Shedding light on windowless bathrooms

Iris Price | Improvement Center Columnist | May 5, 2014

Imagine a bathroom with a floor-to-ceiling window that overlooks a verdant garden like the one where Adam first met Eve. If you presently have a dark, windowless bathroom, you may dream of such natural splendor, but in reality, you may not miss the big window, especially when you drop your fig leaf to step into the shower. All you might really need is to lighten up your interior bathroom a bit.

Bathroom remodel ideas for the illusion of light

Even without rewiring your bathroom and installing additional lighting, there are plenty of steps you can take to brighten up the atmosphere of a dreary, interior bathroom.

  • Fixtures and wall tile. One of the easiest ways to give the illusion of more light is to go with lighter shades of a monochromatic design, for example, using classic white fixtures and white -- or shades of white and gray -- glass tiles. In other words, if your bath still has black and green tiles from the '50s or a pink toilet and tub, consider a complete overhaul. Ditto for the cave-like, masculine bathrooms of the '90s. You might have noticed that bathroom fixtures today, with the exception of sinks, have returned to traditional, bright white. Even white cabinets are popular, especially if your flooring is dark.
  • Paint. If you love color, use soft shades of paint in a satin or semi-gloss sheen that reflects light. Gloss finishes are also durable and stand up to moisture. Very pale pastels, beige, and light gray are all good colors for an interior bathroom. If the room is small, the lighter shades can also give the illusion of more space, especially if they are a lighter shade of your predominant tile or tub and shower surround. Yellows are cheerful, but make sure they go with your chosen tile colors. If you cringe at the thought of pale walls of any color, go a shade or two deeper and paint trim molding and accents white to match white bath fixtures. If you want a bold touch of contrast, bring in dark shades in your choice of vanity cabinetry, or on one accent wall where you can create a dark faux finish with metallic touches.
  • Wallpaper. Choose light, airy patterns with upward "movement." Cheerful motifs like flowers or metallic touches in a dark-toned wallpaper can keep the pattern or color from weighing down the ambiance.
  • Mirrors and glass. Go for the clean, uncluttered look of clear, trackless shower doors. Mirrors of every size and shape, both decorative and functional, reflect light and make the space appear larger.
  • Faucets and spigots. Prominent fixtures in chrome, brushed nickel, and gold metallic add to the sparkly effect.
  • Accents. Bring in your favorite colors with towels and inexpensive framed prints. Keep the artwork airy -- line drawings with plenty of white space, or in a stark, monochromatic bathroom, one or two bold pieces of art as a contrast, depending on the size of the room and the amount of empty wall space. Place a moisture-resistant sculpture in a wall niche or on a floating display shelf. Hang a faux window, ready-made or DIY, with a painted or photographed scene. With an electroluminescent panel behind a curtain or blind, create the illusion of light coming through a window.
  • Cabinets. If you've gone heavy on color elsewhere in the bathroom, install an all-white vanity: white countertop, white sink basin, and white cabinets. Or with any finish of cabinets, use open shelving or glass doors below.
  • Ventilation. Make sure you have adequate ventilation, dehumidifying, and air cooling, especially in warmer months, to prevent the room from feeling stuffy and close -- or worse yet, becoming moldy.

Bathe your bathroom in the right light

Light sources for a windowless bathroom are, by default, artificial, with the exception of skylights and solar tubes. Fixture choices abound -- from overhead cans, spots, pendants, and chandeliers to over-the-vanity lighting and sconces to flank the mirror for makeup and grooming tasks.

The biggest mistake you can make is to install one or more overhead lights to do the job of providing adequate illumination for the entire room -- you probably won't be pleased with the results of your beauty regimen once you leave the bathroom -- much less your reflection when you're in there. Like a kitchen, the bathroom requires focused task lighting in addition to overall light. Always use a layered lighting approach and the right type of light for each area of the bathroom. You should also have the option of dimmed lighting for a relaxing bath or those nocturnal trips to the toilet. Keep these types of lighting in mind when choosing bathroom light fixtures:

  • Task lighting. Use sconces on either side of the mirror for best makeup and grooming results. If your mirror takes up the entire wall, it may be too difficult to mount the fixtures. In that case, a vanity light bar over the mirror is the next best option. Halogen lights provide the most flattering white light, but for energy-efficiency, LED bulbs in a warm spectrum, between 2700k and 3000k -- nothing over a color temperature of 3500k -- provide pleasing light. Look for a Color Rendering Index (CRI) of 80 or higher to mimic natural light. Don't forget a wet-location, recessed light in the shower.
  • Highlighting high-end fixtures or accents. This is where you want to use spots or recessed cans to focus light directly on your show pieces.
  • Mood lighting. Backlit medicine cabinets and niches, as well as chandeliers or pendants with dimmer switches, can set the stage for a romantic or just plain relaxing soak in the tub at the end of a long day. These are the times when you actually don't mind it being a little darker in the bathroom.

If you long for natural light but cannot or do not want to add a window, you might be able to add natural light by running a solar tube or sun tunnel from the roof into the ceiling of your bathroom. Unlike a skylight that leaves you vulnerable to a bird's eye view of your bath, the sun tube brings in light without exposing you to the heavens. What you see on the ceiling of your bathroom is a frosted fixture that looks like a recessed can light. Some come with optional LEDs that provide light after the sun goes down.

Finally, if you want the illusion of the Garden of Eden or the Hanging Gardens of Babylon dangling overhead, there are companies that make faux skylights and windows that are so realistic, you might actually believe your bathroom has a window to paradise, even if you live in a high-rise apartment with only a view of the building next door. With the so many lighting solutions, the sky's not really the limit.

About the Author

Iris Price is a single Baby Boomer whose antidote to a lack of retirement funds was to launch a long-delayed career as a writer. While others her age concoct bucket lists and travel the world, she bought a new-construction home and obsessively creates lists of must-have home improvements and personal realization goals. She specializes in writing about home services and self-motivation.