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Bathroom Lighting That Wows: Replacing Over-Vanity Lights With Sconces

When you think of bathroom lighting, you probably imagine one thing: a bar of lights above the vanity. But while there’s nothing wrong with these familiar glass-shaded lights (and some newer ones can even be quite attractive), it’s a crime to think they’re the only option. Any light can be a bathroom light if you’re brave enough to try it, and swapping an over-vanity light for sconces is a low-risk change that can pay off big time. So if you’re sick of so-so bathroom lighting options, here’s what you need to know to shop outside the box.

Side-By-Side Lighting Is Actually Better Than Top-Down

An image of a French Country style double vanity with sconces bracketing the mirrors above both sinks
Depending on the bulbs you use, sconces can give good strong lighting on both sides of your face or give your sink niche a cozy, inviting glow. Install a dimmer to get the best of both (by Patterson and Smith Construction, Inc.)

Over-vanity lights are far and away the most common option for bathroom lighting, and almost certainly what you’ll stumble into when you’re shopping. But they aren’t actually the best kind of lights for the job. They provide bright light that’s easy to fit to the length of your vanity, but do so from the top down, which will cast your face in shadows. That means these lights simply don’t put your reflection in the best light. There are ways to counter this (like with backlit mirrors), but sconces avoid the problem entirely. With one to either side of your mirror, you’ll get even lighting on both sides of your face; one light covers whatever the other can’t reach, canceling out any shadows. So even from a purely functional standpoint, this is a smart swap to make.

Add A Decorative Touch To Your Bathroom

An image of a bathroom with a nautical-feeling wood mirror and matching factory-style sconce
Sconces come in a range of distinctive styles – from factory lights to ornate antique-inspired candle lights – and can be a real shot in the arm for your bathroom’s style (by Wendy O’Brien Interior Planning & Design)

If you get the feeling that over-vanity bathroom lighting is all a little samey, you’re not wrong. And there’s a practical reason for that: anything designed to go in a bathroom needs to stand up to the harshest heat and moisture a bathroom can throw at it. Add to that the physical constraints of “multiple shaded single bulbs on a horizontal bar” and it’s no surprise that most bathroom lighting catalogs are a bit of a snooze fest. Typical sconces aren’t designed specifically for bathroom use, which can present a few challenges (more on this in a bit). But they also offer one big opportunity: you can get ones that actually have the style you want.

An image of a small bathroom with a blond wood v anity, 3/4 dark blue-gray paneling, and a pair of black metal sconces with white shades to either side of the mirror
Even relatively simple sconces have a distinct and unique feel when used as bathroom lighting. Match the metal finish with your hardware to double the impact (by Judith Balis Interiors)

Using sconces as bathroom lighting is starting to become quite popular. But their growing trendiness hasn’t dulled the surprise factor of the look one bit. Even relatively simple or plain sconces can pack a huge style punch purely by NOT being your same-old bathroom light. That’s saying nothing of more distinctive sconces – from bold industrial lights to sconces with fun nature-inspired designs. Broadening your search beyond “bathroom lighting” will give you many more (and more interesting options to choose from). And sconces that might blend into the background in a living room can really take center stage as vanity lights. If you’re looking for a way to infuse your bathroom with a distinctive theme or focal point, a few showy sconces can be a great defining element.

Safety First: Using Standard Lights In A Bathroom

An image of a large white bathroom. The walls are lined with scocnes, and the room is topped with a matching chandelier
As long as your sconces are out of range of water spills, splashes, and spray, they don’t need to be specially rated for bathroom use (by Traci Zeller Interiors)

All that said, doing any kind of electrical work in the bathroom can be a little intimidating. Water and electricity are NOT a good pair, so you need to take precautions when exposing one to the other. The good news is, eye-level sconces are well out of the major “danger” zones in your bathroom. Lights inside your shower or alongside your bathtub need IP (ingress protection) ratings, and you need different outlets next to your sink than in your bedroom. But standard sconces are safe to use as long as you install them a safe distance from your sink faucet. Of course, you should double check with your local laws and guidelines (and your contractor or electrician!). But sconces typically occupy one of the driest spots in any bathroom.

Balancing Style And Durability

A small bathroom lit by two modern cylindrical sconces and a matching bar above the mirror
Sconces don’t need to be bathroom rated for use above your vanity, but if you’re worried about damaging the sconce itself, look for ones with glass shades – which range from quite modern to surprisingly effective antique replicas (by Schulte Design Build)

That said, there’s a reason most bathroom over-vanity lights have glass shades rather than fabric ones. Temperature and moisture levels change frequently and dramatically in most bathrooms. This isn’t a danger to you, but can slowly damage lights that aren’t wet/damp resistant. If you have your heart set on a sconce made of material you wouldn’t expect to see in the bathroom (like canvas or unfinished wood), be mindful of how humid your bathroom typically gets and use good judgement in choosing your fixture. Added maintenance can help, but you certainly don’t want your beautiful new sconces starting to wilt from the heat!

The Hard Part: Tips and Tricks for Installation

An image of a long bathroom with multiple sconces mounted into the mirror above the vanity
Whether you opt for a traditional wall mount installation or go the extra mile for a mirror-mounted look, installing new sconces in your bathroom is best done as part of a larger project (by Trickle Creek Designer Homes)

Installing new sconces can also be a little tricky, though not usually prohibitively so. If you’re replacing an existing above-vanity light, you’ll need an electrician to accommodate the new fixture placement. And yes, that often means putting holes in your walls – which makes this a bigger-scope project than simply swapping out an existing fixture. You’ll also need to consider what’s already on your walls at sconce-height. If you have one or more smaller mirrors, a sconce can fit easily on either side. If you have a big, frameless mirror, installation will be a lot more complicated (not impossible, but not DIY-able!). Plan to upgrade your paint, mirrors, and/or backsplash at the same time as your lights to help keep the scope of the project manageable.

I’ll end by saying that no single lighting fixture exists in a vacuum. Sconces are great for front-facing lighting and make an amazing, visible statement piece. But they absolutely shouldn’t be the only fixture in your bathroom. Whether you rip out your bar light or upgrade to a matching fixture, make sure there are other fixtures in your bathroom to help keep your space well lit and looking its best.