Steam is an integral part of a sauna experience. Sauna bathing is centuries-old, and creating steam has always been a part of the practice.
The steam in saunas is known as Löyly. It means the steam coming from after pouring water over the sauna rocks.
There is more spiritual meaning than just the steam. Löyly represents the life force of the sauna, stemming from ancient Finnic folklore.
The löyly, or steam’s characteristics change based on how much water is thrown on the stones, the quality of the stones, stone capacity of the heater, size and shape of the sauna room, type of firewood, whether essential oils were used, etc.
Benefits of steam in a sauna
The humidity makes the room feel hotter, without increasing the temperature. At 10-40% humidity, your tense muscles can melt into the bench, you’ll feel more relaxed, and you’ll sweat more.
The moist air makes it easier to breathe compared to the dry heat. Adding essential oils for aromatherapy, covered later, makes it even more enjoyable.
In hot conditions, our bodies want to maintain an internal temperature by evaporating moisture from the skin (sweat) to cool down. In humid conditions, the surrounding air cannot hold further water vapor, so sweat evaporates slowly, if at all. This causes the body to heat up and sweat more.
This explains why it feels much hotter in high humidity. A sauna at only 170 degrees feels much hotter with a lot of steam than completely dry.
Steam etiquette in public saunas
I let people know before pouring water over the rocks. This is to let them know they will feel the humidity. It’s the polite thing to do.
Some experienced sauna users may want more steam than others. When with a lot of people, I only pour a little water over the rocks to not overwhelm anyone.
I’ll wait until they leave to pour more.
You should check with others in a public sauna to see if they are ok with adding more steam. Most people appreciate it.
Occasionally you’ll get someone who thinks water is not meant to be poured on the electric sauna heater. This is a common misconception.
Pour water on rocks, even with electric sauna heaters
All sauna heaters, wood-fired, gas, and electric are designed for a steamy sauna experience.
Most gyms, where public saunas have signs saying “do not throw water over the rocks”.
They claim that it could damage the heater. It’s a real shame that such a lack of education is preventing people from enjoying a great sauna experience.
The sauna heater manual should have a section about pouring water over the rocks. For example, Harvia electric heaters are built to have water thrown on top of it.
So you can be in a situation, as I have been, where the gym manager tells you not to pour water over the rocks, despite that exact same sauna heater manual saying you can pour water over the rocks.
Who do you think knows more, the company who built the heater or the gym manager who has never learned anything about saunas?
How to create steam in the sauna
You’ll need some type of water jug and a way to scoop water out of it.
The common equipment for traditional sauna goers is a bucket and ladle. The ladle measures how much water to pour on the heaters. You can use any water jug, but get some sort of scooper to avoid drenching the rocks with water.
Use a dropper to pour the essential oil liquid into the water bucket. Once in the water bucket, mix it around, then pour the water on the rocks.
Most essential oils come with some form of a dropper or slow drip mechanism. It’s usually about 3-5 drops per liter. This is because the essential oil form is very potent.
Do not pour the essential oils directly over the rocks.
3 things to be careful of when creating steam
You don’t want to drench the sauna stones in water. You are not drenching these rocks with water, but drizzling them.
Secondly, you should stand back as you pour the water over the heater because the steam can burn your skin. I pour water from back to front, in a circle, so my hand moves out of the way of the steam.
Third, make sure you are using clean, freshwater. Never use chlorine or saltwater because that can damage the heater, and you don’t want to breathe that in.