When it comes to proper lighting, one of the most vital rooms in the home is the bathroom. It’s most often the first place people go to when they wake up in the morning, and it can set the mood for the day. The bathroom is where you wash and dress, and many people take their morning medications there—all strong cases for optimized lighting and daylighting. The other reason is that light, particularly daylight, is what sets our circadian rhythms, which play an important part in overall wellness. 

Helping people see well is also decisive for safety, since the bathroom is where 80 percent of older adults experience a fall. Fortunately, good lighting for seniors is also good lighting for everyone. Let’s look at seven opportunities for the best bathroom illumination: daylighting, overall light, vanity lighting, lighting over a tub, light in the shower, lighting at the water closet, and night lighting.

Light Levels

How much light is needed in the bath? The answer reckons on the person and the task they’re performing. For someone just waking up and shuffling in to the water closet, 10 footcandles (fc) might be sufficent. After a shower, when it’s time to shave, 100fc is probably needed for better visibility.

In the master or guest bathrooms, use fixtures that provide at least 75 to 100 watts of illumination, says Randall Whitehead, a well-known lighting expert and author of Residential Lighting, a Practical Guide. 

You can also get these light equivalents in a 24-watt fluorescent or a 20-watt LED, he adds. (Note: A 100-watt incandescent bulb yields 1,750 lumens, or about 137 footcandles).

Lighting educator Phil Richards, of Juno Lighting Group, in Chicago, has a simple rule of thumb for deciding lighting needs: “It’s whatever your client’s age is, plus 20.” So a 20-year-old would need 40fc, while a 70-year-old needs 90fc to see equally well. This is because the eye’s pupil size reduces and the lens thickens and yellows with age, letting in less light.

But what about when the 70-year-old doesn’t want 90fc or is bothered by glare? The best way to solve that is with fixtures that mask the actual light source: either up-lights, deeply recessed downlights, or lenses. Dimmers can also be enormously helpful. It’s far better to “overlight” a space and provide dimmers for making adjustments than it is to underlight it. With two, three, or even four circuits of lighting and dimmers, there’s a huge form of possible combinations.

1. Daylighting

Nothing beats natural daylight for brightening your mood and setting the circadian rhythms that govern wake/sleep cycles. There’s a huge and developing body of scientific literature around this process. That’s why it’s ideal to design a bathroom with as much natural light as possible. If planning to include one window, why not have two?—especially if they can be on adjacent or opposite walls to rest the illumination. To circumvent the common issue of large windows over the tub that are always covered to furnish privacy, why not switch to bottom-up shades so you have daylight and views with privacy?

For more reliable all-day lighting, how about adding a skylight? A 2x3 skylight lets in two to three times the illumination as a same-size window. Light levels of 100fc to 200fc are quite common in skylit spaces, even on overcast days. And although one skylight is a great advance, we often include several in the design to fit the space and add play to the ceiling.

 

Another great product for overhead illumination is the tubular daylighting device (TTD). Available brands include Solatube and Sun-Dome, among others. The TTD is a small acrylic skylight with a 10-to-14-inch tube, polished on the inside, thatbears an unbelievable amount of daylight to the room via a lens at the ceiling. TTDs cost less than $1,000 installed and are even available with a built-in LED light to provide illumination at night from the same lensed opening.

2. Overall Bath Lighting

Many homeowners like the lavishness feel that a chandelier or pendant fixture can bring to a space. To prevent code issues, make sure that the fixture is at least 3 feet from the tub and 7 feet or more above the high-water level. In addition, put it on its own switch, with a dimmer. Depending on the layout, this might be the fixture used in the middle of the night, and it’s best if you can dim it to about 20 percent.

Another great close light source in baths is indirect up-lighting, usually achieved with fluorescent or LED light strips on top of cabinets or a soffit. This is particularly soft, nice background illumination. 

