The future of CSS: Higher Level Custom Properties to control multiple declarations

When using CSS Custom Properties we mainly use them directly as variables in calculations for other properties. Having one CSS Custom Property control a varying set of other properties — such as both colors and numbers — is not exactly possible. There are some hacky workarounds we can use, but these don’t cover all scenarios. Thankfully there’s a new idea popping up: Higher Level Custom Properties. Although still premature, these Higher Level Custom Properties would allow us to drop the hacks.

Let’s take a look at our current options, and how this (possible) future addition to the CSS spec — along with the @if at-rule it introduces — might look …



# CSS Custom Properties as Variables

When working with CSS Custom Properties today, they are mainly used as CSS Variables. If you’ve used them, you’re quite familiar with code like this:

:root {
    --square-size: 2vw;
    --square-padding: 0.25vw;

.square {
    width: var(--square-size);
    padding: var(--square-padding);
    aspect-ratio: 1/1;

.square--big {
    --square-size: 16vw;
    --square-padding: 1vw;

Using the var() function we create a CSS Variable which gets substituted for the value of the Custom Property it refers to.

E.g. The variable var(--square-size) will hold the value of the --square-size Custom Property — namely 2vw — which is then set as the value for the width CSS property.

🤔 CSS Custom Properties vs. CSS Variables — Is there a difference?

Yes there's a difference:

  • A CSS Custom Property is any property whose name starts with two dashes (U+002D HYPHEN-MINUS), like --foo. Just like with a normal property you can assign a value to it, e.g. --foo: 200;.
  • A CSS Variable is created when the var() function is used. When creating the CSS Variable var(--my-prop), it will be replaced with the value of the --my-prop Custom Property it refers to, namely 200.


# Using CSS Custom Properties to affect multiple CSS declarations

In the example above we have two types of squares: regular sized ones and big ones. To differentiate between them we need to toggle the .square--big class. Toggling that class affects two CSS Custom Properties: both --square-size and --square-padding are altered.

But what if we wanted not to toggle a HTML class but a CSS Custom Property to do so? E.g. we want to toggle one CSS Custom Property, and have that automatically affect both --square-size and --square-padding.

As it stands today it’s not very straightforward to let one single CSS Custom Property affect multiple other CSS Properties, unless you resort to some hacky workarounds. Let’s take a look at the options we have today.


# Binary Custom Properties

If all you’re setting is numeric values, you can use Binary CSS Custom Properties within calculations. You give these Binary Custom Properties the value of 0 or 1 and use them within your calculations. Think of these Binary Custom Properties like light switches: they can either be OFF/false (0) or ON/true (1).

:root {
    --is-big: 0;

.square--big {
    --is-big: 1;

.square {
    width: calc(
        2vw * (1 - var(--is-big)) /* Value to apply when --is-big is 0 (~false) */
        16vw * var(--is-big) /* Value to apply when --is-big is 1 (~true): */
    padding: calc(
        0.25vw * (1 - var(--is-big)) /* Value to apply when --is-big is 0 (~false) */
        1vw * var(--is-big) /* Value to apply when --is-big is 1 (~true): */
    aspect-ratio: 1/1;

In the example above the --is-big Custom Property acts as a binary toggle that controls the results of the calc() functions. In the case of --is-big having a value of 0 those functions will yield one specific value, while when --is-big is set to 1 it will yield another value.

☝️ With some extra effort you can even perform Logical Operations (AND, NAND, OR, NOR, XOR, …) using CSS Custom Properties!?

Ana Tudor worked out the math for us in Logical Operations with CSS Custom Properties:

:root {
    --j: 1;
    --k: 0;

element {
    --notj: calc(1 - var(--j));
    --and: calc(var(--k)*var(--i));
    --nand: calc(1 - var(--k)*var(--i));
    --or: calc(1 - (1 - var(--k))*(1 - var(--i)));
    --nor: calc((1 - var(--k))*(1 - var(--i)));
    --xor: calc((var(--k) - var(--i))*(var(--k) - var(--i)));



# The Guaranteed-Invalid Value Hack

When you need to set things other than numeric values — such as colors — you can’t rely on a toggle that is either 0 or 1, as performing calculations with colors is invalid.

.square {
    /* ❌ This won't work! ❌ */
    color: calc(
        hotpink * (1 - var(--is-big))
        lime * var(--is-big)

The spec detailing calc() is clear on this:

It can be used wherever <length>, <frequency>, <angle>, <time>, <percentage>, <number>, or <integer> values are allowed.

