Chandeliers, flush mount fixtures, and ceiling fans all have their place in lighting a home. But if you’re looking to add additional illumination discreetly, without installing a fixture that extends downward into the room, consider recessed lighting. Recessed lights have a bulb contained inside an inverted cylindrical canister that’s mounted virtually flush with the ceiling. This means they don’t take up visual space; in fact, some are so unobtrusive, they don’t compete with the room’s décor at all.
The best recessed lighting for any setting will depend on the room’s purpose and whether you want all-over or directional lighting. Ahead, learn the ins and outs of recessed lighting and find out why the following products are considered tops in their class.
- BEST OVERALL: Amico 6 Pack Ultra-Thin LED Recessed Ceiling Light
- BEST BANG FOR THE BUCK: TORCHSTAR 12-Pack Ultra-Thin Recessed Ceiling Light
- BEST SMART: Lumary WiFi Smart LED Ceiling Light
- BEST DIMMABLE: Sunco Lighting 12 Pack LED Recessed Downlight
- BEST ADJUSTABLE: Maxxima 11 Watt 6”-Inch Rotatable LED Downlight
- BEST MINI: YGS-Tech 2 Inch LED Recessed Dimmable Downlight
- BEST FOR BATHROOM: HALO Recessed 70PS with Frosted Albalite Lens
- BEST FOR OUTDOORS: Globe Electric Rust Proof Indoor/Outdoor Lighting Kit
What to Consider When Choosing the Best Recessed Lighting
Recessed lights, sometimes called canister lights or simply cans, are ideal in rooms with low ceilings, such as in basements, where other fixtures would reduce headroom. When used with incandescent bulbs, canister lights present a risk of overheating. However, today’s new LED lights generate no heat, so there’s no worry about the light’s housing causing the insulation to melt or presenting a fire risk. This is essential to keep in mind when installing recessed lighting. Read on for other important factors to consider when choosing the best recessed lights for you.
Location and Placement
With most styles of recessed lights, only a thin bit of trim around the light extends below the ceiling, so most models are relatively flush with the surface of the ceiling. This offers a clean look, but it also provides less illumination than a traditional ceiling light, therefore you may need more than one recessed light to light the entire room.
- Whole-room lighting: Lighting needs vary depending on the room’s purpose, as you’ll most likely want more illumination in the kitchen than in the family room. A general rule for placing standard, 6-inch recessed lights is to divide the ceiling height by two; this should be the distance apart at which you install the lights. For example, if your ceiling is 9 feet high, consider installing recessed lights 4.5 feet apart for whole-room illumination. This rule can vary, however, depending on the actual brightness of the lights.
- Accent lighting: If you want to draw attention to a valuable painting, sculpture, or architectural feature, installing a recessed light that spotlights the object can do the trick.
- Task lighting: Kitchen counters and islands require bright lighting to see the tasks at hand, so installing a higher number of recessed lights in these areas will increase brightness.
Installing recessed LED lights in an existing ceiling is simpler than installing old-school incandescent cans, which needed to be attached to ceiling joists for support. Today’s LED lights are lightweight enough to not need extra support and attach directly to the surrounding drywall through the use of spring clips.
Recessed light fixtures come in various sizes, ranging from tiny, 1-inch models to large, 12-inch fixtures designed for industrial settings. The most common size for home use, however, is 6 inches in diameter.
The trim on a can-type recessed light includes the outer ring, which installs after the light is in place to provide a finished look, as well as the can’s interior housing, as the design inside the can contributes to the overall design effect.
- Baffle: The interior of a baffle-trimmed can features circular ribbing that reduces glare and is a standard feature on many can-type recessed lights.
- Reflective: The can’s interior comes with a mirror-like surface that increases illumination for the brightest light possible. This type of trim is well-suited to over-counter task lighting where extra brightness is desirable.
- Open: Recessed lights with open trim are designed for use with special bulbs that widen at the bottom to offer a flush look between the rim of the can and the bulb.
- Eyeball: This type of recessed light comes with an adjustable inner ring that allows the user to direct the light in a specific direction.
- Pinhole: Recessed lights with pinhole trim feature a small opening that creates a spotlight effect directly below the light. Pinholes are often used to accent artwork or other focal points. Multiple pinhole lights may be installed in the ceilings of home theaters and attached to dimmer switches to create a muted nighttime sky effect when watching movies.
- Wall-wash: Used for accenting an area of a wall or a specific item, such as a painting, a wall-wash light comes with a shield that blocks light from most of the room, directing it to a nearby wall instead.
