Have you ever left the house thinking you looked OK, only to discover you looked dreadful in a dressing room at a clothing store? Does the way you look in the bathrooms of some hotel rooms make you feel out of sorts while out of town? Are you unsettled by your reflection in airplane lavatories?

It’s not you, gentle reader. It’s the lighting.

Let’s call these spaces what they are: flaw-accentuation chambers. Lit to your worst advantage. It doesn’t matter if you’re a supermodel. In cruel lighting, you will look like the villain in a classic horror flick — dark circles under your eyes, creases in your brow, wrinkles tracing around your mouth, sagging cheeks and moonscape complexion.

This is no secret to cinematographers. They use light to make people look glamorous or ghastly, depending on the scene. “Whenever I walk in a room, I’m very conscious of the light,” said Danish cinematographer Stephan Pehrsson, who used lighting to dramatic effect in the upcoming Masterpiece production of “Les Misérables” on PBS and BBC One. “I’m always aware of lighting that complements a person, what makes you look nice, and also what makes someone look unattractive, what makes you look like a bad guy.”

What doesn’t work

He’s noticed a trend toward unflattering lighting in modern housing and commercial buildings. “You see lots of spotlights these days,” he said. “It’s really not good.” Overhead lighting is popular because it gives the space a sharp, clean look. But Pehrsson said it casts pronounced shadows across the face, particularly under your eyes, enhancing wrinkles and imperfections. It doesn’t do your body any favors either. Every bulge, droop and pooch becomes like an awning, throwing shade underneath.

Photographer Jennifer Graylock, who works with celebrity and fashion clients, described the phenomenon this way: “You know when you put a flashlight under your chin and you look scary? Overhead lighting is the opposite. It is just making you look scary from the top.” This is the case in many retailers’ dressing rooms (hello H&M, Nordstrom and Target) and hotel bathrooms. Plus, the light that shines down often has an icy blue or greenish tint that makes you look like you require medical attention.

While several studies show that the angle, intensity, color and quality of light can have a profound effect on perception and mood, lighting remains an oft-neglected aspect of interior design. “People just don’t realize how much lighting affects them,” said Robin Muto, an interior designer in Rochester, New York. “Even if you’re not in a bathroom looking at yourself in the mirror, if you’re looking at other people in lighting that makes them look dreary, drawn and horrible, you start to feel that way, too.”


What works

So what will cast you and your houseguests in the best light? It helps to think of the kind of light that makes you feel good when you look at it. It’s probably not the white-hot sun beating down at high noon. It’s more likely the reflected glow from a sunset or from a warm, cozy fire. This light is softer, maybe a bit rosy and golden. It’s diffuse and coming at you from the side.

To replicate this effect indoors, place shaded or frosted-glass table lamps at eye level. Or consider a torchère, which is a floor lamp that shines light up at the ceiling the way the sun shines its light up as it dips into the horizon.

If you have overhead lighting, find fixtures that can be angled so light bounces off the walls and hits people at a side angle. Also effective are so-called wall washers — fixtures designed so light bounces off baffles or reflectors inside the housing, which then directs the light out more horizontally than vertically. “You get a very nice, broad wash of light, like mist from an aerosol can,” Muto said. “You are spraying the wall with light.”

To look your most attractive in the bathroom, you want lights that flank or encircle the mirror, as you might find in a backstage dressing room. Shaded or covered sconces positioned at head height about the room will further smooth and soften your appearance.

But perhaps the best light sources are those you cannot see, said Doreen Le May Madden, a certified lighting architect in Belmont, Massachusetts. She likes to hide lighting behind mirrors or within molding, or have it shining up from baseboards. Such features are why you look so much better in dressing rooms at higher-end stores like Neiman Marcus and Saks Fifth Avenue. “Diffusion and control of the light source are key to looking good and feeling good,” Madden said.

The right bulbs

The quality of the lighting matters too. When buying light bulbs, you want to look for two key indicators. The first is the correlated color temperature, or CCT, which tells you how warm the light appears. It is measured on the Kelvin scale and denotes the temperature required for a black object (think charcoal) to emit a certain color. You know how the hottest part of the flame is the blue part at the bottom, and the orangey-yellow part toward the top is cooler? It’s the same with CCT. The higher the Kelvin, the bluer or whiter the light.


People tend to look the best when illuminated by light bulbs that measure around 2700 kelvins. Most bulbs, whether incandescent, LED, compact fluorescent or halogen, are labeled “soft white/warm white” (2,700-3,000 kelvins), “bright white/cool white” (3,500-4,100 kelvins) or “daylight” (5,000-6,500 kelvins). However, Muto said those labels aren’t standard across types of light bulbs and can also vary depending upon the manufacturer. “A 2,700 K in a LED doesn’t look the same as a 2,700 K in an incandescent,” she said. But you might find an LED at a higher or lower CCT that approximates the incandescent bulb’s look. Do some experimenting by taking home a few different bulbs to find out what kind of light, at which CCT and by which manufacturer, you find most appealing.

The other metric you want to pay attention to is the color rendering index, or CRI. This tells you how true or accurate colors appear under the light. A CRI of 100 is as good as it gets. Madden said that for most settings, you don’t want to drop too far below 90. Otherwise, things start to look weird, like under the security lighting that floods a big-box-store parking lot late at night.

On websites like Bulbs.com, 1000bulbs.com and Bulbrite.com, you can easily search for your desired specifications and save yourself a potentially fruitless trip to the hardware store. Dimmers are great for customizing the intensity, or lumens, of the bulbs you buy, depending on the mood you want to create or the task at hand (say, reading a book vs. entertaining guests). If you’re a do-it-yourself- type, there are lots of YouTube videos that demonstrate how to replace an existing light switch with a dimmer switch. Just remember to cut off the power to the switch first, lest the lights prematurely go out forever.