Mirror, Mirror: A Guide For Bathroom Vanity Lighting

By Craig DiLouie, LC

Bathroom Lighting Design - Vanity Lighting

In this bathroom designed by Nancy Satterberg, with lighting design by Randall Whitehead, vanity lights are mounted on either side of the mirror, while a ceiling-mounted luminaire provides both ambient and decorative light. Photo by Dennis Anderson.

The bathroom is one of the most important rooms in the house. Beyond the functional—showering and shaving, applying makeup and using the toilet—this room provides a temporary oasis for the harried. As such, bathroom design is important, specifically well-designed lighting, which can aid the functional while emphasizing the aesthetic.

The vanity is a critical part of the bathroom. Here, in front of a mirror, people shave, comb their hair, apply makeup and generally put on their game face for the day. Good lighting can increase the speed and accuracy of these tasks, while bad lighting can do the opposite. Often, a single light is placed over the mirror, but this can result in shadows on the face and insufficient light on the lower face and neck. Good lighting places sufficient light levels on the face, head and neck, recognizing that skin has a low reflectance—30% or lower, depending on skin color. Follow these bathroom vanity lighting tips to feel like the fairest of them all.

Add side illumination. A simple approach is to place a luminaire (light fixture) on each side of the mirror, with a ceiling luminaire behind the person to illuminate the hair. No light should be directed to the mirror, and no bright, distracting luminaires, surfaces or other sources should be seen in the mirror. If surfaces adjacent to the mirror are used to reflect light to the face, they should have a greater than 70% reflectance, be non-glossy in finish and be a flattering color.

Side luminaires should be placed outside the cone of vision (at 60 degrees) to avoid direct glare. They can be well-shielded luminaires mounted on the same wall as the mirror, lensed or transparent-shade luminaires mounted on perpendicular side walls adjacent to the mirror, or pendants with translucent shades. Other approaches include a portable or wall-mounted illuminated magnifying mirror, recessed wall slot that throws light forward to the face, backlighting all sides of a mirror furred off the wall, and a luminaire placed over the vanity.

Light overhead. The overhead luminaire can provide additional illumination on the hair while also serving as soft ambient lighting. The luminaire can be decorative, providing visual sizzle, or be concealed, emphasizing the architecture. Approaches include a recessed, louvered or lensed ceiling or dropped-soffit luminaire; cove uplight on perpendicular side walls adjacent to the mirror and above the mirror; or a luminous ceiling panel in a dropped soffit above the vanity.

Match CRI. Good color rendering is paramount. Individuals applying makeup should have the same color light under which they will be viewed in public. For example, if an individual works in a 4,100K (visually cool, bluish shade of white) office, the vanity light should also be 4,100K, with a color rendering index (CRI) rating of 80 or greater. If the individual will be seen under incandescent light or outdoors, 2,700K (visually warm, orangish shade of white) to 3,500K (visually neutral-white), 80-plus CRI sources will be appropriate. As men need to distinguish facial hair from their skin while shaving, 4,100K, 80-plus CRI sources are recommended for lighter-skinned men and 2,700K to 3500K, 80-plus CRI sources for darker-skinned men.

Dimming control also can be added, which allows the user to set light levels according to functional need or preference of mood. With good lighting, people can leave their home with confidence that they look their best.

Key Takeaways For Lighting Your Bathroom Vanity

  • Bathrooms are critical spaces in a home
  • Grooming requires good lighting on the head, face and neck
  • Speed, accuracy, color rendering, visual comfort are critical
  • Light from multiple directions reveals while softening shadows