Like most cultural and political debates in our country, that of choosing whether to have a medicine cabinet or not reigns both controversial and contentious amongst designers and homeowners alike. To actively choose NOT to have the most convenient storage for the daily annoyances of teeth brushing and face washing seems outright absurd, and yet I have never in my life opted for this convenience. The mountain house was my big opportunity. It was more modern (which I think works better for something streamlined and inset) so it could have handled it whereas our 100-year-old Tudor might have looked a bit, well, clunky in a design sense.
So today, I’m going to dive into the internal (and external) debate to have or not have the ultimate convenience of a medicine cabinet. If you just fell asleep, I suggest you stand up, walk to your medicine cabinet (or not), slap yourself in the face to stay awake. Perhaps drink a 5-Hour Energy because you don’t get to nap while the rest of us are trying to change the minds and world on this subject. You can’t pretend it’s not a problem. It is. It’s real. We need to know why someone like myself and even my friend Nate Berkus (and a few other designer friends like Amber Lewis) have historically hated the medicine cabinet.
Let’s start with some basic photos of inset medicine cabinets and why they get a bad rap. Here is why I’ve been historically anti:
I don’t like medicine cabinets for the following reasons:
- They can look generic and builder grade. They feel cold, contemporary and lacking real style.
- Their frames are often too big and chunky (see new good alternatives in our roundup below).
- To do inset/recessed, they have to be semi-permanent because it requires construction and that’s scary if you aren’t really into something in the first place.
- The good ones are really expensive (see some below) and typically even custom, so then you are spending a ton of money on something you don’t really love anyway, and it’s permanent. That’s a hard commitment to make especially if you are someone who likes to change things up.
- Wall-mounted medicine cabinets are great for the right small bathroom but it does project into the room and therefore eats up real estate (but I like a lot of them far more than the inset options).
But mostly I don’t use medicine cabinets because I love a BEAUTIFUL mirror. Mirrors are the artwork of the bathroom so, of course, I’m going to opt for that over something that provides boring “storage solutions.”
I know the idea of going with form over function is infuriating to most of you, but designing a beautiful space is important as, you know, a designer. Now before you all say “it’s also your job to design a functional space” there are other options (I’ll talk about more below). Typically, in a master bathroom, vanity space will have be sufficient that you don’t NEED the dinky shelves on a medicine cabinet, but I couldn’t help but think…Was I alone? Do other designers feel this way? I asked a few friend/experts in this field:
Nate Berkus: “I’ve always avoided them but now the trade-off for storage has me slowly converting…I wish someone would invent one that universally works with a vintage mirror.” Now, Nate just recently moved back to New York to an apartment that I’m sure is big and beautiful but with two kids in New York City living, I get why he might be converting.
Amber Lewis: “I am not a fan or a heavy user of the Medicine Cabinet.”
Orlando Soria: “I am fully on Team Medicine Cabinet. I know they can be a bummer for some designers who would rather have a pretty decorative mirror above a sink, but there’s just stuff you can store in one that doesn’t make sense anywhere else. And they provide storage at the most convenient height to access while you are standing getting ready in the morning. They also do something that I like in that they provide dual functions: they are storage AND a mirror. Ideally, you’d be insetting them, but even surface wall mounted can look great (I like to frame them out in wood trim to make them look more integrated if they can’t be fully sunken into the wall)…like this:
“I like replacing crappy mirrors that are just glued to the wall with medicine cabinets. Having everything in drawers is annoying. In an ideal world, you’d build the medicine cabinet flush with the wall and put a decorative mirror on top.”
Sherry Petersik of Young House Love: “Personally, we’ve never added a medicine cabinet during a bathroom reno, and always find the storage in the vanity to be just fine, and then we can use a pretty mirror over the sink. I especially love a round one to break up the squareness of most vanities (which isn’t exactly readily available in medicine-cabinet-form). So yeah, I don’t hate them or anything, I just don’t generally find myself adding them ever…and I’m still alive without one.”
Maxwell Ryan of Apartment Therapy: (Had a long convo with him on the phone but here’s a summary of what he said): He didn’t even think of them for his Scandinavian style country house because he didn’t want anything that they could put any clutter in and stylistically they would have been wrong. And yet he and his daughter recently moved into a new apartment in New York which had them already installed and well, it’s his daughter’s favorite thing in the home. He wouldn’t have chosen them but he’s pretty psyched he has them now. His general thought is this: it’s found space, previously unused, and you should use it if you need it, but stylistically he understands why designers, stylists and editors don’t opt for them. He, like me, loves what a special mirror does to a room and typically they just aren’t that special.
Now, I want to add a caveat that they can ABSOLUTELY work, and if you truly need storage solutions then it can be done. This is a good example of an inset medicine cabinet in a modern space that works.
It’s sleek, goes wall-to-wall (and floor-to-ceiling) so it’s relatively seamless, plus that vanity is epic so it’s not the focus. But for the record, that one is custom (I think you push the glass to pop it out) and was likely thousands of dollars.
Same. Everything here (including their choice of medicine cabinet) is so pretty so that bathroom is still stunning even though the mirror itself isn’t a “work of art.”
But it’s rarely done right and honestly I don’t think inset should be done in a vintage style home (again, I think the wall-mounted ones can work well in older homes). My pickiness is just so specific and it’s hard to explain. All the circumstances have to be there to pull it off and that’s just hard. And yet it can be permanent which is terrifying.