For effective bath lighting of any form, it’s smart to pay attention to the CRI (color depicting index). A number of 100 is ideal but hard to find. Anything over 80 will allow people to see colors reasonably accurately. Finally, don’t forget to specify the color temperature, expressed in degrees Kelvin (K). A 2,700K lamp is about the same warm yellow light as an incandescent bulb, and many clients prefer them. Jumping up to a 3,000K lamp makes a whiter light, still warm, that’s a good compromise. For residential use, 3,500K is about as cool a color as I’d recommend—it’s particularly good in closets, where you need accuracy for color matching when choosing clothing. Many clothing shops use 3,500K lighting for that reason.

3. Vanity Lighting

 

The best potential lighting for activities in front of the bathroom mirror comes from fixtures climbed on either side approximately at the user’s eye level. This leaves no part of the face in shadow, as happens with an overhead fixture. If the mirror wall isn’t anchoice, move the light fixtures to the side walls, or hang pendants from the ceiling; just try to get the light to either side where it will do the most good.

To provide a place of lighting from dim to bright is why we prefer to use LED (or incandescent, if the client absolutely demands it) rather than fluorescent, as LEDs are much easier to dim. It’s better to have fixtures that can over-deliver lumens and be dimmed as needed.

And even though they still sell “Hollywood” light bars in the big-box stores, try to abstain from using them, especially with clear bulbs, as they produce glare and leave shadows under the forehead, nose, and chin. If the space doesn’t allow fixtures on the sides, it’s all right to place one over the mirror. Just try to select a linear model with a continuous band of bright light.

Downlights are perhaps the worst type to use for task lighting in the bath, although they are fine for ambient or accent lighting. Also, downlights are usually incandescent, which is the least energy-efficient form of lighting-—only 10% of the energy used by a typical incandescent bulb comes out as light, the other 90% is wasted heat.

4. Lighting at the Tub

Building codes are very strict about lights over tubs and whirlpools. There can be no open or hanging fixtures within 8 feet above the tub, nor for another 3 feet in front of it. Since most bathroom roofs aren’t more than 8 feet tall, this generally prevents having open or hanging lights above tubs.

 

Lensed damp or wet-rated downlights work, or you can use spotlights placed outside the “danger zone.” If ambient light levels are high enough, there’s probably no need for a devoted fixture for the tub. Some high-end whirlpools are available with (code legal) underwater mood lights for romantic effect. 

Generally we try to locate tubs under a feature window or major skylight, as they are the focal point of the bath and are where one wants to spend time relaxing. Daylighting makes the most sense at tubs.

5. Light in the Shower

Great news for people who don’t like showering in the near-dark: There are any number of very bright, open shower trim lights available, which means you can put in cans that punch light down and dim to the desired level, instead of struggling to see with the standard-for-years lensed 60-watt level best cans. We used to put two, or even more, cans in a shower just to get decent lighting; now one good one can do the trick. Gasketed glass or acrylic surface-type fixtures rated for shower use are also available.

6. Lighting at the Water Closet

 

This is most easily attained with a fan/light combination fixture. If the client wants more light, perhaps to read by, we’ll specify an additional recessed can light in front of the water closet, almost invariably on a dimmer. Another good trick is to “borrow” daylight via a frosted-glass door or transom windows that allow light but maintain privacy.

7. Night Lighting

As the bathroom is used in the middle of the night most of time, it’s critical to render some, but not too much, light by which to safely guide. When the eyes are adjusted to darkness, as they are when waking up from a sound sleep, very few footcandles are required. (A full moon is just .01fc!) Flipping on bright overhead lights will be blinding and disruptive. A 5-watt nightlight may be just right.

Therefore, it’s a good idea to provide a low-wattage light origin that either is on all night or that responds to motion. Many exhaust fan/lights have such a feature, or you could wire some step lights in the wall, or simply purchase some plug-in motion-sensor nightlights.

High-end hotels sometimes feature LED tape lighting under a vanity or a countertop edge for this purpose. In most of our higher-end work, we furnish an electrical outlet behind the toilet for a bidet seat, and this is a perfect place to plug in one of these lights. Recently, various manufacturers have started offering LED lighting in the toilet seat for wayfinding.