A reader wrote us this question:
I’m going to a resort with some friends this weekend. In the spa area, they have a sauna. I’ve never used one before. There is one in my gym locker room and I don’t use it because it intimidates me. I don’t want to make a sauna faux-pas.
What is the etiquette for using a public sauna or a steam room like this?
You shouldn’t get anxious about the sauna. It is a place to relax and do what is comfortable. Yes, it is a new experience for a lot of people, but as long as you remember the golden rule – Do unto others as you would have them do unto you – you’ll be just fine.
If you are looking for some more specific rules, here is our top ten list of the most important etiquette rules consider when using a public sauna or steam bath:
10. Close the door.
Nothing upsets me more than when I am getting a good sweat on and someone else gets up to leave and does not close the door behind them. Nearly as bad is when someone is on their way in, and stops to chat with someone else while holding the door open.
When the sauna door is open, it does not take long for the heat to spill out of the sauna. It’s even worse in a steam room. If your gym or resort was stingy while sizing their sauna heater, it may take ten minutes or more for the sauna to recover from the door being open for just a minute.
If you are going in or out, please do it quickly, and make sure the door closes firmly behind you.
9. Sit on a towel.
Nothing is worse than walking into a sauna and having to find a spot to sit among the sweaty body prints others have left on the sauna bench. Saunas are not hot enough to kill germs, and in a high-use area like a public sauna, there may be a sealant or a protective barrier of gunk that neutralizes the disinfecting properties of wood.
Bring a towel in the sauna or steam room that is large enough to make a barrier between your body and the benches. If you’re sitting upright, a hand towel is big enough. If you’re going to lay down, you probably need a beach towel. It will protect you from what others have left behind, and keep you from leaving things behind.
Make sure you have a second towel that you leave outside the sauna to dry off with afterwards. You won’t want to use a sauna towel, and you can’t use a steam room towel to dry off after you’re done.
8. The sauna is not a clothes dryer.
There is a person at my gym who believes that the sauna is his personal clothes dryer. He does cardio, then goes for a swim. He brings in his sweaty clothes, wet bathing suit and towel and hangs them on the railing around the sauna stove to dry while he showers. Please, whatever you do, don’t do this.
7. Silence is golden.
I use the sauna as my place for relaxation and introspection. If you are going to talk, please do it quietly. Of course, if it is your own sauna, or you have the sauna to yourself, you can yak it up if you want. Just respect that in a public place, other people may want quiet.
6. If it’s in a locker room, it’s OK to got naked.
It seems like Tobias Fünke wrote most sauna etiquette guides. Most begin with a rant against seeing other people’s naked bodies in locker rooms. I’m going to rant the other way: It’s a locker room. You’re supposed to change clothes in there, which means you need to get naked in there. Until the early 1970’s, many high school and YMCA swimming pools throughout the US and Canada expected men to swim naked. Now, proper decorum says we aren’t supposed to show our bodies to anyone. This ad is indecent (but not this one).
They call it a sauna bath for a reason. You wouldn’t complain about people being naked in the shower, would you? So if the sauna is in an area where you can be naked, then go naked in the sauna! It’s more hygienic and better for you too.
By the way, a sweat suit or a sauna suit is never appropriate attire for the sauna. If you don’t want to get naked, see our post on what to wear in the sauna.
5. Keep your hands and eyes to yourself.
I may sauna naked, or with very little clothing. That does not mean that I amshowing off for anyone else. The Finns have a saying, “behave in a sauna like you would in church.” I’ve been in a number of saunas and seen some things that definitely aren’t church-like.
My attitude is, that if someone is coming on to someone else in the sauna, it isn’t hot enough. I go looking for the thermostat to turn up the heat. In a proper sauna, you can’t think about anything except “can I stay in here another minute?”
4. Leave your electronics outside.
The sauna isn’t good for your electronics, but electronics also aren’t good for the sauna. The heat and humidity (yes, even if it’s a dry sauna) in the sauna will damage your phone, iPod or other gizmo. The etiquette problem is nearly every device has a camera these days. I don’t know if you are just browsing through your music collection or if you’re taking photos of me. I’d rather not have to ask. The other problem is your music. Yes, you’re listening to it on earphones, but if it is quiet in the sauna, I’m probably going to hear most of it. And really, if that phone call is so important, why are you taking it in the sauna?
Use your gizmo while you’re working out, but leave it in your locker when you take a sauna.
3. No spitting on the rocks.
I’ve seen this happen before. I shouldn’t have to write it. Just don’t do it.
2. Shower before you sauna.
Reading through other sauna etiquette posts on the internet, it is amazing how many people see nudity as dirty, but don’t see dirt as dirty. I’ve seen it at my gym too: people remove their sweaty workout clothes to reveal a sweaty swimsuit underneath and head straight for the sauna. Or someone comes right out of the pool and heads straight into the sauna.
If you’ve been swimming, there is chlorine on your body that will volatilize in the sauna and can irritate everyone’s eyes and lungs who shares the sauna with you. If you have been out in public, your perfume or some other smell you picked up throughout your day will become stronger and more pungent in the sauna.
Be considerate to the others who use the sauna with you: Take a shower first. If you’re wearing a swimsuit or some other clothing in the sauna, take it off while you shower.
Don’t forget to take at least a quick rinse off after you sauna before you get into the pool.
1. Remember to ask first before you do anything that affects me.
This is a public sauna, and I’m going to share it with you. I may like what you want to do, like splashing water on the rocks, or using that secret trick that sends the heater into overdrive. I may not care about others, like if you prepare some secret skin rub that you’re going to use or if you’re going to exercise in the sauna. Or, I may not want to stay, and may ask you to wait until I leave before you start.
This is a public place. I have as much right to enjoy the sauna the way I want to as you do. If they conflict, let’s talk about it and find a way we both can live with. Everyone will be better off that way.
Keep in mind, these are the general rules for a public sauna. If you are lucky enough to have your own, you can make your own rules. If you are a guest in someone else’s sauna, then you should ask them what their rules are before making assumptions.
What is your opinion of sauna etiquette in your gym’s locker room? Take our poll and let us know!