the wood-burning source for heat, you can more contemporary units that will power and heat a sauna like the one above. Because it’s wood-burning, you can toss water on the rocks without worrying about short-circuiting the unit.
5. Sweat lodge
A sweat lodge relies on wood-burning heating source, but the rocks are heated outside of the space and brought in while super hot. Water is then poured on the rocks which heats up the sweat lodge.
B. By Region
Another way to categorize saunas is by region. There are two main regional saunas. They are the Russian Banya and the Finnish sauna.
Russian banya vs. Finnish sauna (with photo examples)
1. Russian Banya
A Russian Banya offers two to three levels and is fairly humid as a result of water being splashed on the hot rocks. Humidity levels can reach 70 to 90%. While the top shelf temperature maxes out at 90° Celsius (less than Finnish dry sauna), it feels hotter due to the humidity. Extreme Russian Banyas can reach 100° with 100% humidity (yikes).
2. Finnish Sauna
A traditional Finnish sauna offers 2 levels and is very dry (10 to 15% humidity). The upper shelf should be 80° to 100° Celsius. Most of the interior is wood.
Which sauna do I prefer?
I prefer a Russian Banya because I love the hot humidity. It brings on the sweat faster and feels hotter. However, if you’re looking for a longer sauna session, the dry Finnish sauna is best.
C. By Design
Another way to distinguish saunas is by design. There are types of outdoor saunas and different indoor sauna options. Here they are.
There are some sauna rooms that are shaped just like barrels. If you want to put a sauna on your property, then buying one of these could definitely be a very charming option. The barrel design is very aesthetically pleasing, and it evokes very nostalgic feelings of the countryside. Any property that has a barn would work very well with a sauna that looks like this.
The sauna room itself sits on top of legs, so it will be slightly elevated off of the ground. It looks really good like this, and it can still fit indoors if that is where you want it. This sauna is sturdy enough to be used outdoors, as well, so you can count on it being able to stand up to the weather. Installation is simple too, as you just use a wiring kit to get everything going.
Of course, this sauna isn’t all about just looking really neat. It is also a fully functional sauna that can fit up to four people very comfortably. If you want to put a sauna on your property that will be useful for when friends come over, then this option is certainly one that fits the bill. You will be able to enjoy a great sauna experience with your friends, and they will surely come away from the experience wanting one of their own.
This particular sauna uses an electric heater in order to create the heat. This is a really efficient sauna unit that won’t use more energy than is necessary. It can produce a lot of heat, so your sauna will be just the right temperature for you to sweat and enjoy some relaxation time. This unit will also include sauna stones and the wiring kit that you will need to set everything up.
If you want to get this sauna set up outside, it may be beneficial to build an enclosure for it to protect it from harsh weather. It shouldn’t have a problem standing up to normal rainfall and other types of storms like that. If you live in an area that has really powerful storms or heavy snowfall, it might be best to build a roof over the top of it. Something like a carport would work very nicely to keep your sauna protected, and it will allow you to use it during any time of the year.
a. Built-in (Custom)
b. Kit box style
c. Corner design
3. Portable Personal Sauna
When you think about using a sauna, it isn’t usually something that you think about being a portable experience. Regardless, portable personal saunas do exist, and many people love making use of them. If you want to be able to use a sauna just about anywhere, then buying one of these sauna units is going to make you very happy. They’re incredibly simple to set up, and you will be able to enjoy all of the benefits of using a sauna.
Setting up this sauna will only take a few minutes, in most cases. You just unfold it and place your chair inside of the unit. There is a zipped up area where the portable sauna will be heated. This is where you enter the unit, and you can poke your head out so that you will be able to breathe more easily.
There is a little steam-producing water heater that attaches to the unit itself. You put water in the steamer and it will heat up your portable personal sauna. The process is incredibly simple, and it will automatically shut itself off if it detects that there is no longer any water in the steamer. You won’t have to feel concerned about this being too complicated to use, as it is exceedingly simple.
