Bathroom Lighting Guide

The right light sets the scene in any bath -- and looks great doing it. Check out these lighting tips to help you determine which ones work best for your bathroom.


Lighting serves many purposes in a bathroom. It eases the transition from asleep to awake, guides you in your daily grooming routines, and helps you unwind after a long day.

A single fixture doesn't do you or your bathroom's decor justice. To ensure adequate lighting, you need a variety of sources that provide illumination in three layers: ambient, task, and accent. "Thinking in terms of layers gives you the flexibility to address a variety of needs," says Mary Beth Gotti, manager of the GE Lighting Institute in Cleveland, Ohio.

However, bathroom lighting isn't all about function. Fixtures, especially vanity lighting, also finish the look of any design scheme. "Light fixtures are art," says Marie Lail Blackburn, certified master kitchen and bath designer and owner of MLB Design Group in Seattle. "There are so many beautiful choices out there. The choice is very personal."

These days, lighting applications -- not just the fixtures -- are catching the eyes of designers and homeowners alike. You'll find mirrors and medicine cabinets aglow with integrated fluorescent or LED bulbs, and whirlpool tubs that embrace chromatherapy -- built-in lights that change from calming cool hues to energizing warm tones to influence your mood. "Master bathrooms are retreats where you go to relax, revive your spirits, and refresh yourself," Blackburn says. "Lighting plays a huge role in creating a peaceful atmosphere."

Read on to learn how to cast the right amount of light -- and style -- in your bathroom.

Lighting Buying and Planning Guide
  • Ambient lighting: Ambient lighting is the base layer that brightens the overall space and lets you move about safely.
  • Accent lighting: Accent lighting highlights particular elements of the bath that you want to show off, such as intricate tilework or a beautiful glass bowl sink. "You need layers so that your lighting isn't flat or sterile," says Susan Arnold, a lighting designer at Wolfers Lighting in Waltham, Massachusetts.
  • Task lighting: Task lighting sheds light on specific activities you do most, from shaving to showering.
Shadow-Free Vanity Lighting
  • Side Lighting: To fully illuminate your face, plan for the equivalent of 75 watts of incandescent lighting on each side. If your mirror is centered above the sink, mount fixtures "just a few inches to the left and the right of the mirror -- as close to your face as possible," says Patricia Rizzo, DesignWorks program manager at the Lighting Research Center in Troy, New York. "The bottom of the shade housing the lightbulb should sit just above eye level." If your mirror stretches the width of the vanity, you can mount the fixtures directly onto the mirror, though this will likely cost more.
  • Overhead lighting: Side lighting is best for minimizing shadows, but if it's not possible, place a fixture, such as a horizontal bar with multiple lights, above your vanity mirror. This fixture should provide the equivalent of 150 watts of incandescent lighting and be long enough to spread light evenly over your face. Mount it at least 78 inches above the ground and make sure it clears the mirror, "unless the shades are meant to drop down over the mirror," Rizzo says.
  • Opaque lampshades: Fixtures with milky-white diffused shades are your best bets for smooth, even illumination, Rizzo says. Steer clear of fixtures with clear glass shades, which hinder light distribution, as well as fabric shades. "Fabric shades can vary from light to dark, so the number of watts won't help as a guide if the light being emitted from the fixture is greatly diminished by the shade," Rizzo says.
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