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18 Dos and Don’ts for good day spa etiquette

What to wear to a spa and more tips for a great spa day.

Your first visit to a day spa can be intimidating. Although civilization has been going to public baths, saunas and steam rooms for centuries, in modern times it’s something that happens behind closed doors so it’s tricky to know the proper day spa etiquette. I know on my first time I had so many questions. What do I wear? How do I act? What should I bring? Plus all the things I didn’t even know to ask yet.

I’ve been going to day spas in Canada and around the world a lot since then and have learned the many rules and rituals that make for a comfortable, stress-free experience. (You can read my spa reviews here!) I’ve also witnessed a lot of bad behaviour, sadly. Which is why I wanted to write about spa etiquette to help other newbies, or anyone feeling unsure or intimidated.

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Recommended: A Sauna Hat

Want to upgrade your sauna experience? The Finns will tell you to wear a sauna hat. These simple felt hats help regulate the temperature of your head so you can sweat harder, longer. This style has the traditional grey felt and is stylish for all genders.

Friends at Scandinave Whistler day spa photo by Justa Jeskova
Scandinave Whistler photo by Justa Jeskova

Want to skip right to the list of day spa etiquette tips?

1. Choose a spa that’s comfortable for your gender

2. Book treatments in advance

3. Pack a swimsuit

4. Prepare for nudity (maybe)

5. Arrive at least 15 minutes early

6. Ask for a tour

7. Wear flip-flops or sandals

8. Enjoy wearing a robe…everywhere!

9. Leave your $#$%@%@# phone in your locker

10. Leave jewelry at home

11. Shower. No, for real.

12. Sit on your towel in the sauna

13. Don’t forget to hydrate!

14. Respect Quiet Zones

15. Share the hot tubs

16. Tip your attendant at check out

17. Not sure about something? Call and ask!

18. Relax!

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What is a day spa?

When I say “day spa” I’m referring to a health and wellness business with a variety of facilities and services, usually some kind of hydrotherapy circuit like hot pools, saunas and steam rooms, as well as massage and other beauty services.

Much of my advice here is also applicable to visiting hot springs or other outdoor bathing attractions you are sharing with strangers. (Note that this primarily applies to my North American and European spa experiences. Japan is still on my bucket list.)

This is different from, say, the spa at a hotel or resort, or a place you may just go for a facial or a manicure, where it’s just you and your attendant. At a day spa you would spend a few hours or even a whole day, so there are lots of little interactions with staff and other guests to think about. When it comes to day spa etiquette, there are plenty of important things to know before you go.

So here’s my ultimate guide on what to expect at a spa, what to wear at a day spa, and other tips on to make sure you have a blissful day.

Group conversation at a day spa
Spa Nordik, Chelsea, Quebec

Choose a spa that’s comfortable for your gender.

Some day spas are co-ed all the time. Some spas are for women only. And many have specific days or time slots reserved for only men or women — you don’t want to be turned away for going on the wrong day.

Personally, I like to choose women-only spa experiences so always look at the website to see if that’s available. Whichever you prefer, be sure to check that’s what you are going to get.

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Book treatments in advance

If you want to get a massage, facial or other personal treatment at the day spa, plan ahead. This is especially true if you are hoping to schedule at the same time as your partner or friend, or have a limited window on your travels.

During high seasons (winter for outdoor spas in Canada, summer in Europe, Christmas holidays, Valentine’s etc.), massage slots will almost always fill up in advance. So definitely book as soon as you know your trip dates.

Liisa Wanders at Baldi Hot Springs Spa in Costa Rica
What to wear to a day spa? Your swimsuit!

Pack a swimsuit

What to wear at the day spa is the most common question. Most places have some kind of communal bathing space for you to relax in. And in many cases, this is the main attraction!

So if you want to use the swimming pools, the hot tubs, the sauna or steam rooms, pack a swimsuit. It’s the one thing you’ll need for sure. Some higher end day spas do sell swimsuits onsite but selections are limited and bigger bodies are unlikely to find one that fits.

You may want to even pack two swimsuits. For example if you plan to eat at the café and then go back into the pools, you don’t want to sit in a wet swimsuit for lunch, etc.

Two more tips for swimsuits at the spa is to be mindful that certain chemicals or natural minerals may affect the fabric of your suit. So if you have a really expensive one, maybe choose a different suit. And pack a plastic bag to put your wet suit in when you are done (not all spas provide this, although I wish they would).

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Prepare for nudity (maybe)

Some spas or experiences are clothing optional. I’ve been to women’s only spas where most guests were topless, or fully nude in the saunas and steam rooms, etc. In Scandinavia, a communal sauna is likely to be towels-only for example.

