Sauna was invented in Finland, and persists as an essential aspect of Finnish culture to the present day. Sauna has made its way around much of the world; however, the etiquette of sauna varies somewhat outside of Finland. The proper attire for a sauna room depends on whether or not one is in Finland when one engages in the ritual.
What is Sauna?
Sauna is a ritual where people sit in a heated room where humidity is maintained by the pouring of water over heated stones. Each person decides for himself how long to remain inside the heated chamber, but the idea is that one should remain long enough to break a copious sweat. During the winter, time in the heated chamber is alternated by a dunk in ice cold water or a roll in fresh snow. During the summer, sauna participants gently swat themselves with birch branches and leaves to raise the circulation in their bodies. Each person alternates between the heated chamber and the cold ice or water or birch leaves several times. Sauna sessions typically last an hour or longer.
Finnish Sauna Etiquette
Finnish sauna etiquette calls for each person to shower before entering the sauna. One should carry a towel, not to cover the body, but to place on the heated benches while in the sauna chamber. This is for both hygienic reasons and for comfort. In Finland, sauna is always taken in the nude. Women occupy the sauna chamber first, then men. Coed sauna is very uncommon except for people who know one another extremely well.
Coed Sauna Etiquette
Outside Finland, coed sauna is common. In Scandinavia, Germany, Austria and Eastern Europe, most coed saunas are nude. On the other hand, saunas in Britain, France, Italy and Spain do not allow nudity in coed saunas In the United States, swimwear is required at all times in coed saunas.
Single-Sex Sauna Etiquette
In most European countries, single-sex sauna rooms tend to be nude. Patrons are required to sit on towels while in the sauna. The exception is the United States, where nudity is not allowed in public facilities. In Russia, where most saunas are hotter than in the rest of Europe, the rooms tend to be single-sex.
When the etiquette of the sauna calls for nudity, it is considered bad form not to comply. By covering up one's own body, other patrons of the sauna can be made to feel uncomfortable. However, it is acceptable to wear a towel in the public areas outside the sauna. In the United States, swimwear is required in the sauna. However, the swimwear should allow as much exposed skin area as possible while remaining within the requirements of the law. The idea of sauna is to clear the pores, which can only be accomplished when the pores are exposed to open air.
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