If you’re a detail-oriented decision-maker, selecting bathroom tile might just be your dream task. But for many people, the process is so overwhelming they’d rather just close their eyes and point. The first thing to know is that most nonvinyl tiles fall into three broad categories: ceramic, glass, and natural stone, which encompasses slate, granite, travertine and marble. Each type of tile has pros and cons. This guide will help you narrow the field.
If bathroom tile went to high school, ceramic would be voted “most popular.” It’s affordable, easy to clean and sturdy. And technology means that it can look like almost anything. “Some tiles have grain to make them look like wood, or a stone pattern that mimics slate, and you can’t tell the difference unless you’re very close,” says Judd Lord, Delta Faucet’s director of industrial design. Costlier porcelain tile falls into the ceramic category and is often used commercially because it’s hard and nonporous. “It’s incredibly tough but almost overkill for a residential bathroom, especially given the price,” Lord says.
Glass reflects light and comes in limitless colors, offering design options that ceramic and stone can’t. On walls, glass tiles can be used sparingly to provide an accent or across a large area for an iridescent effect. “You’re seeing a lot of glass in bathrooms now, and it’s intriguing because there’s such variation in texture, color and size,” Lord says. (Because of its cost and slippery surface, glass is rarely used as flooring.) A word of caution: Even glass tiles designed for wet areas can trap moisture behind them, so it’s best to hire a pro to oversee the process, especially if your plans involve the shower.
While ceramic bathroom tiles tend to have a uniform look, slate slabs are beloved for their individuality. “With slate and other types of natural stone, you almost prize the variation from tile to tile,” Lord says. Slate works well on walls and floors, and while many people love its spa-like vibe for a shower, the dark color shows soap scum quickly. Also, prolonged exposure to moisture can cause it to chip, even after being sealed (sealing all natural stone tiles is vital). Slate can also have thickness irregularities from tile to tile, so many people opt to have a professional install it.
Though its durability has made it a darling of the kitchen world, granite works for bathrooms, too. Just don’t be fooled by its glossy good looks and tendency to repel water: This semiporous stone still needs regular resealing to prevent staining. If you’re considering granite for floors, skip a polished finish, which can be slippery when wet, and choose a honed (or matte) tile. And remember this general rule of flooring that applies to granite and other materials: Small tiles produce more grout lines and therefore more traction, helping to prevent slips.
Think of travertine, a type of limestone, as a younger, softer version of marble, before heat and pressure have hardened it and made the colors blend. “It has a matte finish that can be beautiful, warm and inviting,” Lord says. Travertine is often used on floors, and most people who choose it like the worn patina it develops over time (it will still need regular sealing). It’s also quite porous and has visible holes; some stone processors will leave these crevices for a rustic look, while others fill them with epoxy and sand or polish the surface for a uniform effect.
Quick science lesson: Marble is a metamorphosed limestone that’s been beautified by time. If you’re looking for classic luxury, marble tiles will get you there. Marble works well in most bathroom areas though it stains easily; some fastidious folks reseal their showers every six months. “It’s classy and beautiful and comes in tons of colors, and a lot of people prize the look so much they’re willing to deal with the maintenance,” Lord says. If you install a marble countertop, keep regularly used toiletries like liquid soap on a tray to help prevent staining, and be sure to wipe up spills immediately.