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  • Writer's pictureDesign for Leisure

Bathhouse Basics: Sweat Bathing Practices from Around the World

Ice baths, freezing plunges, wild swimming and cryotherapy might be filling social media feeds, but let’s not forget about all the glorious ways cultures around the world "get their sweat on" in preparation for those chilling temperatures.

A custom-designed Finnish sauna at Faena Hotel & Spa, Miami, FL. (Photo: Nik Koenig)

Hydrothermal bathing practices are having a real renaissance. There's a convergence of trends contributing to this phenomenon - from the craving of social wellness activities thanks to the isolation of the pandemic to the irrefutable evidence that sauna bathing not only feels incredibly good, but it also does incredibly good things to your body, mind and spirit.

People have long harnessed the cleansing and healing power of water and embraced the therapeutic effects of thermotherapy (hot/cold contrast therapy). Before there was any "wellness evidence" to speak of, people understood the blissful luxury of water combined with heat, prompting cultures the world over to find creative ways to bring “hydro” (water) and “thermal” (hot/cold) to the people.


This explains why there are so many different types of hydrothermal bathing found throughout the globe—from Roman bathhouses and Turkish hamams to Korean day spas and Japanese onsens—virtually every culture has its own version of a bathhouse.


Natural hot springs sites were seemingly purpose-built for bathing. The geo-thermally warmed waters bubbling up from the earth’s core not only served to cleanse, but “taking the waters” was also believed to improve certain skin conditions, and said to relieve pain from arthritis and other musculoskeletal ailments. As far back as the 7th century B.C., there are mentions of a “spring which contains sulfur to treat disease” in Chinese history books.


The effects of the heat, hygiene and social bonding of communal bathing were thought to deliver miraculous results. Fertility was seemingly improved by bathing: in the 1700s, an “infertile” Queen Mary “took the waters” at the thermal springs in Bath, England and ten months later gave birth to a son.

Today, we can turn to Wellness Evidence from the Global Wellness Institute to learn more about the proven benefits of natural thermal and mineral waters as a healing approach (baleneotherapy).

Beyond the health benefits is the simple, yet compelling, concept of “thermal pleasure” – the feeling a person experiences when moving from a place where the temperature has made them uncomfortable (too hot or too cold) to one where the contrasting temperature brings immediate relief along with an almost euphoric feeling of pleasure. The rise in popularity of extreme hot/cold contrast bathing can be tied both to this unique feeling and the undeniable wellness benefits it delivers.


Let’s take a look at some of the origins of some of the more popular heat experiences.

Finnish Sauna

Custom Finnish sauna at the Maybourne Riviera Spa in France

With heat being a prized resource in freezing Finland, the invention of the sauna was inevitable. Finns figured out fairly early on how to heat a wooden cabin to the highest temperatures possible and began practicing what we now call hot/cold contrast therapy. The 200° F heat of the sauna made occupants exceedingly hot, causing blood to flow and, we now know, simulating the effects of a light cardio workout. People would leave the cabin sweating profusely, and then take a “roll in the snow” to clean the sweat and dirt from their skin, repeating the process several times as needed to get clean. The practical reason for diving into the snow was because running water was in short supply during the frozen winters of the north, but the result is a cleansing/detoxifying ritual that is valued to this day and has been proven to improve the immune system and even manage blood pressure. Today, saunas are an integral part of hydrothermal bathing.

Russian Banya

While Finland is often recognized as the birthplace of the sauna, the whole of frozen northern Europe invented similar forms of bathing – for example, the Russian Banya is almost identical in design and purpose. (The phrase “Russian banya” literally translates to “Russian bathhouse,” but the term has been adopted to refer to the sauna-like room there.) It’s almost identical to a Finnish sauna in design and purpose, however it can have higher rates of humidity and bathers are encouraged to hit themselves or another person with “veniks” or bunches of dried branches and leaves from white birch, oak or eucalyptus trees to help improve circulation. In addition, there is usually an antechamber next to the banya for socializing, playing games and enjoying refreshments.


