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5 Benefits Of Steam Rooms & How They Compare To Saunas

Hannah Frye
Author:
January 26, 2024
Hannah Frye
Assistant Beauty & Health Editor
By Hannah Frye
Assistant Beauty & Health Editor
Hannah Frye is the Assistant Beauty Editor at mindbodygreen. She has a B.S. in journalism and a minor in women’s, gender, and queer studies from California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo. Hannah has written across lifestyle sections including health, wellness, sustainability, personal development, and more.
Image by Lumina / Stocksy
January 26, 2024
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These days, it feels like everyone is trying to break a sweat in the name of longevity. Heat therapy is having a major moment, and many people are stepping into saunas in the name of cardiovascular, immunity, and metabolic benefits. But what about the sauna's steamy counterpart, the steam room? Do the health perks of extreme heat hold up once you add water to the mix?

Here's our investigation into the health benefits of steam rooms and how they compare to saunas, with commentary from health experts.

The need-to-knows:

  • Steam rooms can benefit your health: Early research shows that spending time in a steam room can reduce blood pressure, relieve muscle aches, decrease stress, brighten and hydrate skin, and release congestion. 
  • But they likely don't have the same effect as saunas: It's easier to stay in dry heat environments like saunas for longer periods of time. For this reason, the research-backed longevity benefits of saunas may not translate to steam rooms.
  • Steam room protocol: Experts recommend staying in the steam room for a maximum of 15 minutes and visiting them no more than three or four times a week.

What is a steam room?

A steam room, also called a steam bath, is a space filled with steam that's intended to cleanse and refresh the body and relieve tension.

Steam rooms are nothing new: Different cultures have incorporated steam into their bathing rituals for centuries. Roman bathhouses served as relaxing gathering places, while Turkish Hammam baths held major religious significance. England, Greece, and plenty of other countries have historical bathing rituals of their own, each with a unique cultural twist.

Fast-forward to the modern day and you'll find steam rooms in spas, gyms, urban bathhouses, exercise studios, hotels, and even in some homes. 

While steam rooms have a rich history and cultural significance, there isn't much scientific research on their benefits. Still, some studies show that time spent in steam is not wasted. In fact, it could help support sleep, heart health, and skin radiance. 

Benefits of steam rooms

Now for a walk through the basic benefits of steam rooms, including the latest research:

1.

They may lower blood pressure

One randomized control study showed that steam rooms can significantly lower blood pressure and keep it there for half an hour1 after the initial steam session. 

The higher your blood pressure, the more at risk you are for subsequent health concerns like heart disease, heart attack, and stroke, so any activity that can keep your blood pressure low is a step in the right direction. 

However, the study was only completed on 80 healthy individuals recruited from a medical college in Chennai, India, so more research is needed to confirm benefits across different cultures and age groups. 

2.

They may relieve stress & tension

You'll often find steam baths in gyms, largely due to the fact that they can help relieve muscle tension2 and provide a feeling of relaxation. 

"The heat and steam can soothe nerve endings and relax muscles, potentially easing joint pain3, arthritis, migraines, and headaches," explains longevity specialist Darshan Shah, M.D.

He adds, "The heat from steam rooms can trigger the release of endorphins, known as 'feel-good' chemicals, which reduce stress and can leave you feeling rejuvenated."

This may translate to better sleep too. One study done on 17 adult men with mild sleep concerns and anxiety found that those who spent 15 minutes with a steam-producing mask on before bed saw improvements in sleep quality4

This study was done on a small group of only men, so its findings may not translate to every sleeper.

3.

They can spark hormetic stress, which may improve longevity

Steam rooms, saunas, ice baths, intermittent fasting protocols, and some forms of exercise like HIIT all fall under the category of hormetic stressors. These practices put your body under just the right amount of strain to encourage resilience. 

Stressing yourself out in a controlled setting seems to have benefits for your life span, and hormesis is a focus of cutting-edge longevity research5.

This being said, steam rooms have not been studied as extensively as saunas, HIIT, or cold plunges for hormesis. It's unclear if they are intense enough to lead to any meaningful changes. "While steam rooms can act as a mild stressor, stimulating the body's repair mechanisms, there's limited direct evidence linking them to longevity," Shah reiterates.

4.

