Should bathrooms be light or dark?

Forget trends, this is what designers say

Three bathrooms, from light to dark
(Image credit: BC Designs / Albion Nord / Little Greene)

Over time, we have become more adventurous when picking out color schemes for 'functional' rooms, such as bathrooms. But should bathrooms be light or dark?

When picking bathroom color ideas, you'll want to consider the mood you want to create as much as your style and taste. While light neutral tones are usually considered calming and soothing, perfect for a relaxing bathroom, it is also true that dark colors have much to offer. And what about natural light levels and the room's orientation? How should they affect your choice of light or dark bathroom colors? 

Here, design experts discuss the options – and provide the best advice for creating a successful scheme.

Should bathrooms be light?

Bathrooms should be light if you want to achieve the following:

A calm and fresh feel

Neutral bathroom

(Image credit: Albion Nord)

‘Bathrooms with light palettes can bring freshness and a sense of calm,’ says designer Ottalie Stride of Albion Nord. ‘Here, the views out over the parklands are so wonderful that we didn’t want to detract from them, so our pared back palette lets the natural colors of the surrounding countryside feature almost as the artwork.’ 

Mystic White marble was chosen for the floor. ‘We chose bathroom paint ideas for the walls that echoed the soft, warm veins in the marble so that the bathroom has depth without feeling soulless.’ 

Maximum natural light

white bathroom with glazed tiles

(Image credit: GRT Architects)

In a bathroom with good-size windows, it makes sense to maximize the natural light in the room to enhance its spacious feel. This can be especially important in compact bathrooms, using mirrors and other polished surfaces, such as bathroom tiles, to reflect sunlight, in contrast to dark matt colors which tend to absorb it. 

White bathroom ideas, those in off whites and other light colors will also make it easier to see yourself well for applying make up or shaving, although daylight-colored lighting at the mirror can be used to achieve the same effect in darker schemes.

In this design by Brooklyn-based GRT Architects, light colors and highly reflective make a narrow space feel bright and spacious, though the texture of the tile finish is a welcome relief from soul-less minimalism. 

A larger-looking space

white bathroom with vaulted ceiling, shiplap walls and ceiling, white roll top tub, curvy basin, small hexagon floor tiles, wall lights, radiator, pendant light

(Image credit: Benjamine Moore)

'There's no denying the space-stretching qualities of light colors as opposed to darker colors in a bathroom,' affirms Lucy Searle, Editor in Chief of Homes & Gardens.  

'However, as with the shower room above, I would urge anyone approaching a remodel and choosing a pale shade to ensure that they work texture into the room in one way or another. This can be done with architectural details, from shiplap wall ideas to tile to subtly contrasting pattern, even patterned towels.

'This will stop a pale-colored bathroom from feeling cold and uninviting. Another solution I would offer is to ensure the color choice, while pale, isn't cold. There are warm whites and cool whites, warm pale grays and cold pale grays – and so on. It's important to ensure your room feels warm to be inviting. Even switching out cool light bulbs for warmer toned ones can be an improvement.'

Should bathrooms be dark?

Bathrooms really can be dark if you want to achieve the following:

A jewel-like powder room

Dark powder room with large mirror

(Image credit: ND Studios/ Photographer: Helen Cathcart)

‘A small powder room or cloakroom lends itself to making bold design choices and offers a chance to experiment in ways that might feel overwhelming in larger rooms,’ says designer Natascha Dartnall of ND Studios. ‘The use of dark colors creates instant drama.’ 

In this scheme, Natascha paired black and gold Portoro marble with burnished gold accessories to create a sense of glamor. 

‘Reflective surfaces, such as polished marble and mirrors, help to bounce the light around the room even in spaces where there is limited or no natural light, which is often the case in powder rooms,’ she adds. 

Depth and contrast

Red and white geometric wallpaper, gold framed mirror

(Image credit: Kristen Rivoli/John Bessler)

Tempting as it is to think that light colors will make a room feel larger, sometimes it pays to head in the opposite direction. Dark color can introduce depth to a scheme, detracting from the compact size of a room and create a cocooning feel that can suit the retreat-like nature of a bathroom. 

‘If you have little natural light, go with that and commit to darker shades to create a cozy haven for relaxation,’ advises designer Elizabeth Ennis of Wolfe Interiors. ‘The use of dark color also gives the option of creating contrast with lighter shades or pattern, and also allows for gold or silver fixtures to have real impact.’

'I would urge anyone going for darker bathroom colors, particularly those with little natural light, to invest in really excellent, layered bathroom lighting,' says Lucy Searle. 'It's fine to lay in a bath in a moodily lit space, but putting on makeup and shaving are activities that need to be well-lit. 

'Also, bear in mind that you look in a mirror in a bathroom and that the light cast by your wall color choice will be reflected to a degree on to your face. So, if this is a space where putting on makeup is a daily activity, consider your color choices carefully; greens and blues can make you look very washed out.'

An enveloping retreat

Blue bathroom

(Image credit: Paul Massey)

Designer Ana Engelhorn will also occasionally use bold colors in a bathroom. 

‘Deep and dark colors often induce calm, which feels right for a relaxing bathroom,’ she says. To accentuate the enveloping feel, here the ceiling is painted in the same rich shade as the walls, all with a rough plaster finish. ‘The plaster has an uneven texture which creates a velvety feeling,’ she says. 

The verdict

If in doubt, a light scheme will always feel crisp, fresh and calm – a timeless choice, perfect for a family bathroom, just as much as for a luxurious and retreat-like ensuite. But if you want a more individual and fun look with plenty of impact, a dark scheme may be the way to go – especially in a small bathroom or one with minimal natural light, where a bold choice may create a cocooning haven of warmth and relaxation. 

Amelia Thorpe
Contributing Editor

Amelia Thorpe is a specialist interiors and design journalist, covering every topic to do with homes from fabrics, furniture and lighting to surfaces, kitchens and bathrooms. 

As the daughter of an antique dealer and a lifelong collector of old cookery books and vintage graphics herself, she also has a particular expertise in antiques, mid-century and decorative arts of all kinds.

Drawn to homes because of their importance in the happiness of our lives and the enjoyment they can bring, Amelia has been writing about the topic for more than fifteen years. She has interviewed some of the most influential designers of our time, from Piero Lissoni, Antonio Citterio, Jaime Hayon and Arik Levy to Nina Campbell and Robert Kime.