Your Expert Guide to Bathroom Lighting

Julia Millay Walsh

Lighting is an essential element in every bathroom. Your bathroom is the place where you both begin and end your day, so your lighting needs to wake you up, unwind you, and serve all of your grooming needs -- quite a tall order. That said, simply one light in your bathroom is not enough. For effective lighting, your bathroom should have three different options: ambient lighting, task lighting, and accent lighting.

1Stumbling into a poorly lit bathroom before you've had your morning coffee is no way to start the day. That's where ambient lighting comes in. A stand-in for natural light, ambient lighting brightens the room overall space and ensures that you can get around safely. Most bathrooms are equipped with a central light fixture, such as a flush-mounted ceiling light, but chandeliers and pendants are also stylish and suitable options.

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Rachel Flush Mount, $693, Circa Lighting Milk Glass Jar Pendant, $99, West Elm Factory Satellite 2, $299, Schoolhouse Electric

Task lighting includes fixtures that light any area where a specific activity, such as applying makeup or showering, takes place. The prime spot for task lighting in the bathroom is the vanity. Since many grooming tasks involve using a mirror, you should minimize shadows that may affect your view. The best way to do this is to illuminate both sides of your mirror with sconces or vertical fixtures about eye level, three or four inches to the side of each mirror, or roughly three feet apart. If your mirror stretches the width of your wall, you can mount them directly to the mirror (this can be costly, though).

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Oliver Sconce, $359, MACK Bryant Triple Sconce, $209, Restoration Hardware Katy Wall Sconce, $228, Layla Grayce

If side lighting is not an option, placing lighting above the mirror is your next best bet. Rather than installing a single central light, which can cast light on your face unevenly, install a horizontal bar about two feet wide with multiple lights. Avoid recessed ceiling downlights over your mirror -- these are the biggest offenders when it comes to casting shadows!

Other areas that may need task lighting are the shower, freestanding tub, or toilet, especially if they're closed off by a door or curtain, or don't receive natural light. Consider recessed or overhead fixtures for these areas.


Accent lighting is the fun part! These fixtures are chosen to show off the parts of your bathroom you're most proud of, such as artwork on the walls, beautiful tiling, or a dramatic sink basin. Recessed fixtures angled at shower tile, under-cabinet lighting highlighting your sink, or sconces framing a wall hanging are great examples of this. Combining accent lighting with task lighting and ambient lighting will bring more dimension to the space and prevent it from feeling cold or flat.
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2-Arm Sconce, $549, One Kings Lane Model 236 Recessed Lighting, $88, YLighting Aerin Hampton Wall Light, $375, Horchow

OPTIMIZING EVENNESS: Clear glass and fabric shades tend to unevenly distribute light: look for milky-white glass shades or flush mounts/pendants with frosted glass shades to illuminate your space more uniformly.

TAKING CONTROL: Dimmers can offer you more control over your lighting, allowing you to change the mood of the space and brighten as necessary for more detailed tasks, such as cleaning.

PICKING BULBS: When selecting bathroom lighting, especially for the vanity, you should look for bulbs with a high color rendering index (CRI) and a warm color temperature. Incandescent and halogen lights have the best CRI (100). If you want an energy-efficient LED, make sure its CRI is at least 90. Warm color temperature is between 2700k and 3000k.

Photographs: House Beautiful (1, 5), Douglas Friedman, Jason Busch for The Design Files, Nuevo EstiloRomain Ricard, S.R. Gambrel (7, 8)

Explore: Tips, Lighting, Bathroom

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