It’s all very much part of a natural adventure in Finland to immerse yourself in a sauna experience. Bada bastu, or taking a sauna, is an important part of Finnish culture and Finland boasts the highest number of saunas per capita in the world. It’s also considered such a heritage highlight that the Finnish sauna was given UNESCO status in 2020. But before you strip and whip (more on that later), it’s good to make sure you don’t trip – by committing a Finnish faux pas. Although you are most definitely going to be turning up the heat, one of the best things to know is that you just need to chill. Not something that comes naturally to all of us when confronted with a sauna full of naked people, and yes, they go there. Finns are fantastically chilled about nudity, and it’s rather liberating if you can let it all go too, Finnish style. So, here are our top tips on Finnish sauna etiquette.
Let it go
Finnish people are wonderfully liberated about enjoying a sauna with no clothes on, and are very clear that there is nothing sexual about this. Joking about sex or letting an inappropriate innuendo slip is just not on. It’s also open to all ages, including children, so being naked is normalised early on in life.
You won’t be judged if you choose to wear a towel or a swimsuit in a Finnish sauna. It’s much more important to simply enjoy the experience. In public saunas that have gender neutral spaces, swimwear is generally obligatory, although they are often divided for men and women, in which case you may be prepared for nudity. But in general, it’s wise to have swimwear, and flip-flops, if you’re going to a public sauna. It’s also good etiquette and hygienic to bring a small towel to sit on, whether you’re nudey or not and then have a separate one for drying yourself.
Put your hat on
There’s one piece of clothing that is acceptable in Finnish sauna etiquette, and that’s a traditional felt or linen hat. They are designed to protect your hair, head and ears from burning up, and with temperatures in a Finnish sauna of anything between 80-100C, that’s hot. You may feel silly wearing it, as it does have a slight ‘elf on the shelf’ look about it, but then again, that’s sort of what you are, feeling the magic of it all while sitting on a plank of wood. And being transported to another, often wintery world. There’s even a Finnish fable that if you misbehave in a sauna, the sauna elf, or saunatonttu, will burn it down.
It’s common sense, really, but always shower and clean yourself thoroughly before going into the sauna. This may seem counterintuitive if you’re going to sweat a lot, but actually removing the dirt and oil from your body before you dive in makes it easier to sweat. Also, if you have a need to remove dead skin cells, do it in the shower, not in the sauna.
Silence and solace
The Finnish sauna is, traditionally, considered a spiritual place, where one can be silent, seek solace and just breathe. And sweat out life’s stresses. The World Happiness Report has ranked Finland as the happiest country in the world several times over, so there is clearly something in the water. It’s a fine line, however, as it can also be a place where friends or family gather to socialise, and then the chat levels can change substantially. Some saunas also have rules about avoiding politics, business and religion but with others it’s a free flow. But it’s worth remembering that, in general, this is a place for introspection and not inspection or judgement of others. The sauna is Finland’s best leveller.
Loving the löyly
If there’s one word that you need to learn before going to Finland, it’s löyly, which is the word for the steam that comes from that sizzling moment when water is poured onto the hot rocks. It’s pronounced Low-loo and, rather than just being about steam, evokes so much more. It’s the smell, the feeling on the skin when it hits, the torrent of temperature that rushes across your body when you step up to a higher level. It’s many things to many people and a sauna’s löyly can vary per sauna. The most important thing, however, is to have top löyly and, if it’s a wood-burning sauna, then the löyly is even more lovely. Another small thing with Finnish sauna etiquette is to check with fellow sauna-users if it’s OK to up the löyly. Löyly is also the name of one of the most famous public saunas in Helsinki, which includes a traditional smoke sauna and two wood-heated ones and, of course, access to the sea.
Whipping up a steam
If you see a bundle of fresh birch twigs or branches tied together, these are for whipping your body as it’s seen as an extra way to release the toxins and make your skin feel really good. In Finnish they are called vihta or vasta, and also translated as a sauna whisk. They are left to soak in the same warm water that is used for steam in the sauna, which adds to the natural scent. Only whip your skin when it’s well warmed up and it’s common to see people whipping each other too, or just waving the branches around in front of them to create a fresh flow of steam.
Knowing how to cool down is not so much part of the Finnish sauna etiquette, but it’s definitely part of the fun. The strident health and safety rules of saunas in other parts of the world don’t often apply in Finland, so you will often see cold beers and cider at a sauna. Usually drunk outside in a communal area by a lake or the sea, so that you also have quick access to the water for a serious cool down moment. If you don’t have cold water to go into, then do take contrasting cool showers after the sauna and, if you are lucky enough to be there in winter, you can even try dipping in through a hole in the ice, or an avanto as it’s called in Finnish. Only do this with the help of experts of course.
We hope this encourages you to embrace the tradition of saunas while on one of our natural adventures in Finland. If winter saunas and icy waters appeal, then you may also enjoy our blogs: Cross-country skiing in our top winter wonderlands, and Hike don’t hibernate with our world of winter walks.