There is a sauna in the locker room in my gym. Just like you see on the workout floor, there is a huge variety of what people wear in the sauna. Many believe there are no wrong ways to use a sauna, but there are definitely some wrong things to wear into the sauna.
This list applies no matter what kind of sauna you are going in: infrared sauna, Finnish sauna, portable sauna, and even a steam room.
Here is our list of what to wear in the sauna from best to worst.
Best Sauna Attire: Nothing
We’ve said it here many times before. The sauna is a bath. It is a way to clean and exercise your skin. The best way to sauna is naked with all of your skin exposed to the heat. As you are in there, you don’t have to worry about any clothing getting soaked with sweat, and when you get out, you don’t need to worry about your clothes holding heat.
Of course, don’t forget you still need a towel to sit or lay on while you are in the sauna. Unless it’s your own personal sauna, you don’t want to leave your sweaty butt prints on someone else’s sauna benches. (Worse still, you don’t want to pick something up from a sweaty butt print someone else left on the sauna bench). Even if it is your own sauna, protecting the wood from your body oils will help make your sauna benches last longer.
If you are modest, you can wrap yourself in a towel or sarong while in the sauna. Although we find that trying to keep a towel properly positioned, especially those too-small ones gyms like to give out, while you get in and out of the sauna is more embarrassing than just letting it all hang out.
Second Place: A Swimsuit
In many parts of the world, nudity is expected in the sauna. However, there are times, like at a hotel or club, where the sauna is poolside, in a mixed public area. At other times, the bath house or spa with your sauna is coed and they need coverage. This is especially true at saunas in the English-speaking parts of the world. Since you’ll be sweating profusely in the sauna, a swimsuit is a good compromise when you have to wear something.
An older bathing suit where the fabric has started to lose its elasticity is a good choice for the sauna. This way it’s a little loose, and you won’t mind getting it sweaty. Another advantage with old swimwear is that there is a pretty good chance you’ve proven it is colorfast and won’t lose its colors when you jump in the shower, pool or hot tub after your sauna.
If you are going to wear a swimsuit in the sauna, don’t wear it under your clothes. You want to change into it there, preferably just before you use the sauna. All of pollutants you’ve picked up from the environment can travel into your skin once you start sweating in the sauna.
Also, rinse off between the pool and the sauna. You don’t want to leave a sweat slick in the pool, and you don’t want to release chlorine vapors in the sauna! If you can, it is best if you take off your suit while you shower.
Don’t forget to sit on a towel when you are in the sauna. Your bare skin should not touch the wood of the sauna benches.
For men, any pair of loose-fitting swim trunks is good to wear in the sauna. If you can find them, a swimsuit made from a natural fiber like bamboo or cotton are the best choices. If not, look for something made from a non-stretchy synthetic like nylon or microfiber. The heat from the sauna can damage elastic fibers.
Finding a good women’s swimsuit for the sauna is a more difficult challenge. Most women’s suits are designed as form-fitting and are made with lots of Lycra or other stretchy synthetics. The heat from the sauna will damage these fibers and cause them to lose their elasticity, leaving you with a baggy suit. You also should be careful about the dyes used in women’s suits: There are stories of women who went in the sauna with a colored suit, then afterwards went for a swim and ended up with a white suit! The heat of the sauna caused the dye to release.
When wearing a swimsuit in the sauna, try to avoid suits that have slimming panels or racing suits. The compression of these are going to restrict your breathing and make your time in the sauna very uncomfortable. Definitely avoid any suit with an underwire. The metal in the underwire will heat up quickly in any sauna and can burn you. Yikes!
For women, a bikini top with a pair of men’s style bottoms is your best bet. This gives you the least amount skin of coverage, and the best chance of finding a suit with little stretch to it. Of course, not every woman feels comfortable in a bikini. If you feel you need more coverage, look for a suit that at least has a liner made from bamboo or another natural material.
Honorable Mention: Cotton Clothes
A cotton tee-shirt and shorts are the norm in the coed areas of a Korean sauna. Others prefer a cotton sarong or other body wrap. While it is not the best for getting wet, clean, cotton clothes will allow your skin to breathe easily while you are in the sauna, and will not get damaged or evolve toxic compounds in the heat of the sauna. For those concerned about modesty, a longer legged short or even a pair of yoga pants could be a good choice.
Any clothing you plan to wear in the sauna should be clean, so you shouldn’t have worn them all day. If you are using the sauna correctly, you are going to get sweaty and you won’t want to wear those clothes anyway when you are done. Bring them with you and change into them when you are ready to sauna. Don’t wear any underwear in the sauna: Underwear tends to be constricting, and you want to be able to breathe easily. Ladies, don’t wear your bra in the sauna: They are constricting, usually made from synthetic materials and trust us, you don’t want an underwire in the sauna.
There are a lot of things that we have seen people wear in the sauna that are not acceptable for sauna use. We’ve seen and heard of some strange ones over the years, so it’s going to be hard to list them all, but we’ll try to at least cover some of the most common ones.
- Shoes: This is probably one of the worst offenses. There is all kinds of junk you pick up walking around all day. Bringing that into the sauna is a bad thing, plus the heat of the sauna when it lingers in your shoe is just going to make you susceptible to athlete’s foot. If you wear shower sandals when walking through the gym, make sure you leave them on the floor when you step on the benches.
- Sauna Suits: It is our opinion that sauna suits should not be worn by anyone, ever. Especially in a sauna. Covering your whole body with plastic insulates your body from the heat of the sauna, eliminating most of the effects. Most sauna suits are made of PVC, which has a melting point lower than many saunas. PVC sauna suits give off toxic fumes and leaches toxic liquids for years after it was manufactured. You don’t want those compounds touching your skin, and you really don’t want to be breathing them in while you are in the sauna.
- Sweat Suits: During wrestling season, we see a lot of young people going in the sauna wearing a full sweat suit with the hood pulled up. My guess is they are trying to cut weight before their next match. It does not do them any good. In the sauna, that sweat suit is going to act as an insulator from the heat of the sauna. It slows the progress of heat, so it’s going to take a lot longer in the sauna before they start to sweat, which is what they really want. If you’re going to cut weight in the sauna, go in naked, then put on your sweat suit when you can’t stand it anymore to slow your cool down.
- Workout Clothes: You got all sweaty on the treadmill, and now you’re coming into the sauna with those same clothes on? Please.
- Street Clothes: This is probably the worst offense. The fabric of your clothing picks up all sorts of chemical and biological compounds during the day. When you come into the sauna wearing these, you releasing them to everyone who is in there with you. Your modesty is not that sacred. Please get changed.
This article would not be complete without a discussion of how to clean what you wore into the sauna. Many commercial laundry detergents are loaded with things like optical brighteners, foaming agents, perfumes and fabric sizing chemicals that you don’t want touching your body when you are in a sauna. Your best bet is to use an ultra gentle detergent meant for baby clothes, or even no detergent, just plain vinegar. Give everything an extra rinse to make sure as much soap is out as possible, and then dry everything normally.
However, if you’re going with the quick rinse in the sink method, don’t use the sauna as your dryer!
Even if you don’t use the sauna, if you wash your swimsuits this way, you will find that they last longer.
What do you prefer to wear in the sauna? Let us know in our poll.