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What no one told you about CSS Variables

afif profile image Temani Afif Updated on ・11 min read

CSS Variables are great but do you know everything about them?

In this post, I will highlight few quirks around CSS variables that no one talk about. After that, you won't look at them the same way anymore.


Table of content

  1. Be careful with !important
  2. They cannot store urls
  3. They can make an invalid value valid
  4. They can be used uniteless
  5. They can be animated
  6. They cannot store the inherit value
  7. They can be empty
  8. CSS variables are not C++ variables
  9. They only work from parent to child
  10. They can have strange syntaxes

1) Be careful with !important

Using !important with CSS variables is a bit tricky so let's start with a basic example:

p {
  --color:red!important;

  color:var(--color);
  color:blue;
}
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What will be the color of p? you think it's red because we will have the following:

p {
  color:red!important;
  color:blue;
}
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But it's not! the color of p will be blue because we will have the following:

p {
  color:red;
  color:blue;
}
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!important in this case isn't part of the value of color but is used to increase the specificity of --color. From the specification:

Note: Custom properties can contain a trailing !important, but this is automatically removed from the property’s value by the CSS parser, and makes the custom property "important" in the CSS cascade. In other words, the prohibition on top-level "!" characters does not prevent !important from being used, as the !important is removed before syntax checking happens.

Here is another example to better understand:

p{
  --color:red!important;
  --color:blue; 

  color:var(--color);
}
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The above will give us a red color:

  1. We have two declarations of the same property called --color so we need to resolve the cascade. The first one is having !important so it wins
  2. We have our winner (--color:red!important) so !important is removed then the value is applied to color
  3. We have color:red.

Let's make our code:

p{
  --color:red!important;
  --color:blue; 

  color:var(--color);
  color:blue;
}
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Following the same logic, we resolve the cascade for --color and for color. --color:red!important is the winner and the same for color:blue so at the end we have blue because we no more care about color:var(--color).

An important rule is to always consider CSS variables (custom properties) as ordinary properties and not only variables that store values.

Custom properties are ordinary properties, so they can be declared on any element, are resolved with the normal inheritance and cascade rules, can be made conditional with @media and other conditional rules, can be used in HTML’s style attribute, can be read or set using the CSSOM, etc. ref


2) They cannot store urls

This is a common limitation you will stumble upon one day.

What you cannot do ❌

:root {
  --url:"https://picsum.photos/id/1/200/300";
}
.box {
  background:url(var(--url));
} 
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What you should do ✔️

:root {
  --url:url("https://picsum.photos/id/1/200/300");
}
.box {
  background:var(--url);
} 
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This limitation is related to how url() is parsed. A bit tricky to explain but as we can see the fix is pretty easy. Always add the url() part within the CSS variable.

If you want more accurate detail, I advise reading this Stack Overflow answer


3) They can make an invalid value valid!

This one is my favorite quirk and it's the one that will give you a lot of headaches.

Let's start with a basic example:

.box {
  background: red;
  background: linaer-gradient(red, blue);
}
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Our .box will have a gradient coloration ... wait, no it has a red background. Ah! I made a typo in linear-*. I can easily notice my mistake because the browser crossed the declaration and used the previous one.

Alt Text

Now, let's introduce a variable:

.box {
  --color:red;
  background: var(--color);
  background: linaer-gradient(var(--color), blue);
}
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Test the code and you will see that the background is now transparent and our second declaration is no more crossed because it's now a valid one. You will even notice that the first declaration is the one crossed because the second one override it.

What the hell is happening here ??!!

When using a variable within a property the browser will only evaluate the value of such property at "computed-value time" because we need to first know the content of the variable. In such case, the browser will consider the value as valid when doing the cascade and only later it will become invalid.

In our case, the browser is considering the last declaration after resolving the cascade. Then when doing the evaluation, it seems to be invalid so it will be ignored. We won't get back to the previous declaration since we already resolved the cascade and we end with no background so a transparent one.

You may think such behavior is illogical but it's indeed logical because a value can be valid or invalid based on the CSS variable so the browser cannot really know from the beginning.

.box {
  --color:10px; /* a "valid" variable */
  background: red; /* a "valid" declaration */
  background:linear-gradient(var(--color),blue); /* a "valid" declaration that will override the first one  */
  /* The result is an "invalid" value ... */ 
}

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A declaration can be invalid at computed-value time if it contains a var() that references a custom property with its initial value, as explained above, or if it uses a valid custom property, but the property value, after substituting its var() functions, is invalid. When this happens, the computed value of the property is either the property’s inherited value or its initial value depending on whether the property is inherited or not, respectively, as if the property’s value had been specified as the unset keyword. ref

To use easy words: a CSS variable will make the status of a propery in a standby mode until we do the evaluation. Only after the evaluation we can say if it's valid or invalid. If it's invalid then it's too late, we cannot get back to use another one.

A related Stack Overflow question


4) They can be used uniteless

Almost all the tutorials/courses will show you such example:

:root {
 --p: 10px;
}
.box {
  padding: var(--p);
}
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But you can also do the following:

:root {
 --p: 10;
}
.box {
  padding: calc(var(--p)*1px);
}
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Having the unit in the variable isn't mandatory and in some case it's even better to use a uniteless value because adding a unit is fairly easy and we may need to use the same value with different unit.

