The Finnish sauna etiquette must feel like a mystery before your first visit to Finland. I totally understand if the Finnish sauna culture in general sounds intimidating!
I bet there are several questions on your mind!
Seriously, are Finns naked there among strangers? Is it really that hot? Is it even hygienic?
No worries, I’m here to answer all your questions (yes to all above!).
This article explains a short history of the Finnish sauna culture, dives deep into the Finnish sauna etiquette and goes on to describe the three Finnish sauna types.
Yup! There are three different saunas you can waltz your way into in Finland: the wood-burning, electrically heated and smoke sauna! The sauna etiquette is always the same, though.
Last, I have included tips on where to enjoy a sauna in Helsinki.
Here are the themes I’ll be covering!
Table of Contents
The Finnish Sauna Culture and History
As you probably know, the sauna is a major part of Finnish culture.
Today’s saunas have developed from warmed pits covered with animal skins. And what a progress!
I’ve taken a sauna bath in a pit with a turf roof and it was a dirt-filled experience. I bet it was a bliss 10 000 years ago, though.
The modern sauna types (wood burning and electrical) developed from the smoke sauna.
For centuries, the sauna was the cleanest place of the house. Well, technically, the sauna was a separate building, but you know what I mean.
Everything related to the sauna, has a positive echo in the Finnish culture. Saunas were used to healing and relaxation.
Did you know that Finnish women gave birth in the sauna before hospital births came the standard in the mid 20th century?
The Finnish sauna still has rituals that live on in the modern society.
Sauna elf (saunatonttu). Sauna elf lives in the sauna. At Christmas, you can give him a bowl of rice porridge.
Bridal sauna (morsiussauna). A Finnish bachelorette party isn’t complete without a bridal sauna. The sauna is decorated with candles and flowers. Other girls wash the bride with salt and flour. Loud noise keeps the bad spirits away.
Birch twig (vihta). Finns gently beat their bodies with fresh birch twigs to improve our circulation.
A Wood-burning Classic Finnish Sauna
The first sauna in my life was my childhood home sauna. It was a wood- burning traditional Finnish sauna.
It took about 30 minutes to be ready, and I could heat it up with my eyes closed. This sauna type is warm and moist.
When I was a kid in the 90’s, sauna time was 1-2 times per week, usually on Wednesdays and Saturdays.
In my family, the Saturday sauna sessions were always followed by a plate of sausages grilled in the embers and an episode of Finnish dubbed BBC Nature documentaries.
By the way, BBC Nature documentaries still come on Saturday evenings and families all around Finland watch it. I hope this tradition never dies.
An Electrically Heated Finnish Sauna
My second experience was an electrically heated sauna. It is easy to use and certainly a cure for sauna cravings when living in the city center.
The spirit of this sauna is sharp, a bit dry and sausages need to be cooked in the kitchen.
You can find electrically heated saunas in public places like swimming halls, hotels and city homes.
To me, an electrically heated sauna marks the time of my university studies because student parties most of the time included sauna bathing.
A Finnish Smoke Sauna
Even though it’s the oldest of the saunas nowadays, I encountered this sauna type last.
I love it the most, as do many other sauna fans in Finland.
Smoke sauna takes forever to warm up, is potentially hazardous if prepared wrong (inhale carbon monoxide or burn the building) but the sauna experience is pretty close to religious when you walk into the gentle warm darkness.
I am one lucky girl to have this type of sauna at our summer cottage!
How to Use a Finnish Sauna?
Here is a step-by-step guide on how to behave in a Finnish sauna.
- Take a shower.
- Go to sauna naked or with a towel (check if you are allowed to use a swimsuit. Usually there’s a sign near the sauna).
- Throw water on the hot stones as much as you want. The idea is that the sauna is moist, never dry.
- Cool off outside/in the shower/swimming.
- Repeat as many times as you want.
The Finnish Sauna Etiquette
The sauna etiquette differs between countries. For example, in Germany, there’s a “sauna master” who throws the water on the hot stones and he is the only person to do this.
#1 In Finland, anybody can throw water on the stove. The job goes to the person sitting closest to the water bucket.
#2 You don’t usually wear a swimsuit, because it has chemicals that react with the warmth of the sauna. If you are feeling shy, use a towel.
#3 Pretty much all places have separate saunas for women and men. This is normal for example in hotels and swimming halls.
#4 If there’s a unisex sauna, you can always use a swimsuit or towel. A mixed sauna is popular only within family members in Finland.
#5 Among the same sex, it’s normal to be naked. If you feel uncomfortable, wear a towel.
#6 You can talk in a Finnish sauna. It’s not forbidden, although usually, Finns are pretty quiet in the sauna.
#7 You always sit on a towel in a sauna. Public saunas have a specific disposable sauna tissue for you. There’s a roll or a pile of them near the sauna.
#8 Saunas are washed regularly and they are hygienic.
#9 Saunas are usually heated to be around 80 Celcius degrees, which is 175 Fahrenheit.
#10 In general, Finnish men are quite relaxed about being naked. It’s not unusual that there’s sometimes female housekeeping staff in male changing rooms!
Trying out Sauna in Helsinki
If you are visiting Helsinki, the trendiest place to try both wood burning and smoke sauna is Löyly – a cool sauna venue next to the sea. Make a sauna reservation in advance!
If you want to experience the last public sauna with traditional wood burning style in Helsinki, head to Kotiharju sauna. It’s been warming up since 1928!
What would you like to know about the Finnish sauna? Have you already been in a sauna? Comment below and let me know!
Looking for more information about Finnish culture and Finland? Check out some of my other posts: