Taking a Steam, the Ultimate How To
In some parts of the world, steam bathing is such an established part of daily life (we’re thinking of you, Finland) that an article oﬀering advice on how to properly steam would be met with a polite chuckle, as if we’d inquired about the main ingredient in fish-head soup (still you, Finland.) But here in the States, where traditional methods of relaxation often feature large, puﬀy reclining chairs oriented toward large flatscreen televisions, we’re still catching up with the pleasures and practicalities of one of the world’s healthiest ways to unwind.
But things are changing fast. Steam rooms are growing in popularity, especially in private homes. If you’ve only seen steam baths in hotels and gyms, and wondered what was going on beyond the veil of steam, the answer is simple: Muscles are loosening, pores are opening, stress is evaporating, and sweat is flowing.
Sound good? It should. It is good. If you’re wondering how to proceed, here are a few pointers.
Eight Pointers for Making the Most of Your Steam Bath
1. Stow your electronics
Look down. What are you carrying with you? A smartphone? You will want to put that down before entering the steam bath. We know it can be diﬃcult. Find a safe place and pry your fingers from around the phone’s gleaming carapace. Regardless of the manufacturer’s promises regarding your device’s ability to bring you cat selfies and hysterical news reports even in moist environments—not to mention the unending flow of emails, texts, tweets, and snapchats (we’ll need to find a blog to explain Snapchat to us)—you won’t need any of that in your steam bath. Getting away from the noise and clutter of the day, clearing your mind, and allowing yourself to simply be a human—a damp, damp human—is entirely the point of steam bathing.
That said, music can add a soothing panache to your steam bath. Home steam showers can easily be equipped with audio so that, as you succumb to the soothing caresses of the steam, your ears can be similarly soothed by your favorite trance-inducing music. It’s like having Enya right there in the shower with you.
For our old-school types who might be carrying books, magazines, or actual print newspapers, leave those behind too. They will wilt. The ink will run. You won’t need them.
2. Take it all oﬀ.
Kick oﬀ those Wranglers, cowboy, and leave ‘em lay where fate flung ‘em. You, in the Ferragamo heels and the Gucci sleeveless silk duchesse dress with leopard bodice; you’re looking fabulous, really—but where you’re going, Milan’s latest will do you no good. In fact, all those layers of fabric and fashion between you and the skin you were born in will only get in the way. In short, the very best attire for a steam bath is exactly the outfit that will get you kicked out of your finer restaurants and most sporting events: In a word, nudity.
Your skin is your body’s largest organ, and it needs to breathe. It needs to hydrate. It needs to open its pores and release sweat. Rules of etiquette diﬀer depending on where exactly you’re steaming. In Finland, you’re welcome to go in wearing nothing but your beard. In most Russian or Korean baths in most major cities of America, the same rules apply. At gyms and fitness centers, the steam room will be attached to the locker room and gender segregated, so nudity is usually acceptable. You should always bring a towel to sit on, unless you happen to be in your own, private, home steam bath—in which case what you sit on is totally up to you.
But, as with tipping, American social strictures can be confusing, and it is our observation that in most hotel steam rooms, even the ones with separate rooms for men and women, folks cover up. This is a shame, but we wouldn’t want to be responsible for getting you evicted from the Hilton, so check the individual location’s posted guidelines or do as your fellow bathers are doing.
To get the most from your steam bath, you should cover up only as much as necessary, because your skin needs direct contact with all that billowing, healing steam. Avoid swim suits or any clothing with tight elastic that puts pressure on your skin. Heat and sweat could even cause a rash where the fabric constricts you. To the extent that you must be covered, use only a light cotton towel—no synthetics, no dyes, no medieval armor, no pleather.
If you have long hair, put it up in a man-bun (or a woman-bun) to keep it oﬀ your neck, exposing every possible inch of skin to the gentle ministrations of the steam.
3. Clean up your act.
Steam bathing cleanses the soul, but you’re responsible for going in with a clean body. This is a matter of hygiene and decorum, but also the right way to get the most from a session of steam therapy. Take a conventional shower, wash down with an all-natural soap or body wash, and rinse oﬀ thoroughly before steaming. Don’t apply anything to your skin after the shower— makeup, creams, and moisturizers will just get between your skin and the steam. Don’t worry about taking an excessively hot or cold shower; do what’s comfortable. We’ll bring the heat in a moment.
“What if I’m a famous pop star and I can’t let my public see me without makeup?” Great question, Taylor Swift. In this situation, we recommend sending your advance team into the steam shower to clear out any loiterers, then have your bodyguards form a human wall between you and the paparazzi so that you can sneak in unobserved. At this point, you might want to write a hit song about how steam therapy helped you get over your recent breakup. Because we want to get the word out by any means possible.