- Shower: As the name suggests, this type of trim is a necessity for installation in high moisture areas, such as over a shower stall.
Brightness and Wattage
Today’s LED light bulbs use less energy than the incandescent bulbs of yesterday. However, many shoppers still associate a light’s brightness with incandescent bulb wattage, so in addition to listing the actual watts of an LED bulb, you’ll often find a comparison to an incandescent bulb as well. For example, an LED bulb might use only 12 watts of electricity but be as bright as a 100-watt incandescent bulb, so its description might read: “Bright 12W 100W-Equivalent Recessed Light.” Most LED lights are compared to their incandescent equivalents, but a few are compared to halogen light equivalents.
The most common color temperatures for recessed lights are cool white and warm white, and both are suitable for general use throughout the home. Cool white is crisp and bright, making it welcome in kitchens, laundry rooms, and workshops, while warm white is soothing and well-suited to family rooms, bedrooms, and bathrooms. The color temperature of LED lights is rated on the Kelvin light scale that ranges from 2000K to 6500K—as the number increases, the light quality becomes cooler. At the bottom of the scale, the warm color temperature contains amber and yellow tones. As the light progresses up the scale, it becomes crisp white, and eventually takes on a bluish, cool tone at the upper end.
In addition to traditional white light, some recessed lights come with the ability to adjust the color’s hue to set a specific mood in the room. These are known as color-changing LED bulbs, and they offer multiple color choices, such as green, blue, and purple shades of light.
Many of today’s recessed lights are dimmable, meaning you can wire them to a dimmer switch. This feature allows you to lower the illumination to suit your moods and needs, saving energy consumption when you do.
Recessed lights that feature smart technology can be controlled by a wall switch or remotely from a smartphone, tablet, or PC if your home has a Wi-Fi network. If you don’t have access to Wi-Fi, you can still enjoy smart lighting technology by choosing lights with Bluetooth connectivity for use with a smartphone.
Our Top Picks
To qualify as a top pick, a recessed light must be durable, attractive, and offer adequate illumination to meet your needs. The following recessed lights (many sold in sets) are suitable for various uses, and one or more are likely to be a bright addition to your home.
Get the equivalent of 110 watts of halogen brightness in this set of recessed lights with an ultra-thin design. Each light uses only 12 watts of electricity, and six lights will efficiently illuminate a 120- to 140-square-foot room. These 6-inch, thin lights (less than 0.5 inches thick) will fit in ceilings with clearances as shallow as 2 inches above the drywall. Users can adjust the color warmth on each light to correspond with the Kelvin lighting scale, ranging from warm white (2700K) to cool white (5000K) to create just the right atmosphere in the room.
Each light comes with an easy-to-wire junction box, requiring you simply match up the color of the Romex wire to the corresponding slot and push the wire into the box to lock it into place. The lights are secured in the ceiling via spring clamps. While these are considered DIY-friendly recessed lights, if you’re not familiar with wiring principles, you should hire an electrician to install them.
To reap the benefits of LED can lighting and stay on budget, consider TORCHSTAR’s 12-pack of thin-profile recessed lights. Each 4-inch light uses only 10 watts of electricity but provides brightness equivalent to an 80-watt incandescent bulb for ample illumination. The thin housing installs to ceiling drywall using spring clips, and each light features an easy-to-wire junction box that doesn’t require attachment to ceiling joists.
Like other LED bulbs, the TORCHSTAR recessed lights remain cool to the touch, so you don’t have to worry about them getting hot in the ceiling. The lights are compatible with most wall-mounted dimmer switches, allowing you to decrease brightness to suit your needs and conserve even more energy.
To control your recessed lights from a smartphone or with verbal commands, check out the Lumary WiFi Smart LED Ceiling Light. This two-pack of smart lights can sync with either Alexa or Google Home Assistant, so you can turn them on or off via your voice. You can also control them remotely from your smartphone or another digital device through the free downloadable app. If you have some wiring experience, installing the lights in a ceiling is DIY-friendly, and they don’t require attachment to ceiling joists, as they remain firmly in place through the use of spring clips.
Select from a range of 16 million light colors for a custom glow to set the mood. In white mode, each light is equivalent to an 80-watt incandescent bulb, however, in colored modes, the brightness will be dimmer. These Lumary recessed lights require an installed home Wi-Fi network.
Dimming the lights can set a mood and conserve energy, but not all LED lights are suitable for use with dimmable switches; in fact, wiring incompatible LEDs to dimmer switches can shorten bulb life. This Sunco, which can be as bright as a 75-watt incandescent light, works with a standard or a dimmer switch.
