Mani-pedis. Facials. Massages. They’re all great for your soul (especially when you splurge on the nail art), but some spa treatments are good for your health, too. Steam rooms aren’t just über-relaxing—they actually have a ton of surprising benefits.
Not to be confused with a sauna, a steam room is a space with a water-filled generator that pumps moist heat into the room. The temperature of the room is typically a balmy 110 degrees Fahrenheit, and it’s so humid, it’s not uncommon to see water beading down the walls. A traditional dry sauna, on the other hand, uses a wood-burning, gas or electric heater to create a hotter, dryer heat, and is usually housed in a room lined with cedar, spruce or aspen. The temperature is usually much higher than in a steam room (think 180 degrees Fahrenheit), and a little extra humidity can sometimes be added by pouring water over the hot rocks in the room.
Ready to get sweaty? Here are five ways a steam room might benefit your health.
1. Eliminates blackheads
Have you ever wondered why your facialist puts a hot, steamy washcloth on your face before poking at your pores? That’s because the warm humidity opens them up and softens the oil and dirt, allowing it to be more easily removed. Because your sweat is flowing freely in a steam room (110 degrees plus humidity is no joke), your pores will open and release all sorts of gunk in the process. While we can’t promise that you’ll be blackhead-free after your date with the intense humidity, Dr. Debra Jaliman, a board-certified NYC dermatologist and assistant clinical professor of Dermatology at Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, says that a session can help with the removal of blackheads for people with certain skin types. “If you have very oily skin, you might want to pass on a steam room,” she adds, noting that the humidity and wet heat might make your skin even more oil-prone.
2. Prevents breakouts
Another major skin benefit: For some people, sitting in a steam room can clear problem skin that’s clogged or congested, which could prevent pimples from popping up down the line. That said, the results are highly dependent on your skin type, and getting hot and steamy isn’t the ideal treatment for everyone. “[Steam rooms are] not good for someone who has rosacea,” Dr. Jaliman tells us. “A steam room will aggravate this condition.” Good to know. One more note? It’s not going to do much below the top layer. While they have been touted as a way to detoxify the body, there’s no evidence to support this.
3. Loosens congestion
Have you ever noticed how much better you feel after taking a hot shower when you have a cold? And when you feel a stuffy nose coming on, you should immediately fire up the humidifier, our friends at the Mayo Clinic tell us. That’s because inhaling moisture can help loosen nasal congestion—so you might feel your stuffy sinuses clear completely when you enter a steam room. Just remember to stay hydrated and not sweat in there too long—dehydration can also wreak havoc on your sinuses, and if you have any additional symptoms, like a fever, you shouldn’t be raising your body’s temperature.
4. Improves circulation
The word is still out on this benefit. While a few studies (like this one from the Medical Science Monitor) have found that moist heat may help improve circulation, Justin Hakimian, MD, FACC, cardiologist at ProHEALTH Care, argues that the risks might outweigh the benefits, especially for patients who have circulatory issues. “These studies are by no means conclusive,” he says. “Steam rooms and saunas can cause elevated heart rate, fainting, and heat stroke among other complications.” Yikes. “In general, we recommend that elderly people, pregnant women and patients with cardiovascular disease avoid the steam room altogether—anyone else should use steam rooms for a limited period of time. No more than 20 minutes at a sitting.”
5. Helps you recover from a workout
You know how you feel fabulous right after a workout, but the next morning, your entire body aches? (And don’t get us started on how sore we feel the day after that.) It’s called delayed onset muscle soreness, or DOMS, and sitting in a steam room can help reduce the pain. In a 2013 study conducted by researchers from Loma Linda University, test subjects were instructed to exercise, and then apply either moist or dry heat at varying times afterwards. The subjects who immediately applied moist heat—like the heat present in a steam room—after exercising reported the least pain during recovery. (BRB, joining a gym with a steam room attached.)
Risks of Steam Rooms
While steam rooms might help clear your pores and reduce your recovery time after a run, it’s important to remember not to overdo it. Due to their high heat, you might sweat more than you realize, making you susceptible to dehydration. That means you should limit your session to 15 or 20 minutes, tops. Public steam rooms can also harbor germs and bacteria, so make sure you’re sweating it out at a clean location you trust.
Steam rooms are often touted as a way to detox, but this is not medically or scientifically proven. “I am not aware of any conclusive studies that show that steam rooms are an effective way of ‘detoxifying’ the body,” Dr. Hakimian tells us. In addition to having no basis in science, using a steam room to detoxify can also be dangerous: In 2009, three people died during a sweat lodge ceremony in Sedona, Arizona, after spending more than two hours in the heat in an attempt to cleanse the body.
If you are pregnant or elderly, do not use a steam room. And if you’ve been diagnosed with any medical condition, speak with your doctor before trying one to make sure it won’t exacerbate your symptoms. Otherwise, as long as you use it sparingly and stay hydrated, a steam room is relatively low-risk for most people.