Sauna – nothing is more Finnish!

Although the title suggests otherwise, except saunas in Finland one may encounter a number of other equally Finnish things such as Moomin trolls or even Fazer chocolate. Somebody may argue as to whether sauna is a Finnish invention. After all, the Russians have their own banya and Indians – sweat house. However, I feel tempted to say that the sauna in its current form is typically, if not exclusively, Finnish. In addition to being a big help in maintaining good health, it is also a source of inspiration :)

Sauna accessories
Bucket, ladle and bath whisk – the most important accessories in the sauna

History and evolution of the sauna

Almost from the times immemorial sauna is an important part of the culture and everyday life in Finland. The first mentions of sauna come from 1,112 year. It has been described as a hole in the ground with stones that were previously heated in the fire. People sat around the heated stones and covered themselves down with a sheet. In time, ground sauna evolved into smoke sauna: a small wooden hut without a chimney equipped with a big fireplace. During the warming-up smoke filled the sauna, and escaped through the hole in the ceiling and the opened door. At those times the sauna was entered after the furnace expired and the smoke faded away. Another innovation in the construction of the sauna was the introduction of the chimney, so that the sauna did not have to be ventilated anymore. What is more, the chimney prevented soot from covering the benches. Today’s sauna houses in Finns’ apartments are usually equipped with electric stoves. Finns love the sauna so much that they even created a mobile sauna.

Currently, sauna is a place to relax with family and friends. It once served as a hospital. Before the introduction of universal health care almost every mother gave birth in the sauna, which was the cleanest possible place. An old Finnish proverb says: “Sauna on köyhän apteekki” (meaning: the sauna is the pharmacy for the poor).

Apparently, the number of saunas in Finland reaches two million. With a population of about five million people it gives about one sauna per family. Only the apartments with the lowest standard do not have their own private saunas, although each such housing block has a public sauna for its residents. The sauna is omnipresent. It can be found it in the dorms, workplace or hotel. There are also public saunas, often in the vicinity of the sea or a lake.

Birch bath whisk
When the leaves fall, the whisk can be purchased in a shop :)

The ritual of bathing in the sauna

  1. Before entering the sauna you should remove metal jewelry. Heated to 100 ° C it can burn.
  2. You should start from taking a shower. When the body is clean the sauna experience is more pleasurable as one avoids unpleasant smell of sweat. Moreover, it is easier to keep the sauna clean.
  3. After entering the hot sauna you should sit on top of the bench, but on the towel! Towel prevents sweat from soaking into the wood.
  4. When pouring water onto the stones the felt temperature in the sauna increases – it is best to keep the temperature that is most comfortable for your body.
  5. You can also use the vasta – the whisk made of birch twigs with leaves.
  6. After the bath you should cool your body. There are many ways of doing so: taking cold shower, jumping into the lake or the sea (even in winter), or even rolling in the snow.
  7. Now you can finish the bath or go back to the sauna and repeat the cycle.
  8. At the end you should take another shower to wash away the sweat.

How to make your own birch whisk – video tutorial

Pro-health properties of the sauna

I’ll start with what one can see at first glance: sauna improves skin condition. You can prove it to yourself by just looking at Finnish women who look extremely young. What is more, I experienced this personally during my first Finnish winter, when I was struggling with extremely dry skin. Two sessions in the sauna solved my problem completely – the skin was hydrated again. In addition, it became very smooth and flexible. The sauna will also help you in getting rid of cellulite. Of course, using only sauna will not miraculously change the state of your hips, but if you add a good massage, drink plenty of fluids, change your diet, and add moderate exercise, the results can be spectacular :) Moreover, the sweat glands of the skin and unclog so the body gets rid of excess sebum – the sauna improves oily skin condition.

It is worth mentioning that the sauna does not help in losing body fat, but after leaving the sauna weight probably will be lower. This is due to a significant loss of water due to increased sweating of the body. Liquids should be complemented after bathing in sauna.

Bathing in sauna improves blood circulation in the body. Therefore, it improves the appearance of the skin, blood pressure, body resistance and endurance, functioning of internal organs, provides relief in joint pains, strengthens circulatory system and connective tissue, relaxes. Along with the water from the body toxins are excreted – the effect is amplified by flogging the body with the birch whisk. This treatment additionally hardens the skin. Moreover, afterwards in the sauna will be filled with beautiful scent of birch :) Birch essential oils from the vapor unblock the upper respiratory tract (at least in my case). Finns say that the long sauna along with flogging completely eliminates blisters caused by mosquito bites – this, however, I have yet to confirm :)

The sauna is especially recommended for people suffering from rheumatism, neurosis, neuralgia, catarrh, skin problems. Unfortunately, certain diseases and ailments are a contraindication for the use of the sauna. These are for example: open wounds, inflammations, fever, cardiovascular diseases (hypertension, circulatory failure, heart disease), cancer, organic diseases (of nervous system, lungs, kidneys, liver), diabetes, blindness, glaucoma, tinea acne.

Sauna Stove
A brief glance at the sauna electric stove

Sauna-related customs in Finland

  1. The invitation to the sauna is a great honor – Finns usually do not go to the sauna with strangers
  2. The sauna is dark, quiet and does not smell. Acceptable is only the smell the birch whisk.
  3. In Finland you do not use the clock. You stay in the sauna stays as long as you want. You should sprinkle stones up with water when you want and how much you want.
  4. To the sauna nobody does wear a costume. Permissible, but not recommended, is to wrap oneself in a towel.
  5. Finns come to sauna with their families. As a rule, teenagers stop going to the sauna with their parents.
  6. Traditionally, women were taking a sauna bath on other days than men.

Sauna trivia

While bathing in the sauna, you can simultaneously prepare a tasty snack – popular in Finland “sauna makkara” or the sauna sausage. It is baked it in the sauna, on the stones of the stove. Sausage and additions (cheese, veggies – whatever you like) are wrapped in aluminum foil. Wrapped are put on the stones, baking for some time, and voila – the snack is ready.

According to traditional beliefs, in the Finnish sauna there lives a sauna troll – Saunatonttu. It is a small, human-like creature who sneaks into the sauna (when its hosts have already came out) to enjoy the last vapor. Sometimes the sounds of sauna’s stove is attributed to Saunatonttu’s activities.

In 1937 the Finnish Sauna Society was founded (www.sauna.fi). Currently, it brings together 4,200 members. The aim of the Society is to preserve and protect the traditional culture of the sauna. In addition, it takes up: promoting sauna and its impact on health, educating and correcting erroneous opinions about saunas, the development of modern saunas, publications, promotion of research, and the organization of seminars on the sauna. There is also the International Sauna Association. It was established in 1977. It brings together 13 Member States: the Czech Republic, Norway, Germany, Japan, Lithuania, USA, Belgium, Finland, Austria, Sweden, Denmark, Russia, and Ukraine.


“Steam of Life” – Trailer

Furthermore, in the sauna movies are being created. The best example of such a movie is “Miesten vuoro” (en: “Steam of Life”). Almost all movie scenes are shot in the sauna or adjacent rooms. The protagonists are men who talk about their difficult lives, the small joys of everyday life and observations they made. I watched it, and highly recommend. The film grabs by the heart and does not want to let go. In addition, it debunks stereotypes about Finns, which for reasons unknown have appeared in the foreigners’ images of that nation. While watching the production one will discover that the hearts of Finns are not as cold as Finnish winter but just the opposite: are as hot as the Finnish sauna :)


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