What’s more, if you’re upgrading existing recessed lighting, this Sunco can make the job a breeze, as it’s designed for retrofitting an existing 5- or 6-inch can with no wiring is necessary. You simply remove the old bulb, screw the new light into the existing socket, and then position the spring clips for a snug, secure fit against the ceiling. Its broad surface trim will camouflage old trim or visible holes in the drywall.
Direct light right where you want it with the Maxxima Rotatable LED Downlight. This 6-inch recessed light features an adjustable head so you can shine a light on any area of the room. It’s also readjustable, in case you later decide to accent the Picasso instead of the Renoir. The Maxxima recessed light is designed to retrofit an existing can light, and no wiring is necessary. All you need do is screw the new light into the can’s existing socket. The Maxxima light is held in place via spring clamps that securely attach it to the ceiling drywall.
The light comes with a standard orange LED plug for connection to an existing LED can light, so if you’re swapping out an old one, check to see if the current bulb has an orange plug—if so, the Maxxima will fit right in. This recessed light uses only 11 watts of electricity, and yet emits as much light as a 75-watt incandescent bulb.
Install a ceiling full of these mini lights or place one strategically where needed as a task or accent light. The YGS-Tech 2-Inch Recessed Lights come with easy-to-wire junction boxes, and they don’t require attachment to ceiling joists. They come in a four-pack and use only 3 watts of electricity per light, yet each produces as much illumination as a 35-watt halogen bulb. The lights are dimmable for further savings, and, as they use LED bulbs, they don’t generate heat, so you needn’t worry about the housing making contact with ceiling insulation.
If a standard lighting fixture comes into contact with water, it can throw a breaker, but with the HALO Recessed Wet Location Air-Tite Light, you shouldn’t need to worry about splashes from a shower or tub. Thanks to a cover that seals tightly to the light’s base for moisture protection, the HALO light is designed to withstand an occasional water spray and high humidity conditions without problem.
This 6-inch recessed light accepts a 60-watt-equivalent LED bulb (not included) and is designed to retrofit an existing recessed can light. Its waterproof trim locks firmly against the ceiling to give your bathroom’s ceiling light a fresh, upgraded look.
If you’re looking for can lights for an outdoor setting, consider Globe Electric Rust Proof Indoor/Outdoor Recessed Lights. Thanks to cans and trim made of aluminum, these lights won’t rust or corrode, making them suitable for installation on the ceilings of covered porches or patios. They accommodate 50W equivalent LED bulbs (not included) and are designed to replace older can lights.
The light includes an easy-to-wire junction box and heavy-duty spring clips to hold it in place, so no need to attach the cans to the joists. Keep in mind that while the lights are rust-resistant, they are not watertight and shouldn’t be installed where they could come into contact with direct water spray, such as from a sprinkler.
FAQs About Your New Recessed Lighting
With the many types and styles of recessed lighting available, it’s not unusual to have some questions. Check out these answers.
Q. How do you install LED recessed lighting?
Many of today’s LED recessed lights are DIY-friendly and feature pre-labeled slots for inserting color-coded Romex wires. However, working with electricity always presents some risks, so if you’re not familiar with wiring, hire an electrician.
Q. How far should recessed lights be placed from kitchen cabinets?
To fully illuminate countertop work areas, recessed LED lights should be installed an average of 14 to 16 inches out from the upper cabinets’ edge. This offers the best angle of illumination.
Q. Should I use 4 or 6 recessed lights?
It all depends on the look you’re going for and the amount of illumination you want. Standard, 6-inch lights are the most common for whole-room lighting. If positioned closer together, 4-inch lights are also suitable for whole-room lighting and are well suited for accent and task lighting as well.
Q. Do you need an electrician to install recessed lighting?
If you have a working knowledge of wiring, and you’re simply replacing an existing light with a new recessed light, you may choose to install it yourself. If you’re installing a whole ceiling full of new recessed lights and will need to fish wire through the joists, it’s a good idea to have an electrician do it. Your local building authority may also have rules that require LED installation by a licensed electrician.
Q. Do LED recessed lights need housing?
Housing is the case that holds the lightbulb (or LED diodes), and many of today’s recessed LED lights come with thin, lightweight housings compared to the more massive, older-style can lights.
Q. Does recessed lighting add value to a house?
Well lit rooms are more attractive than dimly lit ones, and while installing recessed lighting might not add monetary value to your home, potential buyers may be more likely to make an offer if your home is well lit.