How To Choose Light Bulbs For Your Home: Recessed Cans

This is the second post in a series dedicated to helping you create a home with beautiful lighting by choosing the best light bulbs. Yesterday, we tackled light bulbs for table and floor lamps. Recessed lights are a little more complicated, but once you’ve got the basics down, it’s smooth sailing!

The first thing you’ll need to do is determine which light bulb size your recessed light fixture takes. Here’s what you’ll see among recessed lighting options: BR30, MR11, MR16, PAR16, PAR20, PAR30, PAR38, R20, R30, R40.

Wow. Let’s break that down a little:

The number following the letters in a recessed light bulb indicates size: it’s the diameter of the light bulb in eights of an inch. So, a BR30 is 30/8 inches, or three and 3/4 inches. An MR11 is 11/8 inches. So, you can swap out a PAR30 for an R30 or a BR30 – they are all the same size.

The PAR denotes the light bulb has a parabolic aluminized reflector on its inside, directing light out. That PAR coating maximizes the light output that you’ll get from the light bulb. If brightness is your #1 priority in a recessed light, choose a PAR lamp in the appropriate size. The majority of PAR lamps are available in a flood beam spread, but spot beam PAR lamps are also out there. Many PAR lamps are approved for use in wet locations.

The MR indicates the light bulb has a multifaceted reflector on its inside. The facets help gather light from the filament to create a very concentrated light beam. MR lamps are primarily available in smaller sizes – they are all about beam control, which is typically desirable for a narrower light beam. You can choose your beam spread (i.e., narrow flood, flood, spotlight) for many MR lamps.

Moving on to BR: Want to take a guess on what it stands for? This is another reflector lamp to maximize brightness, but this time, the light bulb itself has a bulged shape to direct light out. One disadvantage of the BR lamp is that it’s a little longer than the PAR and MR, which means it tends to sit lower in the recessed fixture – and perhaps, protrude from the bottom of the recessed light fixture.

Finally, the simple R. As you might assume, it stands for reflector in this case. There is a mirrored coating on the back of the light bulb to improve light output.

Now that we have those light bulb names deciphered, you should know that they are available in an array of light sources, including incandescent, halogen, compact fluorescent, cold cathode fluorescent, and LED. Halogen is probably the most popular of the bunch for recessed light fixtures. It renders colors very well, it’s affordable, and it gives you a lot of light output.

If you’re looking for efficiency, though, halogen is not your target. LED has a higher price point, but it also gives you a longer lifetime and lower energy use! Check out our selection of PAR, MR, and BR LED light bulbs.

CFLs and CCFLs are also viable energy efficient options, but remember you should avoid the CFL if the gradual start-up drives you crazy – or if you plan to turn the lights on and off frequently. (You’ll lower the lifetime of a CFL if you use it in less than 15 minute intervals). CCFLs give you the efficiency of a CFL without the delayed start-up (or the diminished lifetime from frequent power cycles).

More questions? The comment section awaits!

Emily Widle

Emily Widle

Emily graduated from UNC Chapel Hill with a degree in journalism. She enjoys scouring the news to report on the latest in the lighting industry as well as bringing valuable remodeling tips and exemplar home projects to light.

  • Mikki

    I have bought BR30 in the Home Deport and the bulb doesn’t fit in out fixtures. It’s getting stuck, because the diameter was too big. I have always used R30, but had to return this one. Now I am not sure if that was a manufacturer’s defect or BR30 and/or PAR30 are different from R30.

    • Annie Josey

      Thanks for your question! BR30, R30, and PAR30 light bulbs all have the same diameter (30/8 inches). However, they use different kinds of reflectors which cause them to have slightly different shapes PLUS the neck lengths for each light bulb can vary. That’s probably why that BR30 didn’t fit. In general, R30 lamps tend to be a little shorter.

  • Lori

    What is GU? I ordered recessed lighting that says they use GU10. 50w bulbs? What kind of lighting is that?

  • David King

    We were remodeling our home and wanted brighter light than that produced by our 65W R30 light bulbs in recessed 6 inch cans. Our contractor recommended we buy LED, R30L (long neck), 13W (65W equivalent) bulbs with a light color of 6000K degees (daylight). Very expensive bulbs. Then, the contractor changed out our 6 inch recessed cans for 4 inch cans to “modernize” the look of our lighting. Now, I am being told the 4 inch cans require R20 or PAR20 size bulbs. Are you aware of any kind of 4 inch recessed can that can accept R30 bulbs? Or, is there any kind of conversion kit for 4 inch cans to receive the R30 bulb?