Steam supports a healthy complexion in some people

If you book a facial at your local spa, you may be treated to a facial steam at the beginning of your session. Estheticians often use steam to help loosen dead skin, hydrate your complexion, open up the pores, and of course, relax your mood. 

"Facial steaming also dilates your skin blood vessels, which promotes healthy circulation to the skin," board-certified dermatologist Kim Nichols, M.D., founder of NicholsMD of Greenwich previously told mindbodygreen. In turn, stimulating blood flow often leads to a more radiant complexion. Not to mention, that extra hydration can also contribute to a brighter glow: "When your skin lacks water, it appears dull with an uneven skin tone," Nichols added.

However, steaming is not for everyone—some people just can't tolerate the heat, even sparingly. Those with inflammatory skin conditions like eczema, rosacea, or melasma may experience exacerbated symptoms with exposure to any kind of heat, steam included. 

5.

Steam can help relieve congestion 

Blowing your nose in the shower is a common habit, which demonstrates how steam affects your sinuses. "Steam helps loosen phlegm and mucus, improving congestion and breathing," Safdar Naueen, M.D., an internal medicine doctor at EHE Health previously told mindbodygreen.

Does this mean you should run to your local steam room if you're sick? No—but, a personal steam session in your shower may help clear things up, at least temporarily. Just don't expect it to cure you: Research shows that if you have a respiratory illness or infection6, steam alone will not reduce your symptoms.

Do steam rooms help you detox? 

"While steam rooms promote sweating, the concept of detoxing through sweat is not supported by scientific evidence," Shah notes. It's true that some toxins have been documented to be excreted via sweat7, but that process isn't completely synonymous with direct health benefits just yet. 

Rather, Shah says, "Toxins are primarily processed and eliminated by organs like the liver and kidneys." 

Steam room vs. sauna

When choosing between a sauna and a steam room, you may first consider that the two can both have a place in your well-being routine. According to journalist and author of Sauna: The Power of Deep Heat Emma O'Kelly, Scandinavian sauna rituals typically included pouring water over the hot rocks, thus turning the sauna into a steam room too.

But the hybrid sauna and steam room design has largely been "lost in translation," O'Kelly says, so you may be left choosing one or the other. We've covered this comparison in-depth before, so here's a summary of the main takeaways: 

When to use a steam room:

  • After a workout: Many athletes hit the steam room after a workout to help stretch out and loosen muscles.
  • Before a workout: Because a steam room can help your muscles reach maximum mobility and flexibility, it can be a helpful addition to your pre-workout warm-up.
  • As part of a spa: Because it can help open up the pores, sitting in a steam room can be a good way to kick off your next spa day.

When to use a sauna:

  • After a workout: Because of the high heat, a sauna can help with muscle recovery and relieve muscle soreness.
  • As a regular health practice to support longevity: If you can stand the heat, research shows that stepping into the sauna at least four times a week can reduce your risk of cardiovascular mortality. If you're daring, follow it up with another hormetic stressor—extreme cold—by taking a dip in a cold plunge tub.
  • As part of a relaxation routine: The peacefulness of the warm sauna lends itself to starting your day off with meditation or winding down before bed. Try a few minutes of mindfulness in the sauna and emerge with a new mindset.

Summary

In general, saunas can reach higher temperatures than steam rooms. You can also stay in saunas for longer, potentially giving them an edge over steam rooms as far as health benefits are concerned.

Steam room protocol

If you want to get the most out of your time in the steam room, follow these tips: 

  • Stick to 15 minutes: While you may be able to spend 20 minutes in a sauna just fine, steam room protocol is different. "One can generally stay in a sauna longer, as it is easier to experience evaporative cooling—aka sweating," explains integrative clinical psychologist Ashley Mason, Ph.D. In simple terms: It's harder for your sweat to cool you down in a steam room compared to a sauna, so opting for shorter steam sessions is best.
  • Try adding essential oils: To elevate the relaxing experience in a steam room, you can add eucalyptus or lavender essential oils. How you should go about this will vary from room to room depending on the steaming method and surrounding materials, but generally, spraying diluted oil on the floor will be a surefire way to reap the soothing benefits. 
  • Keep it between 100 and 120 degrees Fahrenheit: Steam rooms should be somewhere between 100 and 120 degrees Fahrenheit to prevent overheating. If it's on the higher end, consider making your session a tad shorter to accommodate.
  • Stay hydrated: As with any endeavor that triggers excessive sweating, you'll want to ensure you enter the steam room adequately hydrated. Replenish with water after you step out.
  • Use it three or four times a week: "It's generally safe to use a few times a week, but individual tolerance and health conditions should guide this," Shah says.  

