Finnish sauna, 1804

Sauna Etiquette; This is Exactly How to Use a Public Sauna

Are you new to saunas? If so, you might be wondering what to do in there.

Maybe you have used them before and want to learn the etiquette in public saunas.

Saunas are a great way to improve your health, relax, and recover. But they can be intimidating for newer users.

I was in a sauna with a first timer recently. It looked like he came from a club with a gold chain, nice watch, and fresh white Nikes, to go along with street clothes. A couple of minutes in, he started to sweat. He began to realize that he was not in the right attire. His gold chain and watch got too hot. He left just a few moments later.

Not knowing how to use a sauna prevented him from an amazing experience.

Most people aren’t taught how to use a sauna. There is also a lack of sauna etiquette because people don’t know what to do, what to wear, how long to be in for, and how to behave.

Follow these steps to use a sauna properly, avoid problems, and learn the unwritten rules:

How to prepare for the sauna

Public sauna etiquette – how to use a sauna

You will have the best possible sauna experience if you prepare in advance. This includes planning your time, hydrating, eating (or not), and making sure to clean yourself well beforehand.

Give yourself time

Sauna bathing is a therapeutic experience, not to be rushed. You will also need time to get ready and recover.

Finnish sauna experiences can be hours long, with plenty of breaks in between. Sure, you can cram in a 20 minute sauna session to fit in tight schedule. That isn’t ideal though.

Prepare 45 minutes, at minimum, as general guidance.

When should you use a sauna?

There is no best time.

Using the sauna post-workout has a lot of benefits, especially to repair your muscles. It is a great way to de-stress from your day in the evening.

I get my intense brain work done before because I feel like a cloud after an intense sauna session.

Some people like to start their day with a sauna. Ben Greenfield uses his infrared sauna in the morning.

It’s up to you and your schedule.

Hydration

There is a surprising amount of controversy around how much water you should drink. Some blog posts say 32 oz. while others say 2 glasses before sauna use.

You don’t need to measure your water intake because some blog post tells you to. Realistically, your body knows how to hydrate itself.

As Dr. Tim Noakes said on the Ben Greenfield Fitness podcast:

“People should drink to thirst. That’s all you have to know…humans evolve in a very hot arid environment… we have all the evolution controls developed through over the last 3 million years to make sure that we drink when we need to drink.  And we drink exactly the amount we need to. What the sports drink industry did, very effectively, was to say you can’t believe your subconscious controls. You have to do it consciously. And that is absolute nonsense.”

Dr. Tim Noakes

In short, drink water to thirst. Listen to your body.

And don’t drink Gatorade. Gatorade is loaded with sugar.

Electrolytes are important; however, Gatorade over-exaggerated the “science of hydration” in order to sell its products. Your body regulates it’s sodium levels so you won’t sweat out all of your sodium, he says.

If you are losing 1.2 grams of salt every hour that you’re exercising, it’s because your diet has too much salt in it. And that’s where it’s coming from. 

Dr. Tim Noakes.

If personally noticed that when I have a lot of salt in my diet, I taste the salt in my sweat.

You are better off making your own home “Gatorade”, without the sugar. For example, I use fresh lemon and lime juice with the mineral-rich Celtic Sea Salt, Stevia, and Thorne Creatine.

Sauna while fasting

You can use the sauna in a fasted state. There are amazing benefits to working out, or sauna bathing, while fasted. Ben Greenfield wrote a post about it here and talks about it on this podcast episode:

I frequently use the sauna at the end of my fast, before eating.

The benefits of fasting include burning more fat, having more energy, repairing your gut, better focus, improving immune and brain health, and much more.

Dr. Rhonda Patrick is one of the leading experts on fasting and sauna use. She has great content on the benefits of training in a fasted state here.

You do not have to fast. Just make sure you have had plenty of time to digest if you eat before use.

Don’t eat right before using a sauna: Sauna bathing has a similar cardiovascular effect of exercise.

For the same reason you don’t eat a plate full of rich, fettucine alfredo pasta right before running a 5k, you don’t eat before a sauna session.

Don't eat right before using a sauna
Michael Scott, from The Office, before his 5K
Take a shower before entering

The sauna is supposed to be a hygienic place. Too many people come into the sauna with shoes and sweaty workout clothing.

Clean off whether you are coming from a workout, the pool, running errands, or your mattress.

Use warm water to raise your core body temperature so you can sweat sooner in the sauna.

What do you wear in a sauna?

Nothing.

Dry off from your shower, wrap that towel around your waste, then get in the sauna.

The heart of the sauna culture stems from Scandinavian countries, where nudity is commonplace. It isn’t taboo nor sexy; it’s human nature to be naked. We are all humans and there shouldn’t be any shame in that!

Finnish sauna, 1804
Bain Finlandais. Illustration of Finnish Sauna in 1804 by Giuseppe Acerbi .

Most Americans won’t go nude. Wrap a towel around your waste if you feel uncomfortable, or if nudity isn’t allowed. Wear a clean bathing suit if it is required. Not one that you just used in a pool loaded with chlorine.

Our clothes are often made with toxic chemicals. These chemicals can be linked to cancer, reproductive issues, and other problems we’d like to avoid. Plus, these clothes were not meant to be heated to such high temperatures in the sauna, where chemical run-off is more likely.

