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CSS Variables

samanthaming profile image Samantha Ming Updated on ・7 min read

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Move over Sass, we have #CSS variables! I still love Sass of course. But it’s great native CSS supports this. No need for a preprocessor & no more compiling 🥳

Global scope will allow you to access the variable everywhere. Local scope will just be within your specific selector 👍

:root {
  /* 1. Defining in Global Scope */
  --color: red;

  /* 2. Available in all selector*/
  color: var(--color); /* red */
}

.local {
  /* 1. Defining in Local Scope */
  --color: blue;

  /* 2. Scoped to the .local class only */
  color: var(--color); /* blue */
}

Story time...

It's been awhile since I had story time, so let's me share the journey of a discontent css developer who finally stopped being so angry 😂

Yucky Duplicated CSS Code

Back in the days, I remember having to make a lot of duplicate styling...

.subtitle {
  color: #999;
}
.subtext {
  color: #999;
}

This was always annoying to me! Because I knew the concept of variables from other programming language. So I always cringe when I see this duplication.

Sass to the rescue 🦸‍♀️

And then I discovered Sass. Yay, I can finally utilize variables!

$secondary-color: #999;

.subtitle {
  color: $secondary-color;
}
.subtext {
  color: $secondary-color;
}

This was all great. But then you have to deal with installing Sass to your project and the overhead of dealing with a preprocessor and compiling. And for a tiny a project, the effort of setting up Sass just doesn't make sense. So back to being a complain-y developer and tweeting a firestorm of how CSS is annoying...cause that's why Twitter was created right, it's a place for angry developers to vent 😅

Out of the way Sass, CSS is my hero 💪

CSS finally had enough of me sending it bad energy. So it introduced CSS variables. Now I can set a variable natively. No preprocessor, no extra installation, just plain CSS out of the box. Beautiful isn't it 😍

:root {
  --secondary-color: #999;
}
.subtitle {
  color: var(--secondary-color);
}
.subtext {
  color: var(--secondary-color);
}

Can I complain about the awkward syntax 🤔 Sure...but gratitude is the way to happiness. So I'm going to soak in this variable heaven for a bit...until the next story time 😂

CSS Variable Syntax

1. Declaring a CSS variable

You prefix your variable name with 2 dashes, --.

--variable-name: some-value;

2. Using the CSS variable

And to use it. You use pass your variable name into var().

css-property: var(--variable-name);

Scopes in CSS Variable

You can declare your CSS variable in the global scope, meaning it can be available throughout your entire app. Or you can just set the CSS variable in the local scope, where it's only available in the specific selector.

Global Scope

To declare it in the global scope, you first set your definition inside :root {}.

:root {
  --primary-color: #000;
}

h1 {
  color: var(--primary-color);
}

Local Scope

To declare it in the local scope, you just define your variable inside your element block. And that variable is only available within that selector. If you tried to use is somewhere, it won't have any effect.

h2 {
  --h2-color: #999;
  color: var(--h2-color);
}

h3 {
  /* No Effect */
  color: var(--h2-color);
}

Examples

Let's go over some different ways you can have some fun defining CSS variables ✅

You can set multiple value

:root {
  --margin: 10px 20px;
}

div {
  margin: var(--margin);
}

You can build up values

This is handy when used it with calc(). Are you sensing some cool dynamic sizing application with this. Ya, my spidy senses are tingling too! 🕷

:root {
  --value: 5;
}

div {
  padding: calc(var(--value) * 1px); /* 5px */
}

⚠️Note: You can not concatenate a unitless value with a unit. So this won't work:

:root {
  --value: 5;
}

div {
  padding: var(--value) px; /* ❌ will not give you 5px */
}

☝️If you're trying to build up values, you need to use css calc()

You can reference variable in another definition

:root {
  --border-width: 10px;
  --border: var(--border-width) solid #000;
}

div {
  border: var(--border);
}

After some testing, I found the order doesn't matter. You can reference a latter variable in an earlier definition. But coming from JavaScript where you should always use the variable after it's been defined, this seems a bit off to me 😅

/* This also works */
:root {
  --border: var(--border-width) solid #000;
  --border-width: 10px;
}

Overriding CSS Variable Values

The great thing is you can override the global value, so can set something unique to a specific context.

