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A guide to effective bathroom lighting design

Bathrooms are small but complex spaces. These rooms rarely cover more than 100 square feet, yet they play host to a range of activities – from teeth brushing and makeup application to long soaks in the tub. When it comes to bathroom lighting, there really is more than meets the eye.

We talked with Bryant Bilal, marketing manager with Eaton’s Lighting Division, about the nuances of lighting a bathroom including common mistakes and how to avoid them.

Why is it important to have multiple layers of bathroom lighting?

Layered lighting supports the variety of activities that happen in the bathroom. For example, makeup vanity lights should be bright with a full beam spread; they should also have a neutral or slightly cool color temperature, so that when owners go outdoors, the makeup shades they applied in the bathroom are true to life.

The bathroom is a heavily used space not just for makeup application, but also for bathing, dressing, shaving and regular grooming. Clear, bright lighting helps ensure a safe, close shave and clarity for other activities.

An effective layered approach starts with general lighting that is not directly aimed at mirrors and other surfaces. Layers of task lighting, all spaced evenly to prevent shadowing, can then support the various activities that take place in the bathroom. Creative uses of task lighting also help set the mood; for example, task lighting fixtures can double as accent and mood lighting in place of overhead fixtures after a long, tough day at the office.

Why is accent lighting helpful in the bathroom, and how should it be used?

Accent lighting, like mood lighting, is all about the homeowner’s comfort and preference. But in general, accent lighting can support the body’s natural circadian rhythm. It’s not a good idea to expose yourself to a lot of bright light first thing in the morning, when you’re waking up, or in the evening, when you’re getting ready for bed. Accent lighting supports a layered lighting solution for increased comfort, whereas simple overhead lighting doesn’t provide that flexibility.

How can controls play a role in bathroom lighting?

It’s rare for all homeowners – especially over the life of a home as owners change – to share lighting preferences, and no space is more personal than the bathroom. Appropriate lighting controls make it easy for the new homeowners to adjust intensity, group fixtures and personalize their new space. If preferences change, it is quite easy for a homeowner to install a new switch.

Bathroom renovations can be costly. But changing the lighting, like putting a new coat of paint on the walls, is a simple way to add personal touches and make this space more comfortable.

How should color temperature and wattage be approached differently in an owner’s suite vs. a powder room vs. a children’s or guest bath?

Now that LEDs are so widely available, it’s easy to keep wattage low regardless of the size of the room. I have six recessed downlights in my own master bathroom, but because they’re LEDs, the combined wattage is less than that of a single incandescent bulb.

Color temperature, on the other hand, is really up to the user; there’s no right or wrong answer. But 3,000 to 3,500K represents a typical range for bathrooms, while owners who want a warmer glow may want to incorporate accent lighting with a color temperature of around 2,700K.

Should the size of the room be taken into account when selecting lighting?

Absolutely. Lighting that wastes lumens or creates extremely low beam patterns is never a good idea. Also, layering and spacing become more important in a larger room, so it's crucial to understand how to space recessed lighting. For example, a large bathroom with only two lights will have dark spots. Even high-intensity lights can look like two spotlights if the spacing is not well-planned. However, additional evenly spaced lights allow you to bump down the intensity, which can result in a more pleasing space.

Regardless of room size, downlights and surface fixtures or accent fixtures should always mix well and be spaced evenly.

What are common lighting design mistakes you see in the bathroom?

One of the biggest mistakes I see is inappropriate lighting that has been placed directly above the mirror. It can cause severe shadowing, which is bad for makeup application and shaving. To avoid unwanted shadows, evenly position overhead lighting away from the mirror instead of directly over the vanity, or place sconces on either side of the mirror for task lighting.

Another common mistake is using an improper fixture in the shower, which can be dangerous. If you’re going to use a conventional bulb in lighting installed in the shower, you must also use a shower-rated trim – what’s called a wet location light fixture. Now, we recommend LEDs that are wet location or shower-rated fixtures. At Eaton, we test our wet location LEDs by spraying them down to ensure they are safe and that water doesn’t cause failure to the electronics.

What are some of the newest products and technologies in this space? How are they tested?

Many of my customers are purchasing the surface mount downlight, or SLD, product. This fixture can go anywhere in the house but is also shower-rated. Though it looks like a recessed downlight, it requires only a simple junction box for installation. These LED modules are available in 80 or 90 CRI and are built for damp or wet locations.

Newer testing methods examine the advanced photometrics of LEDs. Because LEDs enhance our perception of saturated colors, the traditional CRI metric, which includes the first eight (R1 to R8) CIE color reference samples, doesn’t cover strong reds and other more saturated colors. That’s why companies like Eaton’s Lighting Division measure R1-R14 to capture specific R9 values. Furthermore, Eaton now tests other aspects of color rendition to accurately quantify the color rendition characteristics of the light source. Eaton’s labs test according to TM-30-15, which presents detail on Fidelity (Rf) and Gamut (Rg) Indices, Color Vector and Distortion, and Chromaticity Comparison.

The point is to find the right mix of colors for each application. The representation of colors is an important part of lighting design, so it’s critical that you choose fixtures with the best possible color metrics.

Bathroom lighting can be a challenge, but with a layered approach and careful attention to detail, you can achieve a lighting design that’s both beautiful and functional.