Real Talk: What Do Steam Rooms Actually Do?

Updated 04/19/19
Steam room benefits

A solid sweat session in the steam room is a vital part of any good spa trip, right? In fact, it’s one of the (very) few times we’d actually embrace sitting in a humid, sweaty environment. We all know steam opens our pores, but what does that really mean? Vague notions of it aside, there are actually more benefits to sweating it out in the steam room than we once thought. We love a good steam sesh here at Byrdie, and with nearly every spa therapist seeming to advocate a regular steam, we thought they must be onto something great.

To get to the bottom of things, we’ve enlisted experts Natalie Hart, head spa therapist at Huddersfield's award-winning Titanic Spa, and Rupert Critchley, MD, a practicing GP and founder of London’s Viva Skin Clinics to tell us just how a steam room can improve our skin, clear our sinuses, and soothe sore muscles.

Steam Room vs. Sauna: What’s the Difference?

First things first, let’s clear up this crucial question—steam rooms and saunas are both super-hot rooms designed to raise our body temperatures, right? Well, yes, but the difference lies in the type of heat that saunas and steam rooms create. With hot rocks or piping stove, a sauna generates very dry heat, which although good for boosting circulation and easing muscles, can irritate some skin types. Steam rooms, on the other hand, are powered by boiling water, making them far more humid and full of "wet" heat.

It’s Great for a Glowing Complexion

We’ve surely all done the DIY facial steam (bowls of hot water, towels over your head) to banish a few blackheads, and a steam room works in exactly the same way—just on a larger scale. “Steam opens the skin’s pores and clears out any congestion,” explains Critchley. “Have you ever noticed that warm and healthy glow when you step out of the steam room? That’s because hot steam therapy increases peripheral blood flow, thereby improving your overall skin complexion.”

Steam Can Combat Problem Skin

If you suffer from dry skin or conditions that get easily irritated by extremely dry weather or sweating (hello eczema and dermatitis), then a steam room could be a far better friend to you than a sauna. Hart notes that the warm, damp air will work to drench skin in moisture, hydrating rather than stripping it. Oily, acne-prone skin could benefit, too, as the moisture can help rebalance overactive sebum glands while the heat and humidity work to simultaneously unclog and cleanse.

Sweating is a Brilliant Way to Detox

Sweating is one of the body’s key detoxification processes, helping to rid it of the things you no longer need. A good steam can help speed that whole process up, explains Hart, by increasing the body’s heart rate and temperature, thereby inducing more sweating.

Your Sinuses Will Thank You

Steam rooms have long been used as a way to open up and clear the airways. One study, which saw children suffering from respiratory infections undergo steam therapy, even found steam helped to ease symptoms and discomfort during recovery. However, warns Critchley, it’s important to consult your GP first if you’re suffering from high or low blood pressure, any chronic disease, respiratory problems, or a heart condition. If you’re in the early stages of pregnancy, it’s also a good idea to skip the steam room, as changes to your core temperature can affect blood flow to your baby.

Goodbye Post-Workout Aches

Just like saunas, steam rooms can help to loosen up stiff joints and sore, aching muscles by bathing them in heat. One study found both saunas and steam rooms to be particularly effective in helping speed up recovery after strength-training sessions—meaning that hitting the steam after blasting the weights could save you from those dreaded next-day DOMS (aka delayed-onset muscle soreness).

It Could Help You Beat Stress

Just like sinking into a warm bath after a long day, a steam room session could work wonders in helping you relax and calm your mind. Especially, says Hart, if you try a spa that infuses the steam with calming essential oils, like lavender, rose, or bergamot. Critchley also notes, “Steam rooms and sauna therapy have been used for centuries as a sanctuary of relaxation. It will help your body relax and reduce stress and tension, which is not only of benefit to your mind but also to those everyday aches and pains.”

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