:root {
  --default-color: pink;
}

.content {
  /* Override the global css variable */
  --default-color: green;
}

p {
  color: var(--default-color);
}
<p>Default "Pink" color</p>

<div class="content">
  <p>Overridden "Green" color</p>
</div>

Setting Fallback Value

What happens when you use a variable that has never been assigned 🤔

p {
  color: var(--color);
}

The answer is NOTHING. Your app doesn't break. I guess that's nice. But if that seems a bit risque, you can set a Fallback Value.

p {
  color: var(--color, pink);
}
<p>Pink color</p>

And if you do define it, the defined color will just take over.

p {
  --color: black;
  color: var(--color, pink);
}
<p>Black color</p>

Using CSS Variable in JavaScript

The best thing about using CSS variable instead of Sass variable, is that you can access it in JavaScript! And you know when JS joins the party, it's going to get crazy 😆

Let's go over the basics usage and see how we can retrieve and set our CSS variables.

Retrieve from inline style

If you set your CSS variable via inline style.

<p style="--color: red"></p>

Then you retrieve your value with getPropertyValue():

// Get our <p> element
const element = document.querySelector('p');

// Retrieve our CSS variable "--color"
element.style.getPropertyValue('--color'); // 'red'

Retrieve from inline or css file

If you set your CSS variable in your style tag or an external CSS file.

<style>
  p {
    --color: red;
  }
</style>

Then you need to use this first getComputedStyle():

// Get our <p> element
const element = document.querySelector('p');

// Retrieve our CSS variable "--color"
getComputedStyle(element).getPropertyValue('--color'); // 'red'

And yes, you can also use this way to retrieve your inline style as well:

<p style="--color: red"></p>
// Get our <p> element
const element = document.querySelector('p');

// Retrieve our CSS variable "--color"
getComputedStyle(element).getPropertyValue('--color'); // 'red'

Setting a CSS Variable with JS

And to adjust your CSS variable, you just use setProperty.

// Get our <p> element
const element = document.querySelector('p');

// Set our "--color" variable to be "blue"
element.style.setProperty('--color', 'blue');

Simple Example

Let's put everything together and look at a simple example. Here we want to check our text color when the text is clicked.

<p style="--color:red; color: var(--color)"></p>
// Get our <p> element
const element = document.querySelector('p');

// On click, change text from "red" to "blue"
element.addEventListener('click', function() {
  element.style.setProperty('--color', 'blue');
});

Retrieve Global CSS Variable from JavaScript

If you set your CSS variable in the global scope. To retrieve the value in JavaScript, you will have to go with the getComputedStyle route, but instead of passing the element, you just pass in document.documentElement. So something like this:

:root {
  --color: red;
}
getComputedStyle(document.documentElement).getPropertyValue('--color'); // "red"

Browser Support

Beside party 💩 Internet Explorer, the rest of the browsers are all game!

Community Input

@lisovskyvlad: IE11 :( There's JS polyfill but on our experience, it makes ie11 so slow, it's hardly possible to use :(

@phillipkent: Still always wonder why can't we just assume IE11 users are clearly okay with a terrible experience? Lol

☝️This is my favorite response ever. I'm definitely going to use this whenever I get asked to fix something in IE. I'm a huge advocate of accoutability. But this is the only time I'll say, "It's you, not me" 😂

@lfdn: Some neat things you can do with css variables is easily control font sizes, spacings, colors on different viewports/pages. You could even do dark mode really easily by changing some css variables.

@jhildenbiddle: Those looking for IE/legacy support for CSS custom properties (i.e. "CSS variables") can check out css-vars-ponyfill. Forgive the self promotion (I am the author), but I thought it would be helpful for those still burdened--as I was not too long ago--with IE/legacy support.

