Bathrooms

How to Share a Small Bathroom Without Losing Your Mind

...or your soap. Or sense of style.

November  9, 2021
Photo by Weston Wells for The Little Book of Living Small

No Space Too Small is a brand new column by Laura Fenton that celebrates the idea that you can live well in a small home. Each month, Laura will share her practical findings from years of observing how people live in tight spaces, and her own everyday experiences of living small—from the hunt for the perfect tiny desk and managing everyday clutter to how to smooth the frustrations out of cooking in a galley kitchen.


When I shared a post on Instagram that mentioned I was writing about small, shared bathrooms, one of my Instagram buddies DM’d me to say I was “so fun.” Ahem. Clearly, she does not share a single 5’x7’ bathroom with her family like I do, because fun is not the adjective I would choose.

As a New Yorker, I’ve gotten pretty good at managing a small bathroom. However, as time’s gone by, I’ve added a spouse, a child, and an arsenal of anti-aging creams and potions... but I have not increased the size or quantity of my bathroom. I won’t lie: It’s a daily challenge to share! Small bathrooms are such a struggle that our upstairs neighbors recently moved not because their apartment was too small, but because with two kids, they were desperate for a second W.C.

While a full-blown renovation can make a small bathroom function better, most people aren’t in a position to renovate the bathroom they are currently using. Luckily, there are many ways to improve a small space that don’t require you to bring in a contractor. Here are some easy tips and tricks to help you manage a small, shared bathroom

Streamline (and share!) supplies

The fewer bottles of shampoo in the shower and lotions in the medicine cabinet, the easier it will be to keep things neat and tidy. Contrary to marketing claims, you can share products with your spouse and kids. I love Dr. Bronner’s Baby soap because everyone can use it (even newborns). Lifestyle writer Chantal Lamers swears by getting her whole family to agree on one toothpaste. Apply this philosophy of “just one” to shampoo, headache medicine, floss, sunscreen, and you’ll find yourself with a lot less clutter.

Slim down your towels

I made the switch to Gilden Tree’s European-style waffle towels years ago when I was hauling my heavy laundry bag up and down two flights of stairs and a quarter mile to our nearest laundromat. I discovered the thinner towels are a boon to small spaces because in addition to reducing your laundry burden, waffle towels air dry faster and take up less space in the linen closet. My Gilden Tree towels still look great seven years later (a real testament to their quality!), but these days many brands offer similar woven waffle towels.

Invest in the best

High-quality materials for your towels, shower curtain, and even soap make a tiny bathroom “not feel as crowded and cheap,” says fellow small-space dweller Liz Swenson, a pastor in Washington who shares a small bathroom with her spouse and daughter. I couldn't agree more, and if you’ve only got one bathroom, it’s easier to justify splurging on some fancy towels or the occasional bottle of wildly expensive hand soap.

Hang hooks for towels instead of bars

Professional organizer Shira Gill uses hooks instead of rods in her shared bathroom. Photo by Weston Wells for The Little Book of Living Small

Towel bars drive me crazy! The only way for a towel to properly dry on one is fully spread out, which means you can only fit one towel on each bar—which would mean we’d need room for three bars to dry my family’s towels. I find hooks are a much better solution for a small space because the towel can drape and dry vertically.

Utilize your wall space

Mounting baskets and bins on the wall can free up precious cabinet space. However, there are a lot of terrible suction-cup style bathroom organizers on the market. I’ve found one that doesn’t fall off or look cheap: iDesign’s Forma Stainless Steel Suction holders can hold your toothbrush and paste or a razor in the shower. I also love InterDesign’s stainless baskets, which mount to tile with silicone glue—no drilling required!

Lighten up your shower curtain

Clear shower curtains make a bathroom feel more open, as the author can attest. Photo by Weston Wells

If you have only one bathroom, it likely has a combination bathtub-shower like I have. When we hang up a traditional cloth shower curtain, our bathroom feels claustrophobic, so I have taken to using a high-quality, clear shower curtain to make the room feel more open.

