Ultimate Guide to CSS Units

June 8, 2020

In CSS, properties are often expressed in terms of a length value. Such properties include width, height, margin, padding, font-size, line-height, etc.

Absolute Units (Pixels)

Absolute units in CSS are units that denote a specific length, regardless of screen size or parent element size. Pixels are by far the most common of these.


A pixel is approximately equivalent to 1/96th of 1inch. Since screens and devices come in different sizes, it is more practical to think of a pixel relative to how big the screen is. The size of a pixel on the screen also depends on the current screen resolution.

The following is an estimate of the width and height of common web devices

Device Width (px) Height (px)
Phone 320 - 480 600 - 900
Tablet 600 - 1200 800 - 1300
Laptop 1200 - 1920 700 - 1080
Desktop 1500 - 4000 1000 - 2500

These sizes are rough approximations since there are so many different devices available. While it’s not important to memorize these numbers, it is useful for instance to know that the iPhone 5 is the least wide screen at 320px.

Pixels are often used because so many developers and designers have a good sense of their size. It is useful to get comfortable recognizing different lengths as it will speed up your development.

The main downside to pixels however, is that they are uniform across screen sizes so they will require writing more styles (media queries) for different screen sizes.

There are other absolute units such as cm, mm, in, and others that can be used instead of pixels.

Relative Units

Relative CSS units determine their size relative to the viewport size or the parent element size. Relative units allow for responsive development since they let elements scale on various screen sizes. The following is a list of relative units with explanations for the more useful ones.

Unit Relative to
% parent size
em current font size
rem html font size
ex 1x width of 0
ch 1x height of x
vw 1/100x screen width
vh 1/100x screen height
vmin 1/100x smaller dimension
vmax 1/100x larger dimension

Percentage %

This unit is useful when you have an element inside a fixed container that takes up a specific portion of that container. For example, if you have a 500px wide parent element that you want to split in half you could do the following

.parent-element {
  width: 500px;
.second-child {
  width: 50%;


This unit is equivalent to 1x of the current element’s font size. Since most elements generally inherit their font sizes from a parent element, this unit allows you set a font size on a container and style its children relative to it.

.parent-element {
  font-size: 14px;
.header-element {
  font-size: 2em; // 28px


This unit is similar to em, except it is relative to the font size of the root html element. Rems are great for standardizing your font size across a project. A common practice is to set the default size to 10px and use rems instead of pixels.

html {
  font-size: 10px;
p {
  font-size: 1.6rem; // 16px

Vw / vh

These units, viewport width and viewport height, represent 1/100th of the current viewport size. This can be useful when you need an element to take up a specific fraction, or all of a screen. You can even use vh for width and vw for height if you wanted. These units are exceptionally useful and there are plenty of opportunities to use them in development.

The following example will be the size of the top 80% of the page

.header-section {
  width: 100vw;
  height: 80vh;

Understanding which unit to reach for can take practice, and over time you will develop new tricks and tools for various situations! 🔥

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