So what do I prefer? Why do I consider mirrors the art of the bathroom? Exhibit A (and beyond):
Why must something tear apart my insides as the medicine cabinet has?? They are the recliners of the bathroom. The microwave of the kitchen. I long to reach out my arm and easily pull a hidden toothbrush out of a medicine cabinet, and yet I have never opted for this joy.
I thought that surely there could be an in-between, a happy medium: storage without the contemporary facade. We tried for the mountain house but first went through some storage alternatives:
SO WHAT ARE THEY? Let’s explore.
THE SINGLE SHELF:
Well okay. This is certainly a cute opportunity for, say, displaying your most beautiful product and as a stylist I know I can make this look pretty, but is this an actual storage solution? It’s a stretch. While it does provide more surface area, you can’t really display your necessities unless you are president of the lifestyle mafia and have like $250 face cream decanted into blown glass vessels. And let’s face it, we aren’t.
While certainly cute, where on earth do these people store ANYTHING but their toothbrush?
There’s also the “shelf ON the mirror” situation, but it’s the same issue in terms of where to put the ugly necessary stuff? The vanity surely, but I guess pretty glass lidded jars for cotton balls and whatnot would go here…
THE BUILT-IN SIDE SHELF OR CABINET:
Next up is one that I felt could be an option: you get the massive pretty mirror that you want and then on the sides of the vanity, you add easily accessible storage. And yes, you could even put a door on this and make it a cabinet.
I think this is a good solution, but unless there is a door it’s not hidden and your gross vitamins and crest strips will junk it up pretty fast. But if you want a massive mirror (that likely can’t never be hinged) then I think this is a good alternative. I love digging into any walls for extra storage throughout the entire house.
It can look pretty but it can also look busier and junkier. But if you need to display your Aunt Jonie’s studio pottery from the ’90s like those people did, then stop reading right here!
Let’s be clear that no one actually lives in the above bathroom (right?). It’s a hotel without any almost-empty bottles of mouthwash or toothpaste overflowing because someone doesn’t like to put lids on things (me, it’s a thing/problem).
The side cubbies could work to provide more storage, but it’s not the kind of everyday stuff that your medicine cabinet should hold. No one wants to have to dig through a huge bin to find the eye cream you promised yourself you would start using every night.
SLIDING DOORS (AKA BARN DOORS):
For the master bathroom of the mountain house, we wanted a huge mirror to reflect light/trees (or at least no frames between mirrors) and for a hot (and possibly feverish) second, I thought that maybe something like this could work. Now, I know that people have beef with barn doors, I do too, but I do think that if done right in the right house (modern farm/industrial) this could be a solution. Be careful, don’t let it be too chunky (which they tend to be) and make sure it’s the right style. Ours was not, but I wouldn’t have done this anyway. It would have been something custom and worked well with our style.
Okay. So while I do think some of those are solid options that can look pretty, they aren’t the best alternative. What is? HERE YOU GO:
THE BEST STORAGE ALTERNATIVE TO THE MEDICINE CABINET:
The custom or readymade mirror over hidden shelving on hinges. Sounds complicated. Keep reading.
YES. It’s hard not to get behind this but it’s clearly custom and likely more expensive (I’d bet around $1,200, not including construction). But BOY am I glad there is a solution out there.
So did we do that in the mountain house?
Well, I’ll be honest and say that we don’t need the storage at the mountain house like we do in LA because we have so much less stuff, PLUS our vanities have GREAT storage. In the master, we wanted a huge mirror to reflect light and trees from the opposite windows. In the powder, we didn’t see the need for more storage since it’s a powder room. And the guest bathrooms, well, they are just for temporary guests and they have tons of vanity storage so we opted out. If you don’t need storage (ha, who are you?), then don’t suffer through the pain of figuring out how to integrate it in a stylish way. Full stop.
I did, however, want to show you guys a genius storage solution for editorial reasons so we came up with this plan for the kids bathroom. I figured of all bathrooms, the kids could use somewhere to put their disgusting toothbrushes that they chew on like Jolly Ranchers daily.
So during construction phase, our plan was to dig into the wall and build shallow shelves between the studs in the wall above the vanity and then place two pretty hinged mirrors overtop. YAY. A SOLUTION.
Now, our plan wasn’t communicated well enough to our contractor (we were moving fast and two hours away so not on site as often as we wanted) and then all of a sudden the whole wall was tiled with no shelves (isn’t it funny how some things take forever and you are like “what’s the holdup?” and other things happen faster than they were supposed to before you could give proper direction? so hilarious). Having them rip out the tile and find the space between the studs to build shallow shelves seemed totally unnecessary so we didn’t, but that was our plan.
I didn’t have any reference photos at the time, but I just found this and it’s PERFECT.
GENIUS. Dabito from Old Brand New took a pretty readymade mirror and dug out shelves behind it and put it on piano hinges.
DO THIS. IT’S THE PERFECT SOLUTION TO YOUR MEDICINE CABINET WOES.
While it does require some research and I’m sure there are some restrictions (frame size and width)—and yes, it also requires skills by you or your contractor—it is the best solution in my eyes if you need the storage space, want a pretty mirror AND don’t want to spend thousands on a custom-built solution.
HOW DO I FEEL ABOUT WALL MOUNTED MEDICINE CABINETS?