Community Examples

@dillonheadley: css vars are awesome. Here are some cool things I've been using them for. Flexible container widths without having to overwrite the rule: CodePen

@azzcatdesign: I'm totally on board with CSS variables! I've got CodePens where I worked out responsive typography, spacers, and containers using global and scoped variables plu with calc(). Even took it further with HSL colors and abstracting the separate values to local variables for button colors. You can't do the same kind of color edits in CSS with variables as you can with SCSS ie: darken(\$color, 10%) but I've found I'm not missing SCSS variables for color, just organizing differently.

Resources


Thanks for reading ❤
Say Hello! Instagram | Twitter | Blog | SamanthaMing.com

Posted on by:

samanthaming profile

Samantha Ming

@samanthaming

Frontend Developer sharing weekly JS, HTML, CSS code tidbits 🔥Discover them all on samanthaming.com 💛

Discussion

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Thank you so much! I've always been a CSS advocate but since I discovered Sass and its variables and functions, I tend to neglect CSS... So, I'm excited to get back in tiny projects without preprocessor and, as you said, with JS in the party, it's going to get crazy 💯

 

I was that way for a long time, Sass become a must have for all my projects and I just bared with the burden of installing it even on the small apps 😓. No more! Now i can go native all the way. Very nice for sure! thumbs up to the CSS folks 👍

 

Back before SASS and LESS I had to write my own BASH scripts that would use google tools to do the linting and compressing of CSS and Javascript. I did that because I got tired of typing commands LOL

 

Can I just add that if you use calc (or nested calc) and JavaScript update vars and CSS vars you can have it so one js update of a variable changes a lot of logic which can all be handled in the CSS. It's a very powerful workflow. In fact so much so I am writing a language like tailwind just for this workflow.

 

that's super cool! ...btw, do you mind explaining nested calc? 🙂

 

Sure, it's not widely known or atleast it wasn't usefull to nest calc function given that before variables, values where essentially hard coded.

:root {
   --grid-colomns: 12;
}

.thing {
    width: calc(100vw / var(--grid-columns) * calc(var(--grid-columns) * 2)
}

Okay this is a terrible example but it does illustrate how CSS can become config based and calc can do most of the work.

Oh cool!!! That’s super neat...I got to read this a few more time to understand it 😅...thanks so much for explaining it! Love learning new things ⭐️⭐️⭐️

Your not the only one, I found this out recently, didn't know calc was nestable, your most welcome.

 

Thanks, Samantha!

I'm totally on board with CSS variables! I've got CodePens where I worked out responsive typography, spacers, and containers using global and scoped variables plu with calc(). Even took it further with HSL colors and abstracting the separate values to local variables for button colors. You can't do the same kind of color edits in CSS with variables as you can with SCSS ie: darken($color, 10%) but I've found I'm not missing SCSS variables for color, just organizing differently.

 

OH that's super cool! If you don't mind, can you send me the link to it? Would love to see how you organize your code with css variables 😄

 

Sure! Layout Overlay with Container & Grid Modifiers codepen.io/azzcatdesign/pen/PoovWmp; Type Variables: Responsive Scale Ratios codepen.io/azzcatdesign/pen/yLLWgbq; Spacing Variables (Fibonacci) codepen.io/azzcatdesign/pen/YzzbNQ...; and HSL Custom Properties for States codepen.io/azzcatdesign/pen/WNNBRj...

This is fantastic! Thanks for sharing! Let me add this to my code notes 👏

 

As far as I remember syntax in the following example is invalid:

:root {
  --value: 5;
}

div {
  padding: var(--value) px; /* 5px */
}

We can not build up values in CSS the way it depicted in the example above,
we should always combine it with the calc(), like this:

:root { --value: 5; } 
div { 
 padding: calc(var(--value) * 1px); /* 5px */ 
}  
 

Great catch!!!! Let me fix that, thank you!!!! 💪

 

That feeling when you are developer for many years, though mostly not front-end, but doing UI chores for work or in own side-projects... And then suddenly learns such great news by lazily reading topics on DEV.

Thank you, Samantha! God bless your efforts on sharing such things to us, lazy people! :)

 

lol, awesome! so glad you found it helpful! 😆

for an even lazier experience, feel free to check out my twitter account. and you can skip reading the code notes completely 😆

I'll even include the link to make things easier 😂 twitter.com/samantha_ming

 

css vars are awesome. Here's some cool things i've been using them for.

