When it comes to bathroom remodeling, few upgrades can have a bigger impact than the bathroom vanity. In addition to providing a functional space for shaving, putting on makeup, brushing your teeth, and taking care of other daily tasks, the vanity serves as a visual focal point for the bathroom.
While you should certainly consider the look of your vanity when planning an upgrade or remodel, it may also be helpful to consider the materials that are being used in the construction of the vanity cabinet.
The most common materials used for bathroom vanities are solid wood, particle board, MDF (medium density fiberboard), and plywood. While most materials can be suitable for your new vanity installation, they also come with their own set of pros and cons you should be aware of.
By understanding the differences between these different bathroom vanity materials, you can select the option that will work best with what you have in mind for your bathroom.
Oak is generally considered to be the strongest wood for bathroom vanities. Solid wood vanities bring a traditional, timeless look with a natural finish or a stain that cannot be imitated by other materials. Of course, these materials can be painted in any color you desire.
The strength of solid wood also ensures that you aren’t limited in terms of countertop materials. Whether you prefer marble or acrylic, you can have confidence that the vanity will have the structural support necessary for the weight of your countertop.
While solid wood vanities are very durable, it is important to remember that bathroom conditions can still create problems for this material. Wood can expand as heat increases and as it absorbs moisture. In extreme cases, this expansion could cause some warping of the wood or cracks in a painted finish. A veneer or sealant may be necessary to prevent these issues.
If you choose a solid wood vanity, it is important that you keep the bathroom’s humidity levels under control with the help of a vent fan. This will keep the solid wood vanity from absorbing too much moisture, retaining the stunning look of its natural finish for decades to come.
CC BY-SA 3.0 by Rotor DB at Wikimedia Commons
In terms of bathroom vanity construction, particle board is generally considered to be on the opposite end of the spectrum from solid wood. Particle board is a composite sheet material using wood particles that are glued together, heated, and pressed into thin sheets.
Particle boards can vary in strength based on the size of the particles and the density of the sheets, however, it is generally considered to be too weak to support the weight of solid surface materials like quartz or granite. Over time, the weight of the countertop can actually cause particle board vanities to sag. Particle board vanities should use lighter countertop materials like acrylic.
Particle boards are also more vulnerable to water, heat, and steam than other bathroom vanity materials. While coverings of wood veneer or laminate can offer some protection, the fact remains that the steamy conditions of your bathroom will likely cause a particle board vanity to break down over time.
Yes, these vanities tend to be less expensive than those built from other materials — but in the long run, they could end up costing you more if you need to replace them due to water damage. Because of this, it is generally recommended to avoid vanities using particle board. You won’t find this material in the top of the line bathroom vanities carried here at Kitchen & Bath Authority.
MDF Bathroom Vanities
MDF (medium density fiberboard) is a good “middle of the road” option for a bathroom vanity. Though it is engineered in a similar manner to particle board, it is much denser and stronger. The bits of wood used to create MDF are compressed for a longer time and at higher temperatures.
MDF bathroom vanities tend to be less expensive, and offer a smooth surface. Unlike solid wood, you don’t have to worry about contraction and expansion of the materials causing paint layers to crack. As a manufactured material, however, MDF cannot be stained like solid wood.
Because it shares some similarities to particle boards, it also shares a few similar weaknesses. Exposure to water can cause MDF to swell, so the surface must be protected with a good sealant or a quality lacquer paint. MDF is also more difficult to repair if it is cracked or chipped. Stress cracks could make it easier for water to penetrate the material, and weaken it over time.
Though MDF can work well in a bathroom and is less expensive, its vulnerabilities to water mean it is often used in conjunction with solid wood. MDF is used in addition to solid poplar in areas that are less likely to receive frequent water exposure, while solid wood is used for the main “skeleton” of the vanity.
Though not as high-end as solid wood, plywood can serve as a sturdy and reliable option for bathroom vanity materials. Plywood is comprised of wood veneers that are glued together in several layers to form a sheet of plywood.
As with other manufactured wood products, the quality of the plywood may vary based on thickness and the quality of the materials used. While lower-grade plywood will use softer woods or contain voids between layers, higher-quality plywood will be solid and durable.
Remember, plywood is used as the underlayment for most residential roofing! This means it is quite sturdy, and far less likely to experience the performance problems associated with particle boards. Finished plywood is water-resistant, meaning it is less likely to be damaged by steam or the occasional splash of water. Of course, if you have a pipe leak behind the bathroom vanity, you should still try to address the issue as soon as possible to avoid water damage.
Even more importantly, plywood actually resists the expansion and contraction that can occur in solid wood due to changes in temperature or humidity. This means that in many cases, it could last even longer than a solid wood vanity.
Metal may seem like an unusual choice for a bathroom vanity material, but it is getting used more often in contemporary designs. Stainless steel provides a sleek, modern look that stands out in any bathroom.
Stainless steel is naturally waterproof. You don’t have to worry about exposure to moist, humid conditions deteriorating its appearance over time. Stainless steel is also resistant to mildew and rust. The elemental makeup of stainless steel also makes it resistant to heat and scratches — which is why this material is also commonly used for kitchen appliances.
While stainless steel is extremely well-suited for the bathroom environment, it does have a few drawbacks worth noting. Stainless steel tends to show smudges like fingerprints and water marks. This may require more frequent cleaning to keep them looking their best, which could prove to be quite a hassle in a child’s bathroom.
Because stainless steel is relatively new in the bathroom vanity world, it is primarily still used for pedestal vanities. Such vanities typically only have a towel bar — no extra storage areas. As a result, this slim and sleek design is great for a guest bathroom, but it might not be the best fit for your master suite.
How Can You Care For Your Bathroom Vanity Materials?
Other than particle board, any of the bathroom vanity materials listed above can serve you well, as long as they come from a quality manufacturer. While materials like solid wood and MDF can be vulnerable to water damage, many manufacturers use laminate coatings or specialty sealants to prevent such issues. This way, you get sturdy construction, as well as protection against water damage.
You’ll also want to pay attention to pricing and consider your countertop options. If you want a heavier countertop like granite or quartz, solid wood or plywood are your best bets — though a mixture of MDF and solid wood is also suitable. Double check the product specifications before making a selection so you can have confidence that the vanity you’re buying is made of your preferred materials.
Regardless of the type of bathroom vanity material you choose, however, you must take steps to minimize water exposure. The bathroom is naturally going to be humid and steamy. You can’t stop every drop of water from splashing on your vanity while washing your hands or shaving.
So, what to do? First, make sure to turn on the bathroom exhaust fan every time you take a shower. These fans draw in the moist, humid air that is being generated by the shower, helping to control humidity levels. It is generally recommended to leave the fan running for several minutes after your shower is over to help return humidity levels to normal.
You should also periodically check the area around your vanity for leaks. Don’t forget to look beneath the sink! The longer a leak goes undetected, the greater potential it has to cause significant damage to your vanity. With more durable vanity materials, catching a leak in its early stages shouldn’t result in any lasting issues.
Finally, wipe up any large water spills on the vanity surface. The longer water is allowed to remain on the surface, the greater chance it has of penetrating the vanity materials, where it can cause additional damage. When cleaning your vanity, always wipe the surface dry after you’re done cleaning.
While these care tips may seem relatively simple, these small everyday things are what will have the biggest impact on keeping your bathroom vanity looking and performing great for years to come.