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Homes & Land Blog > How to Choose Your Bathroom Vanity Lighting

How to Choose Your Bathroom Vanity Lighting

By Yanic Simard, Houzz 

The bathroom vanity is a special part of the home, but one that can sometimes get overlooked. In a primary bathroom, it can be the central hub for many important parts of our self-care and the true workhorse for much of our daily routines. For this reason, bathroom vanities need carefully selected lighting to live up to their full potential. There are many options to choose from, all of which work in different scenarios and can be used together to get the best of both worlds. Read on to find out how to pick the right bathroom vanity lighting.

A Pair of Sconces

Sconces, or wall-mounted light fixtures, are a popular choice for bathroom vanities for several reasons. They can be beautiful and highly functional, and generally, they don’t take up a lot of space.

It’s important to realize, though, that these lights can come in various forms and should be selected properly to provide appropriate light for a bathroom, which is different from, say, the lighting in a tight hallway or intimate dining room.

 In a main bathroom, where one will sometimes be using the mirror for tasks such as shaving, applying makeup or putting in contact lenses, it’s important to have fixtures that light not just the space, but the face.

Remember, good bathroom task lighting will light <em>you</em> primarily, rather than the wall or the mirror.

For this reason bathroom sconces are commonly chosen in pairs or more (one on each side of each mirror).

Together, a pair of sconces will evenly light the face from the sides, avoiding harsh shadows that can leave part of your visage in the dark.

That being said, the fact that they can cap off the look of a beautiful bathroom mirror is a great bonus.

bathroom vanity LMW Design, original photo on Houzz

For comparison’s sake, let’s look at a sconce that would work well in a different space. The sconces in this hallway cast light up and down the wall, but not as much outward. This makes sense for lighting the walls so the space feels well-lit and easy to navigate at any time of day, and they look decorative as well.


bathroom vanity Fohr Design Studio, original photo on Houzz

 To get the most functional lighting in a bathroom, however, you’ll want to choose fixtures with a semi-opaque shade that diffuses light gently, rather than an opaque shade that completely blocks the light from traveling forward. This way the light will reach your face rather than just hitting the surfaces of the room.

For more even-ness, fixtures like these with multiple bulbs will generate light from multiple angles to better eliminate shadows.

bathroom vanity Darci Hether New York, original photo on Houzz

 Long, minimalist sconces like this with multiple bulbs or an LED light strip inside are popular choices for a similar reason: the long stretch of light will cast a lot of light evenly up and down the face. Plus, they bring a modern appeal that helps give a bathroom a crisp and clean feeling. 

The American Lighting Assn. recommends mounting them 65 to 70 inches from the floor as a general rule. The association also recommends placing the fixtures 28 to 30 inches apart, but that depends on the size of the room, among other factors.

Choose a Pair of Sconces if:

  • You need your vanity to be an evenly lit workstation for your morning routine.
  • You want to fill the space to the sides of your mirror with an extra decorative touch.
  • You have a single narrow mirror or multiple mirrors with spaces between.
  • You can’t install lights in the ceiling (in a condo with concrete ceilings, for example).
  • Your renovation will already involve opening a wall but not the ceiling, making sconces more convenient to install than a ceiling fixture.

Single Sconce Above the Mirror

Don’t have a lot of wall width to work with? To allow for the maximum width for a mirror, you can position a sconce above the mirror instead of squeezing one in on each side.

This keeps the lighting symmetrical, although having it come from overhead may cause some shadows on your face.

Again, to help get more light, you can look to twin-light fixtures to cast some light down from two sides for better balance.

Often fixtures that are seemingly meant to be installed vertically can be rotated to run horizontally instead, giving you even more options when you shop. This is not always the case, so check the installation instructions before buying.

Another situation to use sconces above the mirror is when the mirror is quite wide. If your mirror is 60 or more inches wide, a sconce on each side of the mirror might be spaced too far apart to provide strong, even light to someone standing in the middle.

This is especially true for a double vanity, where people will not be standing in the center but rather to one side. A series of lights above the mirror will more evenly light you in this case, regardless of where you stand.

bathroom vanity Ruslana Balabanova, original photo on Houzz


Sconces mounted over the mirror can also work especially well in a bathroom with a tall ceiling, playing into the verticality of the space and drawing the eye upward. Notice how this fixture has a bit of a downward cast to make sure plenty of light reaches down to the face.

The American Lighting Assn. says the ideal height for installing fixtures above a mirror is about 78 inches.

Use a Single Sconce Above the Mirror If:

  • You don’t have room on one or both sides of the mirror to fit a pair of sconces.
  • You have a very wide mirror with no breaks in between.
  • You have a tall space and want to dramatically accentuate the height by adding a focal point up high.

A Statement Chandelier or Pendant

So far we’ve talked a lot about functional task lighting, but sometimes light has a different function: just being beautiful.

In spaces other than the main bathroom, such as a powder room, the lighting may not need to be perfectly even and bright. In such a case, sometimes a single light that makes a dramatic statement is preferable. 

