6 Tips for Selecting the Perfect Small Bathroom Lighting

Anyone who's spent time in a bathroom knows the importance of good lighting. Too much harsh overhead lighting and you feel like you're in a hospital; not enough and you can't see what you're doing. But we get it: Coming up with a lighting plan isn't particularly sexy or fun so it's often an afterthought.

Small bathrooms present a unique set of challenges because they're prone to shadows, clutter, and distracting reflections from an abundance of shiny surfaces and mirrors, all of which can add up to unflattering and ineffective lighting. So, how do you strike the balance between practical and functional lighting that's also beautiful? Easy! Just keep these six small bathroom lighting ideas in mind when deciding which fixtures would make the picture-perfect complement to your space.

1. Avoid recessed lighting directly overhead.

Canned lights allow you to really see what you're doing, but use them sparingly. Avoid placing recessed fixtures directly overhead because they tend to cast harsh, unflattering downlight — they're best relegated to the "walkway" area of a bathroom. In this space belonging to Bri Emery from Designlovefest, recessed lights illuminate the bathtub/shower area while a pendant light illuminates the center of the room and wall sconces provide necessary task lighting at the vanity. A single hardware finish used throughout creates a streamlined look, and the white walls and cabinet keep things clean and bright, which is always a bathroom-plus. Pro-tip: Whether your bathroom is big or small, install dimmers on your light switches, which will enable you to control light flow and create ambience.

2. Focus on the mirror.

small bathroom lighting idea with wall sconces and gray cabinets
credit: Studio McGee

The vanity is the hardest working area of the bathroom, so if there's one place to really focus on, it's this. For makeup application and detailed grooming, nothing beats a mirror with its own light source, but wall sconces installed at mid-height are a great alternative for shadow-free lighting. The ideal width is at least 28 inches apart, and centered 60 inches above the floor. Shea of Studio McGee employed this clever bathroom lighting idea using wall lights with two sets of exposed frosted bulbs for maximum soft lighting. Recessed lights ensure the space is amply lit from above.

3. Layer your lighting.

small bathroom lighting idea with wall sconces and pendant
credit: Leanne Ford

A multilevel lighting plan is important in any space, but particularly in bathrooms, because it allows you to highlight certain areas where specific tasks (cleaning, shaving, applying makeup, etc. ) are done. And when square footage is at a premium, the key is to layer a combination of light sources that are functional and decorative without adding visual clutter. Designer Leanne Ford demonstrates this bathroom lighting idea beautifully in this space. She uses unfussy wall sconces above the ever-important vanity and a single globe pendant for general illumination to create an understated industrial look.

4. Work with what you've got.

You may love any bathroom lighting idea that includes a pendant light or chandelier, but if you have low ceilings you'll have to find an alternative — sorry! A flush mount is considered by experts to be the ideal light source in any bathroom for its clean lines and the evenly distributed light they push out. Jessica Helgesson pairs a simple white flush mount (reflected in the mirror) with eye-catching gold vanity lights for a look that's equal parts practical and decorative. Pale walls clad in striking mini tiles allow light to bounce and keep things bright.

5. Avoid fabric shades.

Small bathrooms aren't known for their ventilation. Stay away from lights with fabric or leather shades, which can develop water stains, collect product residue, or worse, grow mildew. Glass, metal, and plastic are all good shade options. This eclectic bathroom by Katie Martinez features a show-stopping two-tone metal wall sconce with exposed bulbs. Graphic cement tile flooring, subway tile walls, and brass hardware work together to create a space that's edgy yet timeless.

6. Embrace the mini pendant light.

The mini pendant bathroom lighting idea is still going strong thanks to their versatility and budget-friendly pricing; and when you're short on wall space, they're a great alternative to sconces. Exposed bulbs ensure plenty of light is distributed, and their diminutive scale won't overwhelm a small room. Vanessa Alexander of Alexander Design took full advantage of the trend and selected this bronze beauty to hang above the vanity, which contrasts beautifully with the concrete sink.

Here are a few sources for small bathroom light fixtures:

This is a great resource for high-quality handcrafted bathroom light fixtures ranging from retro and industrial to modern. We love shopping here because it has seemingly endless customization offerings.

Rejuvenation has a wide range of classic fixtures at a good price point; their Cedar and Moss line will appeal to those searching for lights with a midcentury modern bent.

With more than 150 high-end designers, Y Lighting's selection of modern and contemporary lighting can't be beat. We could spend all day — literally — browsing through the inventory.


Jaclyn Schatzow

Jaclyn Schatzow

Jaclyn Schatzow is a freelance writer living in Santa Monica, CA