Cultures everywhere have some sauna etiquette in place and it’s a good idea to familiarize yourself with local customs before strolling into a public house au natural only to find out that sort of thing isn’t tolerated in places outside of Finland.
New traditions have popped up and there tends to be confusion about proper sauna bath etiquette, especially in European countries, where the old live-and-let-live nudity custom has been replaced with modesty. And a swimsuit.
Sauna etiquette can be broken down into some simple basics: nude or not, single sex or mixed company, and talking or not (never loudly). Other considerations such as when and if to pour water on the stones, and when to open the door to enter/exit, are up to your common sense.
The sauna was invented in Finland, and the Finnish sauna tradition is widespread in areas such as Germany, Austria, Scandinavia and Eastern Europe where nude bathing in mixed company is still de rigueur and sauna bathing etiquette dictates that the clothing ban is strictly enforced.
One important point to remember regarding sauna etiquette in German-speaking countries: pouring water on the stones is not done by guests. The procedure is called the Aufguss (onpouring) by the Saunameister. After pouring water on the stones, the saunameister will take a towel and gently wave it to circulate the hot loyly steam.
These Aufguss sessions last about 10 minutes after which you’ll exit for a cold shower or bath, or just sit in the open air. It’s considered bad etiquette to enter the sauna after the Aufguss session has begun (the schedule is posted on the door). It’s also a no-no to leave early as opening the door causes a loss of heat.
You can find saunas in the UK as well as France, Italy and Spain but they are not as common or popular. In those countries, single sex saunas are more common and nudity is okay, but it is not allowed in mixed saunas. Unfortunately, the traditions of the Finnish sauna are not upheld here as proper sauna etiquette such as showering is not strictly observed.
As for Americans and Canadians, they don’t have the sauna tradition as celebrated by Europeans. You'll find saunas in some public facilities such as hotels and health clubs, but etiquette demands that the vast majority of those will require swimwear to be worn at all times.
Nowhere in Asia are saunas more popular and hip than in South Korea and the sauna bathing etiquette here is nudity. Koreans have public bathhouses where you’ll also find large hot pools filled with healing herbs, steam rooms, hot tubs, showers, massage rooms and saunas.
They call the facilities a jjimjilbang (pronounced "jim-jill-bong") and the young Korean couples like to go on first dates to these nude saunas. Koreans believe they get the best bang out of their sauna bath by moving from hot room to cold pool in 5-minute intervals.
In all countries and customs, a sauna bath is not something to be hurried so relax and enjoy your time there. Visiting other countries is a great way to learn about its people and culture and a public sauna experience can be thought of as sightseeing in itself. Just keep the basics of sauna etiquette in mind to eliminate any potential surprises.