CSS Values and Units Level 3: 8.1 Mathematical Expressions: `calc()`

What you can do however is use The CSS Custom Property Toggle Trick by James0x57 — which I like to call “The Guaranteed-Invalid Value Hack” — where you set a Custom Property to the “guaranteed-invalid value” of initial to force the var() function to use its fallback value:

If, for whatever reason, one wants to manually reset a variable to the guaranteed-invalid value, using the keyword initial will do this.

CSS Custom Properties for Cascading Variables Module Level 1: 2.2. Guaranteed-Invalid Values

In code it boils down to this:

--my-var: initial; /* initial => var() will use the fallback value */
color: var(--my-var, green); /* ~> green */
--my-var: hotpink; /* Any value other than `initial` (even simply one space!) => var() will not use the fallback value */
color: var(--my-var, green); /* ~> hotpink */

That means that you can flip the switch ON by setting a Custom Property to the value of initial. Here’s an example where the text will turn green and italic once --is-checked is flipped on:

input[type="checkbox"] + label {
    --is-checked: ; /* OFF */
    color: var(--is-checked, green);
    border: var(--is-checked, none);
    font-style: var(--is-checked, italic);

input[type="checkbox"]:checked + label {
    --is-checked: initial; /* ON */

A limitation of this approach however is that you can’t define several values to use in case --is-checked is in the OFF state. Say I want the text in the example above to be both red by default and with a border. Setting --is-checked to red will only get me halfway, as that value is only valid for the color property here.

input[type="checkbox"] + label {
    --is-checked: red; /* Default value to use */
    color: var(--is-checked, green); /* ✅ Will be red by default */
    border: var(--is-checked, none); /* ❌ What about a default value for border? */
    font-style: var(--is-checked, italic); /* ❌ What about a default value for font-style? */


# Update 2020.01.22: The Space Toggle Trick

UPDATE: As James0x57 himself pointed out in the comments below, the “CSS Custom Property Toggle Trick” can be used for this, but it takes some adjustments when compared to the implementation above. Here’s what James0x57 calls the Space Toggle Trick:

  • Consider the value   (space) to be the ON position, and the value of initial to be the OFF position.
  • Assign property values to new custom properties using the syntax --value-to-use-if-custom-toggle-is-on: var(--my-custom-toggle) value;, where you put the value to be used after the CSS Variable.

    --toggler: initial;
    --red-if-toggler: var(--toggler) red;
  • To use the value, use the var() syntax as before (e.g. adding a fallback value):

    background: var(--red-if-toggler, green); /* will be green! */
  • If you have more than one property than can affect a toggle, you can chain them up:

    • AND Logic:

      --red-if-togglersalltrue: var(--tog1) var(--tog2) var(--tog3) red;
    • OR Logic:

      -red-if-anytogglertrue: var(--tog1, var(--tog2, var(--tog3))) red;

Here’s a pen that applies his technique, with some cleaned up property names:

See the Pen
3. Binary Custom Properties + “The CSS Custom Property Toggle Trick” (Renamed)
by Bramus (@bramus)
on CodePen.

Thanks for clarifying James0x57, as I only understood half of your hack before 😅


# Future Solution: Higher Level Custom Properties

So the problem is that, as it stands today, we can’t have one single CSS Custom Property affect a varying set of other CSS Properties, or at least not in an easy way. At the CSS WG Telecon from early December 2020 Lea Verou proposed something called “Higher Level Custom Properties”, which would allow exactly that!

🚨 Do note that this proposal is still in it’s very very early stages and part of an ongoing discussion. The CSS WG has merely expressed interest in this proposal, suggesting that it should be explored further. If if tends to be helpful and possible, only then work on a Working Draft will start. Right now it still is a concept.


# Definition and Example

“Higher Level Custom Properties” are Custom Properties that control a number of other CSS Properties. As the proposal stands right now you use them in combination with a newly proposed @if at-rule, like so:

.square {
    width: 2vw;
    padding: 0.25vw;
    aspect-ratio: 1/1;

    @if (var(--size) = big) {
        width: 16vw;
        padding: 1vw;

Unlike the Custom Properties we know today, a Higher Level Custom Property controls multiple declarations, way beyond simple variable substitution. In the example above we set our HLCP --size to have a value of big. This value isn’t used directly, but affects the other properties width and padding.

Using this HLCP also improves the meaning of our code. Setting width: 16vw; does not clearly express our intent, whereas setting --size: big; does.