Should you try a DIY steam room?

Steam rooms found in spas and gyms can come with a steep price tag, but you can reap some of the benefits at home in a more accessible fashion. By turning on your shower and filling a closed-door bathroom with steam, you'll be able to trigger sweating, decongestion, and relaxation as well.

However, it's often more difficult to hold a DIY steam room at a higher temperature given the presence of vents and fans, so fully equal benefits can't be promised. Plus, continuously running water for the sake of creating steam isn't the most climate-friendly practice.

So, you're better off reaping the benefits of a steamy shower while bathing and then finishing your rinse with a cool blast to mimic a cold plunge. 

Hot-cold therapy

As mentioned before, you can get even more benefits from heat therapy via saunas and steam rooms by adding an opposing cold force for peak hormetic stress.

"The drastic temperature change can invigorate the body and potentially boost the immune system," Shah explains, adding that this type of hold-cold therapy can enhance circulation, reduce muscle soreness, and speed up athletic recovery as well.

Steam room risks

Those with preexisting heart conditions should consult their physician before using steam rooms regularly, as studies show steam bathing can cause rapid decreases in blood pressure1. This quick drop can also cause lightheadedness, so be sure to step out of the steam room immediately if you feel dizzy or nauseous. 

Anyone pregnant, breastfeeding, or taking medication should also consult their doctor before electing for a steam bath.

Finally, remember that warm, humid rooms are breeding grounds for bacteria. So be conscious of germs when using public steam rooms and avoid them if you feel sick. 

Arguments against steam rooms

The most common argument against steam room use is that saunas are simply more evidence-backed for health and longevity—which is true. However, some of the longevity benefits of saunas come from exposing ourselves to heat and then subsequently cooling ourselves off—all of which theoretically happens in steam rooms as well. 

That being said, experts recommend keeping steam room use to 15 minutes, so you can't spend quite as much time in steam rooms as saunas—and much of the leading sauna benefits research calls for upward of 20 minutes multiple times a week to be beneficial. 

While there may not be as much research on steam room benefits right now, that doesn't mean there never will be. For now, do what feels best for your body and ask your doctor if you have any preexisting health conditions. 

The mindbodygreen POV

Exposing your body to short bursts of heat can help speed up your metabolism8, ease inflammation9, promote recovery10, and even reduce your risk of cardiovascular events. However, the vast majority of the research on heat therapy has been conducted in saunas—not steam rooms.

While some sauna benefits may be transferable to steam rooms, others may not. Early research shows that regular steam room use may help lower blood pressure, reduce stress, help out your skin, and reduce congestion. However, in general, steam rooms don't get as hot as saunas, and we can't stay in them for as long, so they may not have the same effect on harder health metrics.

That said, you don't need to choose one over the other. If you have access to both saunas and steam rooms, feel free to switch things up as you wish. And if you prefer the feeling of a wet steam room over a dry sauna, chances are you'll still walk out of it feeling better than when you walked in.

—Emma Loewe, mindbodygreen health & sustainability director

FAQ

What does a steam room do for your body?

Spending time in a steam room can lower blood pressure, relieve muscle aches and tension, decrease stress, brighten and hydrate skin, and release congestion. 

How often should you use a steam room?

Generally, three or four times a week is best for steam room use. However, individual tolerance and preexisting conditions should guide the exact cadence. 

How long should you stay in a steam room?

You should stay in the steam room for a maximum of 15 minutes. If you feel lightheaded or nauseous, step out immediately. 

The takeaway

Steam rooms have been around for centuries in countless different cultures. They bring a few health-related benefits like lowering blood pressure, relieving muscle tension, supporting skin health, and releasing congestion but have yet to be extensively studied. Saunas, on the other hand, have a host of confirmed benefits for longevity—here's more about the extensive research on the dry heat method if you're curious

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