Going naked at the spa can be a liberating experience, and I recommend trying it if you haven’t before. But if it’s not your thing, know that it’s not required, you can absolutely wear your suit and nobody will look at you weird.

One exception: at a traditional Moroccan hammam, which are segregated by gender, women are expected to take tops off and wear just bottoms – and it’s not really an option, so be prepared for that.

What to Expect at a traditional Moroccan Hammam

Regardless, spa changerooms are generally cramped quarters. You can always change in a private washroom but you’ll still be exposed to others as you pass through.

It’s common sense but always bears repeating: when you are in the presence of other people’s naked bodies, have the courtesy not to stare. And for heaven’s sake don’t take any photos!

Neon sign reminding you that a spa day is self-care.
Photo by Etienne Girardet via Unsplash

Arrive at least 15 minutes early

Day spas are about relaxation, destressing, and making your body and mind feel good. So don’t kill that vibe by rushing in at the last minute.

If it’s your first time, you’ll need to fill out a health/medical profile. And if it’s busy, you may need to wait to check in. It’s best to allow 15 minutes before your scheduled check-in time for that.

Many day spas have lovely relaxation rooms where you can have an herbal tea, fruit-infused water, and begin to chill out before your treatment.  But try to stick to your reserved check-in time because they do manage the capacity of pools, etc.

Ask for a tour

If it’s your first time at a particular day spa, ask the staff to show you around the facilities when you check in.

They are usually happy to walk you to the change room, show you how your locker works, where to get towels, the way to the different facilities like pools, saunas, etc. At larger facilities, or if it’s really busy, they may just show you on a map, but there is usually staff floating around the changerooms if you have more questions. (If you are confused by the electronic lockers for example you’re not alone. I’ve had to ask for help many times.)

If you have a personal treatment booked, they’ll also explain where to wait for your attendant — don’t worry, they will come and find you.

It’s OK to still be in your street clothes while getting the lay of the land, but you should change into your swimsuit/towel before wandering around.

relaxing in a steam room at a day spa

Wear flip-flops or sandals

Confession: I hate open-toed sandals. And I never ever owned a pair of flip-flops until I started going to day spas. Now, I have a pair that’s easy to pack with me.

Going barefoot at the day spa is not allowed and even if you can “get away with it” it’s poor hygiene in a group setting. If you don’t bring your own flip-flops, most spas do provide for free with cost of admission. However, some don’t and you will have to pay to rent or buy on site. If you don’t have any to bring, check before you go.

Exception: I was surprised at Banff Upper Hot Springs the rule is take your shoes off at entrance and to go barefoot in the pool area. Lesson: be flexible in the face of unexpected rules.

What to expect at Banff Upper Hot Springs

Woman in robe drinking tea at a day spa
Robe life. Photo by Usen Parmanov via Unsplash

Enjoy wearing a robe…everywhere!

At most day spas, you will be provided with a nice fluffy robe. These are usually found inside your assigned locker in the change room. You are welcome to wear these the entire time. And you should!

What should you wear under your robe at the spa? That depends.

Are you just going for a massage and that’s it? You can go naked underneath if you like, since your attendant will cover your body with a sheet during the treatment, exposing only what needs to be worked on.

Are you going to use the water therapy facilities? You’ll want to wear a swimsuit under your robe. There will be lots of hooks near all the pools, steam rooms, etc. for you to hang your robe.

Can you wear your robe to the restaurant? For the most part, yes! It feels weird the first time, but you’ll see that guests keep their robes on for the entire visit. That includes going for a snack at the café or to lunch, even at upscale places.

Note: some spas have “plus size” robes available on request for larger bodies, so if yours doesn’t fit, don’t be shy to ask to swap out. You can also call ahead if you are worried to confirm.

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Using your phone in pool is bad day spa etiquette
Don’t be This Person. Photo by Abu Sayeed Ibn Muktar via Unsplash

Leave your $#$%@%@# phone in your locker

Spas are for relaxing—in private. It is not relaxing to be worried about being in the background of someone’s photo. Or to overhear a phone conversation. It’s simply bad day spa etiquette to bring your camera or phone with you into the shared facilities.

Almost all spas have no phone rules and plenty of signs to remind you to leave your devices in your locker. And yet… there’s always that one person who thinks they are special.

Yeah, we know you want photos in these beautiful settings. Too bad?

Things I (and most spa visitors) want: not to be distracted by someone’s wannabe influencer photo shoot. And robes with pockets. But I’ve been to spas where they are sewn up now because people use them to sneak phones in. So just be a good guest and unplug. I promise you, you will be way more zen! (And so will everyone else.)

