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The -​-var: ; hack to toggle multiple values with one custom property

What if I told you you could use a single property value to turn multiple different values on and off across multiple different properties and even across multiple CSS rules?

What if I told you you could turn this flat button into a glossy skeuomorphic button by just tweaking one custom property --is-raised, and that would set its border, background image, box and text shadows in one fell swoop?

How, you may ask?

The crux of this technique is this: There are two custom property values that work almost everywhere there is a var() call with a fallback.

The more obvious one that you probably already know is the initial value, which makes the property just apply its fallback. So, in the following code:

background: var(--foo, linear-gradient(white, transparent)) hsl(220 10% 50%);
border: 1px solid var(--foo, rgb(0 0 0 / .1));
color: rgb(0 0 0 var(--foo, / .8));

We can set --foo to initial to enable these “fallbacks” and append these values to the property value, adding a gradient, setting a border-color, and making the text color translucent in one go. But what to do when we want to turn these values off? Any non-initial value for --foo (that doesn’t create cycles) should work. But is there one that works in all three declarations?

It turns out there is another value that works everywhere, in every property a var() reference is present, and you’d likely never guess what it is (unless you have watched any of my CSS variable talks and have a good memory for passing mentions of things).


It’s whitespace! Whitespace is significant in a custom property. When you write something like this:

--foo: ;

This is not an invalid declaration. This is a declaration where the value of --foo is literally one space character. However, whitespace is valid in every CSS property value, everywhere a var() is allowed, and does not affect its computed value in any way. So, we can just set our property to one space (or even a comment) and not affect any other value present in the declaration. E.g. this:

--foo: ;
background: var(--foo, linear-gradient(white, transparent)) hsl(220 10% 50%);

produces the same result as:

background: hsl(220 10% 50%);

We can take advantage of this to essentially turn var() into a single-clause if() function and conditionally append values based on a single custom property.

As a proof of concept, here is the two button demo refactored using this approach:


I originally envisioned this as a building block for a technique horrible hack to enable “mixins” in the browser, since @apply is now defunct. However, the big limitation is that this only works for appending values to existing values — or setting a property to either a whole value or initial. There is no way to say “the background should be red if --foo is set and white otherwise”. Some such conditionals can be emulated with clever use of appending, but not most.

And of course there’s a certain readability issue: --foo: ; looks like a mistake and --foo: initial looks pretty weird, unless you’re aware of this technique. However, that can easily be solved with comments. Or even constants:

:root {
	--ON: initial;
	--OFF: ;

button {
	--is-raised: var(--OFF);
	/* ... */

#foo {
	--is-raised: var(--ON);

Also do note that eventually we will get a proper if() and won’t need such horrible hacks to emulate it, discussions are already underway [w3c/csswg-drafts#5009 w3c/csswg-drafts#4731].

So what do you think? Horrible hack, useful technique, or both? 😀