    Thank you for your help,

    • Chris Johnson


      The 30 in the R30 represent 30/8 inches in diameter. So, an R30 is 3 3/8 inches in diameter. Too big for a 4-inch recessed can. A PAR20 (20/8 inches in diameter or 2 1/2 inches) is a common lamp for a 4-inch can.

  • John


    I have a question for different parts of my home, In the kitchen, I have four R40 bulb in the center and six R30 bulbs around the edges. I want it bright without shadows. I was thinking of LED 18W in like a PAR? What do you think? I have 9′ ceilings
    Then I have an outside porch with eight R30 bulbs, I want a softer but bright LED replacement, I currently have 60W bulbs, I would like it a tad brighter but keep it softer


    • Jacob Swiger


      Generally it’s OK to switch from R shaped light bulbs to PAR shaped in recessed lights. However, some recessed lights provide better coverage depending on the type you use.

      For example, in my home I’ve found that BR30 light bulbs are brighter because PAR30 lamps are too short and do not stick down far enough. I also prefer the very wide beam angle of flood BR light bulbs versus flood PAR lamps.

      I would suggest removing a light bulb and looking inside to see if there is a label advising what type to use. If that doesn’t work, then experiment and try different light bulbs.

      I’m not sure what you mean by a brighter but softer option for your outside porch. To me softer means less bright. Can you please clarify? It might be a challenge to find a quality LED replacement emitting more light than a 60W incandescent.

  • Bernadette Weimer

    I have new 4 inch recessed lights in my kitchen and living room….when I went to purchase bulbs, I was told that I need R20 size bulbs. The ceiling in the living room is vaulted and in the kitchen I would like bright white light to work in so I looked for halogen bulbs. At the store I was told that the halogen bulbs were too short and I would need an extension piece to be able to use halogen. I cannot find any information about extensions. Any advice?? Please let me know. Thanks in advance.

    • Chris Johnson


      Without knowing exactly what your 4-inch recessed trim is shaped like I can only give you some general advice. I hope that this helps.

      I also have 4-inch recessed lights in my home. I use halogen PAR20 lamps for the same reason you wanted halogen. Plus, I did not want my lamp to show outside of my trim. R20 lamps are a reflector lamp and they have a slight bulge at the lighted end of the lamp. PAR20 is a parabolic reflector lamp and the lighted end of the lamp is flat. The 20 means that the lamp diameter is 20/8 inches. If you want halogen, I think the PAR20 lamp should work. I think that the store you were at might have been confusing 6-inch recessed (more common) and 4-inch recessed lighting. In some 6-inch recessed trims if someone wants to use a halogen PAR lamp they might need to get a long-neck PAR38 lamp. A PAR20 lamp does not have a long-neck version.

  • Chris

    We switched our old can lights because the old br30 stuck out of the trim and they were not adjustable. The new lights (5 inch) have a black waffle and require a par30 75 watt bulb. We have been unable to find a bulb that will fit, even a short neck (it was about 3.4 inches) the baffle stops it from screwing in. Any ideas?

    • Jacob Swiger


      I would try to place a PAR20 light bulb in your lights. These have a smaller diameter than a PAR30.

  • Don clue

    It’s actually a par30L now that I look more closely

  • Don clue

    I have a recessed light in my shower, uncovered. The builder put in an outdoor par 30 75w flood, which is an oppressive amount of light.

    All the outdoor par 30 bulbs I can find seem to be 75w. What other options do I have?

  • Jana

    Quick question: our contractor put in HR16 bulbs, and I haven’t been
    able to find any information about them and they aren’t available
    in-store. What exactly is an HR16 bulb? Is it alright to use MR16 as an

  • Damion

    I have 2 dozen PAR16 pot lights in my kitchen and living room that are currently halogen and half burnt out. I would like to change these to LED but can’t seem to find any bulbs for less than $15. I notice very similar sized GU10 bulbs regularly run $5 or less. Can I find PAR16 in the same price range, or am I better off converting all my PAR16 to GU10? If I need to convert, what is the base called that you would insert the GU10 pins into?

    Thank you for your help!

    • Jacob from Pegasus Lighting

      Damion, currently we carry LED PAR16s for $13.90 –

      We also have a variety of coupon codes and quantity discounts available.

      I have not seen LED MR16 GU10 base light bulbs for $5 or less. In my experience, they are comparable in price to LED PAR16s.

      I do not think that you will be able to find LED PAR16s for $5 or less.

      PAR16s use an E26 medium screw base. I think you will be better off buying PAR16s than trying to convert.

    • Aaron

      I would just search for GU10 LED on Ebay. All kinds of sellers from China where you can get bulbs for about $3.00 each. I just bought 4 PAR20 LEDs for about $11.00 shipped. Quality seems fine. I was actually shocked that a bulb could be manufactured and shipped halfway across the world for that price.

