What are CSS variables?

Here’s some CSS that was mysterious to me:

html {
  --bg-color: yellow;
  --square-size: 200px;
#yellowsquare {
  background-color: var(--bg-color);
  width: var(--square-size);
  height: var(--square-size);

And here’s what we get when we apply it to a <div id="yellowsquare">:

I'm #yellowsquare

This uses a CSS feature called “custom properties”, also known as “CSS variables”. You can probably figure out from the CSS roughly how it works. But variable semantics are usually subtle, and actually they’re not officially “variables”, so what’s really going on?

There were two new features in this CSS. The first new feature is the --bg-color: yellow; syntax. This looks like a CSS property, and it is. In particular, it’s a “custom” property, because it begins with --.

Custom properties like --bg-color are not so different from other CSS properties. Like other properties, custom properties “cascade”, which means that a DOM element’s --bg-color value is assigned by the most “specific” selector that applies to that element. In our example, only the root html element in the page got the --bg-color: yellow property via cascade. For example, the #yellowsquare element does not.

But custom properties like --bg-color are also “inherited” properties, like font-family or color (but unlike width or background-color). “Inherited” means, if a DOM element’s --bg-color value is not assigned by the cascade, its value falls back to the --bg-color value assigned to the element’s parent in the DOM. And since the DOM is a tree, this fallback can go all the way to the top, i.e. to the html element. In our example, the --bg-color: yellow set on the html root element will be inherited by every element in the DOM tree, including the #yellowsquare element.

On their own, custom properties have no effect on rendering. To use a custom property, we need a second new feature: the var CSS function. If a DOM element has background-color set to var(--bg-color), this will evaluate to the computed value of that element’s --bg-color property.

The var() expression can take a fallback, e.g. var(--bg-color, black). If the DOM element does not have a --bg-color property, then this expression will instead evaluate to black.

Knowing that CSS variables are actually CSS properties should answer many of the common questions about variables. For example, CSS “variables” are closer to “dynamic” scoping than to lexical scoping.

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Tagged #programming, #web, #css. All content copyright James Fisher 2019. This post is not associated with my employer. Found an error? Edit this page.