Edit what lives in the bathroom

I store my rarely-used cosmetics, toiletries, and seasonal items outside of the bathroom. In my home, the overflow is stashed in a pair of metal bread boxes on a bookcase, but if you are blessed with a linen closet, that’s the natural spot.

Bigger is not always better.

I would encourage you not to take home the shampoo and soaps from hotels because they just end up being excess clutter. However, Emma Kate Fittes, a fellow writer living in New York City, points out that strategic purchases of travel-sized toiletries are a genius way to reduce the space needed to store rarely-used-but-necessary items like nail polish remover, hairspray, and dry shampoo.

Max out your medicine cabinet

I usually try to avoid plastic organizers, but I make an exception for these useful little acrylic risers. They are a smart way to increase the usable vertical storage space inside your medicine cabinet.

Use up what you’ve got first

If you want a new product, force yourself to wait until you run out of a similar product first, says Shira Gill, author of Minimalista, who shares a bathroom with her husband and two kids. This prevents the product pile-up, but Gill also notes, “Because I buy (and own) very few products, I’ve been able to elevate my everyday essentials and save a boatload of money. The luxury of less is real.”

Skip the bathmat

Okay, this last one is sort of funny (and might end up being controversial—feel free to weigh in), but we got rid of our bath mat. It was always in the way and a real bear to wash and dry. My husband suggested that perhaps we just dry our feet off before getting out of the shower. This worked for us, but it is admittedly nice to step on something soft: Try swapping in a nice hand towel for the bulky bath mat: I promise your feet won’t mind!

Join The Conversation

Top Comment:
“...the necessary "vanity" space. ”
— Kim S.
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What are some of your tricks for sharing a bathroom and keeping your cool? Share them with us—we're all ears.

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Laura Fenton

Written by: Laura Fenton

Laura Fenton is the No Space Too Small columnist at Food52. The author of The Little Book of Living Small, she covers home, design, and sustainability. Laura lives in Jackson Heights, Queens in a 690-square foot apartment with her husband and son. You can follow her on Instagram @laura.alice.fenton.

4 Comments

emily November 15, 2021
I took the opposite approach to the bathmat - I got one that covers the entire floor, (perks of a tiny bathroom!) But it's washable and easy to take care of. I also agree re: towel hooks, although I can't give up my bath sheets. They are just too luxurious to make the switch to a thin towel.

My bathroom has almost no storage but it's honestly fine because I shouldn't be keeping makeup, perfume, hair products or medications in there anyway - the heat and humidity is really bad for them. I keep my makeup in the filing cabinet under my desk, and have a folding mirror I bring out for application time. The natural light at my desk (which my bathroom does not have) is so helpful and I like sitting to do that stuff anyway. Without my glasses there's no way I could see well enough to apply eyeliner in the bathroom mirror! In general I like to expand my idea of what "must" be done in the bathroom. I've been known to brush my teeth at the kitchen sink since that's where I clean my invisalign trays. All medications and first aid items are in a drawer in the kitchen (again, should be stored in a cool/dark place) since I take my medications with my meals. One thing I did add to the bathroom was a retractable clothesline which is super helpful - for stained items I will soak them in the bathroom sink and then hang to dry on the line. That way the stain won't set if I can't take them to the laundry right away.
 
Kim S. November 12, 2021
I've lived in multiple dwellings with less-than-generously-sized bathrooms. I agree about the towels (I opted for Turkish towels, which also dry rapidly and occupy less shelf space). When sharing a bathroom with a teenager obsessed with scented bath products, I was moderately successful giving her a wire basket that hung on the shower wall (and could be removed to store in the closet). She could have anything she wanted, as long as it fit in the basket. Her father and I kept our shower supplies on a vertical tension-rod-shelf unit in the corner. All make-up and hair-styling supplies were relegated to personal bedrooms, which were outfitted with
 
Kim S. November 12, 2021
...the necessary "vanity" space.
 
Barbara B. November 11, 2021
I hung a large multi pocket shoe bag over the bathroom door to store prescription bottles, extra toiletries, lotions, etc. out of sight when the door is open.