What even is em?

July 25, 2019

While it's best practice to use em or rem when defining font sizes, it's common for developers to be unsure of which one to use or even how each of them work. In this post, we'll go over what em and rem are and their differences so that you can pick the one that best suits your needs.

Before posting this blog, I did a little quiz on Twitter. Here are the results from that poll:

Only 12% of people answered with the correct answer. I knew em confused me, but I didn't realize it confused a lot of other people as well. So let's dive into what em and rem are and how they work.


In CSS, em is a unit that is relative to the font size of the element. If the element doesn't have a specified font size, it will inherit its parent's font size. I like to think of em as standing for the "element's measurement."

Let's use a button as an example.

button {
  font-size: 2em;
  padding: 1em;

In this example, we'll assume the button is inheriting a 16px font size. This would originally make 1em = 16px.

So far, so good.

When we change the font size of the button to 2em, the element's font size changes from 16px to 32px (or 2em). This also makes sense. The confusing part is what happens to padding. Since the element's new font size is 32px, this makes the button's padding become 32px, or the new value for 1em.

Yeah, CSS is wild.


rem, or root em, is a unit that is relative to the font size of the root (<html>) element, which is typically 16px. Applying "my version" of what em stands for to rem, rem would stand for the "root element's measurement."

Using rem, changing the element's font size doesn't change the rem value for other properties. It's always 1rem = 16px, or whatever the root element's font size is. (Note: it's probably not a good idea to override the <html> element's font size because the user agent stylesheet sets it. You can learn more about the user agent stylesheet in Jens Oliver Meiert's article, "User Agent Style Sheets: Basics and Samples".)

Let's revisit the example from earlier, but this time, we'll use rem.

button {
  font-size: 2rem;
  padding: 1rem;

In this case, the font size (2rem) is 32px and the padding (1rem) is 16px, which is exactly what you'd expect.

So which one should I use?

It depends! If this is something you're concerned about, I recommend doing your own research to see which works best for your purposes.

After doing some research, I prefer rem so that I don't have to worry about the font size of an element changing to something unexpected, especially if I work in a system that a lot of other developers have touched.