Your clean body, after a shower, is more hygienic than your clothes that carry who knows what bacteria and chemicals.

Many people roll their eyes at these toxic claims, so if you are not convinced, think of it this way. It is much more comfortable to sweat shirtless than sweat into a cotton shirt, underwear, and never-mind wearing shoes.

Towels

It’s best to bring 2 or 3 towels. At minimum you’ll need one to sit on and one to clean off with, after your shower. A third if you plan to lie down on the bench. S

Etiquette inside the sauna

Close the door tight! Enter and exit quickly. Always completely shut the door to keep the cool air out.

It isn’t proper etiquette to swinging the door open, letting the hot air escape as you leave. Too many people do this.

Choose where to sit: The top benches are hotter because hot air rises. The bottom benches are at heater level and are not as hot. Remember to sit on your towel.

Relax: The sauna is an incredible tool for recovery and relaxation. Ease the tension in your body as you sit down.

A public sauna isn’t the place for working out or yoga. It is about being, not doing.

The sauna is not a place for drying your clothes, for your gym bag, or for grooming.

The beginning of your sauna session is easy. It gets challenging when you’ve been in there for a while. Your heart rate is rising and you will feel a similar discomfort as you do when pushing yourself during exercise.

You can calm your response by being more meditative or staying present vs. fidgeting around.

Joe Rogan describes in his podcast with Mark Sisson that he keeps his hands crossed, doesn’t move, and feels each bead of sweat on his face. He doesn’t move around or wipe off the sweat.

That may sound extreme; however, you’ll notice the difference.

How long do you stay in the sauna?

Some articles arbitrarily decide how many minutes you should be in the sauna without knowing the temperature in the room, your heat tolerance, and your health situation.

When you look at the authors who post these articles, they are not sauna experts. Many are freelance journalists who clearly are not frequent sauna users.

A Healthline article says “At maximum. Don’t use the sauna more than about 15 minutes at a time.” The article sites the previously mentioned Harvard article saying “stay in no more than 15-20 minutes” without any reason for that “guidance”.

Even the public sauna I use has a sign that says “never spend more than 10 minutes in a sauna”. That’s laughable, but clearly there as a liability disclaimer.

Actual Scientific research (not arbitrary opinion) shows the health benefits of sauna use dramatically increased for those who spend at least 20 minutes in the sauna, compared to those who used it for less than 19 minutes.

The typical temperature in public saunas is between 160-185 because of limits on how hot the sauna heaters are allowed to get.

You will last longer in a sauna at 160°F than at 220°F. The higher the temperature, the more robust the effects.

Listen to your body. The more you use the sauna, the longer you will be able to stay in it for over time. This is called heat acclimatization.

Get out to cool off when you reach discomfort like dizziness or light headedness. You can always go back in the sauna once you have cooled off to continue your session.

Be respectful of others

The sauna is an important social scene. Its where friends and family can share laughs, stories, and have deep conversations. I’ve met plenty of people in public saunas. If you are at a public gym, you’ll probably recognize the same people who are frequently there.

Others choose to keep to themselves in public saunas. Do not disturb those people.

Read the room. Don’t make a lot of noise when everyone is relaxing or have disruptive conversations.

Do not have any audio coming from your cell phone. It’s mind blowing that people think it is ok to put their music on speaker phone around other people. That goes beyond sauna etiquette into common decency.

You shouldn’t even bring your cell phone into the sauna. It will overheat. AirPods work so you can leave your cell phone outside of the heat.

And please don’t take phone calls inside. No one wants to hear your business.

Make steam

Use situational awareness.

Löyly is the spirit of the sauna and the steam that comes from pouring water over the rocks.

This makes the room feel hotter and more humid. The moist heat from the steam helps you sweat more and your muscle relax. It is more pleasant to breathe in the moist air compared to the dry heat.

Use a bucket and ladle to pour the appropriate amount of water. And stand back as you pour the water so you don’t get blasted with hot steam.

Cold plunge

A cold plunge is the finishing touches of a sauna session. Many Scandinavian cultures jump into a cold lake or body of water. A cold shower also does wonders to cool your body down.

Cold shocking your body has amazing benefits like improving your mood, makes you more alert, it fights against neurodegenerative diseases, and relaxes your muscles.

Repeat

You can do several sessions going from hot to cool. Hotcold therapy is one of the best longevity practices out there.

This can be done by simply leaving the sauna to cool off, then going back in.

Sauna do’s and don’ts

Do this in a sauna:

  • Hydrate to thirst
  • Give yourself time
  • Bring at least 2 towels
  • Shower
  • Close the door quickly
  • Relax into the heat
  • Be respectful of others
  • Start gradually
  • Leave if dizzy or feeling unwell
  • Finish with a cold plunge

Don’t do this in a sauna

  • Go into the sauna sweaty or dirty
  • Rush your experience
  • Bring your phone inside
  • Sit naked, directly on the bench
  • Bring bags
  • Dry your clothes
  • Groom
  • Workout or exercise in the sauna
  • Be loud or rude to others
  • Try to last as long as possible in the sauna
  • Swing the door open when you leave
  • Skip the cold shower

Considering an infrared sauna? Check out this comparison page.