On the American continent, there is early evidence of ‘sweating’ as a form of cleansing, including the use of aromatic herbs and flowers (or “aromatherapy” as it’s known today). The Aztec tribes were particularly influential in their creation of two-story wattle and daub sweat rooms. In Mexico, the temazcal or ‘sweat lodge’ is another example of thermal bathing and you can still visit an excellent example of a Mayan steam room at the Chechen Itza site in the Mexican Yucatan Peninsular.

Turkish Hamam or Moroccan Hammam

During the 16th century, the Ottoman Empire gave rise to the now-famous Hamam (or Turkish Bath). There is evidence, however, to show this form of bathing predates the Ottomans and was used widely in North Africa and the Middle East even before the rise of Islam. Once again using sweating as a form of cleansing, the traditional Hamam became particularly popular before a visit to the Mosque. The old Hamams of Istanbul boast beautiful interiors including fantastic examples of traditional Muslim ceramic and mosaic art with inscriptions from the Koran often being present on the walls. You can also find fine examples of Hamams in Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Tunisia, Libya, Algeria and Morocco. 

Steam Bath or Steam Room

The steam room at the Fairmont Spa Century Plaza.

Also known as a caldarium or sudatorium from Roman bath times, a steam bath (or steam room) is typically a tiled or stone room that reaches temperatures of around 113°F with 100% humidity, which is created from heated waters in the room itself or, more commonly, pumped into the room using a steam generator. Aromatic extracts of essential oils can be injected concurrently to give the steam bath an added sensory element.

Hybrid Sauna

A Finnish sauna with an Infraplus Backrest by KLAFS creates the "best of both worlds"

A more modern take on a Finnish sauna, here users can alternate between the traditional high-heat of Finnish sauna bathing with the option of targeted longwave infrared-C radiation therapy via a comfortable backrest with the sauna set at a much lower temperature. For those seeking the therapeutic benefits of infrared therapy, hybrid saunas deliver a "best of both worlds" solution. Infrared radiation heats the body without warming the air around it – and, because of this, is considered gently therapeutic and will deeply penetrate the body’s tissues to treat sore muscles, tendons and ligaments.

Laconium (Warm Relaxation Room)

Guests enjoy a traditional laconium at Caesars Palace Qua Baths & Spa.

A laconium is essentially a warm, ceramic relaxation room with a temperature of

around 100.4°F in which bathers can relax for long periods in comfortable ergonomically designed benches or individual, heated loungers or chairs. The walls, floors and benches provide infrared heat, promoting a feeling of wellbeing and relaxation. Aromatherapy is often introduced via a humidifier to enhance this beneficial treatment and maintain a comfortable atmosphere.

Tepidarium (Relaxation Room)

Last but not least, is the coolest of the warm rooms: the relaxation room. Also known as tepidariums, these are more intimate spaces for rest and are essential to every communal bathing space. After bathing in a very hot room like a sauna, bathers need time for their body temperature to equalize and these spaces provide this essential purpose.

Modern Social Wellness

The Aqua Vitality Circuit at CIVANA Resort Spa.

While it was an innate need to cleanse the body that spurred the creation of the original bathhouses and sweat experiences, it quickly evolved into a practice that was about so much more than hygiene.

Communal Pleasure: Hydrothermal bathing offers a uniquely pleasurable way to congregate while taking in the therapeutic effects of hot/cold contrast therapy.

Thermal Therapy: Extreme changes in body temperature affect the body and mind in powerful ways, including releasing endorphins, increasing circulation, dissolving tension, and snapping the mind into the present.

Digital Detox: It also offers the chance to take a real break from our busy, stressful and overly "connected" lifestyles. Added bonus: saunas and steam rooms are very inhospitable to smartphones.


“I believe a visit to a spa should be a journey of discovery - not just of new experiences, but a discovery of the joy of true relaxation and self-indulgence,” says Don Genders, CEO of Design for Leisure. “Bathhouses that guide bathers through hot/cold experiences offer wellness benefits that go far beyond what the medical studies have shown us by offering new opportunities for socialization and connection, something we all need now more than ever.”

First appeared as an article in WellSpa360 (slightly edited)


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