Steam rooms and saunas are similar in some respects. They both generate heat, ease muscle tension, and promote relaxation. The key difference between the two is that steam rooms generate moist heat, while saunas generate mostly dry heat.
How they Work
A steam room or steam-heated sauna is fitted with a steam-generating device that boils water and releases the steam into the air. These rooms are designed to be almost airtight and have minimal ventilation, which allows humidity to reach 100% while maintaining a temperature of around 110-120 degrees.
In a traditional dry-heat sauna, rocks are piled on top of a heating element. The element heats the rocks, which radiate that heat into the enclosed area, reaching temperatures of 150-200 degrees. Users have the option to generate some steam by pouring water over the rocks, but this method doesn't generate as much steam as a true steam-heated sauna. In addition, the sauna room is well-vented, so there's more fresh air and less humidity than in a steam room.
Then there's the infrared sauna, which also produces dry heat. Instead of rocks, however, infrared heaters emit radiant heat into the enclosed sauna room.
Which is Better for Your Health?
Both steam rooms and saunas generate heat that promotes relaxation, eases muscle aches and strains, and helps cleanse the skin by opening the pores and encouraging deep sweating. Whether dry or moist heat is involved, heat baths do also temporarily lower your blood pressure and heart rate. This is because the heat causes blood vessels to dilate, which allows blood to flow more freely.
The moist heat of a steam room can help ease congestion and promote easier breathing, helping to relieve symptoms of conditions such as chronic sinusitis. On the other hand, people with asthma often find that steam heat irritates the lungs, and that they benefit more from using a sauna.
Some advocates of infrared saunas say they promote greater levels of toxin release via sweating, but there is no scientific evidence to back up this claim, nor that heat baths promote toxin release at all. In general, the health benefits of both kinds of sauna can be considered equivalent.
Ease of Installation
Both home saunas and home steam rooms can be purchased as kit or prefab units at comparable prices. However, steam rooms do have more stringent installation requirements, and some are more difficult to install. This is because the moist heat they generate condenses into water, and so the room needs a drainage system to allow that water to drain away. Another factor is that the consistently high levels of moisture strongly promote the growth of bacteria and fungi, so sanitation is an important and ongoing concern.
Saunas require access to ventilation to allow for air circulation and release of the small amount of moisture they generate, but they don't need access to drainage. This means it's generally easier to install and find space for a home sauna, as there's no need to connect to an existing drainage system.
One of the simplest sauna systems to assemble is the infrared sauna tent, which is a simple canvas tent erected around a wooden frame, within which is contained seating and infrared lights.
The Bottom Line
While there are some key differences between saunas and steam rooms, the choice comes down to basic considerations such as convenience and personal preference. Some people love the humidity of a true steam room, and others prefer the drier heat of a sauna.