Function and Style: The Basics of Recessed Lighting

Choosing and Using

High white ceilings with fan and recessed lighting

The Spruce / Margot Cavin

Whether you're building a new home or renovating an old home, recessed lighting can be a key element in both the function and style of the space. Recessed lighting offers a clean, streamlined look in a home. It can increase the amount of light in a room, highlight artwork or other special features, and open up spaces so they look and feel bigger. Here are some basic tips on what to look for when considering installing recessed lighting.

When to Use Recessed Lighting

Though recessed fixtures are most easily installed between ceiling joists of new building or major remodeling projects, some recessed fixtures are designed specifically for retrofit applications and can slip into an existing ceiling space through holes made to accommodate wiring. However, the fixtures you choose must be rated for use near insulation (IC housing rated) whenever ceiling insulation is present. When a ceiling is not insulated, a non-IC housing may be used.

Avoid recessed lighting for ceilings made of concrete or with ornate plasterwork or delicate molding details. In these spaces, choose a chandelier (if there is an electrical box in the ceiling), wall sconces, or table lamps instead.

Where to Place Recessed Lighting Fixtures

Follow these tips for the best use and spacing of your fixtures:

  • Avoid recessed lighting fixtures placed too close together or in rows down the center of the room. This type of installation can have the look of an airport runway.
  • Match the size of your recessed lighting fixtures to how close together they can be installed. The common rule is that 4-inch fixtures should generally be placed at least 4 feet apart and 6-inch fixtures about 6 feet apart.
  • Center recessed lighting fixtures in front of the objects you wish to light—a painting, bookshelf, or drapery panels, for example—and about 12 to 18 inches in front of that object.
  • Recessed lights used for reading or task lighting should be carefully placed overhead so your head and shoulders will not block needed light.
  • When lighting a three-dimensional object such as a fireplace, sculpture, or flower arrangement with recessed lighting, it is more effective to light it from two or three different angles.
  • Use wall-washing recessed lighting fixtures around the perimeter of a small room to help "push" the walls out and make the space feel larger, or aim them at a collection of artwork or photographs to call attention to the display.
  • Install a combination of recessed lighting (in the ceilings) and under-cabinet lighting (in the cabinet bottoms). The light will wash your countertop with focused light while illuminating your kitchen properly.

Sizing Recessed Light Fixtures

Whether you choose fixtures with standard line voltage, low voltage halogen, or fluorescent fixtures, the basic sizes are 4-, 5-, or 6-inches in diameter. The 6-inch fixtures can be used in tall entryways or two-story hallways, while the smaller 4-inch sizes work better in smaller spaces since they have a sleeker, contemporary look with minimal intrusion.


These specialty fixtures can be used for specific effects:

  • Adjustable recessed light eyeball fixtures can be aimed at artwork as accent lighting.
  • Cover the walls with light by selecting recessed wall washer fixtures.
  • Choose recessed reflectors when you want the most light from a fixture, or install white or black baffle trims to focus and direct light or reduce glare.
Adjustable recessed lighting on ceiling closeup

The Spruce / Margot Cavin

Types of Light Bulbs for Recessed Lighting

When selecting or installing recessed lighting, several types of fixtures and bulbs are available for specific needs:

  • Incandescent bulbs are inexpensive and good for general light or wall washing with the use of reflectors. These are being replaced with the newer energy efficient bulbs.
  • Light emitting diode (LED) bulbs are the most energy efficient lights and have a very long life. They can also be installed in a smaller diameter aperture.
  • Halogen bulbs offer a clean white light and are available in both flood and spot types in sizes to fit 4-, 5-, or 6-inch fixtures.
  • Low voltage halogen bulbs have a long life and put out more light than incandescent bulbs, but require the use of transformers and special low voltage housings.
  • Compact fluorescent lamps (CFL) are energy-efficient but need a ballast to regulate the current.

The shape of the bulb is also a factor in the direction the light is emitted these are the standard abbreviations:

  • R (reflector) bulbs are most common and have a reflective surface included on the back of the bulb so all of the light is emitted downward.
  • BR (bulged reflector) bulbs flare near the base of the lamp to emit more light downward.
  • PAR (parabolic aluminized reflector) bulbs are shaped for a tighter beam and are used for accent lighting.
  • MR (multifaceted reflector) bulbs have facets on the inner reflective surface that act to produce a tight beam.

Cautions About Recessed Lighting

Know your home and its construction before purchasing any lighting components, since each installation will be unique. Get advice from an experienced electrical salesperson on what parts are needed for your space—including special wiring, transformers, bulbs, or IC-rated housings. In some local areas, you're required to obtain building permits to upgrade or install recessed lighting. If the project is too advanced for your skills, have your new lights installed by a qualified electrician.

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