Do you need a makeover or is it just bad lighting? Flipping a few new switches could put a happy face on your dark bathroom.

Bathroom lighting used to be simple. Throw some Hollywood lights up over the mirror and call it a day.

You'll still find the traditional row of them in older homes and new residences erected on the cheap. But in more sophisticated housing developments, the faithful old standby is spurned in favor of sconces, skylights and recessed lighting, among other options.

Modern designers place far more emphasis these days on softer lights that complement the more subdued mood of luxury spa bathrooms, and give even modest bathrooms a more relaxed feel.

Don't feel pressured to settle for just one lighting source, either, says Michael Berman, a Chatsworth, Calif., certified lighting designer for Lamps Plus.

“Where before, one fixture above the vanity would suffice, now we'll supplement with sconces that will take all shadows away so you can put on makeup with confidence, and maybe some low-voltage recessed lights made specifically for the shower,” he said.

The ideal, of course, is natural light.

“Whenever you can utilize any part of nature, it has a beneficial effect on the mind, body and spirit,” says Doug Wilson, host of The Learning Channel design show “Moving Up.”

“We spend millions of dollars on research trying to simulate natural light in the home.


So even man made light tries to take on a natural effect.”

The problem with natural light is its vulnerability to the whims of Mother Nature: it also must be balanced against the need for privacy. A big picture window is fine for an isolated cabin in the woods. Not so great for a suburban house or urban condo with neighbors nearby.

That doesn't mean natural light isn't an option for such homes. There are ways to incorporate it in even the densest areas.

Window treatments such as curtains and blinds protect privacy and really pull a room together, Wilson said.

“What is good is that you always have the option to draw the curtains or shades and see the outside from the comfort of your home,” he said.

There also are skylights and tube lights that convey sunlight from the roof. Barring helicopter-flying paparazzi, they're safe from prying eyes. Just make sure your contractor is skilled and uses good materials. Badly installed skylights and tube lights are prone to leaking, which over time can cause the roof to rot. Even good installations will require maintenance over time.

Another possibility is glass that is obscured in some way. Glass or acrylic block, frosted glass and stained glass are used widely. Some obscure the view entirely. Others allow viewers to see shapes and shadows. Before you install one of these, peer through it from outside and decide how comfortable you are with what is revealed.

If natural light isn't practical, there are a number of synthetic choices.

Before making your selection, decide what it is you hope to accomplish. Is it ambient light, or the main source of lighting for the room? If so, consider a ceiling fixture. Is it an accent light that is primarily decorative? A sconce might be a better choice. Or maybe it's a task light with a specific purpose, such as lighting a medicine cabinet. A smaller, more discreet light would then be preferable.

Fans of using those omnipresent Hollywood lights in the ambient category are diminishing. The problem with Hollywood lights is they're too bright, says Kathryn Goetzke White, president of Innovative Analysis, maker of Mood-lites colored light bulbs.

“They're great for applying makeup when you really need attention to detail, but you can achieve that effect with fewer lighting. It is almost painful on the eyes.”

Interior designer Adele McGann, owner of New York's Adele McGann Interiors, won't even tolerate them for makeup.

“Hollywood lights cast a glare that produces shadows,” she said. “They wash out your face and produce an effect that mimics shining a flashlight on your face.”

McGann prefers halogen lights for a vanity, provided they're placed in the ceiling between the user and the mirror rather than above the user's head. That way color reflected in the mirror is true color, she said.

Wilson suggests sconces on either side of the mirror so that lighting is diffused.

All lighting options have pros and cons, so do some homework to determine what is right for you.

Recessed lights, also called “high-hats,” provide glare-free, uniform illumination, “but because they provide seamless lighting, some find the effect cold and stark,” Wilson said. “To get a warmer effect, use sconces and lamps.”

Fluorescent light, while energy efficient, can cast a yellow and very unflattering light if one is not knowledgeable about the different types of fluorescents that exist, said interior designer McGann.

If the light is encased in a fixture, make sure the style is up to date and appropriate for the d├ęcor of the room, Lamps Plus' Berman says.

“Right now, polished brass is dead,” he says. “Nobody buys polished brass anymore. Oil rubbed bronze is popular right now, but it doesn't have depth to it so they will put an oil rubbed bronze fixture above the vanity and an antique brass fixture somewhere else for some contrast.”

Brushed steel is still around, but is waning from its heyday of recent years, Berman adds. And chrome is making a comeback.

Ultimately, the whole lighting system reflects a homeowner's unique needs and personality, said White, of Mood-lites.

“While major companies have lighting covered for reading, applying makeup, etc., they have not put as much thought into lighting for aesthetic, cool, creative, healing purposes,” she says. “It is much nicer to go to the bathroom in the morning with a nice, soft renewal waking you up as opposed to a bright, white light.”