How To Choose Bathroom Wall Panels

Looking for an alternative to traditional bathroom tile? Bathroom wall panels are an attractive, DIY-friendly alternative that won't break the bank.

Like a new British invasion, bathroom wall panels have been steadily making inroads from the United Kingdom to the North American market. They offer a less expensive and easier-to-install alternative to tile, which has been the go-to bathroom wall covering for so long it can actually look dated.

Not so with wall panels. They’re available in an array of designs and colors that can complement even the most modern and innovative bathroom furnishings.

Designers aren’t the only ones who adore bathroom wall panels. DIYers love them for their price, ease of installation and application — they go on directly over existing tiles or drywall. Although some products require professional installation, others come in DIY kits with instructions, channeling and everything else you need except the tools.

If you’re planning a bathroom renovation and you’re new to bathroom wall panels, familiarize yourself with what they are and what types are available. You might find a lot to like.

What Are Bathroom Wall Panels?

Bathroom wall panels are large decorative sheets glued directly to the bathroom walls. Those installed in the shower, around the tub and anywhere else exposed to direct moisture are called wet wall panels, and they’re 100-percent waterproof. Panels for other parts of the bathroom don’t need to be waterproof, just moisture resistant.

Types of Bathroom Wall Panels

Wet wall panels are generally as large or larger than a sheet of plywood. They come in various thicknesses. Depending on the thickness and material, can be lightweight or heavy. Available materials include:

  • Fiberglass-reinforced plastic (FRP): Lightweight and generally less than one-tenth of an inch thick, FRP comes in 4×8 sheets. It scratches easily and the color fades over time, so it isn’t for the design-conscious. If you’re looking to do a quick bathroom upgrade for a rental, however, this is the most economical choice.
  • Pure fiberglass: Slightly thicker and more expensive than FRP, fiberglass panels come in standard sizes and are generally fastened to the studs. Like FRP, fiberglass is prone to scratching and discoloration.
  • Acrylic: Unlike FRP or fiberglass, acrylic panels won’t turn yellow and they’re more scratch resistant. They must be installed over backerboard or moisture-resistant drywall, and may also be installed over tile. Standard acrylic panels cost about twice as much as FRP. Top-of-the-line high-gloss acrylic panels that complement a high-end contemporary Euro-design bathroom cost much more.
  • PVC composite: PVC lends itself well to texturing and design stamping to give the impression of stone or tile. With an average thickness of one-quarter inch, PVC bathroom panels are generally installed over drywall or an existing wall covering such as tile.
  • Solid surface: A combination of resin, filler and pigments. Solid-surface materials like cultured marble or Onyx (a brand combining resins and alumina tryhydrate) are three-eights inches thick and available in lengths up to 96 inches.
  • Laminated MDF: A vinyl coating pressed onto a medium-density fiberboard core. Laminated panels are manufactured with a tongue and groove to make for a seamless installation. Laminated panels are three-eights inch thick and click together like laminate floor boards.
  • Natural stone: Far pricier than other options, marble or granite wall panels are strictly for the luxury-minded. They require professional installation, adding to their cost.

In areas where wet panels aren’t needed, material options can include MDF and wood. Painted MDF offers a clean and inexpensive option for wainscot. Various wood species, especially cedar, make great accent walls and back splashes.

Bathroom Wall Panel Pros and Cons

Tiles and wall panels are competing options for shower stalls and other water exposure areas. Tiles are the traditional go-to because they offer abundant design possibilities, but bathroom wall panels compare favorably.

Pros

  • Easy to clean. Materials are non-porous and mold resistant. No grout lines to scrub.
  • Easy to install, depending on product. Each panel takes the same space as 20 or 30 tiles and simply sticks to the wall.
  • Cost effective. The cost to panel a shower stall can range from $400 to $2,000, compared to Fixr‘s estimated cost of $800 to $5,000 for tile.
  • Plenty of design options. Synthetic panels can be smooth with a matte or gloss finish, and be made to look like stone, tile or wood.
  • Can be installed directly over tiled walls.

Cons

  • Longevity varies. The most expensive can last the life of the bathroom, but budget products may need replacement in 10 to 15 years.
  • Installation isn’t always DIY. Stone, some solid surface and some high-end acrylic panels require professional installation. Also, some dealers won’t sell panels without an installation contract.
  • Faux-tile or faux-stone wall panels will never look exactly like the real thing.
  • Panels can be unwieldy and difficult to maneuver through the bathroom and set in place.
  • Because panels aren’t flexible, they’re difficult to install on curved walls.

How To Choose the Best Bathroom Wall Panels

Homeowners sold on the idea of bathroom wall panels should consider these points when shopping:

Cost

At the low end of the cost scale, the FRP and fiberglass panels you need for a shower stall cost between $200 and $450. At the high end, solid surface and laminated panels cost up to $2,000. Real stone can cost four times as much.

Waterproof

All wet panels are waterproof. Most wood and MDF panels have limited water resistance and must be coated with a moisture repellent finish.

Ease of installation

Wet panels at the low end of the price range are generally DIY friendly. Weekend warriors can also install higher priced panels, but professional installation may be a better idea depending on the bathroom configuration and panel size. That will add $1,000 to $2,000 to the cost of the project.

Availability

Any products not available through a local dealer can usually be purchased online. Higher end panels made from solid-surface materials and laminates can all be measured and cut onsite. But for an expedient installation, it’s usually better to send measurements to the distributor to custom-cut the panels. Stone panels are always custom-cut and professionally installed.

Chris Deziel
Chris Deziel has been active in the building trades for more than 30 years. He helped build a small city in the Oregon desert from the ground up and helped establish two landscaping companies. He has worked as a carpenter, plumber and furniture refinisher. Deziel has been writing DIY articles since 2010 and has worked as an online consultant, most recently with Home Depot's Pro Referral service. His work has been published on Landlordology, Apartments.com and Hunker. Deziel has also published science content and is an avid musician.