Limit the reach of your selectors with the CSS @scope at-rule

Learn how to use @scope to select elements only within a limited subtree of your DOM.

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The delicate art of writing CSS selectors

When writing selectors you may find yourself torn between two worlds. On the one hand you want to be pretty specific about which elements you select. On the other hand, you want your selectors to remain easy to override and not be tightly coupled to the DOM structure.

For example, when you want to select “the hero image in the content area of the card component”–which is a rather specific element selection–you most likely don’t want to write a selector like .card > .content > img.hero.

  • This selector has a pretty high specificity of (0,3,1) which makes it hard to override as your code grows.
  • By relying on the direct child combinator it is tightly coupled to the DOM structure. Should the markup ever change, you need to change your CSS as well.

But, you also don’t want to write just img as the selector for that element, as that would select all image elements across your page.

Finding the right balance in this is often quite the challenge. Over the years, some developers have come up with solutions and workarounds to help you out in situations like these. For example:

  • Methodologies such as BEM dictate that you give that element a class of card__img card__img--hero to keep the specificity low while allowing you to be specific in what you select.
  • JavaScript-based solutions such as Scoped CSS or Styled Components rewrite all your selectors by adding randomly generated strings–such as sc-596d7e0e-4–to your selectors to prevent them from targeting elements at the other side of your page.
  • Some libraries even abolish selectors altogether and require you to put the styling triggers directly in the markup itself.

But what if you didn’t need any of those? What if CSS gave you a way to be both pretty specific about which elements you select, without requiring you to write selectors of high specificity or ones that are tightly coupled to your DOM? Well, that’s where @scope comes into play, offering you a way to select elements only within a subtree of your DOM.

Introducing @scope

With @scope you can limit the reach of your selectors. You do this by setting the scoping root which determines the upper boundary of the subtree you want to target. With a scoping root set, the contained style rules –named scoped style rules– can only select from that limited subtree of the DOM.

For example, to target only the <img> elements in the .card component, you set .card as the scoping root of the @scope at-rule.

@scope (.card) {
    img {
        border-color: green;
    }
}

The scoped style rule img { … } can effectively only select <img> elements that are in scope of the matched .card element.

To prevent the <img> elements inside the card’s content area (.card__content) from being selected you could make the img selector more specific. Another way to do this is to use the fact that the @scope at-rule also accepts a scoping limit which determines the lower boundary.

@scope (.card) to (.card__content) {
    img {
        border-color: green;
    }
}

This scoped style rule only targets <img> elements that are placed between .card and .card__content elements in the ancestor tree. This type of scoping–with an upper and lower boundary–is often referred to as a donut scope

The :scope selector

By default, all scoped style rules are relative to the scoping root. It is also possible to target the scoping root element itself. For this, use the :scope selector.

@scope (.card) {
    :scope {
        /* Selects the matched .card itself */
    }
    img {
       /* Selects img elements that are a child of .card */
    }
}

Selectors inside scoped style rules implicitly get :scope prepended. If you want, you can be explicit about it, by prepending :scope yourself. Alternatively you can prepend the & selector, from CSS Nesting.

@scope (.card) {
    img {
       /* Selects img elements that are a child of .card */
    }
    :scope img {
        /* Also selects img elements that are a child of .card */
    }
    & img {
        /* Also selects img elements that are a child of .card */
    }
}

A scoping limit can use the :scope pseudo-class to require a specific relationship to the scoping root:

/* .content is only a limit when it is a direct child of the :scope */
@scope (.media-object) to (:scope > .content) { ... }

A scoping limit can also reference elements outside their scoping root by using :scope. For example:

/* .content is only a limit when the :scope is inside .sidebar */
@scope (.media-object) to (.sidebar :scope .content) { ... }

Note that the scoped style rules themselves can not escape the subtree. Selections like :scope + p are invalid because that tries to select elements that are not in scope.

@scope and specificity

The selectors that you use in the prelude for @scope do not affect the specificity of the contained selectors. In the example below, the specificity of the img selector still is (0,0,1).

@scope (#sidebar) {
    img { /* Specificity = (0,0,1) */
        …
    }
}

The specificity of :scope is that of a regular pseudo-class, namely (0,1,0).