Here is one example among many (taken from this answer )

Never forget this important feature. It will save you one day.


5) They can be animated

Initially, CSS variables are defined to be non-animatable properties as per the specification:

Animatable: no

But things have changed and thanks to the new @property we can do animation/transition with CSS variables.

The support is still low (especially on Firefox) but it's time to get to know this.

Find below some use cases where I am relying on such feature:

I will be writing more articles to show the magic we can do with this. Stay tuned!


6) They cannot store the inherit value

Let's consider the following example:

<div class="box">
  <div class="item"></div>
</div>
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.box {
  border:2px solid red;
}
.item {
  --b:inherit;
  border:var(--b);
}
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Intuitively, we may think that .item will inherit the same border of its parent element because --b contain inherit but it won't (you can try and see).

As I explained in the (1), the common mistake is to think that CSS variables will simply store value that we can use later but no. CSS variables (custom properties) are ordinary properties so inherit apply to them and is not store inside them.

Example:

.box {
  --b:5px solid blue; /* we define the variable on the parent */
}
.item {
  --b:inherit; /* the child will inherit the same value so "5px solid blue"*/
  border:var(--b); /* we will have "5px solid blue" */
}
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As you can see, the logic of inheritance apply to them the same way as with common properties.

Worth to note that doing the above is useless because CSS variables are by default inherited. It's like setting inherit to a property that is by default inherited (color for example).

This said, I have elaborated a technique to be able to use CSS variables with inherit

Let's consider this simplified example in order to illustrate the issue:

:root {
  --color:rgba(20,20,20,0.5); /*defined as the default value*/
}

.box {
  width:50px;
  height:50px;
  display:inline-block;
  margin-right:30px;
  border-radius:50%;
  position:relative;
}
.red {background:rgba(255,0,0,0.5);}
.blue {background:rgba(0,255,0,0.5);}

.box:before{
  content:"";
  position:absolute;
  top:0;left:0;right:0;bottom:0;
  border-radius:50%;
  transform:translateX(30px);
  background:var(--color);
  filter:invert(1);
}
<!-- we can
</p>
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The same logic apply to other keywords like unset and revert: How to set CSS variable to the value unset, “--unset-it: unset”?


7) They can be empty

Yes you can do the following:

.box {
  --color: ;
  background:var(--color); 
}
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The above is valid as per the specification:

Note: While <declaration-value> must represent at least one token, that one token may be whitespace. This implies that --foo: ; is valid, and the corresponding var(--foo) call would have a single space as its substitution value, but --foo:; is invalid.

Pay attention to the last sentence because we need to have at least one space. The below is invalid:

.box {
  --color:;
  background:var(--color); 
}
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Alt Text

This quirk is mainly used with the fallback feature to do some magic.

A basic example to understand the trick:

.box {
  background:
   linear-gradient(blue,transparent)
   var(--color,red); 
}
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<div class="box">
  I will have `background:linear-gradient(blue,transparent) red;`
</div>
<div class="box" style="--color:green">
  I will have `background:linear-gradient(blue,transparent) green;`
</div>
<div class="box" style="--color: ;">
  I will have `background:linear-gradient(blue,transparent)  ;`
</div>
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  1. The first box has no variable defined so the fallback will get used.
  2. The second one has a variable defined so it will get used
  3. The last one defined an empty variable so that emptyness will be used. It's like we no more have the var(--color,red).

The empty value allow us to remove the var() declaration from a property! This can be useful when using var() within a complex value.

In case var() is used alone, the same logic apply but we will end having an empty value which is invalid for most of the properties.

If we took our first example we will have background: ; which will lead to an invalid value at "computed-value time" (remember the (3)) so a transparent background.


8) CSS variables are not C++ variables

Unfortunately, many developers tend to compare CSS variables to variables of other languages and end having a lot of issues in their logic. For this specific reason, I don't want to call them variables but Custom properties because they are properties.

What everyone want to do

:root {
  --p:5px;
  --p:calc(var(--p) + 1px); /* let's increment by 1px */
}
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:root {
  --x: 5px;
  --y: 10px;
  /* let's do a variable switch */
  --c: var(--y);
  --y: var(--x);
  --x: var(--c);
}
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.box {
  --s: 10px;
  margin:var(--s); /* I want 10px of margin */
  --s: 20px;
  padding:var(--s): /* then 20px of padding */
}
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All the above will never work. The first two are simply invalid because we have a cyclic dependencies since a variable is refering to itself (first example) or a group of variables are creating a cycle (the second example).

In The last example, both padding and margin will have 20px because the cascade will give priority to the last declaration --s: 20px that will get applied to both margin and padding.

This said, you should stop thinking C++, Javascript, Java, etc when working with CSS variables because they are custom properties having their own logic.


9) They only work from parent to child.

Remember this gold rule: CSS variables always travel from a parent element (or an ancestor) to child elements. They never travel from child to parent or between sibling elements.

