Ask Wirecutter: How Do I Improve the Lighting in My Dingy Bathroom?

Ask Wirecutter, an advice column written by Annemarie Conte, explores the best approaches to buying, using, and maintaining stuff. Email your biggest product-related problems to [email protected]


Dear Wirecutter,

The lighting in my windowless bathroom is a mishmash of bulbs that came with my apartment when I moved in. They’re either too dim or too bright, and together they create a dingy yellow and clinical blue ambiance. Whether I’m getting ready in the morning or relaxing in the bath in the evening, I want my bathroom to feel warm and inviting, but also fresh and clean. In the few instances I’ve attempted to research lighting, I get overwhelmed with all the choices: bulb types, wattage, color ranges, durability, for overhead or vanity lighting, etc. Can you please help me?

M.C.


Dear M.C.,

I don’t blame you for being overwhelmed. When I asked our experts—who are highly conversant in lumens, watts, and degrees Kelvin—to speak to me really slowly while I was trying to solve this for you, I struggled too. By the third time my eyes started to glaze over—and they wouldn’t let me simply offer you a nice scented candle to kick up that ambiance and call it a day—I realized I should just give them the floor.

So let me introduce our guest columnists, smart-home editor Jon Chase and senior staff writer Rachel Cericola. They discussed your question at length and pulled together some excellent options. Without further ado, Jon and Rachel:

First of all, we completely sympathize with your plight, especially because at least one of us (Jon) has endured a similarly awful bathroom ambiance, lit by a single, anemic bulb for more than a decade. It’s the pits. Your particular issue is all the more complicated as a renter, since you may be unable (or not allowed) to alter the existing fixtures and switches, and you may or may not have glass covers that affect the light quality. So we’ve provided a few options to suit most any scenario.

Swap out the bulb

The quick and easy solution—if you don’t own your place or don’t want to fiddle with wiring—is to simply standardize all of your light bulbs so that they are the same type, color temperature, and brightness. We recommend LED bulbs, which use a fraction of the energy of traditional bulbs and also provide far more attractive light than CFL/fluorescent bulbs.

Comfort is all about picking the right color temperature, from 5,000 K to 2,700 K. Photo: Sarah Kobos

More than any other factor, color temperature will affect the ambiance of your sanctum sanctorum. The color temperature refers to the color the bulb produces, from warm to cool, and it’s measured in degrees Kelvin, or K. Consider 3,000 K or bright white; this is a whiter hue than what you’d want in a bedroom, and so it makes it easier to see your skin clearly in a mirror. Whatever you do, don’t opt for 4,000 or 5,000 K daylight bulbs, which are what produce those awful blueish lights that you associate with parking lots or late-night visits to a 7-Eleven.

An easy choice is the Cree 60 W Equivalent Bright White A19 Dimmable Exceptional Light Quality LED Light Bulb, the companion model to our top pick for the best LED light bulb. It’s plenty bright at 815 lumens, produces a good compromise between soothing and warm light, is fully dimmable (more on that in a sec), and is an easy solution that is literally as simple as screwing in a light bulb (or two, or three, or more). Depending on your preference (for the record, this is Jon’s, not Rachel’s), you might bump up to the 75-watt equivalent model if you have only a couple of bulbs and want to ensure your room is bright. Rachel thinks you can go a bit softer with the 60-watt, to make your space as inviting as possible. [Deputy editor Jason Chen, who edited this article, uses the Cree 60 W bulbs throughout his apartment and finds them to be perfectly bright. He’s even installed dimmers everywhere to take the light down a few notches, when the mood strikes.]

Cree 60 W Equivalent Bright White A19 Dimmable Exceptional Light Quality LED Bulb

Install a dimmer

If you have access to your electrical breaker box and are able to turn off the power, installing a dimmer switch will greatly improve your happiness in the hopper. A dimmer switch lets you get a brighter bulb (like the 75-watt Cree), so you can shave, put on makeup, or stare blankly in the mirror, but you can also take the energy down when you want to have a relaxing dip in the tub. Swapping a switch is generally a 15-minute, DIY-friendly operation (it mostly involves following directions and using a pair of pliers and a screwdriver), but it can also be done cheaply by any handyperson. The Lutron Diva LED+ is an all-around great dimmer switch, especially since it’s compatible with most LED bulbs without causing flickering or buzzing (both of which are a common issue and totally maddening).

Go big, go smart

If you want the best possible solution, get smart color LED bulbs. They are dimmable and can also be tuned to your preferred color, so that your bathroom is the pinnacle of comfort and utility—the Shangri-La we all deserve.

We love the Wyze Bulb Color, an especially bright 75-watt equivalent smart bulb that you set up and control using an app. After setting up one or several, they can be tuned together or individually to your pick of millions of colors. You might have them turn on automatically at a bright setting for morning and then again in a warmer color at bath time. To turn your bulbs on and off or choose among your preset modes, you can use the Wyze smartphone app. Or, better yet, you can use a smart speaker like an Amazon Echo, and tell Alexa what to do.

Wyze Bulb Color

Wyze Bulb Color

This affordable smart bulb is one of the brightest we’ve tested, and it produces excellent colors and reliable basic features, including remote control, scheduling, and timers.

Video: Michael Hession

A much more expensive (but even better option) is to use Philip Hue bulbs, like our pick Philips Hue White and Color Ambiance A19 Starter Kit, along with the Lutron Aurora—a battery-powered dimmer that snaps over any regular, toggle-style light switch. The Starter kit includes three 60-watt equivalent Hue bulbs and a little puck you connect to your Wi-Fi router to make them controllable. The dimmer switch isn’t absolutely necessary, but it allows you to dim or turn your lights on and off by hand, rather than having to fiddle with an app or other accessories.

Philips Hue White and Color Ambiance A19 Starter Kit

Philips Hue White and Color Ambiance A19 Starter Kit

Hue bulbs are expensive, but they can pair with a wide selection of other Hue lighting devices, all of which communicate wirelessly to prevent Wi-Fi range issues. Hue also supports most smart-home platforms.

Buying Options

*At the time of publishing, the price was $180.

Note that both LEDs and smart LEDs aren’t meant to be used in wet spaces like a shower or in air-tight fixtures or enclosures. If you have lighting fixtures on the ceiling, you could swap in a Philips Hue Downlight, which works just like a regular Hue smart bulb but is enclosed and meant to be retrofitted into a can-style light fixture.

The quick fix

And, hey, if you just need something ASAP, start by removing the clashing bulbs until you have ones that match. And then invest in a quality bath-time relaxation candle, such as one of our favorites, the Target Project 62 Lavender + Eucalyptus Ceramic Wellness Candle. Have a nice soak in the candlelight, and hopefully one of our recommended solutions arrives by the time you get out.

This article was edited by Jason Chen.