Flexible container widths without having to overwrite the rule:

:root {
  --container-sm: 60rem;
  --container-md: 110rem;
  --container-lg: 126rem;
}


.g-container {
  max-width: var(--container-width, var(--container-md));
  width: calc(100% - var(--container-gap, 2rem));
  margin-left: auto;
  margin-right: auto;
}

...

<article class="c-supportPlans g-container">
...

.c-supportPlans {
  --container-width: var(--container-xl);
  ...
}

Font styles management:

  --muli-1: 800 1.6rem/1.25 'Muli', sans-serif;
  --muli-2: 700 1.4rem/1.25 'Muli', sans-serif;
  --muli-3: 400 1.2rem/2 'Muli', sans-serif;

  --open-sans-1: 800 3.2rem/1.375 'Open Sans', sans-serif;
  --open-sans-2: 400 2.4rem/1.167 'Open Sans', sans-serif;
  --open-sans-3: 800 2rem/1.4 'Open Sans', sans-serif;

...
.c-supportPlans-plan h2 {
  font: var(--open-sans-3);
}

and declarative simple animations:

@keyframes fromTo {
  from {
    transform: var(--from);
  }
  to {
    transform: var(--to);
  }
}

.c-industriesBanner-list {
  --from: translateX(0);
  --to: translateX(calc(-100% + -3rem));
  animation: linear 20s fromTo infinite;
  display: grid;
  grid-gap: 3rem;
  gap: 3rem;
  grid-auto-flow: column;
  grid-auto-columns: 15rem;
}

codepen.io/dillonbheadley/pen/oNXNyPa

fun stuff!

 

Thanks for sharing this @dillonheadley . Awesome work! It's always so helpful to see how people implement the tech in their own project. Let me link this in the code notes 👏

 

For sure! 👍🏼 Love your posts btw!

 

Here's one more to manage buttons with vars: codepen.io/dillonbheadley/pen/PoqWqxq

 

Yess CSS variables ftw. It's time to slowly get rid of scss. Other then nesting and some mixins it doesn't add a bunch of value now since css gets more of these features out of the box.

Some neat things you can do with css variables is easily control font sizes, spacings, colors on different viewports/pages. You could even do dark mode really easily by changing some css variables.

 

Dark mode is a huge beneficiary of CSS variable! let me add your input to my code notes! thanks for sharing 👏

 

Wonderful article. CSS can be hard to learn and work with.

CSS always drove me insane back in the day. We were supposed to make the designs work all the way back to IE 6 GTFO with that LOL Things like Z-index worked different in each browser. I broke at least one key board beating on it out of anger trying to get CSS to work cross-browser. I had typed the letters off the keys and couldn't see anything anyways. LOL Have you done that yet? Typed the letters off the keyboard. I am on my 3rd one in 15 years.

 

The repair shop is my best friend 😂

Supporting multiple browsers is okay, but IE is always ruining my day 🤦‍♀️

 

Such an amazing well written article @Samantha Ming! I 💕 your images and use of emoji is 👌.

Sadly I am in a company with crazy high IE usage. I get reports on occasion that things are broken.... Looks fine to me. $H!1! I forgot to double check IE, then am amazed at what seemingly simple things IE is missing.

 

Thank you for the kind words, glad you it helpful 😊

IE support 😖
@jhildenbiddle shared a polyfill he wrote that might help > dev.to/jhildenbiddle/comment/lmi3

 

Super thanks for the polyfill!! I will consider that. I had no idea such a core css feature could be polyfilled.

For now I have mostly settled on using styled components

 

Your way of explaining things are funny and awesome.

 

Hahaha thanks! Finally someone actually said it’s funny! I failed as a stand up comic, so I’m practicing my routine in programming articles lol 😂

 

Great article, Samantha! The only question I had at the end was how to do the CSS ↔️ JS round trip for a global variable, as opposed to (as I understand it) your final example, which shows how to do it for a variable in local scope?

 

Great question @clozach ! You will have to go with the getComputedStyle route, but instead of passing the element, you just pass in document.documentElement. So something like this:

:root {
  --color: red;
}
getComputedStyle(document.documentElement).getPropertyValue('--color');

(Let me update my official notes too 👏)

 

Great content, Samantha!