💁‍♂️ If you don’t like @if then please don’t discard the whole idea immediately, but focus on the problem it’s trying to fix here. Lea’s proposal is a possible solution, not the solution. Could be that — in the end — we end up with a totally different syntax.


# Issues that still need to be tackled

Before you get too excited, there are still some cases that need to be taken care of. In a follow-up comment on the proposal, Lea documented some already identified issues.

🚨 Note that these issues are blocking issues. As long as these aren’t resolved, HLCPs won’t happen.

# Partial Application

A first issue is a problem with the desugaring of @if and partial application. Behind the scenes a @if at-rule desugars to the still discussed if() function call. The example above eventually becomes this:

.square {
    width: if(var(--size) = big, 16vw, 2vw);
    padding: if(var(--size) = big, 1vw, 0.25vw);
    aspect-ratio: 1/1;

This leads to no issue here, but it becomes quirky when comparing against percentages for example.

E.g. consider this:

.foo {
	@if (1em > 5%) {
		width: 400px;
		height: 300px;

which desugars to:

.foo {
	width: if(1em > 5%, 400px);
	height: if(1em > 5%, 300px);

Now consider that an element that matches .foo is inside a 600px by 400px container and has a computed font-size of 25px; This makes 1em > 5% evaluate to false on the width property and true on the height property, which would make the @if partially applied. We most definitely don’t want that.

There are some ideas floating around to fix this — such as forcing percentages/lengths to always be compared against the width — but that’s still a bit vague right now.

# Cascading

Another issue that was pointed out is one on Cascading. I especially like this one, as it gives us a good insight in how CSS behaves and works:

Inline conditionals will have the IACVT (Invalid At Computed Value Time) behavior that we have come to know and love (?) from Custom Properties. Since @if will desugar to inline conditionals, it will also fall back to that, which may sometimes be surprising. This means that these two snippets are not equivalent:

.notice {
	background: palegoldenrod;

.notice {
	/* Desugars to background: if(var(--warning) = on, orange, unset); */
	@if (var(--warning) = on) {
		background: orange;
.notice {
	/* Desugars to background: if(var(--warning) = on, orange, palegoldenrod); */
	background: palegoldenrod;

	@if (var(--warning) = on) {
		background: orange;

You can file IACVT (Invalid At Computed Value Time) in the #TIL section there.

A declaration can be invalid at computed-value […] 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 […].

This explains why in the example below the background won’t be red but (the default) transparent.

:root { --not-a-color: 20px; }
p { background-color: red; }
p { background-color: var(--not-a-color); }

👉 As 20px is no valid <color> value, the last declaration will become background-color: initial;.

💡 If we would have written background-color: 20px directly (e.g. without the use of Custom Properties), then that declaration would have simply been discarded due to being invalid, and we would have ended up with a red background.


# In Closing

The “Higher Level Custom Properties” idea by Lea Verou is one that quite excites me, as it solves an actual issue one can have in their code and would avoid having to use one of the nasty hacks.

There’s still a long way to go before we might actually see this land, yet as the CSS WG has expressed interest I’m hopeful that the already identified issues will be wrinkled out, and that work on an official spec can start.

If you have your own input on this subject, then I suggest to participate in the Higher Level Custom Properties discussion on GitHub.


🔥 Like what you see? Want to stay in the loop? Here's how:

Injecting a JavaScript Attack Vector using CSS Custom Properties

Earlier this week I saw this tweet by Sansec float by:

This one’s pretty nice I must say: as the syntax for CSS Custom Properties is overly permissive (see here) you can use Custom Properties to store your JavaScript attack vector in. If you then use window.getComputedStyle to extract the contents of the Custom Property (see here) and combine it with a function constructor and an IIFE, it’s possible to execute it.

Here’s a pen that loads a remote confetti script using the method described:

Let this underline the importance of a Content Security Policy to prevent remote script loading script evaluation.

Update: Blocking this “hack” with a proper CSP

It took me some time to figure out — as I’m no CSP expert — but turns out the unsafe-inline keyword in the CSP’s source list is enough to block the execution of the JS-IN-CSS.

As a reminder, here are the four allowed keywords:

  • 'none', as you might expect, matches nothing.
  • 'self' matches the current origin, but not its subdomains.
  • 'unsafe-inline' allows inline JavaScript and CSS.
  • 'unsafe-eval' allows text-to-JavaScript mechanisms like eval.

