Sauna vs. Steam Room: What are the Differences?

Teak-covered steam room with glass door next to white hallway

The Spruce / Christopher Lee Foto

Trying to decide on a sauna vs. steam room for your home? The primary difference is the type of heat each provides. A sauna creates dry heat, usually from hot rocks or a closed stove, in an enclosed area. A steam room produces a moist and humid space from a generator filled with boiling water. Both offer a ton of benefits including relaxing and loosening the muscles (not to mention the luxury of an on-demand spa experience), while a steam room can also help breathing.

They differ quite a bit from a design perspective, and understanding the specifics of cost and installation of a sauna vs. a steam room will help you figure out which option best suits your needs.

Sauna vs. Steam Room: The Benefits

Heat has been used for centuries to promote wellness in the body, and both saunas and steam rooms use heat to benefit the body in a myriad of ways. How they do so however is quite a bit different.

Saunas use dry heat, generally somewhere between 185 and 200 degrees Fahrenheit. This heat can come from a variety of sources, depending on the type of sauna that you have—such as electricity, wood, gas, or infrared light.

Steam rooms, on the other hand, provide you with a high humidity environment heated to about 100 to 120 degrees Fahrenheit. They’re considerably less hot overall than saunas overall, but at 100% humidity, the heat that you do feel is quite pronounced.

The benefits of heat for the body are the same regardless of whether it comes from a dry source or a humid one, meaning the benefits of saunas and steam rooms are pretty much the same too. These include:

  • Stress and anxiety relief
  • Increased blood flow to the skin
  • Reduced blood pressure
  • Improved circulation
  • Relief from achy joints
  • Immune system support

In addition, steam rooms help open the lungs which can help with respiratory troubles.

Sauna vs. Steam Room: Cost

There are two cost factors to consider with both saunas and steam rooms: the cost of the unit itself and the cost of installation. As you might expect, it’s not quite as simple as just sticking one of these units in your home and calling it a day (but we’ll get more into that later).

Here’s how the costs break down according to FIXR:

  • Average cost for a two-person sauna: $2,900 ($1,400 for the unit plus $1,000 to $2,000 for professional installation)
  • Average cost for a two-person steam room/shower: $3,300 ($1,000 to $5,000 for the unit plus $1,170 to $2,000 for professional installation)

Want a custom steam room? That’ll cost you a bit more, with the unit alone running anywhere from $2,500 to $8,000 prior to installation.

The verdict: The more budget-friendly option is clearly a sauna, and you can save further by opting for DIY installation if you’ve got the skills, though you’ll still need to bring in an electrician for certain aspects (which will cost you about $350 to $700).

Sauna vs. Steam Room: Installation

Professional installation is pricey whichever way you go, and the cost for having a sauna or steam room installed is pretty comparable—even if the process is quite different.

Saunas are easier to install, with the primary focus being on powering interior elements like light switches and heat controls. You’ll want an electrician to handle all of those aspects, and you may need to bring in a plumber as well if your sauna will be operating on gas. Infrared saunas are the easiest to install, especially if you’re planning to do it on your own.

Steam rooms require a more complex installation process, since they need drainage. It doesn’t get any easier either if you’re converting an existing shower into a steam shower. There are specific structural accommodations to steam rooms that you won’t find standard in most showers, including watertight seals and sloped ceilings of 1/2” to 2” per foot.

The verdict: Saunas are much simpler to install and can be put in any empty interior space in your home (you’ll find them most commonly in bathrooms or basements).

Sauna vs. Steam Room: Size

Both saunas and steam rooms are available in a range of sizes and can also be custom fit to your desired specifications. In addition to considering how much available space you have, other factor that will determine the size of your unit include your preferred layout and how many people you want to be able to fit in there at once.

  • The average size of a two- to three-person sauna is 4 feet x 6 feet to 5 feet by 7 feet.
  • For a home steam shower, on the other hand, you’re looking at a minimum size of about 3 feet by 3 feet to fit one person, with about 15” devoted to a seat.

The verdict: You can optimize the size of either a sauna or a steam room based on what your needs are and how much space you have available.

Which One Is Right For Your Home?

Deciding between a sauna and a steam room is a matter of preference more than anything else, and many people do have a pretty direct preference one way or the other. If you like both, however, then it’s time to look at the factors mentioned above. Price, size, and complexity of installation will all be very important in narrowing down your options. Fortunately, either way you go you get a lot of benefits—and added value to your home.