When you finish a tough workout and walk into your gym locker room, you might be craving something a little more relaxing than your HIIT class. And if your gym has a sauna and a steam room available, those certainly seem like tempting options for winding down and soothing sore muscles. But should you enter the moist tile chamber filled with steam, or the dry but very hot wooden box? Well, it depends what you're looking for from the experience.
The most obvious difference between a sauna and a steam room is the way they're heated. In a traditional sauna, the air in the cedar wood room is heated by a special stove, and in an infrared sauna, infrared lamps heat your body from the inside out. In a steam room, boiling water emits hot steam into the air. While all three hot environments are relaxing, they provide slightly different health benefits.
Regularly using a sauna appears to be pretty good for your health, particularly for your heart. A 2018 study from the Mayo Clinic Proceedings found that sauna bathing is linked to a number of cardiovascular benefits, including reduced blood pressure. Sitting in a sauna also raises your heart rate and makes you sweat, which releases feel-good endorphins similar to a moderate or high-intensity physical activity, according to the 2018 study. When your heart rate increases, more blood flows to your muscles, so you may feel momentarily less sore. And since the air is so dry in a sauna, sweat evaporates faster on your skin, so you can tolerate the higher temperature (most saunas are heated between 160-170 degrees Fahrenheit, per the American College of Sports Medicine) and often end up sweating a lot, according to Harvard Health Review.
As you can imagine, hot steam has a much different effect on the body. Steam is often used as a home remedy to treat allergy or cold symptoms, because it can loosen mucous membranes and opens up airways. So, spending time in a steam room might help temporarily relieve these sort of respiratory issues, but it's not necessarily going to cure a cold. Some people find the steam relaxing, and believe it's good for the skin, while others might not like the humid, 100 to 110 degrees Fahrenheit air.
Ultimately, it's up to you which room you choose, because they both can be somewhat beneficial for your health. (Although the claims that sweating "detoxifies" your body and leads to weight loss are BS: only a very tiny amount of toxins exit your body through sweat, and any "weight" lost would be from water.) But before you hop inside, keep in mind that the American College of Sports Medicine suggests waiting at least 10 minutes after exercising to enter the steam room or sauna, and limiting sessions to 10 minutes long. If you're someone who's pregnant, has heart or kidney disease, or takes medication for cardiovascular disease, then saunas and steam rooms are not recommended. Otherwise, enjoy basking in the warm glow of a workout well done.