How to Choose the Right Light Bulb

When choosing the right lighting for your home, you not only need to think about the fixtures but also the bulbs that will go in them. There are many different types of light bulbs available right now, varying in brightness, wattage, energy efficiency and more. Make sure you weigh the benefits and drawbacks of each before you make your decision.



Incandescent light bulbs are the most traditional bulbs on the market today. They are the least-expensive option, and they are still the bulbs that are most commonly used in homes. The light provided by standard incandescent bulbs has a yellow-white tone, and it appears warm and natural. These bulbs can be used with a dimmer so that their brightness can be adjusted as needed for the time of day, the room, the occasion and the fixture itself.

Best Use

Incandescent bulbs are not very energy efficient, so they are best used in fixtures that you don’t leave on all day, every day, such as those in your living room or formal dining room. Incandescent bulbs are also well suited to be used as string lights hung outdoors, either as everyday accents or for special occasions.

If you have a chandelier in your home, incandescent bulbs are ideal due to their range of sizes, shapes and tints (including amber, which looks similar to the light that comes from a gas flame). Switch up your bulbs with or without shades to change the appearance of your lighting fixture any time you like. If you are going for an exposed-bulb style, you may want to seek out bulbs that have an old filament look and that provide a subtle glow.

Another incandescent bulb option for chandeliers and other lights in your home is low-wattage decorative bulbs. These bulbs offer not only a warm light but also an attractive look, particularly when used without shades. They are particularly well matched with vintage-style fixtures in reading rooms, dining rooms, hallways and stairwells.

In addition, another style of incandescent bulbs that has become popular is the half chrome light bulb. Half chrome light bulbs are perfect for downlight pendants over a breakfast table or island because they reflect the light back upward, cutting down on glare. 


Close relatives of incandescent bulbs, halogen bulbs have a tone that some feel mimics natural daylight. They are considered to be energy efficient, using the same amount of electricity as incandescent bulbs while giving off a much brighter, more intense light over a longer lifespan. However, halogens can run hot, and they come with a higher price tag than incandescent bulbs—some styles cost as much as four times more. 

Best Use

Halogen bulbs usually work best when paired with warmer-colored shades or placed in pendant lights. Because they last longer than standard light bulbs and therefore do not need to be changed as often, halogens also are ideal for outdoor fixtures that are hard to access.


Fluorescent light bulbs typically produce a flat light with a blue tint, though some modern high-end bulbs provide a warmer tone that mimics daylight. They burn longer and brighter than incandescent and halogen bulbs, but their brightness is not adjustable and they cannot be connected to a dimmer. Because they contain mercury, these bulbs must be disposed of carefully.

Best Use

Fluorescent bulbs can be a great choice for a large room that needs straightforward illumination, such as a basement or attic space. 

Compact Fluorescent Lamps (CFLs)

For those seeking extremely energy efficient light bulbs offered in a variety of shapes and sizes, CFLs are the answer. They share some characteristics with fluorescent bulbs, but CFLs produce a warm light that is similar to incandescent bulbs, and they are quieter, without the usual “buzz” with which you may be familiar. CFLs also run cooler than incandescent bulbs, which can indirectly lead to savings on your home’s air conditioning bills.

On the down side, most CFLs cannot be used with dimmers, so their brightness cannot be adjusted. And as with other fluorescent bulbs, CFLs must be handled carefully because they contain trace amounts of mercury. If they break, safety precautions must be taken, and when they burn out, they must be recycled rather than simply thrown in a home’s trashcan.

Best Use

Because of their combination of reasonable cost and long life, CFLs work well in fixtures that are left on for long periods of time around your home, such as table lamps or exterior lights. 

Light Emitting Diodes (LEDs)

LEDs work differently than other bulb styles because they don’t have a filament inside and don’t overheat, even when used for extended periods of time. They are extremely energy efficient and also very long lasting, but they have some drawbacks as well. Although they are very bright, LEDs provide directional light rather than diffused light, which may make them appear unnatural. Additionally, LEDs can be expensive, and they are not ideal for lighting a full room.

Best Use

LEDs are best suited for use in a desk lamp, a nightlight or a more targeted fixture. They are also becoming popular as background and accent lighting in entertainment systems and in under-counter lighting in kitchens. 

Bright Idea: Pick the right bulb for the right reason

In the end, the best light bulbs are those that work with the lighting fixtures you’ve chosen to complement each room in your home. Generally speaking, incandescent bulbs will give you the most natural look, while CFLs will be the most energy efficient without breaking the bank. Evaluate each room and each fixture to determine your needs when it comes to such details as brightness and wattage, and don’t forget that the right bulbs can help set the mood in your home as well.

How to Decorate Team

We enjoy spending days interacting with How to Decorate readers. From answering Design Dilemmas to writing How To articles and working with guest designers, our passion is to provide informative and accurate resources to help people solve their design problems.


  1. Reply

    Emma Wilson

    August 31, 2020

    I just bought a new lighting fixture and planning to change to the bulbs. This post was very helpful, thanks for sharing!

    • Reply

      Caroline McDonald

      September 3, 2020

      So glad you found it helpful!
      Happy decorating,

  2. Reply


    March 7, 2016

    This is really helpful and came in time for being energy efficient. It’s summer here and it’s a common thing that blackouts occur. It will be our own little way of helping and saving energy with choosing the right light bulbs.

  3. Reply


    July 5, 2014

    Very useful blogpost for me to understand very clearly the difference between kinds of lighting.
    Thank you

  4. Reply


    June 3, 2014

    I love the lamp that you used for this picture…..can I please buy it from you?

    • Reply

      Caroline @ How to Decorate

      June 6, 2014

      Hi Laura,

      Thanks for your comment. We’re thrilled to hear that you like the pendant light shown in this blogpost. Unfortunately, that is a style we no longer sell, but you can shop all of the pendant light options here.

      Hope you find something you love!
      The How to Decorate Team