Your shower or tub surround: Which materials are best?

When comparing all the different options for shower materials, the possibilities are endless, and can be overwhelming! How can we even begin to know which is the best option for us?

What we have found when helping customers choose materials is that there is hardly a one-size-fits-all solution. Each customer will have a different budget, differing expectations about longevity, and patience for maintenance. Below, we’ve compiled a comparison of the main options you will find in your search. We have included relative strengths and weaknesses, especially emphasizing waterproofing, ease of build, cost, ease of cleaning, and how unique a choice each one is.

Just a note about shower floors: The floor of the shower is the most prone to failure and poor installation by contractors. Some customers choose a “safer” material on the floor for peace-of-mind. Mixing and matching materials in the shower is common and perfectly acceptable as a design feature.

Estimated reading time: 9 minutes

Tile

Tile is classic – tile is timeless.  Practically speaking, homeowners never go wrong with a tile shower.  While certain designs go in and out of style, tile itself will be with us forever. (Think of the tile installations in Rome that have been with us for millennia!) Tile wears slowly if at all: the expected life cycle of a tile surface is 75+ years. While the initial investment may be substantial, tile easily lasts the life of its building when installed properly.  The advantage of tile is that you can find an almost unlimited number of colors, textures, sizes and combinations.  A good tile store will stock a large variety and be able to special order even more.

On the other hand, the process of preparing and tiling a shower is complex.  Choose a contractor well-versed in the materials you have chosen. They should also have a good handle on the waterproofing system behind the tile, and be able to explain why they specified their chosen system for your project.  Unlike the other materials listed in this article, tile is not considered waterproof.  Extra steps must be taken to prepare the surfaces beneath the tile to ensure all the water goes where it is supposed to.

Make sure to check the specifications for your tile choice. While all tiles are generally categorized as being for floors or walls, it is important that they are specifically rated for wet areas. Natural stone tile, in particular, can be more susceptible to problems in wet areas than ceramic or porcelain.

Cleaning Tile Showers:

Tile showers are not maintenance free.  A shower with natural stone especially will take some simple and consistent care to prevent discoloration or efflorescence.  Usually, this means a quick wipe-down with a neutral-pH sealer (we are partial to the Laticrete® Stonetech® line) and a soft cloth. Depending on the grout your installer uses, your grout may tend to gather dirt or soap scum. Using a soft-bristled toothbrush with the same pH-neutral cleaner will remove that build-up. When you have your shower built, do go over grout options with your installer. Manufacturers constantly develop new grouts intended to keep cleaning and maintenance to a minimum. As far as ongoing maintenance goes, a tile shower will sometimes need resealing (if stone) and recaulking in the corners.

Acrylic/Fiberglass Liner

These shower panels or even entire showers are fabricated elsewhere and brought to your home for installation.  While they are generally the most budget-friendly option, there are now some very fancy units that can push the cost of materials higher.  On the installation or labor side, they are generally the most cost-effective, as a typical shower can be installed in a day. It will typically take a contractor two or three days to demolish a current shower and install a new acrylic liner. There are a few downsides, however. The life expectancy of these showers is considerably lower than the other options (Take a look at the warranties, for comparison purposes.) Additionally, some homeowners feel this type of shower is not as aesthetically pleasing as the other options.

There is a few further options that also exist in the acrylic world.  Some companies will actually install a shower or tub over your existing shower or tub.  Essentially, they adhere a new finish layer on top of what you already have.  They do this with a very quick turnaround, usually only a day. They boast luxury finishes and usually price themselves at the higher end of the market.

Cleaning Acrylic/Fiberglass Showers:

Cleaning an Acrylic Liner is simple, though one must choose cleaning products carefully. Because acrylic is a soft material, it is fairly easy to scratch. Those scratches are the spots that tend to discolor or gather dirt. Use something like a mild dish detergent and a soft cloth to clean the shower walls and floor.

Tadelakt

Tadelakt is an alternative that is very unique in the North American market.  It is a waterproofed lime plaster developed in Morocco for their hot baths. It is a beautiful, monolithic product (i.e. no visual interruptions) with a barely-satin finish. There are a number of natural color options, and your installer can do some tailoring of trowel marks to customize the finished surface. Customized trowel work can either minimize surface variation or emphasize it, as in a Venetian plaster finish. Overall, however, there are fewer options in terms of style and color than with other materials.  When designing a tadelakt bathroom or shower, it is best to begin with the tadelakt and coordinate other design features afterwards. Often homeowners using tadelakt choose rustic styles with simple stonework and wood finishes.

Tadelakt showers do present some challenges: Installation takes specialty skills and can take a very long time – this does not translate to being budget friendly. Your installer may need to work in your home for entire days and into the night (depending on weather conditions) to get the job done right.

