The Relaxing Benefits of At-Home Saunas
Looking for a way to relax, improve your health and add luxury to your home? Consider installing a personal sauna. There are a variety of options, from easy-to-assemble kits to prefabricated outdoor retreats. Our tips will take the guesswork out of choosing the right sauna for you.
Dry vs. Wet
Traditional Finnish saunas are heated with wood stoves, on top of which rocks are piled. The rocks, usually of volcanic material, become very hot and, when ladles of water are poured over them, make clouds of steam known as löyly in Finland. The löyly increases the humidity in the sauna. Finlandia Sauna's Reino J.A. Tarkianinen says Finns typically take a shower, enter the sauna and stay in the dry heat for 10 minutes. Then they pour water on the hot stones to ramp up the humidity. Most Finns visit the sauna three times a week for about 30 minutes because they enjoy its benefits.
Publications like The American Journal of Medicine and Harvard Men's Health Watch have claimed that saunas can reduce a host of ailments, from stress to illnesses, caused by environmental toxins. Dr. Lawrence Wilson, nutrition and lifestyle consultant in Scottsdale and Prescott, Ariz., documented sauna benefits during a yearlong intensive infrared sauna therapy program in 2002, which he detailed in his book, Sauna Therapy. (See link in Resources below.)
"We could really improve people's health if we could get them to use saunas," he says. Dr. Wilson works with the elimination of toxins, such as lead, mercury and nicotine, and says a sauna can dramatically speed up their elimination, though it does take time. "It takes a couple months of sauna therapy just to fix your skin," he says, "It's like flushing your skin a couple times a week. Compared to most treatments it's very safe — if it's done sensibly."
The basis is the heat — whether from infrared saunas or traditional saunas — which raises the heart rate and creates sweat, clearing toxins from the skin. "There aren't many methods of getting these chemicals out of your body," says Dr. Wilson. In addition, the increased heart rate releases a variety of hormones, like endorphins, known to reduce stress. Using a sauna also can help make breathing easier when you're congested.
While clinical studies show that saunas temporarily soothe sore muscles and arthritis pains, Reino recommends talking to your doctor first. "We don't promote a sauna as something that's going to cure someone's health," he says. And Dr. Wilson doesn't recommend using a sauna for children under the age of 5, pregnant women or those with a disease aggravated by heat. After you've cleared it with your doctor, there are a variety of options for building or buying your own personal sauna.
When installing a sauna, first consider whether you want it outdoors or indoors.
If building outdoors, you can alter an existing structure by adding insulation, benches and a heat source for around $1,500. If converting an out-building isn't an option, consider building a new one. This is a project for an experienced builder but if you're game there are several excellent books on the market, including Bert Jalasjaa's book, The Art of Sauna Building.
A simpler alternative is to purchase a sauna kit, which comes with snap-together wall sections and a roof, which you assemble on site. You provide the waterproof pad (concrete, tile or vinyl) and the electricity.
One such example is the Finlandia Prefabricated Room (FPF). The standard walls are made of grade A Western red cedar. They are shipped in sections, which you snap together. The roof package includes rafters, plates, shingles, hardware and instructions for assembly. The FPF is available in sizes ranging from 4 x 4 feet to 8 x 8 feet to accommodate more than one person.
Indoor saunas come in similar configurations, though with flat ceiling panels instead of a roof. Choose a precut sauna package, also from Finlandia Sauna Inc., which includes everything you need to build the sauna: the heater, lights, door, flooring and water dipper. These kits are cut to your specifications. A typical 4 x 6 foot precut sauna is about $2,700 when you buy through a wholesale contractor.
Don't be intimidated by all the pieces or the price tag. "Building a custom sauna out of the panel package maybe takes you a weekend," says Reino. And you'll get more than do-it-yourselfer pride: "They (sauna) could last as long as a house does," he says.
If you're not the handy type, go for a prebuilt, freestanding sauna for around $3,000, available from the Sauna Warehouse. All you supply is the nonporous floor, the electrical service and the towels.
If space is a consideration, try a portable or "knockdown" sauna, which comes in two pieces and can be snapped together or taken apart quickly and easily (starting around $3,200). Reino recommends saunas sizes 4 x 6 feet and up, to leave enough room for the sauna bather to lie down. Heat distributes evenly over the entire body when lying down, as opposed to sitting, he says, and makes for a better sauna experience.
Whichever sauna location you choose, the material your sauna is made of is very important. Avoid lumber that is 1/2 inch, as it may shrink when the sauna is used, leading to deterioration of the room, says Reino. Finlandia Sauna's standard is 1-inch lumber.
Sauna enthusiasts have several options in heat sources, including wood stoves and electric stoves. Wood stoves are probably best in an outdoor sauna, because they need ventilation. But you also must be willing to cart in wood, feed the fire and clean out ash periodically.
Because of their ease of use, electric stoves are the most popular choice in the United States, and are supplied with most sauna kits. Finlandia Sauna Inc. now sells an Ever Ready AV heater for $1,500, which heats a sauna immediately without the 30-minute lag time. The heater's 250 pounds of rocks are kept at high temperature at all times, making the sauna an instant luxury any time of day.
If you can't handle intense heat, consider the infrared sauna, which uses infrared radiation to heat the skin. Air temperatures in an infrared sauna can be 70 degrees, and you'll still sweat because the light warms your body instead of the air. Dr. Wilson's patients have used saunas with great success, including a cosmetologist whose adult acne cleared up after two days of infrared sauna use. Dr. Wilson does warn against claims that say you can lose weight in infrared saunas: "You lose water weight, but then you jump out and drink water and gain it back."
Whether you chose to go traditional, or explore the options of an infrared lamp, modern saunas come from a long line of predecessors in every major civilization. Choose one that's right for your lifestyle and you'll be enjoying the benefits in no time.
Sauna Therapy by Dr. Lawrence Wilson
The Art of Sauna Building by Bert Jalasjaa
Hot Tubs, Saunas & Steam Baths: A Guide to Planning and Designing your Home Health Spa by Alan Sanderfoot
The Sauna Is: Revised and Expanded by Bernhard Hillila
Spas and Hot Tubs, Saunas and Home Gyms by Thomas Dale Cowan and Tom Cowan