Well, they’re hit or miss. There are some pretty beautiful ones out there, for example…
My medicine cabinet fantasy (which is also shared by Nate Berkus and is a million-dollar idea): We need to have a universal hinge system that works with most new or vintage mirrors. It could come in different sizes to ensure that it can be hidden, but then you or your contractor hook it up to a beautiful vintage mirror that you can yes, open and close where it previously didn’t. Kind of the idea of what Dabito did that I showed you above, but like…mass-produced for everyone.
Okay, but does that mean that there aren’t good ones on the market? Of course not. There are some and I want to stress this again: IF YOU LIVE IN A RENTAL OR HAVE A SMALL BATHROOM IN NEED OF STORAGE AND YOU DON’T WANT TO DO ANYTHING EXPENSIVE OR TOO CUSTOM, WALL MOUNTED MEDICINE CABINETS ARE GREAT, AND CAN BE ATTRACTIVE AND STYLISH.
To prove it, we rounded up some that we really like and many that I considered during the “medicine cabinet journey of 2018.”
1. Seamless Medicine Cabinet | 2. Elanora Mirror Cabinet | 3. Cubiko Storage Mirror | 4. Robern Single Door Medicine Cabinet with Rosemont Frame | 5. Benchwright Wall-mount Medicine Cabinet | 6. Jacuzzi Single Door Medicine Cabinet | 7. Infinity Brass Medicine Cabinet | 8. Nel Black Medicine Cabinet | 9. Godmorgon Mirror Cabinet with 2 Doors | 10. Vintage Medicine Cabinet Polished Nickel | 11. Bayview Mirror Cabinet | 12. Pharmacy Wall-Mount Medicine Cabinet | 13. Lillangen Mirror Cabinet | 14. Ketcham Cabinets Front Keyed Lock Surface Mount Medicine Cabinet | 15. Signature Hardware Bastian Teak Medicine Cabinet | 16. Signature Hardware Teak Framed Double Door Medicine Cabinet | 17. Vintage Recessed Medicine Cabinet | 18. Weathered Oak Inset Medicine Cabinet | 19. Medicine Cabinet | 20. Plymouth Sliding Storage Mirror | 21. 23.63″ Wooden Round Mirror Cabinet | 22. Arch Top Medicine Cabinet | 23. Grayson Wall Storage Mirror Cabinet | 24. 48″ Kyra Medicine Cabinet
#2, #16 and #24 were all top contenders for the master bathroom before I strayed, and #1, #15, #17 and #21 I don’t think we’re on the market when I was shopping but I think they are stylistically GREAT.
So there you go. It’s complicated. And I really need you all to be reasonable about this. If you need the storage badly, choose the function of the medicine cabinet. My journey was more about grappling with the convenience of one, while ultimately valuing style over storage. There I said it. Yes, sometimes I value style over storage and that’s okay. I’m a stylist, not a professional organizer.
WHAT SAY YOU???? Have you any medicine cabinet woes? Do you regret not putting one in or do you wish you had this custom hinged solution earlier like I do??
This is a great roundup.
In both our bathrooms we replaced the builder’s mirrors with 3 wall-mounted medicine cabinets, installed so they are wall-to-wall. The technique is called “ganging” and when done correctly involves about 1/4 inch between each cabinet and black tape on the wall between the cabinets so the gap is minimized.
I could not live without those cabinets! Visually they are almost the same as the big mirror they replaced, but the storage! Oh, the storage is fabulous, eye-level, and one jar deep so nothing gets lost.
The cabinets stick out about 5 inches from the wall and that never seems to be an issue, even for my 6′ husband.
This post is a bit all over the place… Recessed medicine cabinets are too much construction and expense, so you suggest custom installation instead? Failing that, just stick a wall mounted one up, even though the original objection is that medicine cabinets often look builder grade? Vintage houses shouldn’t have medicine cabinets, even though that’s where medicine cabinets came from? What???
I don’t think you’ve given recessed medicine cabinets a fair shake. For example, the #10 from Pottery Barn in the roundup would get you the same look as the Laine & Layne reference.
I thought the same thing!
Ha, I totally agree with all of this. Although I appreciate the roundup at the end of all the cooler options on the market.
I came to the comments to say that I have the Pottery Barn medicine cabinet in the oil rubber bronze finish and it looks exactly like the Layne & Laine inspo pic. Done and done! (EVERYTHING is in this cabinet and it looks waaay better than it would if it were out on display, even though I admire the sentiment of this post!)
Hahaha, jinx! Same here to the cabinet, what I thought when I saw that photo, and coming down to comment!
I have the #10 medicine cabinet in my own bathroom and it looks awesome. It’s practically my favorite thing in the bathroom. Honestly, you can barely even tell it’s a medicine cabinet anyway, as it’s pretty close to the wall. We have a TINY master bath so I can’t even imagine where I would have put the stuff that’s in there without the medicine cabinet. I’m with you, it’s a very confusing take on medicine cabinets. Like, yes, they are expensive, but so are mirrors.
Absolutely agree! The big revelation is that you can put a custom mirror on recessed between the studs storage?
Seems like a no-brainer solution to me!
And “I don’t think inset (recessed) ones should be done in vintage homes”
huh? That’s where all those cute vintage recessed medicine cabinets originated!