Once you are done with your sauna time, you will be able to break down the portable sauna with ease. It will fold away so that you can conveniently store it in a bag or in your closet somewhere. This folds down to be small enough that you could potentially travel with it. Being able to take a sauna with you everywhere that you go is a really nice prospect, so this is one type of sauna that is certainly worth looking into.
4. Single-person sauna
Some saunas are designed specifically to be placed in homes. One such sauna is the one-person sauna that is linked down below. These one-person sauna models are very convenient for people who want to be able to enjoy the benefits of a sauna but don’t have enough space to install a sauna room. You can fit this sauna in a smaller room, typically, so you won’t need an abundance of space to make proper use of it.
This is really good for a person who doesn’t want to use their sauna with other people. It won’t be convenient if you want to use the sauna with your spouse or your friends, but if it is simply for your personal time, this will work out nicely. Buying a one-person sauna like this can be a great way to get a sauna in your home without it being a big hassle. You won’t have to mess around with any complicated installation processes since this is an infrared unit.
You can find one-person spas that use other heating methods as well, but the infrared units are convenient for those who want a simple experience. You don’t have to worry about as many different factors when you’re making use of an infrared unit, so it makes sense to purchase one. These saunas will fit in your home easily, and the cost is very reasonable as well. In comparison to some other sauna options, this is going to be much easier to manage when you don’t have a lot of money.
This is a great way to be able to relax in your home while enjoying the benefits of using a personal sauna. You will be happy that you made the purchase if you have been wanting one for a very long time. An economical, convenient sauna option for one person has proved to be very popular on the market. You should be able to find these types of saunas anywhere that home saunas are sold.
D. By Bench Tiers
I’ve been in single, doublt and up to 5 tiered saunas. The best are two-tiered benches because you stay fairly close to the heating element but are situated above the heat (heat rises).
I’m not sure why anyone would install a single-level bench sauna. You need to be above the heat in order to enjoy optimal effect.
Two bench levels
Three+ bench levels
E. Sauna Blanket
There are some interesting products on the market that are marketed as saunas but aren’t exactly what you would think of as traditional sauna rooms. One such product is the sauna blanket that is being shown off here. This sauna blanket acts very similarly to a traditional sleeping bag. You get into the sleeping bag, and infrared lights are used to heat your body up to very high temperatures.
As you lay there inside of the sauna blanket, you are going to be sweating profusely. Due to being encapsulated in the blanket, this can actually feel more intense than a normal infrared sauna room would. You will feel very hot and will definitely sweat copiously, which is the purpose of using this type of product. Your heart rate will likely spike very high when using this sauna blanket, so you will be able to enjoy many of the benefits that you are looking for.
It’s important to be careful when using a sauna-like this, though. You don’t want to even attempt to use it if you have any medical conditions that might cause you problems. The heat can be very intense inside of these sauna blankets, so you won’t want to enter it if you don’t think your body is up to it. You may even want to consult your family physician before using a product like this.
The benefits of using a sauna are great, but you need to be as safe as possible. This is a really neat product that so many people are using to great effect. It’s simply important that you ensure that you are capable of using it safely before moving forward. There is nothing wrong with exercising caution as it can prevent accidents from happening.
If you want to be able to enjoy the benefits of a sauna without having to spend much money at all, then getting a sauna blanket will help you. This is without a doubt the most inexpensive method on this list. You can purchase one of these blankets at a very affordable price, so it will be easy for you to enjoy this product. It isn’t as relaxing or entertaining as many of the other sauna types, but you can’t argue with the affordability factor.
F. Steam Shower
A steam shower is not a sauna at all, but some people when referencing a sauna, really mean a steam shower or steam room so I included it in this list.
There are going to be a number of different people who won’t consider this to be a true sauna, me included. I love steam rooms as well and use one regularly, but the entire concept and experience is much different. You can’t stay in a hot steam room nearly as long as a sauna. Moreover, you start sweating almost instantly upon entering a steam room. I prefer saunas because I find that while steam rooms result in a great sweat, you don’t build up inner core heat like a sauna.