The Finnish sauna etiquette may feel like a mystery before your first visit to Finland. It’s totally understandable if the whole Finnish sauna culture in general sounds intimidating. There might be several questions on your mind!
- Seriously, are you naked in a sauna, among strangers?
- Is it really hot?
- Is a sauna hygienic?
No worries, I’m here to answer all your questions (yes to all above!).
This article explains a very short history of the Finnish sauna culture and dives into the practical things: How to enjoy sauna like a Finn and what are the key elements of the Finnish sauna etiquette.
Then, I go 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.
Lastly, I have included three awesome sauna destinations in Helsinki.
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Table of Contents
The Finnish Sauna Culture and History
As you probably know, the sauna is a major part of Finnish culture. Sauna is not a luxury in Finland, it’s a necessity.
Today’s saunas have developed from warmed pits covered with animal skins. I’ve taken a sauna bath in a pit with a turf roof and it was a dirt-filled experience compared to the sleek, modern saunas. I bet it was a bliss 10 000 years ago, though.
After the sauna pit, a smoke sauna appeared. The wood-burning and electrical saunas developed from the smoke sauna.
For centuries, the sauna was a separate building. In fact, when a family started to build a house, they always built the sauna first. The whole family lived there as long as it took the main house to finish! In the 20th century, Finns started attaching them to the house itself.
Everything related to the sauna has a positive echo in Finnish culture. A sauna is a place of health, cleanliness and pureness. There’s nothing sexual about sauna. To be precise, it’s almost a holy place.
There’s an old Finnish saying: “Behave in the sauna as you would behave in the church.”
Finnish women gave birth in the sauna before hospital births came the standard in the mid 20th century.
Saunas have been always used for healing and relaxation. In fact, the Finnish sauna still has old rituals that live on in 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. The girls enjoy sauna together and wash the bride with an egg, salt and flour. Loud noise keeps the bad spirits away.
Birch twig (vihta or vasta, depends on region). Finns gently beat their bodies with fresh birch twigs in the sauna to improve our circulation.
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 it’s a public mixed sauna, you always use a swimsuit or towel.
#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 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. If it’s too hot for you, sit lower.
#10 You can take the nearest seat to the door in the sauna if you want to escape fast. Usually, the heat is not so sharp next to the door.
#11 After or during sauna, it’s a tradition to have a cold sauna drink (a beer, cider, long drink, lemonade, water) and a small snack, for example, a sausage.
Final words of caution! 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.
A Wood-burning Classic Finnish Sauna
A wood-burning sauna is the star of the traditional Finnish sauna experience. It takes about 30 minutes to be ready. Most Finns could heat up a wood-burning sauna with their eyes closed.
This sauna type is warm and moist and it’s the most popular sauna type in Finnish summer cabins and the countryside.
An Electrically Heated Finnish Sauna
An electrically heated sauna is easy to use and the spirit of this sauna is sharp and a bit dry. The sauna snacks need to be cooked in the kitchen, not in the embers of this sauna stove.
You can find electrically heated saunas in public places like swimming halls, hotels and city homes. They are certainly a cure for sauna cravings when living in the city.
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A Finnish Smoke Sauna
Even though it’s the oldest of the saunas, a smoke sauna is the sauna type that is the rarest in Finland. I love it the most, as do many other sauna fans in Finland.
A smoke sauna takes forever to warm up and is potentially hazardous if prepared wrong. One can inhale carbon monoxide or burn the building.
However, 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 Heat a Finnish Sauna?
A Her Finland student phrased it perfectly: “I know how to enjoy a good sauna as a guest, but when it comes to heating up the different types of saunas in Finland… I can’t find helpful resources? I want to learn it by myself!”
I hope this video answers all your questions when it comes to heating a Finnish sauna. I cover all three types of saunas.
After watching it you’ll
• feel more comfortable helping your Finnish family or friends heat a sauna
•know what essentials you need to make the firewood catch fire
•know what to first check out if the wood-burning sauna is filled with smoke
Check out my YouTube video about Ultimate Guide to Heating a Finnish Sauna.
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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!
A hidden sauna gem in Helsinki is Kulttuurisauna, which offers an esthetic and truly relaxing sauna experience without the hassle of modern life. Read the instructions on their home page carefully.
3 Sauna Words You’ll Need to Know in Finnish
Here are the 3 things you absolutely need in the sauna:
#1 Kauha – the scoop for throwing water
#2 Kiulu or saunakiulu – the water bucket
#3 Laudeliina or pefletti – the cloth you sit on in the sauna
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:
- 50 Cultural Things on Finland that Help You Understand Finns
- 100 Ideas to Do in Helsinki
- A Local’s Guide to Plan Your Dream Trip to Lapland
- Make-No-Mistakes Northern Lights Guide to Finland
- 10 Best Things in Finnish Homes
I’m the founder of Her Finland. I love cultural tidbits, aha moments, Finnish folklore, and cinnamon buns. My newest interest is learning bird songs. Read more about me..
