The ‘em’ unit is a scalable unit used in Cascading Style Sheets (CSS) to define font sizes, space, and other layout elements in a web design. It is one of the key units for creating responsive and accessible websites. This post will explain what the em unit is, how it works, and why it’s important in modern web design.

Understanding the Em Unit

Relative Measurement

The em unit is a relative length unit. It is relative to the font-size of the element it’s applied to. This means that 1em is equal to the current font size of the element or the browser default if not specified. For example, if the font size of an element is set to 16px, then 1em within that element is also 16px.

Flexibility and Accessibility

Using em units contributes to a more flexible and accessible design. Since ems scale with the font size, they adjust automatically if a user changes their browser’s font size settings, making your content more accessible to people with visual impairments.

Em vs. Other CSS Units

Em vs. Pixel

Pixels are absolute units and do not scale with changes in font size, leading to less flexibility compared to ems, especially for responsive design.

Em vs. Percentage

Percentage is another relative unit but it is relative to the parent element’s size, not the font size. Em units are generally preferred for font sizes and spacing related to text, as they maintain a direct relationship with the text size.

Em vs. Rem

Rem (root em) is similar to em, but it is always relative to the root element’s font size, not the current element. This can make rem units easier to manage in complex layouts.

Using the Em Unit in CSS

Font Sizing

body {
  font-size: 16px;

h1 {
  font-size: 2em; /* 32px if the body font-size is 16px */


p {
  margin-bottom: 1.5em; /* margin relative to the paragraph’s font size */

Media Queries

@media screen and (max-width: 30em) {
  body {
    font-size: 14px;

Best Practices for Using Em Units


Maintain consistency in using em units across your CSS. Mixing units can lead to unpredictable results, especially in a responsive design.

Base Font Size

Define a base font size in pixels for the body element. This gives you a known starting point for using ems in your design.

Nested Elements

Be aware of the compounding effect when using ems for nested elements. The em value is relative to its immediate parent, so nesting elements with em units can lead to rapidly increasing or decreasing sizes.

Testing and Responsiveness

Regularly test your design at different screen sizes and font settings to ensure the em units are contributing to a responsive and accessible design.

Wrapping up

The em unit in CSS is a powerful tool for creating flexible, scalable, and accessible web designs. By understanding and effectively using em units, you can ensure your designs are responsive and adaptable to various devices and user preferences.