Secrets to Achieve the Best Bathroom Lighting

“What is the secret to achieving the best bathroom lighting?” As an architectural designer, I’m frequently asked this question.

So how do I achieve the best bathroom lighting? First, create layers of light. Each layer serves a different purpose, including illuminating tasks, setting the mood, and making a statement. Then select fixtures, keeping in mind that mixing metals and finishes is on trend. Finally, use smart lighting where it makes sense. And select bulbs that match your goals.


Best Bathroom Lighting - Chandelier Over Tub
Photo by Andrea Calo courtesy of CG&S Design-Build

Layering for the Best Bathroom Lighting


Layer 1: Light Up Your Life


Sometimes the bathroom is simply utilitarian: get in there, wash your face, do your make-up, style your hair, etc. 

For this layer of lighting design, plenty of light is a must. Recessed lighting in the ceiling is awesome to lend uniform lighting to your whole space. 

Also consider placing lights next to, over, or on the vanity mirror—lighting on both sides of the mirror is most flattering. When I remodeled my own bathroom I flanked my mirror with sconces and, personally, I think I look ten years younger in my bathroom thanks to my vanity lighting. 


Sconces on each side vanity mirror


Layer 2: Create the Mood


You’ve taken care of business, now let’s get serious about creating mood. Bathtubbers use their bathrooms as a quiet oasis in their home. Installing dimmers for your vanity lights and recessed lighting can be a quick way to change the mood. 

If you want to go further, add in some hidden accent lights on dimmers. Think about indirect light, the light whose source you cannot see. Tuck away some LED strips under the cabinet, behind the vanity, even in the grout line!  Using LED strips this way provides atmospheric lighting that transforms your bathroom into a relaxing sanctuary.

It can be fun to consider mood when choosing your vanity lighting—you don’t have to consider only so-called vanity lights! Not at all. Consider sconces designed for other applications, or even pendant lights can be beautiful and create an airy romantic environment. When you choose lights for your bathroom that were designed for other applications, pay attention to their ratings for wet locations to install them in a safe spot.


Layer 3: Make a Statement


Go for some personality in your bathroom! Pick a statement fixture; something that’s more about the stylish, the pretty, the “wow factor.” 

Best Bathroom Lighting - Sonneman Grapes
Sonneman Grapes

Again, you can choose a fixture designed for any room. There are so many options designed for dining rooms that are stunning in bathrooms. You can go traditional crystal chandelier, mid-century sculptural, contemporary sleek—the options are endless. 

I love these from Sonneman. They are non-traditional but definitely appropriate for a bathroom that is bubble bath focused!

One more important point: When using fixtures in the bathroom designed for other applications check wet location ratings and recommendations from local codes. We at The Bathtubber want you safe in your sanctuary.


Read about my specific recommendations for some of the best recessed lights, vanity lights and statement chandeliers here.


For the Best Bathroom Lighting, Use Separate Switches and Dimmers


A final word about layering light. Put your layers on separate switches and pay the extra bit for dimmers. This gives you so many possible lighting options. You’ll be able to match your lighting to your mood as you sink down into the warm bubbles.

It’s not good enough to pick lighting fixtures that simply tickle your fancy. According to Janeen Sager of Lights Fantastic:

Often, the biggest mistake people make when choosing bathroom lighting is to choose based on style rather than function.  The bathroom is the one place you need good task lighting and sometimes the prettiest fixtures don’t provide enough light.

It’s a good idea to clarify your goals for your bathroom before you start shopping. Also, you want to go into the selection process knowing that what you like is as important as what’s trending.

Speaking of what’s trending, this leads to the question I’m asked a lot: “Is it okay to mix finishes?”


Mixing Finishes: Is This Acceptable?


Not only is mixing finishes acceptable, it’s a trend. 

Mixed Finishes - Flute by ET2
“Flute” by ET2

Conventional wisdom says the same color and finish for your plumbing and light fixtures can help “pull together” a bathroom. But this only remains true in certain cases, such as in small bathrooms where there isn’t enough space to lead the eye in so many directions.

Mixed Finishes - Fulton by Hinkley
“Fulton” by Hinkley Lighting


If you’ve got a small bathroom, you may want to keep things from getting too visually busy. But with a larger bathroom, you might want to add pizazz by mixing and matching styles and finishes. 

An interesting choice is combining same color/different finish e.g. brushed nickel/ polished nickel. Or consider mixing the same finish with a different color, e.g. polished bronze/aged bronze. But there is nothing wrong with getting a little crazy and mixing as many colors and finishes as you want. Some light fixture designers already have mixed up finishes for you! 



Add Smart Lighting to Maximize Flexibility


It’s crazy but it’s true: you can use your phone to adjust your lights and dimmers. You can also use your voice assistants. There are a few options out there. Some smart lighting systems use a hub that connects to your home wifi. You can also set up a system that just uses an app and wifi-enabled LED bulbs. 

Systems with hubs that connect to your home wifi are generally easier to set up and more reliable. Smart systems open up so many possibilities for ambiance adjustment, and you won’t even have to get out of your bath! 

If you choose smart lighting make sure the system you install is compatible with Alexa or Google or whatever voice assistant you use.


For the Best Bathroom Lighting, Select the Right Bulbs


Incandescent, Halogen, Compact Fluorescent (CFL) and LED light bulbs are all suitable choices for bathroom use.


Incandescent Bulbs


For a long time incandescents were not only everywhere, but also often provided the warmest most flattering light. But incandescents are on their way out because they use more energy, cost more to operate, and don’t last very long. There’s no question that the light from an incandescent “feels” better, but great strides have been made in all types of bulbs to offer color temperatures closer to those in nature.


CFL Bulbs


If you have fixtures that currently use incandescent bulbs you can replace them with CFL bulbs, otherwise known as compact fluorescent bulbs. If you choose to use CFL bulbs, and you want to be able to dim them (and you should), make sure you get the dimmable CFL bulb. 


Halogen Bulbs


It’s hard to beat the clean clarity and focus of halogen for task lighting. Try halogen over the shower or maybe a vanity application. I don’t find halogen particularly flattering though. Truth hurts. 


LED Bulbs


LED bulbs are the most efficient. They cost more upfront but are better for your bank account and better for the planet. 

LEDs are particularly versatile. They come in bulbs, strips, and are integrated into fixtures. I find the statement fixtures that catch my eye are most often LED fixtures. And, consider the flexible strips which put on a dimmer is a simple but dramatic way to add an atmospheric layer. Also, LEDs are currently the only wifi enabled bulbs. LEDs have truly upped the bathroom light layering game for creating atmosphere and adding personality.


Changing Your Bathroom Lighting Enhances Your Life


I had the pleasure of remodeling my own bathroom a few years ago. My house was built in 1922—people weren’t thinking about layering lighting in 1922! There had been one rather dim light in the middle of the ceiling, and a one-bulb incandescent fixture directly above the sink. 

It was dreary. 

I looked and felt like I, too, was built in 1922. I knew wanted lots of light in my new bathroom for task times, so I installed several LED recessed lights in the ceiling. 

Also, I insisted on flanking the mirror with soft, flattering light. And, I installed an LED strip hidden under the bottom shelf on the vanity wall for chill lighting while in relaxation mode. 


Best Bathroom Lighting Uses Layers


I adore my bathroom. I truly look forward to being there at the beginning and end of my day. It makes me so happy.

Kathleen Stacey Finley

Kathleen Stacey Finley is an architectural designer in Austin, Texas. She loves the challenge of designing multifunctional spaces, especially kitchens and bathrooms.

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