Loved seeing all the cute recessed medicine cabinet links though, thanks for that 🙂
I think Emily was talking about modern builder-grade medicine cabinets. We actually pulled some photos of homes with vintage recessed medicine cabinets and she said “no, these are great with character” so maybe her words were a little misinterpreted! We love vintage medicine cabinets around here in older homes!
I don’t think we have all misinterpreted her – she said, ” honestly I don’t think inset should be done in a vintage style home.” And doesn’t show one example of older homes with recessed cabinets. She even mentions doing custom so she’s not just limiting her criticism to modern builder grade.
Agreed! One of my favorite things about old houses are the recessed cabinets!
Totally perplexed by this post. Open shelving below a mirror or to the side of the mirror doesn’t solve the problem of ugly things you don’t want displayed as a medicine cabinet does. Neither does spending $$$$$ on the things you said you hated and is the whole basis of the post. Also really don’t get how you can say medicine cabinets don’t work in older homes. My house is a Tudor built in 1940, and all three of the bathrooms had original medicine cabinets when we bought it. We did a light reno on one bathroom and replaced the mirror on the medicine cabinet with a framed custom mirror we had made at the local frame shop. This particular medicine cabinet was off center above the sink so I actually had the mirror made a little wider than the medicine cabinet to make it look centered. We’re mid renovation on the powder bath and I will definitely opt for a pretty mirror in there without a medicine cabinet. Ultimately though if you really need storage, I don’t think anything compares to the good old fashioned medicine cabinet ?
For sure! I think 9 times out of 10, inset medicine cabinets look less builder grade than wall mount. And the custom mirror medicine cabinets are likely not cheaper than custom inset better suited to the design. Jessica Helgerson does spectacular bathrooms, the majority of which have medicine cabinets built it. It seems a bit disingenuous to include only examples of builder grade inset cabinets, then inspiration pics for the other styles. And there are times when a medicine cabinet just looks better than a mirror in my opinion. For instance, here’s a bathroom I redid where there was only a tiny space between windows for a mirror. By building a cabinet into the studs between the window trim, I was able to use the space fully, instead of having a mirror overlap the trim or otherwise look like an afterthought. https://imgur.com/YuIM2cf (sorry, can’t find a head on photo). Yes, it was custom, but single pane mirror cut to size and a few pieces of wood cost less than $50, and it’s just a few hours of work if you have the skills.
I thought exactly the same thing and sent her examples of beautiful inset medicine cabinets in old homes.
Also she says, “The good ones are really expensive (see some below) and typically even custom, so then you are spending a ton of money on something you don’t really love anyway, and it’s permanent. ” Why would someone not get exactly what they want if they go the custom route. And why does she think recessing a cabinet is permanent (it’s not) but installing a bunch of shelves in the wall isn’t?
Agree. I stop reading when I saw the custom installation part. I love most EHD articles but this one makes me wordless. I don’t think EHD focus on budget friendly designs and there are plenty of high and low end med cabs in the market. That custom recessed cabinet with hinged mirror makes me laugh. This design is pointless and really expensive if something behind the wall needs to be fixed later. Piano hing is also a bad choice . Also, most pretty mirrors are not made to be used a a door, they will fall apart.
EHD does best when it’s style or trend related. Kitchen and bathroom are the work horses of the house and a lot more needs to be considered.
Amber Interiors used a RH “rivet” medicine cabinet in their Client Freakin’ Fabulous project a number of years back – surprised you didn’t include that picture or cabinet option, it’s freakin’ fabulous.
Personally I think the inset medicine cabinets being produced now are amazing. Sure the mirror isn’t vintage but they’re pretty.
We went with fancy mirrors in our master bath, then used medicine cabinets with art frames instead of mirrors on the side walls to get the storage we wanted. Allows us to change the mirrors and the art in the frames whenever the mood strikes. We used this company: https://www.concealedcabinet.com/
Hah, this is such a great and like classic Em Henderson topic! It’s the kind of thing I would’ve been gung ho about functionality about a few years ago, but now I have more refined taste and I’m horrified by most basic ugly affordable medicine cabinet options myself. We got lucky in the house we own in Seattle, so I’ll share a bit about that project in case it helps other readers (although we’ve rented it out and moved to London, so a) we can’t share pics now and b) we’re stuck with annoying lack of storage in one of our London rental bathrooms—a powder room—where believe it or not we sorely need it!) Our main floor bathroom in the Seattle house was also the guest bathroom; it was a full bathroom but sized a bit more like a powder room, with the pocket door and everything. It had a large linen closet in a corner which we used for medicine-like stuff, but nothing that was a convenient spot for when we or guests were already at the sink. When we bought it, it had a perfectly nice faux bamboo wood framed mirror that didn’t protrude at all. One day… Read more »
Damn! You should be invited to do guest writing for EHD!
Great ‘voice’, entertaining and nice energy. 🙂
Agreed, thanks for sharing those details of the previous project as well as postpartum/toddler living solidarity!
Please repost your non-medicine cabinet pictures with all of the items that go in them laid out on the vanity. The 90% used toothpaste, the Benadryl, the eye drops, the qtips, the razor, the deodorant, the shaving cream, the lotion, the nasal spray, the purfume, etc… How does your design look with all that clutter? The medicine cabinet pictures will look exactly the same even with those items.
I hear you, but you can put all of those things in vanity drawers — works beautifully with the right drawer organizers (ours are from Target and the Container Store). I’m not anti-medicine cabinet, but they’re not the only option, especially if you have a vanity with a lot of storage.
