Traditional Finnish saunas have been around for perhaps 10,000 years and are usually built out of wood. A stove covered with stones heats the sauna. Some of these stoves are wood-burning, meaning you literally make a fire using wood inside the stove. Chimneys allow the rising smoke to escape the sauna. But many stoves these days are electric and don't require a fire or chimney.
You'll sometimes hear the traditional sauna referred to as either a "dry" or "wet" sauna. The “dry” name comes from the fact that this type of sauna heats your body by heating the air, so the air temperature pushes anywhere from 185°F to 200°F in order for the body to sweat or feel an effect.
Key to the experience, however, is pouring water on the rocks to create steam, otherwise known as "löyly.” Learn more about löyly here. Löyly increases humidity, which is where the “wet” sauna name comes from.
Culturally, traditional saunas are places for social gathering and connection.
The smoke sauna is used regularly in Finland, Estonia, Lithuania, and Latvia. It differs from the traditional wood-burning sauna in that it has no chimney.
Sauna-goers build the fire, then the smoke and heat is trapped inside the sauna long before anyone goes in to use it. The heating process covers the walls and benches in soot, and the whole space becomes black. Then, sauna-goers empty the smoke through the door before going inside – so the sauna relies on its stored-up heat.
Smoke sauna has a unique atmosphere and provides a tranquil experience unlike any other. Steam rises from the stove and a thick heat permeates the space. The scent of smoke and wood wafts through the air.
The sauna has a hushed, calm feeling due to darkness and the löyly’s smoky aroma.
Infrared is the invisible sunlight and makes up about 55% of the light from the sun. Whereas a traditional Finnish sauna warms the air which then warms your body, an infrared sauna, also built out of wood, specifically uses natural infrared light to penetrate beneath the skin and heat your body without warming the air as much. Therefore, the sauna is not nearly as hot, but between 113°F and 140°F.
The infrared light spectrum has near-, middle- and far-infrared wavelengths. Each wavelength boasts different benefits:
Far-infrared: These have the deepest penetration, so many people choose saunas with far-infrared wavelengths since deeper penetration is often associated with greater benefits.
Middle-infrared: These are said to increase blood flow and reduce inflammation.
Near-infrared: As these don't go as deep, they may have benefits for the skin.
Some infrared saunas are built to include all wavelengths.
Usually, infrared saunas are designed for a more private experience.
Which kind of sauna is the best?
All types of saunas cause the body to react similarly. For example, they all cause increased heart rate and sweating just like moderate exercise does.
But does each type of sauna offer the same benefits?
Sauna in general is said to aid in muscle recovery, enhance relaxation, boost metabolism. Studies specifically using traditional Finnish saunas have shown that regular sauna use may improve cognitive function, reduce risk of dementia, and improve cardiovascular health.
So far, research is limited on infrared saunas but some people find them more comfortable since they aren’t as hot.
Both traditional and infrared saunas are approved by researchers as safe and worthwhile, but a wide-scale study comparing the sauna types side-by-side has not been conducted yet. For now, we recommend choosing the sauna experience that fits your personal preference!
Brent A. Bauer, M.D. (2022, June 11). What is an infrared sauna? Does it have health benefits? https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/consumer-health/expert-answers/infrared-sauna/faq-20057954
Dr. Ruscio, M. (2021, April 12). Infrared Saunas vs. Traditional: Which is Better? Retrieved from https://drruscio.com/infrared-sauna/
Visit Saimaa. Smoke sauna – the original Finnish sauna. Visit Saimaa. https://www.visitsaimaa.fi/en/finnish-smoke-sauna/