Tour Two. Social Change.

Healthy Style: Finnish Sauna

Do you remember the story about the ant that built a warm and cozy home and collected food for winter long before the snow fell? And the grasshopper that just danced and played his fiddle all summer?

In Finland, you have to behave like the ant. You must build a warm and cozy home. And although you don’t need to hoard food, you do need a sauna to keep yourself clean, healthy and warm.

Finland, a country with around 5.3 million people, has two million saunas. That’s one sauna for every 2.5 people – definitely a record! In Finland, a sauna is an essential part of everyday life. It is a place to get clean, relax and enjoy the company of family and friends.
Finns have been taking saunas for generations. More recently, foreigners have begun to enjoy these steam baths.

Outside of Finland, saunas are pretty exotic. Even Finns admit there’s something magical about saunas. If a sauna were just a place to bathe, it would hardly have survived as a national institution for over two thousand years. Nor would it have spread, as it is doing now, to other countries around the world.

Originally, the sauna was a modest burrow in the earth, a dugout where people heated piles of stones. They threw water on the stones to create steam (an act called “heittää löylyä” in Finnish) and if they were really serious about sweating, they beat themselves with leafy whisks.
Other countries also had various types of sweat baths, but they were generally only for the wealthy. In Finland, saunas are for everyone. They are not luxuries or status symbols. Indeed, a regular sauna is as essential to a Finn as the air he breathes.

Finland has public saunas, saunas built into private homes and detached houses, saunas for common use in apartment houses, private saunas built separately into each apartment, hotel saunas, saunas connected with
swimming pools, and saunas for the use of employees and customers in office buildings. You’ll run into saunas aboard ships and on camping grounds. The most relaxing saunas are built next to the water at their owners’ summer cottages.

Finnish businessmen and politicians take their opponents to the sauna. Conflict melts in the steam as the birch whisks swish, and stubborn minds begin to think about compromise. People shed rank and protocol with their clothes in the dressing room; it’s hard to be snobby in your birthday suit! Statesmen from East and West alike have received “the sauna treatment” in Finland. It is part of Finnish hospitality.

In Finland, people of all ages bathe in saunas. Children are accustomed to taking saunas, and even babes in arms don’t complain unless, of course, they get soap in their eyes.

The sauna bathhouse usually includes a hot room, a washing room and a dressing room. The hot room is made entirely of unpainted wood since heated paint would smell unpleasant and prevent surfaces from drying. The stove (kiuas) casing is either brick masonry or iron sheeting. The hot room has a floor-level opening for ventilation and a shutter where the wall meets the ceiling. There is also a window that may be opened briefly if the sauna gets crowded.The seating platform in the hot room is made of spruce or aspen. Aspen is more popular because it is porous and therefore cooler. But bathers often have special towels for sitting. In public saunas, a towel or some other seating cloth is recommended for reasons of hygiene.

Apart from these things, you don’t need much equipment. You can carry some water in a wooden bucket or a plastic bowl. If you want to throw water on the stove, you will need a ladle that won’t burn your fingers. This, too, can be made of plastic, but master craftsmen still make beautiful wood-handled copper dippers — fine presents for sauna owners.

Some people hang thermometers that may have hygrometers (to measure humidity) on sauna walls, but they aren’t necessary. Most bathers can tell by the feel of their skin whether there is enough steam in the sauna: if your skin burns when you blow on it, it’s time to throw more water on the stones.


  1. Who traditionally enjoys saunas in Finland?
  • Men
  • Everybody
  • Old people
  • The rich

2. How old is the Finnish sauna?

  • 20 years
  • 200 years
  • 2000 years
  • 20 000 years

3. Finns don’t usually have saunas

  • in cars
  • on ships
  • in hotels
  • on camping grounds

4. If your skin burns when you blow on it, it is time to

  • beat yourself with leafy whisk
  • open the window
  • leave the sauna
  • throw more water on the stove