It’s a luxury to have a big vanity. Lots of people have to live with 19 or 24 in vanity and pluming and sink takes up 2/3 of the space. Plus, you don’t want to put toilet bowl cleaner and tooth brush near each other.
Personally I loved this post 🙂 It was fun and educational even though I stand on ‘the other side of the debate’ – I loooove medicine cabinets for their pracitcality! Not even just for their storage capabilites but mostly because with the slightly wider ones that are split three-ways, you can have a mirror that lets you see all sides of your head easily and AT THE SAME TIME! I realise that sounds a bit vain but there is seriously no better lazy-ass styling tool than that 🙂 Although the mirrors you showed are sooooo beautiful you might sway me 😉
Ha! To medicine-cabinet or not to cabinet was one of THE big debates I had with my flatmate and friend when we moved in together! We couldn’t come up with a compromise so we instead had NO mirror for the longest time (we both have big ones in our respective rooms) until not one of resident females, but my dad (who was over for a weekend visit) cracked and bough us a tiny mirror-stick-tile thing so he could finally shave his beard in peace…. :’) We still haven’t upgraded and now live with that teensy-weensy mirror tile above our sink even four years later because we just got so used to it – I guess its kinda cute in a we’re-students-what-is-money-anyway kind of way…
I think you guys found a lot of really pretty options and now, I want one to replace our basic builder mirror!! I’m team Orlando, I love his spin on solutions.
We used #6 in our bath. I debated about only a mirror. But we just needed the storage. I love these cabinets. They are used by two adults. I wouldn’t recommend for kids or teen baths who could be rough with the frameless mirrors opening and closing.
Ooo controversy! I love it! I agree with so much of what you’re saying. But! If you need the medicine cabinet for storage, then I would much rather plan carefully and commit to a beautiful recessed one rather than wall mounted. (Assuming your building restraints allow it, obviously.) They look so much less clunky. But if you don’t need the extra storage, I agree that a regular mirror is the prettiest!
Orlando is a freaking genius. He makes this a win because of his pure embrace of practical storage and majestic design, at a reasonable cost. And his design can easily be modified to create something similar to the Loughlin Furniture cabinet.
I totally agree with you, Emily, about style. What Orlando said is EXACTLY what I have been thinking and feeling, though. There are tall bottles like for shaving cream that don’t fit into drawers, etc. I do love the idea of using a beautiful mirror as a door on a cabinet. I also like having the mirror closer to me (I’m blind as a bat and my husband has also been having a harder time seeing what he’s doing while shaving). I have been thinking of ganging 3 cabinets in our master. Robern has some really deluxe ones that I will not consider because the cost seems too high for what it is, but Kohler has some that are almost as nice. I’m liking #2 and #24 above. The reason I have been thinking of ganging is that we now have one of those huge glued-on mirrors and my husband wants to continue to have that much mirror- he’d prefer to keep the existing mirror and the Hollywood lights above it- so it takes some doing to make both of us happy!
We ganged 3 Kohler cabinets in our bathroom and have been thrilled with the results. An almost-seamless expanse of mirror and TONS of storage. Even Costco-sized bottles of vitamins fit on the shelves. Interior mirrors so the door can be open and you can use it for makeup application or a side view when styling hair. Because there are 3 cabinets, we now have a his, a hers, and a common cabinet for stuff we share like aspirin and bandaids.
We liked this solution in our master bath so much we replicated it in the hall bath.
And if I had know about Orlando’s solution 5 years ago I would have used it because structurally I couldn’t use inset medicine cabinets. I went with a shared trough sink with two faucets and towers with doors on either end. They have outlets inside for recharging toothbrushes and razors. I don’t have enough storage otherwise for makeup, hair products and tools, towels, back stock toiletries and cleaning products. And no one wants to see all that, it’s not pretty.
I love this post. I am team function on this one–don’t think anyone is decanting contact lens solution, haha! And drawers aren’t as conducive to lens cases, mouthwash, or toothpaste as the 3-inch shelf in front of you. (Or the many many creams and bottles of ibuprofen.) The RH and Pottery Barn options are pretty seamless and can really do the trick, but I love the idea of a piano hinge with a more special mirror!
Oh my gosh yes this is a controversial topic despite its relative frivolity. I actually bought the Lowes medicine cabinet that’s 4 photos down in the post for our tiny 5×7 full bath redo and I cracked up seeing it in the “what not to wear” section! I feel the pain!!! It’s actually way better than ugly square 80s wall mounted one that stuck out 5″ and overshadowed the faucet and back counter. Before buying a new one I did my research on how to inset, then my handy husband explained to me the existence of vent pipes for the sink so it can’t be inset more than 3″, plus he isn’t interested in doing that work right now… so we have a round mirror hanging on the wall instead and the medicine cabinet is still in the box. I wanted a Pottery Barn one but my budget didn’t extend that far. My young girls have toothbrush mugs stored under the sink and as they get older they will be having shower caddies that they tote to their bathroom because of the lack of storage and my hatred of clutter, bahaha! In our own bathroom we have a wide 3… Read more »
Am I super dumb (very possible) because what you’re describing as your ideal solution just looks like a custom medicine cabinet to me (built into the wall rather than sitting on top of it – I believe you’re using ‘inset’ to describe that)?
Not dumb at all (unless I’m dumb, too!) 😉 I thought that very thing. I couldn’t tell the difference. Then again, I’m not a stylist nor a home renovation expert.
