Cool light vs warm light – this is how light temperature affects how you can relax and focus at home

Our experts explain the differences between cool light and warm light, alongside a room-by-room guide on which to choose

A bedroom with warm lighting
(Image credit: Ambrosi Etchegaray. Photo by Sergio López. and Delightfull)

Whether you've thought about cool light vs warm light specifically when choosing your home's lighting or not, it's an idea we all come face to face with every day. When you're trying to relax in your living room but there's a bulb that's too bright that's putting you on edge, or when you're trying to read a recipe in the kitchen in the evening, but your lights are making it hard to read, this all likely hangs on your choice of warm or cold lighting in these spaces.

The two types of light have varying color temperatures, which have specific effects on spaces, from creating a mood to providing practical task lighting. While in some rooms, the most effective scheme would use solely either warm or cold light, in others, a mix of both will help achieve the perfect illumination. 

Fortunately, in most cases, it's an easy fix to put right, whether you need to re-address your bedroom scheme or your kitchen lighting ideas. Here's a short masterclass from lighting design experts. 

Aditi Sharma Maheshwari
Aditi Sharma Maheshwari

Aditi is a homes writer and editor with several years of experience. Her articles, backed by expert insights, offer suggestions aimed at helping readers make the best home design choices. For this article, she spoke to top interior designers and industry experts to find out the differences and practical applications of warm and cool light. 

What's the difference between cool light and warm light?

Essentially, light has two components: the color temperature and the color display. The color temperature is measured in degrees Kelvin (K), and the temperature used indoors ranges from 2000K to about 6500K. The higher the Kelvins, the colder the light.

'In the lower the temperature, the light would be along the tones of yellow and orange whereas the higher temperature radiates more of the blue tones,' says Rishabh Kapoor, founder and interior designer at Design Deconstruct. 'So, the basic difference between warm and cool light is the tones and hues it illuminates.'

Warm and cool lights are available in all fixtures, be it lamps, pendants, chandeliers, sconces, or spotlights. So whether it is living room lighting, kitchen, or bathroom, these lights can be used in varied fixtures, and can even be mixed up to achieve mood and functionality. While in many cases, it's just a case of replacing bulbs, with more "specified" lighting like built-in LED lighting ideas, changing the color temperature isn't as easy, unless it has color-changing smart lighting capabilities. 

A living room bathed in white light

(Image credit: Baxt Ingui Architects. Photo credit Nicole Franzen)

While both types of lighting are ideal for indoor use, they each have specific functions, and should ideally be used knowing their practical aspects well. 

'Warm lighting creates an inviting, intimate and cozy atmosphere which is relaxing and helps us wind down, whereas cold lighting more closely replicates natural lights and creates a brighter and more vibrant space which is better for performing tasks such as reading or cooking,' says Robbie Llewellyn, co-founder and designer at lighting brand Bert Frank. 'Each can affect our mood so it’s important to consider the ambiance you want to create before selecting the light that’s right for the functionality of the room.'

'Layering warmer light is a more natural way to brighten your living space and help transition the day into evening,' adds Scarlett Hampton, co-founder of Lights&Lamps. 'The use of brighter ceiling fittings in the day is often a subtle enhancement to natural daylight. Dimming them down in the evening and complementing them with warm, low-level lamps can transform a bright space by day into a cozy living room or bedroom by night.'

These ideas can help you choose when warm or cold light is more appropriate. 'When choosing between cool and warm light for a room scheme, firstly consider the function of the space,' says David Amos, CEO at Amos Lighting + Home. 'If the room is functional, like a kitchen, utility room, or home office, cool light stimulates productivity and wakefulness and is better suited to activities. Whereas, if the room is primarily for relaxing, warm light is more restful, so a better choice for areas meant for rest.'

Choosing what light best suits you is an individual style preference, largely health experts have advised against cool CLF bulbs that have been shown to negatively affect sleeping patterns, similar to the blue light emitted by our cell phones and computers. It's something we've learned from the likes of human-centric lighting - higher concentrations of blue light can affect your body’s circadian rhythms.

Which is best, warm or cool light?

1. The kitchen

A kitchen island with a statement globe light fixture

(Image credit: James Marrell)

As mentioned above, cool lighting is great for performing specific tasks and carrying out functions that require attention to detail. A hardworking area in the home is the kitchen, and so the kitchen lighting needs to be such that there is ample illumination for food prep when you natural light is low. 

However, the kitchen is a space used for socializing and so, mood lighting is necessary as well. The ideal lighting, therefore, is a combination of warm and cool lights.

