23 December 2014

It’s been a while since my last blog post — not that I don’t have many ideas, but too little time — and I decided to do something different this time. A deviation from the very technical blog posts I normally do.

I am going to talk about Finnish sauna and its significance in Finnish culture. This is also a topical writing since now is the eve of eve of Christmas (“aatonaatto” in finnish, well the publish time might shift to eve, but that’s not when I’m writing this) as sauna is also a very important part of Finnish Christmas.

Also, I’m not even trying to do a logical blog post. Instead I’ll opt to just write about many topics, one topic at a time, without necessarily any kind of cohesive story between the topics. I’ll also mostly skip the history of sauna — feel free to browse the net or look into books and research articles yourself.


Sauna is the place where there’s a kiuas, which is a stove full of exposed rocks, and is used to heat the sauna (methods of heating vary). There are raised wooden benches within the sauna to sit on.

Saunoa is the act of being in a heated sauna for the purpose of … well, being in a hot sauna. (If you sit in a cold sauna you are just being an ass.)

Löyly is the result of throwing water on the hot rocks in the kiuas. Yep, löyly is essentially 100+℃ steam resulting from instant vaporization of water when it meets rocks heated to several hundred degrees centigrade.

Types of saunas

Electrically heated sauna (e.g. the kiuas has electric heating elements within) is the most common. It is pretty difficult to use any other kind of heating method in modern apartments for various strange reasons such as fire safety and ventilation, so, it’s the most common.

Note that an electrically heated sauna is considered also to be the worst of all of the options. (But it’s like sex — a bad sauna is way better than having no sauna at all.)

Wood-heated sauna is. Well. The rocks are heated using burned wood. Pretty self-explanatory, I think.

As a kid I used to heat up wood-heated kiuas at my parent’s summer cottage until I got banned from doing so. Why? I repeatedly heated the kiuas so much that the topmost rocks were glowing dull red and the bottom ones were glowing white. My father didn’t take that kind of fire hazard lightly. (Electrically heated kiuas don’t get that hot, they have temperature regulators and heat-sensitive fuses.)

Savusauna is an older form of wood-heated sauna which has no chimney. Wood results in smoke, and no chimney plus smoke equals smoke in the whole sauna. This may sound like a bit crazy, but the real secret is that this is definitely the most super extra best type of sauna experience you can have. (Why these are not common? See next.)

Burned-down sauna is another type of traditional wood-fired sauna. Hey, think about it. You have a fire, which heats rocks, which can get very hot, and heating a sauna takes anything from 30 minutes to a few hours depending on the type which means that it is going to be left unattended. Fire hazard, anyone?

There are very few old historical saunas in Finland. Wood-fired saunas just do not last. It is practically a tradition in Finland to burn down a sauna every now and then. (Which is also another reason why wood-heated saunas are usually located in detached buildings.)

Who go to a sauna


I mean, in the demographical sense. “Liking” sauna is a continuum and not even all finns like or go to sauna. But apart from this funny little minority everybody in Finland go to a sauna more or less regularly.

Like, the president, adults, children, teens, retirees, very very old people, people with heart conditions, pregnant women, men, women, mythical beasts … everybody!

My own children started getting into sauna about as soon as they could crawl (yes, getting into, not taken into). Typically small children stay in for shorter periods of time and/or sit on lower benches, but still, even babies often go to a sauna in Finland. Even my 4 year old kid is sitting on the topmost bench nowadays.

(If you haven’t been into a sauna, and ever get a chance, keep that in your mind: 4 year old kid, 70+℃ sauna, topmost bench — don’t you dare to shirk.)

Mixed gender saunas and sex

True and not true.

First, a sauna in Finnish tradition is a place of cleanliness and purification. No sex in sauna, please (excluding the caveats, of course). Also there’s hardly any stud that can do the required hydraulic moves while the environment is 70+℃ without risking a heart attack. Also staring at any dangling things of other people is just as bad manners in sauna as anywhere else.

Secondly, yes, there are mixed gender saunas. Families typically go to saunas together — yep, Finnish kids will see their parents and siblings naked regularly, probably one of the reasons there’s less hangups around here about nudity than in some other places. (But half of that is probably generic Nordic mindset, Swedes and Norwegians don’t have as much saunas and they’re pretty relaxed as well.)

In non-familial situations such as with friends or colleagues having a sauna it is possible to have women-only and mixed shifts. Which means that if you are a foreign female, it’s okay to ask for a women-only shift as it is considered rude to force women to a mixed-gender sauna. But don’t assume that separate sauna shifts are the default as most finns just do not see sauna as a place of sexuality and it is just as common to default having mixed gender saunas in a company of friends.

After a day’s worth of skydiving I went with other from our club to a sauna of a bowling club. Being skydivers, naturally trying to do stupid things we wanted to see how many people we could fit cram into the sauna. 10. 20. 30. 40. I don’t remember exactly, but somewhere between 40 and 50 people the bench supports failed. This was a sauna with normal capacity of 15 people, so space was … let’s say, heavily optimized. And it was a mixed gender sauna. Would this have been possible somewhere else?

Where are saunas?

Everywhere in Finland.

  • Houses. Almost 100% of single-family houses have at least one sauna. A significant portion of them have an internal electric sauna and a separate detached wood-heated one.
  • Apartments. Most new apartments have a per-apartment sauna, and those that don’t have a shared sauna in the building available for residents on a reservation or a schedule basis.
  • Summer cottages. Why have a summer cottage without a sauna in Finland? Madness.
  • Office buildings. Yes, most office buildings have a edustussauna (“sauna for promotional purposes”) that is available for companies located in the office building.
  • Schools (well, not the modern ones, but older ones yes.)
  • Well-equipped gyms.
  • and many other places

Way back I worked for a summer job at a construction company. One of the places I worked at was the sauna level of the Neste headquarters building (nowadays Fortum). This one actually. The two saunas — executive and a pleeb one — in the building were at the very topmost floor. What a great view! On a clear day I could see Tallinn over the Gulf of Finland.

