Lighting around your bathroom vanity is about more than just seeing to wash your hands or brush your teeth. For many people, it's about the all-important task of donning makeup, and you can't really understate the role of lighting. Because when it comes to getting ready for the day, even the world's best makeup could fail if it's put on under bad lighting.
While there are other articles about bathroom vanity lighting or makeup lighting, they generally tell you what to look for and don't clearly explain why. We thought we'd try to tackle "why" for you before we suggest what to look for. This should help you choose lights that will help you to look your best!
So here are a few things to understand when you choose the lights for your vanity:
Wavelengths & Color
We won't try to jam too much science into this, but do you remember any experiments with light and color from science class as a kid? If so, you might remember that we perceive the color of an object by the light that it reflects. Or more specifically, the wavelengths of light that the object reflects.
So let's just take an example: a blade of grass might largely reflect green wavelengths of a light source while absorbing most of the other colors present in that light. In this case, we see the green. But think about this: if there aren't any green wavelengths in the light source, can green be reflected? (Answer: no. :)
So the more wavelengths (what we see as "color") present in a light source, the more colors can be reflected back to us. That means the quality of light has everything to do with how well we see colors!
This is why grass appears green in the sunlight (the ultimate in high quality lighting!) but more gray in moonlight. Sunlight contains a full spectrum of wavelengths to reflect, allowing all colors to show. Moonlight does not.
So with makeup, the same idea applies. Your makeup will look different under different lights because those lights might or might not have the right wavelengths to show the true colors of your makeup. And the more similar your bathroom lighting is to the lighting in the places you spend time, the more people will see your makeup the way you meant it to be seen. (The way you saw it in the mirror under your vanity lighting.)
Of course you can't predict all the places you'll be seen and what lights will be used. So to keep things simple, your goal for bathroom lighting should be to provide you with the most accurate representation of colors. And that brings us to CRI.
CRI & Color
Some people suggest you should choose daylight style bulbs (see "color temperatures" below) because these are more similar to natural sunlight, but this isn't the case. Color temperature (the apparent warmth or coolness of light) has nothing to do with how well a light bulb renders colors. As you saw above, good color rendering is all about lights with many wavelengths ("colors") in them.
CRI, which stands for Color Rendering Index, is currently the best measure of this. It's not a perfect system and will probably be updated before long. But it is an estimate of how accurately a light bulb will make colors appear.
On the traditional CRI scale, incandescent and halogen bulbs score around 100, which is a perfect score. LEDs typically score around 80, though some are available with scores over 90. So you might immediately think that incandescent and halogen bulbs are the best option, but again the CRI score isn't perfect, and some wavelengths may be more present in LEDs than in incandescent and halogen bulbs.
That means some colors might appear more accurately under LED lighting while others might appear more accurately under incandescent or halogen lighting. Take a look at these two images and see which light you prefer for color rendering:
Again, the general goal is to use lights with lots of wavelengths of color in them, but you won't normally have a chart showing you all the wavelengths available from a light bulb. So a general rule of thumb is to stick with light bulbs that have a high CRI.
Even then, remember that an LED might render some colors better than an incandescent bulb (though every LED is unique), so there is an element of personal preference here.
With CRI leading the way on quality of lighting, we can now talk about color temperature. This is the apparent warmth or coolness of the light. To some degree, this is about personal preference, and you'll see some people recommending warm looking lights while others recommend cool looking lights for bathroom vanities.
Which should you choose?
Remember that the closer your vanity lights mimic the lights you'll be seen in when you leave your home, the more your makeup will look like it did in the vanity mirror. So if you're most often in an office setting with cool white fluorescent lights, you might want to choose cooler lights for your bathroom vanity. (These will often be around 3500K or 4100K, as color temperatures are measured in "K" or "kelvin.")
If you're outdoors a lot, the sun during the day is considered to have a cool color temperature as well. (It can be rated at 6500K, which appears almost cold / blue in indoor lighting.)
But during sunrise and sunset, and in indoor settings lit by incandescent bulbs (or their replacements), color temperatures are quite warm. (Around 2700K to 3000K.)
Based on this information, you may find that a warmer or cooler bulb color will best suit your everyday needs. But if you're looking for a happy medium, you may want to choose a bulb with around a 3500K color temperature.
Popular Blog Posts
Direct Wire LED Tubes vs. LED Tubes w/ Ballasts
Do LED Bulbs Interfere w/ Garage Door Openers?
Your Guide To Finding the Right Bulb
Replacing Your Fixture's Glass Shade
LS Case Study: Washtenaw County Road Commissions Upgrade to LED Lighting
How to Light Your Warehouse Effectively