Exception: The Blue Lagoon in Iceland welcomes cameras and phones in the outdoor mud baths. Probably because it’s a world-famous attraction and a once-in-a-lifetime experience for many visitors. So in cases like that, just be mindful of anyone else that may be in your background – and if they ask you not to film near them, please respect their privacy request.

Any photos you see of me in a spa setting were taken with permission – although you’ll usually only find me snapping at the exit to show off my blissful smile and glowing post-steam room skin!

Liisa Wanders at Scandinave spa in Old Montreal

Leave jewelry at home

This isn’t so much a day spa etiquette, but a general tip: don’t wear jewelry. In thermal waters it may get tarnished, in hot saunas it may burn your skin, or you may just lose it.

Shower. No, for real.

I’ll never forget my first visit to a thermal swimming pool in Iceland.

There was an attendant stationed near the showers to make sure all guests did a proper wash with soap before entering the pool. There were also many illustrated signs designed for foreigners showing that you needed to wash: your hair, your underarms, your private parts, etc. Basically, in Iceland, it is considered extremely rude to enter the pool without being completely clean. This is mostly because they do not use much or any chlorine and chemicals, but it’s excellent etiquette for any public pool, sauna, steam room, hot tub or spa!

And yet, in North America I rarely see day spa guests showering properly. As in, taking your swimsuit off, using soap, and cleaning your whole body. Instead, I mostly watch guests tiptoe around the showers or lightly mist themselves before heading into the waters.

To practise good day spa etiquette, use the showers to wash your naked body before leaving the changeroom and using the communal facilities. You are about to get wet anyway, so why not start your session on a fresh clean foot?

Sitting on a towel in a public sauna is good day spa etiquette
Group sauna at Nordik Spa, Chelsea Quebec

Sit on your towel in the sauna

If you are given a small towel in your locker, or see them stacked around the spa, those are for sitting on when using a sauna, steam room or other shared facility. Larger towels can be used on loungers and other seating.

Even if you are wearing a swimsuit, it’s good spa etiquette to use a towel. There are always more clean towels around so don’t be shy to get them wet and discard.

Don’t forget to hydrate!

Sweating dehydrates the body. So it makes sense if you are to be using a sauna, a steam room, or sitting in very hot water, you should replenish that fluid.

Luckily, most day spas have really thoughtful water stations with cucumber or lemon flavoured water to keep you hydrated. I like to bring a water bottle with me to refill, to reduce my plastic cup usage. But please no glass bottles.

Some spas have excellent juice bars where you can order a drink at check-in and they will bring it to you. Definitely take advantage of that!

it's police to keep conversations quiet in a day spa pool
Nordik Spa, Chelsea, Quebec

Respect Quiet Zones

Some guests want complete meditative silence. Some are there to catch up with their posse. But usually everyone can be accommodated.

Most North American day spas have specific zones designated as quiet. This can mean whisper voices, or no talking at all. Look out for signage and skip these areas if you want to talk.

Exception: the Scandinave spas in Canada have a “silence is golden” policy that forbids talking at all on site. If you want complete quiet, this is your place. If you don’t, don’t say I didn’t warn you!

Share the hot tubs

I love hot tubs! So I often push the recommendation to sit only 15 minutes. But I do keep my eyes open for other guests waiting to use them.

Hot tubs are smaller capacity and it’s polite to consider others and not hog them. (If I can tell a couple is there on a honeymoon or special occasion I usually don’t judge for lingering, and I give them plenty of space!)

hot stone massage at a day spa
Photo by Engin Akyurt via Unsplash

Tip your attendant at check out

In North America, it’s good etiquette to tip your massage attendant for good service. But you don’t need to worry about bringing it to your session, you can do this at check out. Most spas have small envelopes if you would like to leave cash, or add it to your bill.

Not sure about something? Call and ask!

I’ve tried to cover the basics here but you may have questions specific to your situation.

Is the spa 19+ or can you bring your kids? What food is available and are there vegan or gluten-free options? Are there private changing areas? Can you store luggage on site? Some spa websites have extensive FAQS but if that doesn’t answer your question it’s always best to call in advance and ask before arriving.

Good day spa etiquette in the pool
Scandinave Whistler. Photo by Justa Jeskova

Relax!

If that sounds like a lot of rules, try to remember this one the most: leave your troubles at the door and let the spa do its work.

In general, we work too much, worry too much. A trip to the day spa is excellent self-care, so unplug from your devices, try to shake off any inhibitions about how you look in a swimsuit, linger as long as you like, and take as many deep breaths as you need.

I hope this list of day spa etiquette has been useful for you, and I wish you a wonderful visit to the spa.

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