In this post, I’m going to talk about the differences
between two CSS units: ems and rems. When
used properly, these units are fantastic for easily
creating responsive fonts and scalable layouts. That
being said, applying them incorrectly can lead to some
confusing (and problematic) results.

So, let’s get into it so you can start harvesting the
power of ems and rems!

Sizing fonts with ems and rems

When specifying font sizes with ems, you are specifying a value
that is a scale factor of the element’s parent. For example,

p {
    font-size: 2em;

makes paragraphs have a font size that is twice larger than their
parent (in this case just <html>). Since the default font size
of <html> is 16px, this results in <p> elements having
a font size of 32px.

Specifying font sizes with ems can get complicated when you
have nested elements. Let’s take a look at this example:


        <p>Some text</p>

    div {
        font-size: 1.5em

    div > div {
        font-size: 2em;

    p {
        font-size: 3em;


This is where em’s unique properties make things a little
tricky. The first <div> has a font-size of 1.5 times
greater than the <html>‘s font-size. Ok, that’s not so

The nested <div> has a font size that is two times bigger
than its parent. So, its font size could be
16px x 1.5 x 2 which works out to be 48px (assuming the
default of 16px is used for <html>).

Things get even crazier with the <p> tag which now has
a font-size of 16px x 1.5 x 2 x 3!

This functionality of em is called compounding and can
be a major headache to keep track of when sizing fonts
of nested elements. This is why I strongly recommend
against using ems for sizing fonts.

Enter rems

Using rems turns out to be much more useful, as they get rid
of this compounding problem by scaling fonts to the root
font-size rather than the parent.

So, in the previous example, all of the elements would be
scaled to the value of 16px, which is much more

rems are also extremely useful for responsive font scaling.
If a desktop design required larger fonts than the mobile,
you can scale all of your rem-sized fonts with just one
media query that makes the root font size bigger.

It is also more accessible to use rems over a static unit
(like px) because users might specify different font sizes
in their browser’s settings. This would make font sizes
with rems scale to accommodate this preference.

Layout and Scaling

You can also use both ems and rems for both layouts
and scaling (so things like padding, height/width, margin,
etc. are fair game).

Unlike with fonts, ems are a little more predictable as
they are relative to the element’s font size.

For example, I can scale a button fairly easily with ems:

.button {
    font-size: 2rem;

    height: 1em;
    width: 2em;
    padding: 1em 2em;

.button-lg {
    font-size: 2.5rem;

.button-sm {
    font-size: 1.5rem;

As you can see, items can easily and consistently be scaled
just by changing the font-size! For those of you with keen
eyes, I used rems for the font size which would make the
button’s font size (and its depending dimensions) more
consistent but still accessible!

Of course, rems can be used for more rigid sizing as needed.

In short…

Use rems for font size and whenever you want consistent
dimensions without sacrificing accessibility.

Use ems for consistently scaling dimensions.

Hopefully, after reading this you will now be able to
confidently harness the power of ems and rems! This
article would have not been possible without the help
of my good friend Kevin Powell. Watching his videos
helped me learn all of this and more. So, if you’re
interested in front-end development,
his YouTube channel
will help you fall madly in love with CSS!