Saturday 11th of June 2022
Several years ago, I built a wood sauna. It has proven to be money and time well spent especially in the colder months here is Wisconsin. My question is related to the types of wood that is traditionally burned in a Finnish sauna stove. We have been mainly used oak because it is readily available here, but I know that in Northern Wisconsin, cedar is frequently used as well. So what wood do you recommend for sauna use in Finland. Thanks a lot.
Tuesday 23rd of August 2022
In NE Minnesota, we have been suffering from Bronze Birch Borer and it has taken a toll on our birch trees. So we harvest those as quickly as we can to control the spread. Our Balsam and Spruce have suffered from Spruce Budworm disease and we try to cut the diseased trees as fast as we can.
We have some oak in our area but we usually save those for house wood in the winter because they make good night logs during the coldest winter nights which can reach -60 degrees fahrenheit. But we have to bank the house stove with popple so the hot oak doesn't warp the grates (it's happened before!) We also save our birch and maple for house wood.
We make use of scrap lumber that we pick up from the garbage dump to also burn in the sauna stove. In fact, we burn everything in the sauna stove. As old time Finns, we make use of everything! Nothing goes to waste.
Nice writing to you and Varpu.
Saturday 6th of August 2022
@Jimmy, Thanks Jimmy. Oak is slow burning so it takes about 60 to 75 minutes to get the sauna up to a usable temperature. Birch trees have taken a beating here in the midwest. Maybe I will use a combination of pine and oak.
Sunday 3rd of July 2022
I live on Pelican Lake near Orr, MN. I built my own sauna stove along with my friend Sulo Lahti. We harvest many species of wood, but we use mostly balsam, spruce and aspen. Balsam and spruce burn fast and hot so it reduces the time to heat up the steam room. If we have company, I throw in popple to keep the fire burning after the initial start-up. I strive to keep the temp about 180-200 degrees fahrenheit for the evening.
We make birch sauna switches in June and cure them in the attic rafters and some cedar switches in late summer.
And, most importantly, I have foam can holders to keep the kalja cold!
Monday 20th of June 2022
Hi Doug! This is a fantastic question! I have no experience in burning cedar or oak. In Finland, the most common wood to burn is birch, pine, spruce - because forests are full of them. Alder is considered one of the best woods to burn in a sauna. Hope this helps!
Thursday 21st of October 2021
Hello, I would like to know what the rules on nudity are when it comes to a Finnish sauna in someone’s private lake house . Do men and women sit naked in the sauna even if they’re good friends?
Wednesday 3rd of November 2021
Hei, a great question! It would be a very rare thing to find a nude mixed sauna in that setting. There are two scenarios of how a sauna evening would be with good friends. A) All would go together using swimwear. B) All the women go together, then swimwear is not mandatory. Then, all the men go together, swimwear not mandatory. I hope this helps!
Tuesday 22nd of June 2021
It's nice to see an article about saunas. My papa owns the house that his parents retired to and it has the sauna that my great grandfather built. Good to know that our sauna is authentic although it's kind of sad that a lot of the saunas in the US that are easily accessible are dry saunas (we have a wood-burning sauna). I would recommend talking about what my mom calls sauna breathing for any unexperienced sauna goers. With the warm temperature and the steam my mom taught us that the best way to breath in a sauna is with shallower and farther apart breaths. The air in the sauna can be hard to breath sometimes and anyone new to saunas might have some difficulty with breathing in there. Saunas when taken the right way are very relaxing and can help with a lot of pain as it seems as though my whole body just relaxes. Still working on trying to convince my mom that we don't need a shed as I'm trying to get her to have it replaced with a sauna.
Thursday 15th of July 2021
Hei Kathryn! Thank you soooo much for adding this in. May I add this tip crediting you and your mom inside the article? I think it's so helpful!
Thursday 18th of March 2021
Varpu, what is the "Hot Box" called in Finnish? Our sauna has a changing room and then the "Hot Box" where you sauna, but I don't know the word in Finn.
Thursday 1st of April 2021
Hei Frida! This is such a great question! I think you can refer to the hot box both as "sauna" or "löylyhuone" in Finnish. Löylyhuone is the detailed word, but it's quite rarely used, especially in spoken Finnish. "Pukuhuone" is the changing room and I feel that can be separated from the sauna. So for example, in spoken Finnish, if my daughter would ask "Mom, where are you? Äiti, missä sä oot?" I would say "saunassa", if I'm in the hot box. If I would be in the changing room, my reply would be "pukuhuoneessa". Hope this helps!
Monday 24th of August 2020
--Re: #6 You can talk in a Finnish sauna. It’s not forbidden, although usually, Finns are pretty quiet in the sauna.
Finns are pretty quiet every where else too!
Tuesday 25th of August 2020
Hei Adam, hahhah, so true! Thank you so much for commenting.