This will lead us to the following mistake:

:root {
  --c1: red;
  --c2: blue;
  --grad: linear-gradient(var(--c1),var(--c2);
}
.box {
  --c1: green;
  background:var(--grad);
}
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You think the background of .box will be linear-gradient(green, blue)? No, it will be linear-gradient(red, blue).

The root element is the uppermost element in the DOM so its an ancestor of our box element and our gold rule says that we can only do parent --> child so --c1 cannot go in the opposite direction to reach the root element, change --grad and then we get back in the other direction to re-send the changed value of --grad.

In such example, the .box will inherit the value of --grad defined with the values of --c1 and --c2 inside root. Changing --c1 will simply change the value of --c1 inside .box, nothing more.

Find below a more detailed answer I wrote around this subject:

I'm attempting to scale size via a var custom property in a way that the classes would compose without being coupled. The desired effect is that the 3 lists would be at 3 different scales but as demonstrated on CodePen all 3 lists are the same scale. I'm looking for…

Even the Stack Overflow team stumbled upon this quirk!


10) They can have strange syntaxes

A last and funny quirk.

Did you know that you can do the following?

body {
  --:red;
  background:var(--);
}
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Amazing, right? Yes, a CSS variable can be defined using only the two dashes. Related: Is "--" a valid CSS3 identifier?

You think the above is crazy, take a look at the following:

body {
 --📕:red;
 --📗:green; 
 --📘:blue;
 --📙:orange;
}
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Yes, emojis! you can define your variables using emojis and it works.

The syntax of CSS variables allow almost everything the only requirement is to start with --. You can also start with a number (ex: --1:). Related: Can a css variable name start with a number?

Why not only dashes:

body {
  ---------:red;
  background:var(---------);
}
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Or the same variable storing two different values

body {
  --‎​:red;
  --‎:blue;
  background:linear-gradient(90deg, var(--‎​),var(--‎));
}
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Try the above and you will get a gradient coloration!

To achieve such magic I am relying on a hidden character that make both of the variables different but visually we see them the same. If you try the code on jsfiddle.net You will see the following:

Alt Text

Of course, you should never use such thing in a real project unless you want to make your boss and coworkers crazy 😜


That's it

I know it's a lot information at once but you don't have to remember everything. I tried to group the most unknown and non-intuitive behaviors around CSS variables. If one day something is not working as expected, get back here. You will probably find your answer in the above.

I will end with some Stack Overflow questions I have answered that can be useful:

How can I get a negative value of a CSS variables in a calc() expression?

How to create color shades using CSS variables similar to darken() of SASS?

How to Use calc() to switch between color values?

Can a recursive variable be expressed in css?

Get computed value of CSS variable that uses an expression like calc

Are CSS Variable changes possible upon a radio button's checked selector being triggered?

Discussion (14)

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shadowfaxrodeo profile image
Nathaniel

Love the invisible characters thing.
Just worked out using vars for prefixed properties can save a lot of data, e.g.:

.pattern {
    --stripes: url("data:image/svg+xml,%3Csvg xmlns='http://www.w3.org/2000/svg'%3E%3Cpattern id='s' width='4' height='4' viewBox='0 0 4 4' patternUnits='userSpaceOnUse' patternTransform='rotate(45)'%3E%3Cpath d='M -1 2 h6 v2 h-6z'/%3E%3C/pattern%3E%3Crect fill='url(%23s)' height='100%25' width='100%25'/%3E%3C/svg%3E");
    -webkit-mask-image: var(--stripes);
    mask-image: var(--stripes);
}
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inhuofficial profile image
InHuOfficial • Edited

Loved the last one about using emojis as CSS variable names. I was today years old when I learned about that one!

I can imagine someone has already done this but a library where all properties are emojis would be pretty funny, completely unusable, but funny!

Number 4 is one I have been using extensively, you are right that one is a real life saver if you want to bind the :root CSS var to a slider for example.

Great list and beautifully written, easy to follow! ❤🦄!

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icecoffee profile image
atulit023

Never heard of empty variables before.
I'm curious what can be use cases of it.
Thanks for the article mate.
Always something new to learn.

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krishdevdb profile image
Krish Dev DB

I think you misspelled linear-gradient as linaer-gradient at some places

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afif profile image
Temani Afif Author

it's done on purpose

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krishdevdb profile image
Krish Dev DB

But Why?? Must be any reason

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afif profile image
Temani Afif Author

read the article to understand :)

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krishdevdb profile image
Krish Dev DB

Understood but I didn't understand how they make invalid valid?

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afif profile image
Temani Afif Author

You can see that the browser is no more crossing the property and using the previous one. An invalid value will be ignored by the browser which is not the case here. It's considered valid and only at "computed time" the value will be invalid

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riyanagueco profile image
Riri

Well now I wanna use emojis for my variable names. 😂 Great article!

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shahednasser profile image
Shahed Nasser

Pretty interesting, especially #3. I imagine if you discovered this one because of a situation happening to you, then it must have been a nightmare to debug it!

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afif profile image
Temani Afif Author

Indeed, it's a nightmare to debug especially when you have a code like the example I am showing in #4 where all the properties are defined with CSS variables and no hint from the browser which one is not good 😕

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