I first thought unsafe-inline would be insufficient here as the code does not call eval, but apparently a function constructor is (correctly!) considered equally harmful, and therefore also blocked.

Here’s an updated demo that blocks the script evaluation:

See the Pen
Injecting a JavaScript attack vector using CSS Custom Properties (with CSP)
by Bramus (@bramus)
on CodePen.

The CSP used is this one:

    content="script-src 'unsafe-inline';"

It works as follows:

  • and are there for the CodePen demo to work
  • is there to allow legitimate loading of scripts — such as a jQuery you might need — from that CDN.
  • unsafe-inline is the one that prevents the execution of the JS-IN-CSS defined script by blocking the call to the function constructor

That calls for confetti! 🤪

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Thank me with a coffee.

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What values can you put in a CSS Custom Property?

Will Boyd:

CSS custom properties can hold all sorts of things. Some of these things were not obvious to me, which is why I decided to write this.

In short: they can contain just about everything. It’s only until CSS Custom Properties are used in a certain context as a CSS Variable — using var() — that they are evaluated.

☝️ To understand the above you should know that CSS Custom Properties are not Variables

A CSS Custom Property allows you to define a property with a certain value, e.g. --width: 200;.

It’s only when it’s used with var() — e.g. var(--width) — that you are creating a CSS Variable to use.

That’s why you can use CSS Custom Properties to:

What Can You Put in a CSS Variable? →

CSS Custom Properties are not Variables

When mentioning CSS Custom Properties here on I do tend to name them like that — and not CSS Variables — as that’s their official name.

I always thought the terms could be used interchangeably — with CSS Variables simply being the unofficial name — but as detailed by Šime Vidas on Web Platform News that’s not the case:

The spec distinguishes the two terms: A custom property is not a variable, but it defines a variable. Any property can use variables with the var() function whose values are defined by their associated custom properties.


CSS custom properties are not variables →

Pass Data from CSS to JavaScript with CSS Variables

What happens when you combine the fact that part after the : for CSS Custom Properties doesn’t need to be valid CSS with window.getComputedStyle()? You get a way of passing data – including Arrays, Objects, and even JSON – from CSS to JavaScript.

CodePen: JSON in CSS Vars →

CSS Variables and Reduced Motion

Great usage of CSS Custom Properties in combination with calc() by Steve Gardner to cater for users who have prefers-reduced-motion set to reduce:

By setting --duration to 0 it basically behaves like a binary condition for a CSS calculation. Simple and effective 🙂

(Personally I’d set it to either 0 or 1 – and not 0.5. That way the math is kept easy and it becomes a true binary toggle)

⁉️ Not sure what prefers-reduced-motion is? Check out CSS-Tricks’ Introduction to the Reduced Motion Media Query to get up to speed.

Conditions for CSS Calculations

In CSS we have feature queries (@supports) available to create ifelse-like structs. What if we could extend our means of using conditions in CSS?

Roman Komarov provides us with a clever technique – which involves using CSS Custom Properties, calc(), and some binary logic – to implementing this type of conditions on a per CSS rule basis. The simplest way to explain it is to just show it:

:root {
    --is-big: 0;

.is-big {
    --is-big: 1;

.block {
    padding: calc(
        25px * var(--is-big) +
        10px * (1 - var(--is-big))
    border-width: calc(
        3px * var(--is-big) +
        1px * (1 - var(--is-big))

The lines where * var(--is-big) is used are applied when the value of that CSS Variable is 1 (true). The lines where * (1 - var(--is-big)) is used are applied when said value is 0 (false).

In the example above it’d be much easier/better to define two different CSS blocks (one for just .block, and one for (or .is-big .block depending on the HTML structure)). Perhaps some scenarios where JavaScript changes the value of a CSS variable could provide us with a few interesting use cases.

Conditions for CSS Variables →

CSS Variables: var(--subtitle);

As per usual, great talk by Lea Verou:

The key takeaway about CSS Custom Properties to me is the very first one Lea mentioned: they’re just properties like the other CSS properties we already know. This means that the normal behavior of inheritance is in place, you can manipulate them from within media queries, and you can even get/set them via style attributes or even JavaScript:

const el = document.querySelector('#my-elem');

// Get
var foo = window.getComputedStyle(el).getPropertyValue('--foo');

// Set'--foo', newValue);

I’ve created pens for the background mouse position follower, and for the CSS scroll indicator.

See the Pen CSS Variables: Follow Mouse Position by Bramus (@bramus) on CodePen.