What are the different types of sauna?

Close-up image of Jules Walters

Jules Walters • Published: Aug 23, 2023

From Finnish sauna to steam saunas and more, this article looks at the different kinds of saunas that have become part of many wellness routines.

You can enjoy a sauna at your local gym, in a private wellness clinic or in the privacy of your own home.

The key differences in saunas are whether they use wet or dry heat and how the heat is generated. The first saunas burned wood to generate heat, then came electricity, and more recently, infrared light.

Each kind of sauna will deliver health benefits so let’s go through how best to decide what’s right for you.

Short summary

  • Saunas have been with us for thousands of years
  • The main difference between different types of saunas is how the heat is generated
  • You can also choose between wet or dry heat. The choice is yours
Interior of traditional sauna with towel, water bucket and essential oils on wooden bench

A brief history of the types of saunas

Humans have enjoyed sitting in small, heated rooms, what we now call saunas, for thousands of years. The Finns claim they invented saunas with the first written description captured in 1112.

Saunas were first dug into the ground like an embankment. Later came a small stove with a wood fire that heated stones.

Traveling Finns brought their culture with them to America, initially settling in Delaware in the 1600s.

Wooden cottage in rural Finland by a lake

Electricity enabled more accessible saunas to be developed, particularly in urban areas.

Infrared saunas first started in Japan in the 1960s and extended to the United States from the late 1970s.

Traditional Finnish saunas for purists: wood-burning sauna

The Finns are lucky enough to still have many traditional saunas, where thousands of kilos of stones are heated by burning wood. Finns have a lot of choice in a country where taking a sauna is part of the national identity.

It’s reported that Finland has over three million saunas for a total population of just five and a half million people with most saunas in people’s homes.

A traditional sauna generates its heat by burning wood. For those of us in urban areas, burning wood is not really an option so thankfully there are other ways to heat up a sauna.

Traditional Finnish sauna heated by burning wood - heading article on outdoor saunas

Electric saunas

As sauna culture extended beyond Finland, wood-burning saunas were increasingly replaced by electric saunas. The heating elements still heat up the stones, which are often made of soapstone or granite to conduct heat from stone to stone.

The North American Sauna Society says electric saunas are not expensive to run, if you’re thinking of putting one in your home. Their website has a way of calculating the additional cost to your electricity bills by multiplying the kilowatt size of the heater x your electricity rate x the number of hours you estimate you’ll use a month.

Wet saunas

Whether you’re generating heat through traditional wood burning or through electricity, you can also opt to add some humidity or water in the air.

A wet sauna generates the humidity by pouring water on hot stones or by releasing pressurized steam into the sauna.

The level of humidity in a sauna is usually low at 5-10%, compared to a steam room, which can have a humidity of up to 100% like a Turkish bath.

Woman taking sauna bath, resting on bench of traditional Finnish-style sauna bathing cabin

Dry saunas

Dry saunas don’t put moisture in the air. So there’s no water on rocks to create steam, or steam pumped into the room. You can see more clearly. Some people prefer dry heat, especially if they find high humidity uncomfortable.

The low humidity means that your sweat may evaporate more quickly than in a wet sauna. Heat still moves from stone to stone by conduction, starting with the ones closest to the heat source.

Whether you opt for a wet or dry sauna, is really just personal preference. Try both and see which one you like most.

Front view of empty Finnish sauna room

Best type of saunas for modern users – Infrared saunas

The beating heart of the sauna is the heater, which is traditionally driven by wood burning or by electricity.

In the late 1970s, infrared saunas arrived in America using infrared light to create heat. Infrared saunas don’t produce steam. They typically maintain lower humidity levels too, which results in a drier environment.

If you’re a sauna beginner, makers of infrared saunas recommend limiting yourself to three sessions a week for the first four weeks and keep session lengths to no more than 20 or 30 minutes. You could start with just one session a week to see if you like the experience.

You should start to sweat within 10 to 15 minutes of the session start.

Traditional saunas generally take longer to heat up fully, usually requiring 30 minutes to an hour. Infrared saunas, on the other hand, heat up more quickly, often reaching desired temperatures within 10 to 15 minutes.

Interior of infrared sauna boasting many health benefits; from improved cardiovascular health to skin health, increased blood flow and lower blood pressure

The key difference in an infrared sauna is that the heat warms your body, rather than the room itself. The heat in an infrared sauna tends to be lower at 110 to 135 degrees Fahrenheit, rather than traditional saunas at 150 to 195 degrees Fahrenheit.

Infrared saunas are often considered more energy-efficient compared to a traditional sauna, as they heat up more quickly and need less power to maintain temperature.

Steam sauna vs steam room. What's the difference?

Both a steam sauna and a steam room are used for health benefits and both should relax you. The biggest difference is the amount of humidity.

Steam rooms use generators to pump steam until the humidity reaches 100%. Steam saunas tend to use a lot less humidity at 5-10%.

Steam sauna interior

Indoor saunas

If you want your indoor sauna to last, choose one that’s constructed from high-quality, durable materials. For example, many saunas are made from wood such as cedar or hemlock, which are known for their resistance to moisture and durability.

Outdoor saunas

Another choice if you have a big yard is to have a sauna installed outside your home in its own little room.

There are several styles of outdoor sauna to choose from through the manufacturers, depending if you want a rustic or a sleek finish. Check out this guide on best outdoor saunas as a starter.

Personal barrel-shaped sauna in the woods with rustic finish

Home saunas

A home sauna lets you create a relaxing spa experience without ever leaving home. There are lots to choose from here, and I’ve chosen what I think are some of the best ones, with a range of budgets and styles to suit everyone.

Frequently asked questions

How do I decide which type of sauna is right for me?

If you’re thinking of a sauna for your home, the most important thing is to try a few out a few different kinds first. Do you like humidity? If so a wet sauna could be for you. Do you like to see what’s going on, rather than being enveloped in a cloud of steam? Then maybe a dry sauna is a better fit.

It’s also worth trying the new infrared saunas, which will need less maintenance, than a wet sauna.

The reasons why sauna users choose one type over the other varies depending on personal preferences and specific health goals.

What type of sauna provides the most health benefits?

Research shows that all saunas will provide health benefits. Start low and slow is the best guidance – so start at a lower temperature, maybe in an infrared sauna, and for five to 10 minutes at a time to begin with. Stay hydrated by drinking water before, during and after a sauna, and never mix alcohol with using a sauna.

How much are saunas to buy?

There is a big range in price from around $2k to $10k, and even more for a custom-made one to perfectly fit your home. You can find out more here about the best indoor and best outdoor saunas.