What are cascade layers and why is everyone so excited about them?
This year, a number of new additions to the CSS specification have been announced. Cascade layers are one of the most anticipated – and rightfully so.
If you have ever struggled with conflicting CSS selectors, tried making sense of
CSS from various sources, or used
!important one too many times, you are
either really excited about layers or you are about to be.
In a nutshell, layers allow us to define explicit containers of specificity so that we have precise control over CSS styles and their priority without relying on confusing and conflicting hacks.
If you are new to cascade layers, “A Complete Guide to CSS Cascade Layers” by Miriam Suzanne on CSS-Tricks is a must-read.
This description from W3 also sums up the power of layers especially well:
“Authors can create layers to represent element defaults, third-party libraries, themes, components, overrides, and other styling concerns – and are able to re-order the cascade of layers in an explicit way, without altering selectors or specificity within each layer, or relying on source-order to resolve conflicts across layers.”
If you want to play around with layers and see how exactly they work, check out this CodePen to see the at-rule in action.
Which browsers currently support
If you’re excited to get started but are wondering which browsers actually
@layer, we have some good news.
The latest versions of Chrome, Firefox, and Safari now all support cascade layers. If you are looking for specific browsers or versions, you can see the complete browser support breakdown below from CanIUse.
Miriam Suzanne – the author of the CSS layers specification and the CSS Tricks guide shared above – also created a CodePen to quickly check if your current browser supports cascade layers:
And for the browsers that don’t yet support layers?
The recent retirement of IE 11 made for some great jokes and celebration, but
even if you or your users aren’t using IE 11, you might still be hesitant to
@layer into your CSS in case your users aren’t using the latest
There is some more good news here as well. We at OddBird worked with the fine folks at PostCSS to build a plugin that provides a polyfill for layers. The PostCSS Cascade Layers polyfill is live now and available as an NPM package! 🚀 🎉
How does the polyfill work?
If you are curious about how the polyfill works exactly, let’s dive into the details.
The plugin starts by parsing a stylesheet, looking for any layer at-rules (i.e.
@layer) and recording the order in which the layer was defined.
In this step, the most specific selector is also recorded and with these two elements, the plugin determines the specificity adjustment for each layer. This specificity adjustment represents the importance of the layer in relation to other layers and unlayered styles.
Next, the plugin begins the transformation of the CSS. The plugin removes the layer at-rules and gives the styles encompassed in that particular layer the appropriate specificity that was determined in the first step.
During this transformation, the plugin also applies the highest specificity to unlayered styles, i.e. styles outside of a layer since they have the highest priority.
What that looks like in practice is something like this:
/* becomes */
The key principle behind the polyfill is that increasing the number of selectors is a browser-compatible way to increase specificity and importance in CSS.
The example above is fairly simple, but if your stylesheet has a number of layers and highly specific selectors, you can expect the transformation to leverage a greater number of selectors to accommodate the complexity.
The README in the GitHub repository for the polyfill illustrates this with a table:
The polyfill handles both named and anonymous layers as well as layers that are nested within each other.
One of the highlights of cascade layers is how this at-rule can be used in
@import to create a new layer from an input source like so:
@import 'theme.css' layer(utilities);
The plugin also supports this feature since there is an existing PostCSS plugin
@import that you can leverage. That was an advantage of working within the
So…what does the polyfill not do?
There are some expected limitations of the plugin since it is parsing a stylesheet and not running in the browser.
The two main things that the plugin does not currently handle are:
Layers within media queries: When
@media, the layers are conditionally rendered if the media query is true. It is not possible for this plugin polyfill to know if that is true when the stylesheet is being parsed so this is not currently supported.
revert-layer: This keyword, as MDN explains, is to “rollback styles to the ones specified in previous cascade layers”. The plugin cannot support this feature since it is not possible in the build step to know which selectors will apply to any given element.
On the bright side, the plugin does look for these elements when parsing the stylesheet, and will inform authors that they are not currently supported or handled by the plugin.
These elements are best handled by polyfills in the browser, so keep your eyes on the OddBird blog to find out when a browser polyfill becomes available as well.
How to use the polyfill
If you’re ready to get started, here are the first steps to get going.
Begin by installing the PostCSS Cascade Layers plugin into your project:
npm install postcss @csstools/postcss-cascade-layers --save-dev
Next, use it as a PostCSS plugin:
const postcss = require('postcss');
const postcssCascadeLayers = require('@csstools/postcss-cascade-layers');
postcssCascadeLayers(/* pluginOptions */)
]).process(YOUR_CSS /*, processOptions */);
Let the layering begin! 🥳
Cascade layers are a game changer, and we hope that with this new polyfill you’re excited and ready to start using them in your CSS.
Have you already started using cascade layers and/or the new polyfill? Tweet @OddBird and tell us all about it, especially if you have feedback, questions, or suggestions!