  • Lee

    I have a recessed light with a ventilation fan over my shower. It has a flood type bulb in it. I think PAR 30 or 38. A halogen version installed by the builder burned out in less than one year.I would like to replace with an LED to last longer. What do you suggest for this damp location?

  • Chuck Wagonne

    Thank you for this informative article, Emily. I wish I had read it a few years ago before outfitting my entire garage with CFL floods. They are, as you say, slow starting, especially in cold weather. And because they are often switched on for brief periods at a time, many of them have already been replaced after only a few hundred hours of use. I did my research before making my initial investment but I don’t recall finding any warnings about these unfavorable conditions of CFLs. I am now much more skeptical when it comes to buying the “next best thing” in lighting products.

  • Hanan

    I recently removed the light fixture in my kitchen and replaced it with six 4″ LED potlights. my ceiling height is 9′. I find that now I have more light directed to the floor but it is directional and not as ambient as I was hoping to get. In other words, I see a lot of shadows and reflections back to the ceiling. Do you have any suggestions for a lightbulb which can make the light more omni-directional?

    • Jacob from Pegasus Lighting

      Hanan, I’ve encountered a similar situation when using PAR type light bulbs in recessed lights. I found in my situation that they are too directional so I have used BR30 shape, which have a wider beam spread that better takes advantage of the optics in my recessed light. In my situation, the PAR light bulbs sat too far up in the ceiling whereas the BR30 light bulb was level with the trim.

      Do you have LED light bulbs installed right now? What shape are they?

      • Hanan

        Thanks for the reply Jacob.
        Yes, I have installed PAR0 Philips LED light bulbs. They have a flat face cover, which is level with the trim. Can you suggest another type of LED light bulb that can provide a more ambient light for the fixture that I’m using?

        • Jacob from Pegasus Lighting

          Just curious, what’s the beam spread on the PAR30? If it’s a flood and you are having these issues than I would definitely try a different shape.

          If you can stomach the bulb sticking down a bit past the trim, then try a BR30. It’s about an inch longer than a PAR30. They have a very wide beam angle, generally of 120 degrees.

          Another option to consider is an LED downlight retrofit module. These take best advantage of the design of LEDs and may actually be more attractive.

  • Steven

    I am installing a shower ceiling light, and an MR16 bulb is what will fit the recessed fixture. This is a fairly large shower, enclosed with no other light source, and I am worried that any MR16 bulb will not provide a wide enough spread of light to cover the area (which is about 4×6. Is there an MR16 flood light with enough spread and light for me?

    • Jacob from Pegasus Lighting

      Absolutely. Halogen MR16 light bulbs are known for their variety of beam spreads. I actually think it’s ideal that the light takes an MR16. Look for a flood or wide flood MR16 in the appropriate wattage for your can.

  • BillipPhailey

    Can I use BR bulbs in a standard bulb floor lamp?

    • Jacob from Pegasus Lighting

      As long as it will fit in the shade you can. I use PAR lamps in some of my floor lamps because the directional light reflected against the wall actually makes the room appear brighter compared to using a standard household bulb.

  • Erin Willoughby

    Just came across your article. I’m in the middle of shopping for led bulbs for recessed lighting and was thoroughly confused with the options. Thanks for the straightforward info!

  • kellie


    I really hope someone can help! I purchased a home that has recessed cans in the living room and it looks like the bulbs are BR40. I really want to install the Phillips Hue wireless light bulbs and it looks like the Hue bulbs are BR30s. Is there any type of conversion kit I n get to make these still work or do you have any other ideas how I can still have the Hue lights in the recessed cans.
    Thank you for your time

    • Jacob from Pegasus Lighting

      Kellie, BR30 bulbs will normally fit in a light that takes BR40 bulbs. BR30 bulbs are a smaller light bulb.

  • Aaron h

    Hello Jacob from Pegasus Lighting, I have a 2 story home built in 2005. I want to put a dimmer switch and Led lighting in the kitchen. Can you help me determine compatibile dimmer switch and recessed LED light bulbs type. I have a Lutron DIVA C-L DVWCL-153H-WH (switch).

  • roy s

    I have 12v garden lights that came with 20w mr11 bulbs. In one week, one of the bulbs burned out. I have a few spare mr16 20w bulbs, which are identical except for the diameter. I put an mr16 bulb into the fixture, and it works fine. Is there anything wrong with doing this?

    • Jacob from Pegasus Lighting

      Most likely no. If the bulb fits then you are good to go. That is very odd though because MR16 and MR11 bulbs do not have the same pin base. If you notice a shortened life of the MR16 bulbs then it may be that the fixture is getting to hot.