Finns do it naked: Or, what to expect in a Finnish sauna

In March 2015 the student newspaper of Turku University published an article titled Dear Finland, 12 things we don’t understand about you. In the article, which I found both fun and informative, the writer laments that no-one had warned her that Finns go to the sauna naked. In order to avoid this kind of confusion in the future, here are a few basic things about Finnish sauna culture.

  • Most Finns go to the sauna naked.
  • If you want to cover yourself, we will understand perfectly, but please use a TOWEL. Bathing suits are uncomfortable in the sauna, wet bathing suits increase bacteria, and in public swimming pool saunas, the chlorine evaporating from bathing suits is unhealthy to breathe.
  • Most Finns are comfortable with a mixed naked sauna with people they know, or are getting to know. For example, in student parties that involve going to the sauna, the default may very well be a mixed sauna. So: ask about the arrangement. It is also ok to ask for a separate sauna for men and women.
  • In a public Finnish sauna, for example at swimming pools, there is a separate sauna for men and women. Sometimes, a ”Turkish” steam sauna, i.e. a sauna with a lot of steam and very low visibility, may be mixed in public places, so check before entering into one of those. Often there is a label Höyrysauna or Turkkilainen sauna on the door. In actuality they have very little to do with a real Turkish hamam.
  • If you do not want to sit directly on the bench, bring a small towel with you, or buy a disposable cover, we call them pefletti. Whatever you do, please DO NOT sit on a wet bathing suit in the sauna because it just increases bacteria and pollutes the air. In private family saunas, you will usually find a cover on the bench made of cotton or linen. They are called laudeliina, and they are a good gift to bring a host when visiting someone’s home.
  • It is polite to shower before going to the sauna, and this is required in a public sauna.
  • During the period, use a tampon or a moon cup, and you are good to go.
  • Finnish sauna
    Finnish sauna

    The sauna is perfectly ok for pregnant women, as long as they feel comfortable in the sauna.

Nudity in the Finnish sauna

Because nudity tends to be a taboo in many cultures, a few more words on the subject. First of all, as you will notice in the picture, a Finnish sauna is dark, so the point is not to see or be seen. It is just more comfortable naked. Traditionally the place for washing oneself was inside the sauna rather than a separate washing room, hence people would have had to undress anyway. In most summer cottage saunas this is still the case.

Second, though Western advertisement practices try to convince us otherwise, the human body need not always be an object of desire. It can just be. The expectation is that in the sauna a body can just be, in peace, naked or not. Hence, the sauna is definitely not a place for sexual advances, and the fact that a woman goes to the sauna naked with men does not mean anything else than that she wants to enjoy the warmth and wash herself, completely in accordance with the moral norms of this culture.

If you are used to a very different way of conceptualizing nudity, this will take a while to absorb, and perhaps you will never be comfortable with it. Nevertheless, there is beauty in the idea that nudity is perfectly natural, and it is very much worth respecting.

Spirituality and the sauna

As in many other cultures which have a sauna-like tradition, washing in the sauna is traditionally connected with spiritual purification. Thus the Finnish sauna is also connected with spirituality. Many think it is bad behavior to be loud in the sauna, though you may see exceptions. For centuries, the sauna was the place where people were born and the place in which they departed from this world, and the reminiscences of this add to the sense of the sauna as a special place. If indeed you do go to the sauna, and plunge into cool water afterwards, you may well feel reborn. Do try it, if you have a chance. A few suggestions of where you may do so in the greater Helsinki area are available below.

I hope you will have a chance to enjoy the sauna, with the right expectations, and if you think this information is useful, please share it with all those who might benefit from it.

More about sauna related fun and practices will follow in a little while.

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