Portofino South sauna, West Palm Beach
In August of this year, the sauna was renovated to include painting all the interior wood with a varnish. This, according to management, was done to remove unpleasant body odor smells from the sauna. After the varnish, the sauna wood went from being soft, light gray-colored, and unsealed to being hard, dark-colored, and smelly.
Many varnishes are not made to withstand the unnaturally high heat of a sauna’s interior, and will release fumes in to the air. Indeed, Superior Saunas notes on its website, “Do not paint, varnish or stain the interior portions of your sauna. The wood needs to breathe (absorb and slowly release heat and humidity). Also, artificial finishes make the wood surface much hotter, create the possibility of harmful fumes from the wood sealer, and take away some of the “softness” of heat and steam penetrating the wood.” The websites of Helo Saunas and Finnleo Saunas give similar warnings.
When I explained this, in my view, improper treatment of the sauna to the management, they agreed to have the varnish stripped. However, the wood absorbed much varnish, and it is clear from the wood shininess (see pictures, taken December 2015), change in color, and lingering odor that the varnish still remains on some of the wood. The smell given off by the sauna room has noticeably become less “woodsy” and more artificial since the varnish was applied and stripped. I no longer enjoy using the sauna because of the altered smell and the thought that I could be breathing toxic varnish fumes released by the high heat.
A simple Internet search yields some safe options for cleaning the sauna interior, including scrubbing with a baking soda solution, sanding, and low-pressure rinsing, according to Almost Heaven Saunas.
I would love to have our old sauna back; barring this possibility, I call on the building’s management to responsibly research best practices for the safe management of our facilities, before acting on a drastic, and possibly irreversible, solution such as varnishing the inside of a sauna room.