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Finnish sauna

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Title: Finnish sauna  
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Subject: Rajaportin sauna, Tangomarkkinat, Rukatunturi, Reference desk/Archives/Science/2008 July 13, Hiisi
Collection: Bathing, Finnish Culture
Publisher: World Heritage Encyclopedia

Finnish sauna

A smoke sauna (savusauna) in Enonkoski.
A modern sauna

The Finnish sauna (pronounced originally in Finnish [ˈsɑunɑ], although english often use something like 'sow-nah' ) is a substantial part of Finnish culture. There are five million inhabitants and over three million saunas in Finland - an average of one per household.[1] For Finnish people the sauna is a place to relax with friends and family, and a place for physical and mental relaxation as well. Finns think of saunas not as a luxury, but as a necessity. Before the rise of public health care and nursery facilities, almost all Finnish mothers gave birth in saunas.


  • Origins of the sauna 1
  • Finnish sauna customs 2
  • Types of sauna 3
    • Smoke sauna 3.1
    • Wood stove sauna 3.2
    • Electric sauna 3.3
    • Mobile saunas 3.4
  • References 4
  • External links 5

Origins of the sauna

The sauna in Finland is an old phenomenon and is difficult to trace its roots. Bath houses were recorded in Europe during the same time period, but Finnish bathing habits were poorly documented until the 16th century. Because of the years of habitation and variant rule by Russia and Sweden, it is possible that the sauna custom evolved from them. It was during the Reformation in Scandinavia that the popularity of saunas expanded to other countries because the European bath houses were being destroyed. Hundreds of years ago, when bathing was something to be done only rarely or never at all, Finns were cleaning themselves in saunas at least once a week.

One reason the sauna culture has always flourished in Finland has been because of the versatility of the sauna. When people were moving, the first thing they did was build a sauna. You could live in it, make food in the stove, take care of your personal hygiene, and, most importantly, give birth in an almost sterile environment. Unlike many other, more densely populated places in Europe, the availability of wood needed to build and warm the sauna has never been an issue. Another reason for its popularity is that in such a cold climate, the sauna allows people warmth for at least a short period of time. However, it is just as popular in the summer as in the winter.

Finnish sauna customs

Saunas are an integral part of the way of life in Finland. They are found on the shores of Finland's numerous lakes, in private apartments, corporate headquarters, at the Parliament House and even at the depth of 1,400 metres (4,600 ft) in Pyhäsalmi Mine. The sauna is an important part of the national identity[2] and those who have the opportunity usually take a sauna at least once a week. The traditional sauna day is Saturday.[3]

Finnish vihta (vasta in Eastern Finland), made of birch. It is used in traditional sauna-bathing for massage and stimulation of the skin.

The sauna tradition is so strong that even Finns abroad enjoy a good sauna, probably the reason the Finnish Church in Rotherhithe, London, has its own sauna. Finnish soldiers on peacekeeping missions are famous for their saunas; even on the UNMEE mission in Eritrea, a sauna was one of the first buildings to be erected.[4] A Second World War-era Finnish military field manual states that a rest of eight hours is all that is required for a battalion to build saunas, warm them and bathe in them. Saunas, even in the military, are strictly egalitarian places. No titles or hierarchies are used in sauna.

Taking a sauna begins by washing oneself up and then going to sit for some time in the hot room, typically warmed to 80–110 °C (176–230 °F). Water is thrown on the hot stones topping the kiuas, a special stove used to warm up the sauna. This produces steam, known as löyly, which increases the moisture and heat within the sauna. The word löyly is used for this steam only in the context of the sauna and not the word höyry ('steam, vapour'); equivalents with the same meaning can be found in the Finnic languages such as Karelian löyly, Estonian leil, Votic leülü, Veps l'öl' and Livonian löul. Its original meaning was 'spirit, breath, soul' and it is still seen in the Uralic languages, for example, Udmurt lul, Komi lol, Mansi läl 'life', Khanty lil and Hungarian lélek.[5] Occasionally one uses leafy, fragrant boughs of silver birch called vihta in West Finland and vasta in East Finland to gently beat oneself. This has a relaxing effect on the muscles and also helps in calming the effects of mosquito bites. When the heat begins to feel uncomfortable it is customary to jump into a lake, sea, or a swimming pool, or to have a shower. In the winter rolling in the snow or even swimming in a hole cut in the ice, an avanto, is sometimes used as a substitute. Often after the sauna it is a custom to sit down in the dressing room or the porch of the sauna to enjoy a sausage, along with beer or soft drinks.

After cooling one goes back to the hot room and begins the cycle again. The number and duration of hot room-cooling down cycles varies from person to person based on personal preference. Usually one takes at least two or three cycles, lasting between 30 minutes to two hours. In Finland's numerous summer cottages bathing might go on well into the night. This is especially true in the summer when there is virtually no darkness. For many Finns, the sauna is almost a sacred place. It is usually considered especially rude to swear in sauna, even in company that does not usually shy on swearing. Thorough washing will end the session of sauna. Conversation is relaxed and arguments and controversial topics are avoided. It is also rare to use titles or other honorifics in the sauna. In Finnish folklore, the sauna is the home of the sauna-elf, a spirit of the sauna (saunatonttu in Finnish).

Sometimes men and women go to the sauna together, sometimes not. For someone brought up in Finland, the rules are instinctive but they are difficult to put into words. Depending on the size, composition, relationships, and the age structure of the group three basic patterns can emerge: Everyone can go to the sauna at the same time, men and women may take sauna separately, or each family can go to sauna separately. Mixed saunas with non-family members are most common with younger adults, and are quite rare for older people or on more formal occasions. It is common for teenagers to stop going to sauna with their parents at some point.