'Your kitchen must have elements of multifunctionality in the physical layout and the lighting schemes to create different zones within the space that can be used for different activities, simultaneously or individually,' says Tom Howley, design director at the eponymous kitchen company. 'The most effective lighting solution is to specify a lighting scheme that allows bright, cool task lighting over the countertops where the food preparation is taking place, and warm, low lighting in entertaining spaces like the seating area around the island counter.'

2. The bedroom

A bedroom with a yellow light chandelier

(Image credit: Soho Home)

The ideal bedroom lighting idea is a tunable white, that allows you to use the white light from warm tones (around 1650K) to neutral, and cool white colors (around 8000K). This type of lighting helps regulate the circadian rhythm in the body which affects sleep and your overall mood. This type of light turns warmer in the morning and cooler towards the afternoon. 

If your bedroom doesn't get much natural light, consider adding cooler downlights to aid with cleaning and reading. 

'Bright ceiling lights are perfect for darker days but may need dimming or even switching off when relaxing,' says Scarlett. 'Think of lighting like the sun. Big and bright in the day, becoming lower, warmer, and softer by night. Imitating the setting sun is a great way to transition your bedroom throughout the day and bring peace and calm before bed.'

3. The living room 

A living room with a warm lighting sconce

(Image credit: Bert Frank)

This space serves many functions but is mainly a hub for lounging and casual conversations, so a primarily warm lighting scheme would work. Task lighting such as reading lamps should be given a slightly cooler hue for reading or cleaning purposes. But keep the wall lights and pendant lighting in warmer light temperatures. 

4. The bathroom

A bathroom with warm light

(Image credit: Amos Goldreich Architecture. Photo credit Ollie Hammick)

Be it bathroom ceiling lighting ideas or pendant lights, the illumination created in this room is essential to the mood of the space, which is always supposed to be relaxing.  This is the room where you're alone, ready to prepare for the day ahead of you or unwind after the day you have just encountered. For the ideal ambiance, you need to choose a calming tone of light.

'Since the warm light makes one feel more relaxed and comfortable in the environment, it is a preferred choice in lighting up the bathrooms as compared to cool lights,' says Shivam Dewan, founder of Rosha.

IC Lights S Pendant by Flos from Lumens
Get the look

IC Lights S Pendant by Flos from Lumens

This pendant by FLOS provides warm, diffused light throughout the room thanks to the frosted halogen bulb and the blown opal glass diffuser. The fixture’s steel frame offers durability and strength to the piece, making it perfect for the living room, bedroom, or bathroom.

5. The dining room

A dining room with overhead lights

(Image credit: Weespaces)

This is the room that brings family and friends together so warm lighting is ideal, as it creates a sense of coziness and a feeling of an embrace. Go for pendants, chandeliers, or even sconces that throw a light, diffused glow, enough for you to have a comfortable meal yet not overly bright to ruin the experience. Ensure you get the right light height over the dining table, too, as this can also affect the ambiance of the room. 

PathsOn Industrial Modern Loft Pendant Light
Get the look

PathsOn Industrial Modern Loft Pendant Light

A retro lighting cluster with polished metal fittings, ideal for the dining room, kitchen, or bar. The individual pendants can be shortened accordingly at the point of installation, and customized to the look you want.

Is cool or warm light better at night?

Bedroom lighting ideas

(Image credit: Tala)

As per research, the ideal bedroom lighting scheme is to use cool, bright lights during the day, and warmer ones in the evening. During the later half of the day, melatonin production and secretion are vital and switching on warmer, dimmer lights help relax the mind and body.

Incidentally, knowing the best color light for sleep can go a long way. 'We know that our circadian rhythms are quite insensitive to low levels of long-wavelength radiation or red light,' says Dr Maja Schaedel, clinical psychologist & co-founder of The Good Sleep Clinic. 'This means that we are less likely to become 'alert' from exposure to red light than any other light and therefore red light can be used to ensure a smooth transition into a relaxed state before bedtime.'

Design Editor

Aditi Sharma Maheshwari is the Design Editor at Livingetc. She is an architecture and design journalist with over 10 years of experience. She's worked at some of the leading media houses in India such as Elle Decor, Houzz and Architectural Digest (Condé Nast). Till recently, she was a freelance writer for publications such as Architectural Digest US, House Beautiful, Stir World, Beautiful Homes India among others. In her spare time, she volunteers at animal shelters and other rescue organizations.