Release peace: the magazine
Release peace: the magazine
Analysis & Background Stories on International Affairs
Steamy Secrets: The Science & History of Finland's Sauna Traditions
Article by: Lauriane Lamare
A Millennium Ago
With its rich history and unique rituals, the Finnish sauna tradition stands as a testament to the country’s deep-rooted appreciation for well-being, tranquillity, and the powerful bond between humans and nature. Created between 1500 and 900 years BC, in the Bronze Age, this important part of Finnish culture has been part of UNESCO since 2020. It is considered a way to promote physical and mental well-being. From blood circulation improvements and muscle relaxation to stress reduction and self-reflection, there are an array of benefits from stepping into the heat. Many Finns go once a week as either a family activity, to meet up with friends or to bond with coworkers. In fact, studies have found that Finns may spend even more time in the sauna than they do exercising.
Science in the Spotlight
A sauna is more than just a steamy room. Over an approximately 20-year period, researchers from the University of Eastern Finland tracked 2,300 middle-aged men. These men were categorised into three groups according to how often they used a sauna each week. The men spent an average of 14 minutes per visit baking in 80°C heat. Over the course of the study, 49% of men who went to a sauna once a week eventually died within the period, compared with 38% of those who went two to three times a week and just 31% of those who went four to seven times a week. The health benefits are backed by science. But science aside, there is a certain etiquette that must be followed to experience a Finnish sauna truly.
To enter the sauna, you typically have to be naked and clean, whilst putting a towel as a form of protection below where you sit. You either must sit in silence or engage in a light conversation with the people surrounding you, with each person taking turns pouring water on the stones. Men and women usually do not go to the sauna at the same time unless they are family. The ideal temperature to completely detox and cleanse every pore of your body is between 70°C to 110°C.
A distinct aspect of the Finnish sauna tradition is the practice of cooling off in nature. After each sauna session, people often immerse themselves in cold water, roll in the snow during winter, or relax on the shores of a lake to balance the heat of the sauna. Birch or other aromatic tree branches, known as vihta or vasta, are used for gently beating the body during the sauna session, enhancing blood circulation further.
How Does it Vary from the Rest of the World?
Finnish traditional saunas are known to be dry; the sauna creates dry heat in an entirely different way from other types of saunas. Kiuas, the wood-burning stoves, heat a large pile of rocks which then release heat in the room with its steam when water is poured over. Wood-burning stoves differ from electric or gas heaters commonly found in other saunas and give a whole experience with their aroma. This type of sauna does generate some moisture, but nowhere near the levels of a steam room. Saunas have a vent that continually brings fresh air in, to limit too much humidity build-up.
Saunas exist in various cultures worldwide. However, the Finnish sauna tradition stands apart with its cultural significance, specific sauna structures, wood-burning stoves, unique etiquette, integration with nature, emphasis on socialising, and the belief in holistic well-being. The Finnish sauna tradition is a cherished part of the country’s identity, making it a truly exceptional experience for visitors and an integral part of Finnish culture.
The Three Types of Saunas
If you go to Finland you can find three main types of sauna. The first, and most famous one, is the wooden sauna, which is the most traditional. The wood is burned in a stove inside the sauna and the water is poured onto the rocks above it creating a cosy fog and heat. The most common household sauna in Finland is the electric one. Here the rocks are heated by an electric stove that creates a dryer heat. The last type, and the less common one, is a smoke sauna. This sauna is quite rare and less made because of the risk of burning and a long heating process. Furthermore, they don’t use chimneys so the black smoke remains inside of the sauna.
Where Can You Experience This?
Beyond the captivating landscapes of Finland lie the enchanting sauna structures, where generations have sought solace and rejuvenation. You may find these relaxing spaces not only in nature, near a cold lake, but also in towns with public saunas that have been constructed thanks to private initiatives, as well as in most Finnish apartments. In the very north, located in Finnish and Swedish Lapland, you can find Haparanda Tornio for a very relaxing time around the beautiful nature with the 400-year-old farm Nivagården or the Cape East Hotel and Spa that Lapland has to offer. If you go during winter time you may jump into the cold snow after a sauna session admiring wonderful auroras borealis. Perhaps join the 60 to 90 per cent of Finnish people that have a sauna at least once per week.