How to Choose The Right Bathroom Lighting

updated May 3, 2019
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(Image credit: Ashley Poskin)

All this week we’re talking about bathroom renovations, starting with Ashley’s recent remodel, and following up with tons of helpful posts about the process!

Lighting is one of the best things about a bathroom renovation. Since the bathroom is where we get ready for the day ahead, the lighting can make or break our look. Here’s how you can marry beauty and function when choosing what you need for your newly renovated bathroom.

(Image credit: Ashley Poskin)

For her bathroom, Ashley chose Rejuvenation Hardware’s Mist Triple Sconce (with clear globes, white enamel base, and old brass finish to install over the sink. For overhead lighting, she went with Rejuvenation’s Butte Dome Pendant in Matte Black. As an extra bonus feature, she added a brass push-button switch plate to reinforce the vintage feel of the space.

The Best Lighting for Your Bathroom

Bathrooms need multiple sources of light. A combination of the three basic types – ambient, task and accent – is ideal. Natural light, however, always wins. If you can create space for a window in your bathroom (even if it is only frosted glass), then you’re setting yourself up for the best lighting there is. Otherwise, rely on these:

Task Lighting: You’ll need direct focused lighting to help you get ready for your day. For example, a vanity wall sconce is needed when you put on makeup or shave. Ideally sconces should be mounted on either side of the vanity mirror (and sometimes above as well) to eliminate shadows under your eyes, cheeks, and chin. Depending on the space however, this isn’t always possible and mounting over the mirror will have to do.

Ambient Lighting: It’s also critical to your overall bathroom lighting to illuminate the entire room, especially when there’s little natural light. This is best done in an indirect way — such as having an overhead light in addition to your vanity sconces. Overhead lighting can be recessed lights, chandeliers, or flushed-mount fixtures that cast even light.

Accent Lights: This is that little something extra to fill in shadows, and draw attention to any notable features in the bathroom: wall art or tile, for example. If you want even more function out of these, find lights that rotate; leave them facing the wall most of the time and then pull them out to put on makeup or shave.

Light Sources & Bulbs

Incandescent lighting is still in many homes but that’s changing fast as regulations phase out the old bulbs in favor of more efficient compact fluorescent bulbs (CFLs) and newer light-emitting diode bulbs, or LEDs. Still, many prefer the warm glow from this type of bulb. Also, while it’s not ready for the retail market, a recent innovation out of MIT found a way to increase the efficiency of incandescents, so stay tuned to see if this old classic makes a rebound.

In the meantime, LED lights are increasingly popular for bathroom lighting. They’re great for dimming capabilities, enabling you to adjust the light based on what you’re doing. They’re also a great way to see how you look in different lights – helping you prepare your very best look before you leave your home. If you go with a LED fixture, keep in mind that you’ll need to specify the color temperature. Most of us are used to seeing a warmer temperature (2700-3000), but you can choose to go with a cooler temperature if you’d like (which will also appear to have a bluer look).

Want an integrated look? Choose a medicine cabinet that has built-in lighting. For an even more custom touch, work with your architect or designer to make a recess on either side of your mirror. Then install an LED strip light with an aluminum extrusion and diffuse color so you’re not looking directly at the diodes of the light.

Lighting Placement

After you’ve selected your how much lighting you want and the type of sconces you’ll buy, it’s time to make sure the measurements are correct. For the best lighting, here are the measurements that generally work best for most bathrooms:

(Image credit: Ashley Poskin)

Install the sconces next to the mirror at 60” from the ground and about 36′ to 40″ apart. Sconces above the mirror should be mounted between 72” and 82” from the ground.

No matter how they are hung, make sure you leave a bit of clearance on either side of each wall fixture. If they’re adjacent to another wall, you don’t want to accidentally create a hotspot between the sconce and the wall.

(Image credit: Ashley Poskin)

For pendant lights, they should hang between 12″ to 20″ below an 8-foot high ceiling. The taller the ceiling, the lower you need to hang the light. Add an extra three inches for every extra foot of ceiling height. For nine-foot ceilings, a good distance is between 15″ and 23″.

When specifying where to install the light fixtures, try to think like the installer. They’re going to be measuring and installing based on the center of the light fixture, not on the overall length or width of the fixture. This is where it can be really helpful to have an experienced architect or designer on board – so you don’t have to make these calculations and decisions.

Choosing Style

The look and feel of the sconces you choose will have a huge impact on your overall design, so have fun with it! This is a great way to go for function while also featuring your specific sense of style. Some prefer to match lighting style and finish to the style and finish of the plumbing fixtures, which gives the bathroom a more uniform look. Others, like Ashley above, have no problem mixing finishes, as long as the mood matches the rest of the space.

(Image credit: Ashley Poskin)