I had just recently started using CSS variables in some of my own projects. Like many other things that we learn (and re-learn) constantly... it was one of those I'll learn just enough to accomplish my immediate task... and not any more.

Reading your post, I now realize/understand things like the ability to override/scope the globals based on a particular context (my #1 takeaway), as well as becoming aware that there's a lot more value than I had begun to use.

As someone else mentioned... the delivery/humor makes it a fun read, too!

 

Yay, thanks for the positive reinforcement! Making it fun to read is my ultimate goal! I remeber really struggling reading tech docs, so now I can write my own blog posts, I want to make sure it’s at least fun to read and make the programming journey a bit easier for others 😊

 

Those looking for IE/legacy support for CSS custom properties (i.e. "CSS variables") can check out css-vars-ponyfill. Forgive the self promotion (I am the author), but I thought it would be helpful for those still burdened--as I was not too long ago--with IE/legacy support.

 

This is great John! Also thank you for being so transparent. I'll add it to my code notes in the community section 😊

 

Great work I'm sriram fullstack javascript developer I have a whatsapp group dedicated to coders so that you can chat and collaborate on fun hobby projects with real people if you are interested please ping me at +918970787208

 

I definitely has used CSS variable on the global level more. But again, I've mainly used it on smaller apps. But I'm sure if my app was bigger, that finer control with local variable might be handy. To complete my toolbox knowledge, I think it's good to know so I can use it when I cross that path 😊

The interesting thing about IE users is that it's a company restriction. Definitely not necessarily lower means or developing countries, some of them are in the financial sector, doing very well. But for some reason, they're stuck using IE. (I'm pretty sure those employees wish their employers would stop using IE 😅). Hopefully, one day we can convince all these companies to stop using IE (cause when the buck stops, the support will stop as well) I think that will be a very happy day 😂

 

Wow. It's new knowledge for me

 

Yay, glad to share something new with you 👏👏

 

Yap. I was bookmark this post. I will use it in my next projects

 

Perfect tutorial for CSS variables, thank you. Finally we can use variables in small projectd w/o SASS :)

 

CSS variables are great! I have yet to make anything complex enough to need them, but I'll use them when I do!

 

The great thing is you don't need it for anything complicated. I've been using it for my smaller apps too. Very handy to keep my code clean 😄

I used it for my "not fancy app challenge" > github.com/samanthaming/not-fancy-...

 

True😌 Without repeated CSS though, I have yet to hit the biggest use case for them. What little CSS I need doesn’t even benefit from reduction via variable definitions, as nothing is reused.

 

Awesome article!

 

Thanks for reading!! 👏👏

 

Thanks, Samantha. I must have been living under a rock. Did not know this was out there yet. I'll be making use of this with a project I'm working on now. Thanks again!

 

No worries Harlin!l 🙂 Web dev moves so quickly, it’s hard to keep up. That’s why I created the tidbits - a hopefully easy to read for folks to stay in the loop. I’ll keep sharing more as I find them 👏

 

This is so lovely 🤗🤗

 

CSS variables are indeed super lovely! ⭐️

 

Thanks, Samantha, for sharing your insights. I just got back on track with web development, and your article helped me to clarify my understanding on CSS Variables. Happy coding!

 

Welcome back to web dev! You might also find my other tidbits helpful, it might help with your catch up 😊

samanthaming.com/tidbits/

 

So is this CSS 4 or what? Thanks for a very enlightening post.

 

I think they move away from that type of versioning > rachelandrew.co.uk/archives/2016/0...

Here's the official draft here 🙂 > drafts.csswg.org/css-variables/#de...

 

Wow, I didn’t know about css variables:) Thanks for share, I do love sass but with this improvement pure css is more interesting

 

Totally! CSS is moving in the right direction! Sass is still great, but now i just mainly use it for bigger apps to justify the installation 😆 Otherwise vanilly css all the way 💪

 

Super! Thanks for the clear explanation Samantha.

 

Thanks for reading! Glad it makes sense 😄👏