Why go to a sauna?

On an individual level,

  • It is relaxing. Veeeeerrrry nice for aching muscles.
  • After a while in sauna the dead skin layer gets soft and you can just scrape the topmost dirty layer off. It does feel very nice afterwards. Some people attribute the skin quality of Finnish girls to sauna, but I’m not so sure. (Or it doesn’t work with males at all.)
  • A kova löyly (throwing a lot of water on the stones for extra hot löyly) makes the skin prickle in the heat. It feels like your skin is burning, but if you just persevere a little … it’s not actually going to burn … your body will release a hit of endorphins.

    You know endorphins? Body’s own opioids. Feelgood. Veryfeelgood.

  • Especially in wintertime staying outdoors often makes you feel cold. I guess if you are like, a canadian, you know what I mean. Not the cold where you are freezing to death (literally), but the kind where you are not really cold, but still somehow your bones are feeling the cold.

    Solution: sauna. After outdoors I ask the kids “want to go to sauna to warm up?” the answer is “yay!”.

  • Sitting outdoors after a sauna. See below.

It’s not necessarily all of these. Sometimes I heat up the sauna because I didn’t stretch too well after a workout and the next day I got aches. Then I just strech down on the bench in the warmth and not even throw water on the kiuas.

On a group level, going to a sauna is often a social occasion. “Let’s have a sauna” is a potential substitute in Finland between friends to “let’s go have a pint”. Social events are often arranged as sauna events (often with food and drinks, and actually going to the sauna is not compulsory, so if you ever get an invitation to a company sauna event it’s okay to actually not go into the sauna).


Sitting outdoors, on a bench, with a drink in hand, clothed only in a towel, after a sauna is a trope of Finnish sauna culture. You do that when:

  • It’s a warm evening in the summer.
  • It’s a freezing night in the winter. (And anywhere in between.)

Sounds crazy? It’s not, for two reasons. The empirical reason is that in both cases you’ll get dry. I mean, really dry, pretty fast, as if you had gone through a dryer. The best part of this is that even in the freezing winter it takes quite a lot of time until you’ll start feeling the cold. Second? Physics.

Physics alert! When you move from sauna to a colder environment (both -20℃ winter night or +20℃ summer evening is significantly colder than sauna) your skin will be both a) more moist than the environment (humidity of sauna, your perspiration .. you showered after sauna too, right?) and b) way warmer than the environment (warmer than normal skin temperature, too).

There’s a temperature gradient between your skin and the air leading to a convection. This circulation of air means that the ambient air that moves close to your skin it will heat up and its relative humidity will decrease. This low-humidity air will draw moisture out of skin surface. After that it is a race whether water on your skin will evaporate faster than epidermis will get cold…

The result is that you can go from a sauna to a -20℃ outdoors and sit comfortably, sipping a beer, for several minutes until you feel any kind of cold. (Provided it is not windy and you don’t have to rest your feet on a cold surface. Feet, cold, bad.)

Regardless, it is a pleasurable experience.

Sauna etiquette

Shower or take a dip in the lake before you go into sauna.

Don’t wear swimsuit in a sauna. If you do you’ll get a funny look, but being a foreigner you’ll be excuded. Still, it’s not proper etiquette.

If you throw water on kiuas, you don’t get out before others or until it has cooled down. It’s the principle of “you caused it, you suffer it.”

There are a lot more etiquette rules, but those are quite a bit more nuanced. Probably in the category of Japanese tea seremony — only a few major rules, but a lifetime to master wholly.

Christmas sauna

Finns take a sauna on Christmas eve. Whether this is a christian tradition (you know, purification for receiving the birth of the Christ) or something even older is not something I want really to comment on. It is a tradition. It was a tradition in my childhood home, in my grandmother’s home, and several generations before that, and I’m carrying it on myself.

I mentioned earlier that not all apartments have saunas. With shared saunas special holidays are usually handled so that there is a common saunas for all residents (men and women shifts separated) on most important holidays such as Christmas eve and midsummer’s eve (sometimes also easter).

Finns abroad

Way over early noughts I was helping a Finnish friend couple on their move at Stanford, California. After several hours of lugging furniture, boxes and other paraphelia me and the him of the couple were sweaty and decided to visit the apartment complex’s gym which supposedly had a sauna.

We found the sauna. Typical US warnings at the door “don’t go into sauna if you have freckles, crooked teeth, dry skin or general stupidity and most definitely don’t throw water on the rocks as it might cause a meltdown of the earth’s core” or something similar, we didn’t read too carefully.

We fashioned a water bucket out of a tissue container. Threw water on the rocks. Ran out — there was two decades worth of dust collected on the rocks of the kiuas which rose into the air as we threw the first batch of water and not even our lungs could take that.

(We waited and did a few iterations of throw-water-get-out until the air was sufficiently clean to continue normal Finnish sauna operations. Nothing can keep a finn from a sauna experience.)


Common sauna dry air temperature is somewhere from 70 to 90 degrees centigrade. It is possible to have 100-120℃ dry air temperature, although it gets a little harsh (not because of the air temperature, but because it requires a very hot kiuas, and a very hot kiuas results in a very harsh löyly, which generally is not preferable).

Don’t be alarmed, you won’t boil in a 110℃ sauna. Dry air is a bad conductor of heat. The same principle makes tropics feel much more stuffy than dry deserts.

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