Units of Measurements in CSS

woman holding measuring tape leaning on table

px and %, em and rem - they are not all the same

Ever since I learnt and started styling pages with CSS, I have always felt confused regarding which unit to use for styling my paragraphs, headings, paddings and margins. This is common among (frontend) developers, as there are quite a lot of options out there to use - more options than I knew of till I started writing this! I kept deferring learning the differences between these units, as I thought they did not really matter until Kayla created a small quiz on Twitter. And I failed it.

It was at this point that I decided to try and understand what they all are, and document it as well.

So what are they?

The units are categorized into Absolute and Relative lengths. Let’s take them one after the other.

Absolute Lengths

These are length units that are fixed and appear as exactly that size. Absolute units are mostly discouraged to be used on screens, as 12px on a large screen might not look the same on an iPhone. They depend highly on the output medium, and hence should be ideally be used when the output medium is known, or a particular screen size is targeted.

“There is another reason to avoid absolute units for other uses other than print: You look at different screens from different distances. 1cm on a desktop screen looks small. But the same on a mobile phone directly in front of your eyes looks big. It’s better to use relative units, such as em, instead.”

w3.org

The absolute units are: px, in, cm, pt, pc, and mm. There might be others, but we will treat these ones for brevity sake.

  • px: This defines a size in screen pixels. It equals one dot on the computer screen. A pixel is equal to 1/96th of an inch. W3 describes px as the magic unit of CSS.
  • in: This means inches. 1in equals 96px.
  • cm: Centimeters. Equals 37.8px.
  • mm: Milimeters. 1mm is same as 3.778px.
  • pc, pt: Defines measurements in picas and points, respectively. 1pt equals 1/72 of an inch, while 1pc equals 12pt.

Relative Lengths

These units define sizes and length relative to another length property. They are mostly preferred as they scale better across different mediums. They include em, rem, %, ex, ch, amongst others.

  • em: Simply put, an em is the same as the current font size. As a default, modern browsers display fonts at 16px (12in), thus, a text styled at 1em is same as 16px For example, look at the style below:

    p {
    font-size: 2em
    }

    This sets the font size to 32px, i.e 2 * 16px.
    em is scalable and are mobile-device-friendly.

  • rem: Stands for ’root em’. This is the font size relative to the root element, which is the html tag.
    Consider the style below:

    html {
    font-size: 62.5%;
    }
    body {
    font-size: 100%;
    }
    p {
    font-size: 1rem
    }

    The size of the p tag comes out as 62.5% (of 16px, which is 10px) and not 100% (16px) as it is relative to the html font size and not that of the body tag. The rem unit is not widely used, and so you might not need to use it.

  • %: Defines a size relative to the parent element.
  • ex and ch: ex defines measurement relative to the font’s x-height, which is the size of the font’s lowercase ‘x’ while ch is relative to the font’s width of the character ‘0’ (zero).

Conclusion

Really, the choice of what unit to use is left for you to choose, but most people use (and recommend) em and px.

“I tend to use px for borders, and rems for most everything else — because it makes it easy to keep things consistent and make layout tweaks without a lot of effort.”

Brian Vaughn

JavaScript Joe and JavaScript Joel both seem to be fans of px.

“When it comes to font sizes, I traditionally use something like TypographyJS because it basically sets up a system for me.
However, I try to stick to measurements in multiples of 4px (e.g 4px, 8px, 12px, 16px etc) when I use px. This way things feel “uniform”.

JavaScriptJoe


“I typically only use px. That could be my bias as when I started, px was the only thing absolutely available. Now I leave it up to the designers to tell me what the style is.”

JavaScriptJoel


This is what a Twitter user, Florin, has to say:

“I use px mostly. Not very good with others.”

Florin Pop

Now, whatever method you choose to use, it is recommended to use at least 16px (1em) for body text and em as the go-to unit. This ensures the font size is relative to the default font size, which is the size the reader can comfortably read. It also ensures the size scales well on different screen sizes and density. Although we can choose to ignore this, as modern browsers and devices provide tools to increase font size and display, it would not hurt to design with a11y in mind.

As was rightly pointed out by Brent Clark, using em also comes with it’s own issues: it is relative to the size of the parent, which in turn depends on other parent(s). For example, consider the code below:

<!-- HTML -->
<body>
    <p class='outer-p'> 
        Outer paragraph
        <p class='nested-p'> Nested paragraph</p>
    </p>
</body>

<!-- CSS -->
<style>
    body{font-size: 16px}
    .outer-p{font-size: 2em}
    .nested-p{font-size: 1.5em}
</style>

From the above code, we need the outer-p paragraph to be 2em, and rightly it will be 32px, as it will be x2 of the immediate parent, the body, which was already set to 16px.
Now, if wanted to set our nested-p paragraph to 1.5em and expect it to come out as 24px (i.e 1.5 * 16px), we’ll be disappointed as the size comes out as 48px. This behaviour is because em is relative to whatever size the parent has. In this case, nested-p is a child of outer-p, which already has a size of 32px. This explains why it comes out as 48px, I.e 1.5 * 32px.
This behavior of em should be put into consideration when using it.

In order to avoid unwanted outcomes that might be associated with em, I believe that was why the rem was introduced. With this, just set the default style on the html directly and then use rem as your CSS unit, this way you’re sure they all refer to the html tag style size and not on their parent’s sizes.

For example, using the same code above, to get the desired sizes for outer-p and nested-p, which are 32px and 24px respectively, we’ll refactor to this:

<!-- HTML -->
<body>
    <p class='outer-p'> 
        Outer paragraph
        <p class='nested-p'> Nested paragraph</p>
    </p>
</body>

<!-- CSS -->
<style>
    html{font-size: 16px}
    .outer-p{font-size: 2rem}
    .nested-p{font-size: 1.5rem}
</style>

By doing so, the font sizes are now all relative to the root style, in this case html.

As for me, I will try to stick to this little snippet I found:

body {
	font-size: 62.5% /* sets default font size to 10px i.e 62.5% of 16px */
}
p {
	font-size: 1.4em  /* 14px */
}

As I earlier mentioned, use whatever makes you comfortable. And do not sweat it if you don’t really get the hang of it, I still don’t get most of it.

If 1.4em results to 14px, why not then just use 14px instead?