In the sauna it is a faux pas to wear clothing in the hot room, although it is acceptable to sit on a small towel or pefletti, a disposable tissue designed to endure heat and humidity (it can be mandatory in a public sauna, such as at a public swimming pool). While cooling off it is common to wrap a towel around your body. Although mixed saunas are quite common, for a typical Finn the sauna is, with few exceptions, a non-sexual place. In Finland "sauna" means only a sauna, not a brothel, sex club, or such. In public saunas one also sees signs prohibiting the wearing of swimming suits in the hot room. In some indoor swimming pools chlorine is added to the water for hygiene reasons; if swimwear used in such water is brought to the hot room, the chlorine will vaporize and cause breathing problems for people with asthma or allergies. The oldest still active public sauna can be found in the Pispala district of Tampere. Rajaportin sauna began its operation in 1906 and is currently owned by the City of Tampere. It is, however, run by the local Pispala Sauna Association (Finnish: Pispalan saunayhdistys ry).[6]

Foreign visitors to Finland often get invited into the sauna. This can even happen after business negotiations and other such events. On these occasions, it may be acceptable to refuse, although it might not impress one's Finnish hosts. Such an invitation in a business setting may indicate that the negotiations have gone well and a joint business effort is anticipated. (This is comparable to similar business customs elsewhere, such as lunch in America or going for drinks after work in Japan.) In private homes or summer residences, the sauna is usually warmed to honor the guest and refusal may be more difficult. However, Finns will not typically be offended by declining the sauna. This is particularly common if going to sauna would require a lot of effort (for example re-applying make-up afterwards), socially inconvenient (for example feeling uncomfortable about mixed-sex sauna), or otherwise inconvenient (for example no clothes to switch into, late time, etc.).

Types of sauna

Interior of a smoke sauna in Utsjoki, Finland
Wood sauna stove
Electric sauna stove

Many different types of sauna can be found in Finland. They can be classified either by the sauna building itself or by what kind of stove it uses.[7]

The main division of saunas is between once warmed and continuously warmed stoves. All smoke saunas are once warmed, but there are also other type of ovens that are once warmed.

Once warmed stoves have larger amount of stones that are warmed up before the bathing. This can be done by burning wood, with or without chimney, oil or natural gas. Continuously warmed stoves have lower amount of stones that are heated during the bathing. The warming can be done burning wood, oil or natural gas, or electrically.

The temperature in Finnish saunas is 60 to 100 °C (140 to 212 °F), usually 70–80 °C (158–176 °F), and is kept clearly above the dewpoint despite the vaporization of löyly water, so that visible condensation of steam does not occur as in a Turkish sauna.

Smoke sauna

The savusauna (smoke sauna) is a special type of sauna without a chimney. Wood is burned in a particularly large stove and the smoke fills the room. When the sauna is hot enough, the fire is allowed to die and the smoke is ventilated out. The residual heat of the stove is enough for the duration of the sauna. This represents the ancestral type of sauna, since chimneys are a later addition. Smoke saunas have experienced great revival in recent years since they are considered superior by the connoisseurs.[8] They are not, however, likely to replace all or even most of the regular saunas because more skill, effort and time (usually most of the day) are needed for the heating process.[9]

Smoke saunas are still extant not only in Finland but also in Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia. They are considered to be cheap, simple to build and durable (if measures of fire prevention are taken while building the sauna). The longevity is warranted by disinfectant features of smoke.

Wood stove sauna

The wood stove sauna is the most common type of sauna outside of the city areas, where the electric sauna is more common. The metal stove with stones on top (kiuas) is heated with birch wood fire, and this heats the sauna room to the required temperature. If birch wood is not available any other wood will do, but well dried birch wood is preferred because of its good quality and smell, and long lasting burn. The important thing is to have a good löyly, that is when the stones are hot enough to evaporate the water thrown on them into steam that rises to the bathers. The bather in every type of sauna sits on a high bench near the ceiling where the hot steam reaches them quickly.

Electric sauna

In city apartments, and in most public saunas, an electric sauna stove (kiuas) is used, as it does not require wood to burn. They are very simple to prepare, only a press of a button will do. They usually have stones to retain heat, like their smoke sauna and wood stove counterparts, but sometimes even a large slab of stone is used to give the same effect as you throw water on it. Most apartment buildings in Finland include at least this type of sauna, or there is one for use by the occupants of a building, with dedicated hours for use for communal men's and women's sauna, and special hours for those who have requested apartment specific hours. Most finns prefer Wood stove sauna to Electric Sauna.

Mobile saunas

Scouts and various other youth organizations often have portable tent saunas. Saunas have been built into cars, buses, car trailers, tractor trailers or even bicycles.[10] In Finland, there are companies that rent mobile saunas,[11][12] and an annual mobile sauna event in Teuva.[13]


  1. ^ Statistics Finland, Buildings and summer cottages
  2. ^ Valtakari, P.: Finnish Sauna Culture - Not Just a Cliché. The Finnish Sauna Society.
  3. ^ Korhonen, N.: The sauna - a sacred place. Universitas Helsingiensis, 4/1998, Helsinki University, Helsinki.
  4. ^ Aurén, V.: Barettiyhdistyksiltä Eritrean Sacristin kirjat (Finnish). Finnish Peacekeepers.
  5. ^
  6. ^ Web site of the Pispalan Sauna Association (English)
  7. ^
  8. ^
  9. ^
  10. ^
  11. ^
  12. ^
  13. ^

External links

  • The Finnish Sauna - facts by Finland Travel Club
  • The Finnish Sauna
  • FAQ: The Finnish Sauna
  • The Finnish Sauna society
  • Finnish Sauna information
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