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Andrea Verlicchi

Making the web faster and more user-friendly

Using CSS variables as a spacing unit

Here I show you how you can CSS variables, popular name of CSS custom properties, to scale your layout spaces across different media queries.

The advantage: shorter, lighter, easier-to-maintain CSS files.

To demonstrate this, I created CSS vars based layout spacing on Codepen. Find it embedded at the end of this post.

What are CSS variables #

CSS variables one of the next big things in CSS. They're not widely supported (spoiler: Internet Explorer is missing) for current browsers market share, but it's time we start playing with them, don't you think? They might be useful when developing our next wonderful project!

The advantage of CSS variables is that we can assign a value to a name, and refer to the value using a name.

How to define a CSS variable #

CSS variables can be defined at any point, and they are inherited to all the children of the DOM element they're applied to.

html {
  --base-spacing: 15px;

Here we defined a CSS var named --base-spacing and we assigned it a value of 15px. The variable is defined in the html element so it will be available in our whole document.

(Yeah, CSS vars must start with a double hyphen (--), which is ugly, but bare with me)

Difference with SASS variables #

In case you're thinking: "So what? I'm already using SASS and my _variables.scss has plenty of variables!" - Well, it's not quite the same.

SASS variables are pre-processed so they are transformed to a fixed, static CSS value. When the CSS is loaded, the variable is lost and only its value remains, spread out in all of its usages.

A SASS variable cannot be changed after the CSS is loaded. CSS variables can be changed using media queries, javascript, or the developer tools of your favourite browser.

How to use a CSS variable #

We want the --base-spacing variable to be a spacing unit to be used in paddings and margins across our page. So what do we do?

.box {
  padding: var(--base-spacing);
  margin: var(--base-spacing);

h1 {
  margin-bottom: var(--base-spacing);

That's great! Now we're using our CSS variable as a spacing unit, like we would do with a SASS variable, but... we can now change it!

Changing CSS variables values #

This is where the magic happens. CSS variables values can be re-assigned like you would do with any other CSS property, using:

The first thing you can do to understand the power of CSS variables is open the developer tools, locate the variable in your CSS file, and change its value. Try it here.

In our case, we want to enlarge spaces on wider screens, so we just do the following:

@media (min-width: 500px) {
  html {
    --base-spacing: 30px;

That's it. This simple variable reassignment will make all of our paddings and margins scale since we used a variable to define theis values.


This is what I'm talking about.

See the Pen CSS vars based layout spacing by Andrea Verlicchi (@verlok) on CodePen.

Endless possibilities #

Now that you master CSS variables, you can go far beyond and let your users decide the spacing of your layout, the main color, or anything else.

You just need some input fields and a few lines of javascript, like @wesbos is demonstrating here.

See the Pen Update CSS Variables with JS by Wes Bos (@wesbos) on CodePen.