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The Finnish sauna is a substantial part of Finnish culture. There are five million inhabitants and over two million saunas in Finland - an average of one per household. For Finnish people the sauna is a place to relax in 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.


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, and even at the depth of 1400m (Pyhäsalmi Mine), and at the Parliament of Finland. The sauna is an important part of the national identity[1] and those who have the opportunity usually take a sauna at least once a week. The traditional sauna day is Saturday.[2]

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.[citation needed] (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.)

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

Taking a sauna begins by sitting in the hot room, typically warmed to 80-110 degrees Celsius (170-230 degrees Fahrenheit), for some time. 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 Baltic-Finnic languages such as Karelian löyly, Estonian leiä, Votic leülü, Veps l'öl' and Livonian löul. Its orignial meaning was 'spirit, breath, soul' and it is still seen in the Finno-Ugric languages, for example, Udmurt lul, Komi lol, Mansi läl 'life', Khanty lil and Hungarian lékek[3]. 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. Then one usually sits 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. It varies by people how many times this cycle is repeated. 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 doesn't 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; younger people, especially men, also favour hotter saunas than older.

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. Though 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 1906 and is currently owned by the City of Tampere. It is however run by the local Pispala Sauna Association (Finnish: Pispalan saunayhdistys ry.)[4]

Foreign visitors to Finland often get invited into the sauna. This may even happen after business negotiations and other such events. On these occasions it may be acceptable to refuse, although it may 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. In private homes or summer residences the sauna is usually warmed to honour the guest and refusal may be more difficult. However, Finns will not typically be offended by declining the sauna.

A smoke sauna (savusauna) in Enonkoski.
A modern 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.[citation needed] They are not, however, likely to replace all or even most of the regular saunas because more skill, effort and time (usually many hours) are needed for the heating process.

The sauna in Finland is such an old phenomenon that it is impossible to trace its roots. Bath houses were recorded in Europe during the same time period, but Finnish bathing habits were hardly documented until the 16th century.[citation needed] 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. The sauna smoke contained tannic acid, an anti-bacterial polymer, which was the main reason saunas were the most sterile places. 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 habits elsewhere

In Northern Minnesota, Northern Wisconsin, and the Upper Peninsula of Michigan (Also known as the U.P.) many of the same sauna traditions still stand today. The manufacturing of what is called "Sauna Beer" has become part of the tradition for some in the U.P.


  1. ^ Valtakari, P.: Finnish Sauna Culture - Not Just a Cliché. The Finnish Sauna Society.
  2. ^ Korhonen, N.: The sauna - a sacred place. Universitas Helsingiensis, 4/1998, Helsinki University, Helsiki.
  3. ^ Häkkinen, Kaisa (2005) [2004] (in Finnish). Nykysuomen etymologinen sanakirja. WSOY. p. 657. ISBN 951-0-27108-x. 
  4. ^ Website of the Pispalan Sauna Association (english)

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