I really enjoyed reading this post! The “oh but a medicine cabinet means you can’t have a pretty mirror…” immediately popped into my head with the intro so I felt pleased to have guessed right on where the post was going 🙂 Also I’m sorry about the folks that seem to be a bit personally offended by not prioritizing maximum storage/function over form. You seem to be well-aware of space and money constraints and that there’s privilege behind making more minimalist (bathroom product) lifestyle and style choices, so I don’t see why “oh those fancy hotel bathrooms wouldn’t work for me” has to turn into “how can you possibility contemplate choices that don’t work for everyone.” :shrug: I do have a bit of a theory that to some extent, style does involve some impracticality or aspirational aspects. Obviously it’s awesome when we don’t have to choose our preferred two out of style/function/cost (I am constantly referencing the Upgraded Utilitarian posts btw as I furnish our new house) but to some extent, I at least do have a tendency to think that things are prettier when I don’t have to see the everyday parts, and when I’m not seeing the same… Read more »
Fantastic and informative post, and a dilemma many of us have struggled with! The problem I’m running up against is that my vanity is going on an exterior wall. So recessing isn’t really an option without sacrificing insulation. I’ve considered a tall vertical cabinet also, but I don’t always love that breaking up the views of a long, horizontal floating vanity…
It’s really not hard, especially in new construction or a gut bathroom reno to do beautiful inset medicine cabinets, and I can’t see that it would be very hard to swap them out for something else if in 10 years you want to update. After all, the sizes are pretty standard and it isn’t much more mess than trying to pull of a builder grade glued on mirror. The thing you DON’T want to do is what I did. Not be able to afford the inset medicine cabinets you really want, so you don’t mention them to the contractors, then find them half way through at RH Outlet (still expensive, but just within reach if you ignore your nagging budget) and present them like Simba the new baby Lion King to a bunch of guys that don’t get your vision and why you are doing this horrible thing to them, the electrical that’s been pulled through and the plumbing and now it changes the format on the vanity, yada yada yada. So now I have those beautiful, interior lit, vanities inset in my bathroom walls above the now has to be built custom vanity (here is a link to Brooklyn… Read more »
Wow. Something new for me to obsess about in my next renovation. No medicine cabinets over the sinks in either of my bathrooms. Tall closed-door cabinets are sink adjacent and we put the times used daily on a lucite tray that is easy to lift out of the cabinet and place on the vanity when needed, returning it to the cabinet when finished.
Fussy? Perhaps, but it takes no more time than hanging up a hand towel and keeps everything clean and free of clutter.
I would not mind a variation on the wood shelf under vanity mirrors though … adding say a 4-6″ tall enclosed space with either lift-up doors on the front or sliding doors. That would probably work for most of the daily ablutions and still keep things looking neat and designed.
I tried really hard to find a medicine cabinet that I liked for our bathroom renovation. But like you I hate the builder-grade recessed style, and the only other vintage styles I liked were sized for a much smaller bathroom/vanity area (the non-recessed styles just get progressively bulkier) and we needed a mirror wide enough for the two of us to style our hair/brush our teeth at once. I also really hate the bulky look of two side-by-side medicine cabinets! We ended up getting a mirror with the little shelf at the bottom, which we will actually find useful because I’m the kind of person whose “top shelfie” products My wife and I have tons of products that need somewhere to live, but honestly not more than can fit in a decent-sized vanity with drawers. If I had more space, I’d probably just be tempted to fill it with more products that I wouldn’t even use before they expired. I love having sufficient storage space as much as the next American, but sometimes I just want to tell the people complaining about lack of storage (the same ones who are shocked that we didn’t fill our kitchen with as many… Read more »
Please do a post on how to make an ADA/elderly friendly bathroom. Make handrails pretty!
Amazing round up. Thank you!
I didn’t have a medicine cabinet in our old house (giant builder grade mirror I eventually framed and made it look much better) so everything went into drawers. But we had a massive amount of storage in that bathroom so not really an issue.
The original bathroom in our 1930 Tudor house had a built in medicine cabinet which was pretty inadequate so we tried all kinds of tricks to add storage.
If you’ve got the space, I would love a large mirror on hinges over shelves. I’ve seen a full length mirror over a shallow shelf on the surface of the wall (not recessed). I wanted that so badly. Invisible storage.
I am firmly in the anti-medicine cabinet camp, and it has absolutely nothing to do with style! I’ve lived in a few houses with them, and they always just get really gunky and smell like Old Spice and Listerine and waxed dental floss. Even with regular cleaning. Ugh. I don’t judge anyone for having them or anything, but for myself I will opt out every time.
I totally feel the person who wants someplace to hide their embarrassing postpartum flotsam and jetsam but I just put mine in a basket in the vanity. There are baskets with lids you can buy. I like to think that snoopers at least have the decency to only snoop on the immediately visible items and not rifle through a lidded basket. If they do, though, they’ll probably be pretty sorry they did – you can’t un-see half used tubes of hemorrhoid cream or opened bottles of stool softener pills or giant medical grade pads haha!
I think if you have a sleek asthetic and don’t want clutter, you’re exactly the type of person who could benefit from a medicine cabinet! They are so functional because they are shallow and you can easily see and access everything you need. Drawers provide storage, sure, but you often have to dig around to find what you want and as a result daily use stuff like a toothbrush ends up on the counter all the time. From a functional standpoint I prefer having a medicine cabinet for toothbrush and face wash type stuff, and then a shallow top drawer for makeup. Thanks for highlighting some attractive options, will be saving this for future homes.