Another solution, for those lacking songwriting chops, is to install a steam shower in your home. The paparazzi won’t have a clue, and you don’t have to worry as much about cleaning up before your steam bath. In fact, you can shower and steam simultaneously. Magic.
4. Should I finish this meatball sub first?
In general, it’s best not to steam on a full stomach. When you’re digesting a large meal, your body dedicates a lot of resources to the task, including redirecting blood flow to the digestive system. When you steam, and your body senses its temperate rising, blood flow changes course to the surface of the skin. This could aﬀect digestion.
Try to wait at least an hour after eating before you steam. But you should certainly drink water before, during, and after your session to replenish all the fluids you’ll be losing through your skin. Stay away from alcohol immediately before and after, too—you’ll be woozy enough from heat and relaxation; as attractive as that margarita is going to look, please enjoy a lovely cup of herbal tea instead.
5. How long do I stay in here?
The answer to this question might change as you get more experienced with steaming. Your tolerance for heat will rise, and you’ll learn to read the signals your body is sending you. But until you know what you’re doing, heed these signals from steam guru and VP at MrSteam, Martha Orellana:
“Steam for 10 to 15 minutes. As you get settled, you will feel your body heat rise. Within five minutes or so, you should break out in a full body sweat. Try to stay in the room until this happens. But if you’re not comfortable, listen to your body and leave. As you become a more seasoned steamer, you may find yourself staying in longer, but I suggest cutting yourself oﬀ at 20 minutes.”
6. What’s next, Martha?
Sorry, Martha can’t hear you. She’s in her private steam shower enjoying a multi-sensory experience. But here’s what you do next: Cool oﬀ! Giving your system a little jolt of cold helps close your pores, stop the sweating, and invigorate your spirit. Over in Finland, this might entail a roll in the snow.
Spas often have cold plunge pools with water as cool as 45 degrees Fahrenheit. At home or at the gym, a cold shower will do the trick. You can even shower and steam simultaneously! Just have the steam on while your showering, and alternate between being enveloped in hot steamy bliss and standing under the cold water of your shower.
You can even divide your steam session in half, and take a cold plunge after about 10 minutes. Bring your body temperature down, then head back in for another 10-minute session of steaming.
7. What do I do while I’m in there? I’ve never been away from my phone for this
Sit comfortably. Close your eyes. Breathe in a shallow, measured way until you get used to the feeling of inhaling steam. Some people experience an initial sensation of diﬃculty breathing, but don’t worry—you’re getting plenty of oxygen. Just relax and take it easy. In a few moments, you’ll get comfortable with the new sensations.
After a few minutes, you’ll feel your entire body break out in sweat. Revel in this. We spend so much time trying not to work up a sweat, sitting in air conditioning, wearing delicate clothes, applying antiperspirant… Our bodies were made to sweat. Not only is it a cooling mechanism, but sweating clears impurities from the pores of your skin.
Evidence suggests that entering a state of hyperthermia also helps the fat cells of your body purge toxins. Your mucous membranes (which get so little love, but do so much for you) will be hydrated and become more eﬀective, doing a better job of fighting invading viruses and bacteria. If you’ve got a cold, you’ll breathe more easily and the duration of your illness might even be shortened by steaming.
Let your mind wander. If meditating is your thing, this might be a nice place to do it. Music is a great way to unwind, destress and relax. Be sure to add a music system to your home steam shower. Keep drinking water (bring a bottle in with you.) Pay attention to the way your muscles are softening, your joints and limbs are loosening, the cares of the day are melting away.
8. OK, that was great. How often can I do this?
The life-enhancing benefits of steaming will be best achieved if you steam regularly. It’s not so much about how long you stay in there as how often you get in there. If you can steam three times a week, we think you’ll be a happier, healthier you. If you add a steam shower to the very same space as your home shower, you might find that steaming becomes a daily part of your routine, as regular as flossing your teeth or trying to figure out if the dishwasher is clean or dirty. (But way more therapeutic.)
As you evolve into a pro steamer, you might be interested in technologies that can enhance your steam experience. Aromatherapy systems introduce pleasing essences, such as eucalyptus, spearmint, or lavender into the steam as it’s generated, adding to your pleasure and relaxation. Chromatherapy lighting allows you to set the mood with colored lights, to eﬀect a more soothing or invigorating environment. But don’t feel overwhelmed. There’s plenty of healing goodness to be had from enjoy a simple, straightforward steam bath, just like they do in Finland. But we really can’t recommend the fish-head soup.