There is sometimes some confusion between various types of spas, but the Russian banya vs Finnish sauna differences are perhaps the most misunderstood by those new to the scene. Often, the terms are even interchanged, and we hear the phrase ‘Russian Sauna’ quite often, but there are several key differences between a sauna and steam room, and this is what we will be exploring here.
We will take a look at:
The history of the Russian steam room stretches back so far that the exact origins are lost in the mists of time. There are early mentions from around 1,000 years ago in early Slavic writing, but we know they go back a lot further than that.
The earliest Russian banyas were mostly in people’s homes, where, as a family, they would make good use of the leftover heat from the stove, but at some point, buildings began to be purpose-built.
The first of these, known as Black Banyas, were huts that were heated by keeping large stones on an open fire. Once enough heat was generated, smoke was removed by opening the windows and doors, and the hot stones were kept in the hut. They were called Black Banyas due to the large amount of smoke and soot that eventually built up on the walls. People would often gather in these communal huts to share the banya experience together.
Next, stone stoves were introduced, which had chimneys to extract the smoke and prevent it from getting into the room; these were far cleaner and eventually became known as White Banyas, in contrast to their predecessors.
The key element of both of these was the throwing of water onto the stones or stove to generate steam, and this is one of the elements that demarcates the banya from the sauna.
As the Russian banya developed in this way – communal huts where people gathered – it quickly became a social experience, as opposed to something one did on their own. Russians have always associated the banya experience with relaxation and socialising, and the banya has come to be a place of friendship and openness. The Russian steam room is, at its heart, a communal experience.
When people talk about a sauna, they are usually referring to the Finnish sauna (whether they are aware of this or not).
The Finnish sauna is (usually) a wood-lined room which is maintained at a very high heat but with very low, controlled humidity. Sometimes called a Finnish bath, these saunas offer an experience with a very dry heat.
The humidity can be temporarily raised slightly by the user, by throwing water onto heated stones, which quickly evaporates. The sauna will have seating at different heights, to allow the user to enjoy a hotter experience (higher up) or slightly cooler (lower down).
If you talk to almost anyone about the sauna, then the Finnish sauna is what will come to their mind, either through personal experience or from seeing one in films.
Public Finnish saunas are very popular in Finland (where else?), despite much of the population having a private one in their home. In 2022 there were over 1.75 million saunas installed in flats in the country (according to Statistics Finland), with over 2.4 million saunas in total nationally.
And this is in a country with a total population of just 5.54 million. That’s one sauna for every 2.3 people. The Finnish clearly understand the benefits of a good sauna spa session.
So what are the differences between a Russian banya and a Finnish sauna? There are a few, so let’s get into it in more detail now.
The first, and most obvious difference, is the steam, or lack of it. The Russian tradition of using water in the banya to generate steam has already been mentioned, and instead of calling it a sauna, the banya is better described as a Russian steam room; it is a type of steam bath. The Russian banya has a high humidity of around 40-60%.
The Finnish sauna, on the other hand, is very dry. Humidity is kept very low, in the region of 5-10% only. Because of this, however, the temperature inside the sauna can be much higher – typically around 90°c. Users of a dry sauna can withstand such a high temperature because it is a dry heat.
The Russian banya, by contrast, has higher humidity and therefore the temperature must be kept lower. Typically, the temperature in a Russian steam room is kept around 70°С.
(The higher the humidity, the lower the temperature must be. A Turkish Hammam, for example, keeps humidity between 90-100%, but temperatures are much lower, at around only 40°C).
So, the main difference then is the Russian banya temperature and the Finnish sauna temperature, and their corresponding humidity levels, but what other differences are there between them?
Well, the next biggest difference you will notice with a banya experience is the hat! Banya users are always recommended to wear a hat during the bath treatment. This is another important subject, so we have a separate article about it, but for now, suffice to say, that the banya hat protects the head from overheating and can also protect from the heat effects on the skin and hair of the wearer. The banya hat is made from wool or felt and can be dipped in cold water from time to time, and allows the wearer to remain in the steam room for longer periods of time.
In a banya experience, people will also douse their bodies in cold water from time to time, which lowers the body temperature. This means that they can stay in the steam for longer periods. There are also bucket showers and plunge pools which can be used between sessions in the Russian steam room.
Another difference between Russian banya and sauna is that banya is a more social experience. It is a place to visit with friends as well as family and it is less common to visit alone. Visiting the banya by yourself is fine, but going with friends is better. You can even try out using the venik on each other, which is a common practice in a banya visit.
The venik is another difference between the two bathhouse experiences. The venik is a bundle of water-soaked leaves and small branches (usually oak, birch or eucalyptus) which are used to waft the hot air and massage the skin by gentle thrashing.
This Russian tradition is often done amongst friends, but the best banya experience is to book a professional therapist for a full Parenie treatment. This is a massage ritual with the venik by a professional and is something that simply everyone must try!
In the great banya vs sauna debate, it must first be said that this comes down to personal preference.
But we can also say that we personally prefer the Russian banya experience!
For us, the advantages are clear – the Russian steam room has steam! And venik! And the two combined are amazing. The aroma alone of the leaf oils activated by the steam makes the whole banya experience far more pleasurable. Eucalyptus scents open the airways and make your breathing clearer, while the steam eases aches and pains in your muscles and joints.
If you enjoy a Parenie treatment, the health benefits multiply – improved circulation and renewed and revitalised skin. And if you add to that another treatment, such as a body scrub or mask, then the effects on skin and hair are taken to a whole new level.
It must be made clear that there are a few contraindications for Parenie – people with heart and cardiovascular conditions, or any other heart complaint, should always seek medical advice before considering any bathhouse treatment, regardless of which type. Anyone with hypotension or other blood pressure issues likewise is discouraged from the use of saunas unless they have specific medical direction. In short, if you are in any doubt about your health, then speak to your medical professional.
Those few cases aside, however, there is almost nobody that will not benefit from a visit to a Russian banya, so why not give it a try?
Where did banyas and saunas come from?
The oldest banyas and saunas came out of central and eastern Europe and developed differently in different cultures and countries, at least 1,000 years ago, but likely long before even then. The traditional Russian steam room is one of the oldest types of bathhouse experience.
What are the differences between Russian banya temperature and Finnish sauna temperature?
Finnish bathhouse temperatures are kept high – typically around 90°c, but with very low humidity (5-10%).
Russian banya temperatures are lower, at around 70°c, but with much higher humidity – most commonly 40-60%.
What are some other differences between Russian banya and sauna?
In a Russian steam room, it is common to douse yourself with cold water from time to time, to enable you to stay in the bathhouse for longer. This does not happen in a sauna. You will also wear a hat during the bath treatment – another unique aspect of the Russian banya.
Also, Russian banya usually involves treatment with venik – either applied by a professional therapist or even by a friend!
And speaking of friends – the banya experience is usually taken with friends or family; it is a social time to be shared and enjoyed.
Are there any contraindications for Russian banya treatments?
Yes, there are a few. Anyone with any kind of heart and cardiovascular conditions, or any other heart complaint, as well as people suffering from hypotension or other blood pressure issues, are discouraged from the use of saunas unless they have specific medical direction.
If you are in any doubt about your health, then speak to your medical professional.
Which sauna is better Russian or Finnish?
Russian, of course! But there are actually several good reasons for saying this, as we have described above.