Cleaning and Maintaining Tadelakt:

Tadelakt is easy to clean, but does take careful maintenance to keep it’s waterproofing. Since the surface is finished with a soap, simply wiping it with water and a cloth is usually all that is required. Maintaining the waterproofing layer involves applying black soap or polishing soap to the surface. At some point, the surface stops accepting the soap, after which it’s time to wipe down with water. Depending on your family’s time available for consistent home care, this is not always the best option. But for homeowners who have time or a cleaning staff, this is a timeless finish that, with maintenance, can last indefinitely.

Solid-Surface (Cultured Stone)

Solid-surface panels are becoming more and more popular as companies join the market and increase competition. These typically consist of a pre-molded shower pan and matching panels which are glued to the walls.  The actual raw shower materials vary a bit, though a homeowner can expect that the basic composite is a mineral aggregate (i.e. a stone or quartzite) molded with a binding resin like polyester or epoxy.  The result is completely waterproof and looks somewhat like a stone slab or countertop.  There are many different colors and styles available, though tactile textural differences are uncommon. Expect all surfaces to be smooth and flat.

The materials and install are generally priced in the middle to high range for the market; however homeowners looking for a quick turnaround, may see this option as worth the cost. While many homeowners appreciate the low maintenance surfaces, some don’t like the look of the panels. The glossy surface can look “plasticky” because of the resin binder.

Cleaning and Maintaining Solid Surface Showers:

Solid-surface panels, like acrylic is easy to clean – simply wipe down with a non-abrasive cloth and a dish detergent solution. The only maintenance considerations are in the seams. You will want to make sure the silicone is in good condition and isn’t pulling away from the surface.

Gauged Porcelain Panel

Gauged Porcelain Panels are relatively new on the block. Newer manufacturing technologies have allowed for the extrusion of porcelain clays to make panels that are as large as 5 feet wide and 10 feet long. The panels for indoor use can be very thin – often between 3mm and 6mm thick. Manufacturers typically favor stone and marble-look slabs, though more and more designs are released regularly as the trend gains popularity. Because the panels are made of porcelain, they are water resistant and strong, when installed correctly. Because their size limits the number of grout joints, cleaning and maintenance is very simple.

While working with large panels is not foreign to slab contractors, the very specific installation requirements and thinness/brittleness of the panels themselves limits the number of contractors qualified to install these panels. Because the panels are commonly resin-backed, they require specialty installation materials, not to mention specialty tools needed to cut and move such delicate pieces. The expense of the panels and proneness to breakage during installation further complicates things. Between cost of materials and difficulty of installation, these are currently the most expensive option for a shower.

Cleaning a Gauged Porcelain Shower is similar to cleaning a tile shower.

Glass

Panels made from glass are often used for shower doors, but there are times where it is beneficial to use glass shower walls as well. Glass is itself waterproof, and a good glass contractor can install walls in a day. Glass is unique among these materials is that it is transparent (or translucent, if it’s frosted), letting light through. You can bring more light to a difficult bathroom by using glass, and allowing the available light to flow through the space. This is sometimes the best solution when new electrical can’t be installed or there is an unlit area next to the shower.

Among these shower materials, glass is fairly inexpensive. While glass itself is not necessarily an inexpensive material, the installation is usually relatively simple and therefore involves less labor. Glass is also extremely easy to clean and needs next to no maintenance.

Glass usually is paired with at least one wall of another material, ie a tiled wall, and three-sided glass enclosure. Furthermore, glass panels aren’t used on shower floors. Installing glass takes somebody who is careful with maintaining waterproofing around the shower while attaching it to the structure. A good glass contractor will have and will use a variety of types of hardware to create the perfect enclosure.

Cleaning a Glass Shower:

To clean glass, use a glass cleaner of your choice, or make a mild acid solution using vinegar and water. Apply the cleaner, and wipe with a soft rag or a squeegee. If your shower has other materials, be aware of whether those materials will be susceptible to problems stemming from the acidity in the cleaner.

Microcement

Microcement is rare in North America – most manufacturers are European, and it is really only just beginning to catch on in Europe. Much like tadelakt, Microcement is applied in several layers. The final product can be flat and monochromatic, or your contractor can work to create rippled textures on the final finish layer. Cement is porous and not naturally waterproof. To achieve suitability as a shower material, most manufacturers make separate products for each layer that will be applied. For the final, waterproof layer, they incorporate epoxy resins or other polymers into the cement products.

Microcement harkens back to the minimalism of brutalist architecture, in its insistence on raw materials being the feature. Because its surface is fairly simple and monolithic, it seems to fade and bring more attention to details around it, like fixtures or furniture details. This can be a useful tool when a bathroom is very loud with color and features.

Conclusion

As you might have found, there is hardly a one-size-fits all, or best material for a shower. Each material used will have relative benefits and costs. Some are more expensive; some take extra care and maintenance, and some are perhaps less pleasing to look at. When you consider your choice, it is often helpful to decide what is most important to you, and work backwards through the options