@scope (#sidebar) {
    :scope img { /* Specificity = (0,1,0) + (0,0,1) = (0,1,1) */
        …
    }
}

In the following example, internally, the & gets rewritten to the selector that is used for the scoping root, wrapped inside an :is() selector. In the end, the browser will use :is(#sidebar, .card) img as the selector to do the matching. This process is known as desugaring.

@scope (#sidebar, .card) {
    & img { /* desugars to `:is(#sidebar, .card) img` */
        …
    }
}

Because & gets desugared using :is(), the specificity of & is calculated following the :is() specificity rules: the specificity of & is that of its most specific argument.

Applied to this example, the specificity of :is(#sidebar, .card) is that of its most specific argument, namely #sidebar, and therefore becomes (1,0,0). Combine that with the specificity of img–which is (0,0,1)–and you end up with (1,0,1) as the specificity for the entire complex selector.

@scope (#sidebar, .card) {
    & img { /* Specificity = (1,0,0) + (0,0,1) = (1,0,1) */
        …
    }
}

The difference between :scope and & inside @scope

Besides differences in how specificity gets calculated, another difference between :scope and & is that :scope represents the matched scoping root, whereas & represents the selector used to match the scoping root.

Because of this, it is possible to use & multiple times. This is in contrast to :scope which you can use only once, as you can’t match a scoping root inside a scoping root.

@scope (.card) {
  & & { /* Selects a `.card` in the matched root .card */
  }
  :root :root { /* ❌ Does not work */
    …
  }
}

Prelude-less scope

When writing inline styles with the <style> element, you can scope the style rules to the <style> element’s enclosing parent element by not specifying any scoping root. You do this by omitting the @scope’s prelude.

<div class="card">
  <div class="card__header">
    <style>
      @scope {
        img {
          border-color: green;
        }
      }
    </style>
    <h1>Card Title</h1>
    <img src="…" height="32" class="hero">
  </div>
  <div class="card__content">
    <p><img src="…" height="32"></p>
  </div>
</div>

In the example above, the scoped rules only target elements inside the div with the class name card__header, because that div is the <style> element’s parent element.

@scope in the cascade

Inside of the CSS Cascade, @scope also adds a new criterion: scoping proximity. The step comes after specificity but before order of appearance.

Visualization of the CSS Cascade.

As per specification:

When comparing declarations that appear in style rules with different scoping roots, then the declaration with the fewest generational or sibling-element hops between the scoping root and the scoped style rule subject wins.

This new step comes in handy when nesting several variations of a component. Take this example, that doesn’t use @scope just yet:

<style>
    .light { background: #ccc; }
    .dark  { background: #333; }
    .light a { color: black; }
    .dark a { color: white; }
</style>
<div class="light">
    <p><a href="#">What color am I?</a></p>
    <div class="dark">
        <p><a href="#">What about me?</a></p>
        <div class="light">
            <p><a href="#">Am I the same as the first?</a></p>
        </div>
    </div>
</div>

When viewing that little bit of markup, the third link will be white instead of black, even though it’s a child of a div with the class .light applied to it. This is due to the order of appearance criterion which the cascade uses here to determine the winner. It sees that .dark a was declared last, so it’ll win from the .light a rule

With the scoping proximity criterion this is now solved:

@scope (.light) {
    :scope { background: #ccc; }
    a { color: black;}
}

@scope (.dark) {
    :scope { background: #333; }
    a { color: white; }
}

Because both scoped a selectors have the same specificity, the scoping proximity criterion kicks into action. It weighs both selectors by proximity to their scoping root. For that third a element, it is only one hop to the .light scoping root but two to the .dark one. Therefore, the a selector in .light will win.

Closing note: Selector isolation, not style isolation

One important note to make is that @scope limits the reach of the selectors, it does not offer style isolation. Properties that inherit down to children will still inherit, beyond the lower bound of the @scope. One such property is the color one. When declaring that one inside of a donut scope, the color will still inherit down to children inside the hole of the donut.

@scope (.card) to (.card__content) {
  :scope {
    color: hotpink;
  }
}

In the example above, the .card__content element and its children have a hotpink color because they inherit the value from .card.

(Cover photo by rustam burkhanov on Unsplash)