White bathroom vanities are a tried-and-true staple of bathroom design, and a go-to way to get a clean, timeless look for your space. But white can be a deceptively finicky color to work with, because it can change dramatically based on the quantity, quality, and color of light in the room. White paint picks up both the color of light shined on it and the shade of shadows, which means the same vanity can look very different in two different bathrooms. The good news is, paint names can give you a little hint – if not exactly what the color will look like in your space, at least how it will behave in your lighting!
Bright White (or: Just “White”)
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The vast majority of white bathroom vanities are done with a pure, paper-white finish. Often there will be some signifier in the name (arctic white! snow white! glossy white!), but if there isn’t one, it’s safe to assume this pure white-white is the one you’re getting. Now, because it’s not tinted with yellow the way most off-whites are, this true white is the one that’s going to appear the brightest and lightest in good lighting, but it’s also the one that will pick up the most color in an underlit room (ending up tinted a soft blue-gray), and the most noticeably yellowed by soft or warm white lightbulbs. To make the most of these types of white bathroom vanities, you really want to set them up either in a bathroom that has good natural light, or in one well-equipped with daylight-bright bulbs. Putting a pure white vanity on an off-white backdrop can also help keep it looking crisp and clean by comparison, regardless of your lighting conditions.
Cottage White (or: Just Barely Off White)
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Cottage white bathroom vanities are a cup of cream to a bright white vanity’s glass of milk: a little richer, a little darker, but you might not be able to tell the difference at a glance if they aren’t side by side. Cottage or antique white finishes often but not always entail a little bit of weathering – some scuffs around the edges or inconsistencies in the surface designed to create a homey feel of age, justifying that ever so slightly darker shade with the idea that it’s been around the block once or twice. The biggest benefit of cottage white vanities, though, is that that little touch of warmth in the color makes them stand up much better to shadows. Soft white lights can still make them look a little grungy, but they’ll actually look more white in a bathroom with scant natural light, because the base-yellow tone helps cancel out the blue shadows.
Vintage Vanilla (or: “French White”)
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A more assertive off white with rich, prominent cream tones, vintage-french-antique-vanilla-whites are most likely to be found on traditional bathroom vanities. As with cottage white, the “deteriorated” finish indicates age, but in a more sophisticated, refined way – cream custard to that pure white glass of milk. Where whiter-whites shine brightest in bright natural light, this richer off-white can stand up well to a wider variety of light levels. In bright light, it has a beautiful warm, golden feel, while a warmer, lower light can mellow the color without making it feel jaundiced. Low natural light is still the least-kind to this white, as it can make the color look a bit tired and worn, especially when paired with an antiqued finish. Pro tip: make this dark white feel a little brighter by contrasting with a lighter tone on the walls.
Parchment (or: I Guess It’s Technically Still White)
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If you really want to go all-in for an opulent, traditional white bathroom, you want to opt a shade darker still, for a parchment white – aka, a white so off-white it’s almost beige. In full, bright sunlight, this type of finish can look terribly old and dingy, showing all the weather and wear built into the design. But when paired with warm white bulbs, lots of marble, and rich fabrics, a parchment white can feel absolutely decadent. Side by side with other traditional elements in rich colors, a parchment vanity will still read as “white” which gives you a whole lot more wiggle room to get a really great look in a low-light, windowless bathroom.
Whitewashed Bathroom Vanities (or: Getting The Best of Both Worlds)
Increasingly popular are white bathroom vanities that aren’t painted white, but are whitewashed – in other words, they’re bathroom vanities coated with a white finish that isn’t totally opaque. How white these vanities end up being varies a lot from one manufacturer to another, ranging from vanities that have just the barest suggestion of a thin white coat over the wood, all the way up to vanities that are almost solid white. Largely, the purpose of “whitewashing” a vanity (or at least mimicking the look of traditional lime-and-chalk paint) is to lighten the wood and bring out its natural grain, while creating a sort of shabby-chic historical feel. What kind of lighting these vanities want depends on the base wood and how much of it is showing through, but most of the advice here holds true: the whiter the white, the cooler and brighter you want your lighting to be, especially if you don’t want the weathering on the finish to look grungy.
Vanilla Oak (or: Nude or Natural Finished Light Woods)
Last but not least, very light wood bathroom vanities are another slightly oddball competitor, falling somewhere between cottage white and parchment, but by virtue of their natural wood color rather than the finish itself. The big advantage here is that while you aren’t getting a crisp, true white, you also aren’t trying to – which means if your lighting makes the look fall short, the final result is actually a little cleaner. Light wood looks just ever so slightly better than white paint in both low natural light and warm artificial light, so if you’ve struggled in the past to strike the right white balance in your bathroom, this might be the solution you’re looking for.
When it comes to choosing white bathroom vanities, the lighting and paint in your bathroom are every bit as important as the finish of the vanity itself. While almost anything looks great in a sun-soaked, window-filled room, it’s important to figure out what will look best with the lighting you actually have!