#17 was definitely available when you were planning your bathrooms – we have it in our master bath reno completed in 2017. It is everything I need it to be in our small bath. 🙂
Love this round up though – If I ever dare to go surface mounted again, it’s good to know there are some modern options on the market!
Also interesting to hear the reasons designers dislike medicine cabinets – I’ve never understood the appeal of just a mirror in a bathroom (which, for me, is a room that is all about F U N C T I O N, unlike many other rooms in a house), so that was enlightening!
To me it’s all about personal lifestyle, and for me I am hugely pro-medicine cabinet. When we were designing our master bath, our architect asked if used a lot of stuff and convinced us to have them when I was all “nah” because I didn’t want to added expense and I didn’t think I needed them.
But I am so thankful we went for it because AM a messy and cluttery person who has a lot of crap – the kind that I can shove into a vanity drawer (flat iron, deoderant, extra toothpaste, q-tips, tampons) and then the kind I like having a display of to know what in inventory and exactly where it is (all my facial stuff, make up, cleansers, lotions, medicine).
From a design stand point I like the no-vanity look, but from a personal practical stand point the medicine cabinet hides all stuff I’d otherwise have all over the sink.
I loathe commercially available medicine cabinets because they often (IKEA I AM LOOKING AT YOU) have a mirror seam in the centre, right down the centre of the viewer’s face. It makes me MURDEROUS. It’s the ultimate form of distraction, I can’t function with that seam there.
I have an appreciation for medicine cabinets otherwise.
You should put a medicine cabinet options section in your book. When we built (self-designed and we general contracted sooooo….we didn’t quite know everything ?). Our house only had regular builder grade med cabinets to begin with, so I didn’t even know inset was a thing (oblivious my whole life I guess) until everything was framed and drywalled and I saw them at Lowe’s and then I was like, “oooooooooh, riiiight. Shoulda thought of that…” ?. Oops! Now I know! We did ok planning ahead on outlets, switches and light fixtures though….can’t win ’em all!
But where does your dang wet toothbrush sit when all you have is drawers???? Someone show me how an inside view of these drawers please. I need to know!
Inside a single-stem flower vase you’d think had been made expressly for this reason.
So I actually read all the comments just to see if anyone else would mention toothbrushes! LOL I’m a dental assistant and I am always reminding people that toothbrushes left uncovered have poop germs on them (e. coli sprays up out of the toilet when you flush). You gotta stand the brush up in the medicine cabinet. 🙂
This puts me FIRMLY in favor of medicine cabinets. I do, however, hate the ugly builder grade ones that they inset on the wall 90 degrees to the back wall of the sink. I’d rather have that wall left intact for some pretty art and have a large cabinet with a pretty framed mirror inset directly behind the sink. Perfect compromise!
If you’re my sister, you put it on a random piece of toilet paper INSIDE the drawer. HAHAHA
This post was written for me! I moved into a house with two massive, ugly, faucet-obscuring medicine cabinets in the master bedroom. They are PAINFUL to look at but damn they are convenient. I haven’t replaced them yet because I probably want to work on the vanity too, and the bathtub, and the whole layout ?. Each day I wait, however, those things are filling with products I didn’t know I needed and I’m afraid I’ll be stuck with them forever. Time to ACT.
You guys are always so great with the content, thank you for being awesome!!
I grew up with 3-way mirror medicine cabinets and loved them so much for doing my hair and seeing the back of my hair while doing a braid or updo… When we built our new home, I insisted that the master and kids bathroom have 3 way mirror medicine cabinets for the hair styling option alone 🙂 ha ha!
Indeed, we did have ours custom built by the cabinet maker and I think they are absolutely gorgeous. They go all the way up to the ceiling and are framed beautifully. Our full bathroom on the main floor I opted for a pretty mirror, so I think I got the best of both worlds 🙂
Thank you for doing this article. There are so many ugly medicine cabinet and I was pleased to see that there are options out there now. Thanks for posting these beautiful bathrooms.
I liked this post! Instead of a medicine cabinet, i found an old rounded rectangle mirror at Goodwill for $1 (!!!!) and hung shallow wood shelves on matte black steel brackets on the wall to the left of the sink. I put a bunch of pretty containers on the shelves so that the toothbrushes, ugly product tubes, etc are mostly hidden. It works, was affordable, and looks really pretty!
I think the easy gut renovation solution is the the pretty mirror. Think you are missing a whole category of vintage style medicine cabinets common in any house built before the 50s. I spent a fortune putting a recessed medicine cabinet back in the fits the woodwork in my bungalow. Side niches are trendy sure and might fit in a certain style home but look builder grade in most. Seems like alot of people in the comments have expanded their horizons. New isn’t always better.
I was reluctant to install medicine cabinets in our new house for all the reasons mentioned but ultimately decided that counter top clutter (which was the bane of my existence in our prior house) would undoubtedly look worse than “less than perfect” medicine cabinets. We ended up using number 10 from Pottery Barn and I have zero regrets. So pretty, so functional, and our vanities are always clutter-free!