If you don’t use a space as often, it can be a great place to experiment with unique looks that you might not use anywhere else in the home. 

Asymmetrical or off-center arrangements, bold mini-chandeliers or lights that cast dramatic shadows can all give a space a sense of personality and drama.

If you love the look of a statement chandelier in the bathroom but still want the functionality of less-dramatic lighting, consider placing the chandelier in the center of the room or over a tub instead, and combining it with a pair of subtle sconces for contrast.

Mixing basic wall fixtures with a more elaborate ceiling fixture will reduce the chance of the two styles competing or clashing. 

Choose a Statement Chandelier or Pendant If:

  • You don’t need perfectly even lighting for tasks in a non-primary bathroom
  • You want to make a big impact in a powder room. 

Alternatively, you can use a chandelier nearby, but with sconces as the true vanity light for a mix of form and function.

Multiple Simple Pendants

While pendant lights can be quite dramatic, they can also be functional as well. A series of pendant lights can function similar to sconces if hung low enough, or being hung higher to sit above the mirror, or somewhere in between. After all, since they don’t attach to the wall they can be hung at whatever point on the wall you choose.

This means you can hang sconces at whatever interval to provide the look and amount of light you desire. You can hang one light on either side of the sink, or more for even more brightness.

Pendants can be very useful when you cannot install lights on the wall, either because an architectural feature like a window or post is in the way, or because the wall is already finished (say, with beautiful tile) and you don’t want to open it up just to add a new light.

Keep in mind that the rules here are similar to using sconces: Hanging the light around eye level, with a shade that lets the light diffuse outward in all directions, will light both the face and the room the most evenly.

In a tighter space you can hang the sconces in front of the mirror to allow for a wider mirror. But, if the fixtures are too close together they’ll be too in-your-face to see the mirror properly. Therefore, you should make sure you have at least a good 30 inches between them regardless.

Choose Multiple Simple Pendants If:

  • You want to have it all: a wide, uninterrupted mirror and multiple functional lights.
  • You have a tricky wall that can’t house sconces.
  • You already have power supplied for lights in the ceiling and don’t want to open the walls unnecessarily.

Recessed Downlights (or Potlights)

Recessed downlights, commonly known as potlights, are often the first thing people look to when planning a bathroom renovation. This is especially true when renovating a space to sell, as potlights are aesthetically neutral and generally acceptable to any potential homeowner. 

However, potlights are often burdened with lighting a whole room, when in fact they should only be one part of a full lighting scheme. 

If potlights are being used to light a vanity, it’s important to remember the previously mentioned rule: vanity lights should be lighting your <em>face</em>, and not the mirror or the room in general. Placing potlights close to the wall as seen here will help the light better reach the person using the mirror, rather than coming from behind and leaving the user in shadow.

It’s also important to make sure the lighting forms a complete grid. A single light in the center of the room will not usually be enough light for the whole space. Using four or more downlights, wired on a dimmer system, will ensure you can turn the brightness up or down as needed.

For the richest light scheme, it’s best to combine downlights with pendants or sconces to bring in light from additional angles. However, using just ceiling lights can create a particular breezy, modern atmosphere, with nothing interrupting the crisp vertical surfaces, so it ultimately comes down to the look you prefer.

Choose Recessed Downlights (or Potlights) If:

  • You want to sell your home and want to make a safe decor choice.
  • You like a wide-open, modern scheme with walls free of pendants and sconces.
  • You want a rich lighting scheme that includes multiple light sources working together.

Modern LED Strips

 While most of the lighting types we’ve looked at have existed for ages, the use of modern LED strips to create mysterious glowing light virtually anywhere is a more recent development, with technology that just keeps getting better and better.

Bright white lights that can now easily be built into mirrors, medicine cabinets, vanities, shelves or ceiling coves give a sense of futuristic cleanliness, which may be too minimalist for some spaces but tends to work well in a wide range of bathrooms.

Mirror lights are especially great for bringing a bright glow when you need it for tasks, and then being turned off when you want a more ambient light from other sources. These lights can be a bit of an investment compared to a typical bulb, but their long life makes them usually a very economical choice in the long term.

Glowing lights built under or above a deep cabinet will not provide as much light on your face as a light beaming directly out of the mirror, but the way they wash a wall can be good for highlighting a cool treatment like these stone tiles. 

This sort of light also helps to reduce the room-shrinking effect a bulky medicine cabinet can have on a small bathroom. Adding a lot of brightness above and below the cabinet will help the walls feel farther away and thus make the space appear a bit larger. 

Choose Modern LED Strips If:

  • You like the space-age look of glowing LED light emanating from a mysterious source.
  • You want to achieve ultimate brightness by adding a mirror light to an already rich scheme.
  • You have a cool wall treatment you want to highlight with a wall washer.
  • You have a medicine cabinet for necessary storage and want to make sure the room still feels bright and open.

Related Links:

Stylish Wall Sconces for the Bathroom

Contemporary Chandeliers to Fit Every Budget

Key Measurements for the Ideal Bathroom Design

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