When we remodeled our house this year, I insisted on medicine cabinets in the master bath after not having any for 8 years. Our designer and contractor took the Rejuvenation rounded metal edge rectangular mirrors and turned them into custom inset medicine cabinets. They’re my favorite thing in our bathroom – so beautiful and functional. If done right, medicine cabinets offer great storage for things you want upright, out of sight and easy to find.
YES that’s such a great solution. Are you open to sharing what the additional contractor cost was for “custom inset” was? Did they build shelves between the studs? Did you outfit the mirror over another medicine cabinet? Would love all the details!
This is one where I disagree. First off, I don’t see why it would be horrible to recess some of the medicine cabinets in your roundup that have the option. Like the oval one would definitely be better recessed than surface mounted, for example.
Second, sometimes you just need the storage for little bottles and other items that are not best stored in a vanity drawer. Our current vanity – not designed by me – only has two deep drawers on my side. What a nightmare. I so wish I had a medicine cabinet, but instead they tiled in the big mirror, basically ensuring I can never replace it without remodeling. Whereas it’s pretty easy to hang a decorative mirror over the hole left by a medicine cabinet. In our old house, the vintage vanity had literally no drawers. We added a medicine cabinet, and it was awesome.
So I think this is totally situational. And I believe you can design a beautiful bathroom with a medicine cabinet. My favorites are from
Really. Look at all the “pretty” styled bathrooms. The only “stuff” on view is pretty…and not much of that.
Can I vent? Something that I hate in styled bathrooms is towels in a basket on the floor NEXT TO THE TOILET. I mean, GROSS. Even open shelves with rolled towels sitting on it are getting all the airborne nasties. Yuck. Plus people who tear up their houses to create open concept spaces are always getting rid of built-in storage, so they can have a bigger bedroom or a ginormous steam shower in the bathroom. Where do their linens get stored? I don’t get it.
We still have the cheap 3 mirror medicine cabinet from when we moved in and looking to replace – so this post was perfect timing! I would usually want to opt with just a mirror but we desperately need the space. We actually love the tri-view and being able to see the side and back of our heads when getting ready. I know it may sound odd but wow so helpful! I didn’t realize how crazy my hair could look from the back. If only they made more stylish options with the tri-view!
I can’t stand the look of medicine cabinets either but have always had them. They’re kind of like the television in a living room that also has a fireplace. I have no idea how to style them to look great and I’ve always wanted a wow mirror in the bathroom.
I just used the Pottery Barn Vintage Medicine Cabinet in the XL size and it is the bomb dot com if I do say so myself. And my bathroom is 32 sq ft so every inch counts!
You said “honestly I don’t think inset should be done in a vintage style home.” Did you mean in a modern home? On the east coast many older homes have inset medicine cabinets. I read this sentence four times because I was sure I was reading it wrong
After reading this, I was looking at my own oval mirror to see if I could add a cabinet (I needddd storage). Well that’s when I realized there was hinge on the back and I actually have a built in medicine and I had never noticed it before! ???
That’s amazing! ? It reminds me of a recurring dream I have: I discover a room in my house that I either didn’t know about or forgot about.
OMG Beth, I have had this same recurring dream for as long as I can remember! Sometimes I find a built in closet or an indoor pool or an attic full of amazing old furniture… but sometimes I know the rooms are there and they’re scary. Is this a thing?
Team medicine cabinet all the way. When someone flushes, toilet water particles are spewed 15 feet into the air. And you know not everyone is dropping the lid every time they go. Why on earth would you want your toothbrush out on the counter or on a shelf in the open?
I don’t have a medicine cabinet in my current rental and I never used the one I had in my previous one. I think I just don’t like swinging things out towards my face? Fortunately even though my current studio is super tiny, the bathroom is decent size (for me, probably small for most people). So I just buy decorative trays and put stuff on the counter. I mount an IKEA spice rack on the wall by the sink for skincare products. I love it because it is so narrow, it doesn’t jut out too much but still holds a lot. Everything else fits in the drawers. I also cannot recommend enough the little individual toothbrush holders that Muji makes (as well as their actually toothbrushes). It makes me mind having them out way less.
So my friend texted me to say “omg, you’re on Emily Henderson’s blog!!”…but unfortunately, it was as an example of terrible medicine cabinets. ? Don’t worry, my feelings were only mildly hurt! ? I can’t say I disagree with the stylistic criticism, but we went with the Ikea Godmorgon cabinets because (1) we had two little kids and wanted child-safe out-of-reach storage for things like medications, etc. (2) we had a *minuscule* renovation budget, and (3) ours was on an external wall that didn’t allow for recessing. So I certainly didn’t pick the cabinets because I loved them, but after living with them for about a week, I changed my tune! They are the most wonderfully functional storage solution I’ve ever used. In fact, when we moved to a new home, we immediately installed them in our new master bath because neither my husband nor I could stomach going back to vanity-drawer storage. Now, someday down the line when we renovate the bathroom I’ll certainly try for something prettier…but never at the expense of function! ?
I’m in the middle of a gut reno to our only bathroom and guess what??? You don’t have to choose! In lieu of the faux country MDF shelving unit we used to have over the toilet, we are doing a recessed 6 foot tall cabinet on the opposite wall from the sink/toilet. It was $900 at Home Depot and it has maple shaker doors we are going to paint the same color as the wall.
(We are doing a Koehler recessed medicine cabinet over the sink, but only because we are a family of 4 with one bathroom.)
Recessed storage and pretty mirrors can co-exist!