Theme switcher using CSS custom properties

by Michael Scharnagl

This article has been updated the last time on March 7, 2016 and the given information may be not accurate anymore. Feel free to contact me on twitter to get more details.

CSS custom properties have been around for a while now and are currently supported in three browser engines (as of February 2016). When I first heard about CSS variables I was skeptical as I thought they will offer the same functionality as variables in pre-/post-processors. Some month later I stumbled across the spec and was pretty excited to find out that they are not really variables, but rather properties which are dynamic and scoped to the DOM. To show this in action I build a simple theme switcher demo.

Feature detect

As we will use JavaScript to modify custom properties, the first thing we do is adding a detect to decide whether we will show the theme switcher or not.

if (window.CSS && window.CSS.supports && window.CSS.supports('--a', 0)) {
  // CSS custom properties supported.
} else {
  // CSS custom properties not supported

Setting custom properties in CSS

Next we define some custom properties in our CSS. Here we have a –baseColor, –brandColor and –bgColor which we will use for various elements later in the CSS.

:root {
  --baseColor: #111;
  --brandColor: green;
  --bgColor: #eee;

h1 {
 color: green; /* provide fallback */
 color: var(--brandColor);

Modifying custom properties with JavaScript

When selecting a theme we will change the properties with JavaScript, as shown here:

var root = document.querySelector(':root');
var htmlStyle = window.getComputedStyle(root);
htmlStyle.getPropertyValue('--baseColor');  // get the custom property --baseColor"--baseColor", "red"); // set --baseColor to red

Full example

Here is the HTML of the theme switcher, which is hidden by default and will be set to visible once the feature detect above returns true.

<label id="theme-changer" hidden>
	Choose theme
	<select name="theme" id="theme">
		<option data-baseColor="#111" data-bgColor="#eee" data-brandColor="green" value="default">default</option>
		<option data-baseColor="#444" data-bgColor="white" data-brandColor="#222" value="light">light</option>
		<option data-baseColor="white" data-bgColor="black" data-brandColor="#eee" value="dark">dark</option>

Here is the full JavaScript for the theme switcher. As you can see I also save the current chosen theme in localStorage so users will get the selected theme on future visits.

// test for localStorage support
var hasLocalStorage = function () {
	var mod = 'a';
	try {
		localStorage.setItem(mod, mod);
		return true;
	} catch (e) {
		return false;

// test for CSS custom properties support
if (hasLocalStorage() && window.CSS && window.CSS.supports && window.CSS.supports('--a', 0)) {

	var themeChanger = document.querySelector('#theme-changer'),
			root = document.querySelector(':root'),
			themeInput = document.querySelector('#theme'),
			currentTheme = {
				baseColor: localStorage.getItem("baseColor") || '#111',
				bgColor: localStorage.getItem("bgColor") || '#eee',
				brandColor: localStorage.getItem("brandColor") || 'green'

	// show the theme changer

	// change colors and save to localStorage
	themeInput.addEventListener('change', function (e) {

		// get selected option
		selectOption = this.options[this.selectedIndex];

		// change values to current theme
		currentTheme = {
			baseColor: selectOption.getAttribute('data-baseColor'),
			bgColor: selectOption.getAttribute('data-bgColor'),
			brandColor: selectOption.getAttribute('data-brandColor')

		// change values of custom properties and save to localStorage
		for (var key in currentTheme) {"--" + key, currentTheme[key]);
			localStorage.setItem(key, currentTheme[key]);

	// set theme to previous choosen one
	window.onload = function(e) {

		// set option of current theme to selected
		document.querySelector('[data-baseColor="' + currentTheme.baseColor + '"]').selected = true;

		// get values of custom properties and apply
		for (var key in currentTheme) {"--" + key, currentTheme[key]);

} else {
	// CSS custom properties not supported - don't show the theme switcher

You can find the full demo here and the code is also available on Github.

Update 20.02.2016: Change styles based on different className

As Tomáš Kapler points out in the comments you could also change the html class with JavaScript and change the properties based on the className:

:root {
  --baseColor: #111;
  --brandColor: green;
  --bgColor: #eee;
:root.light {
  --baseColor: #444;
  --bgColor: white;
  --brandColor: #222;
:root.dark {
  --baseColor: white;
  --brandColor: #eee;
  --bgColor: black;

Here is a demo using this method.


As you can see, you can already use CSS custom properties as an enhancement today, but you should always provide a fallback and be careful when using them. If you only need static and lexically scoped variables you are probably better of by using a preprocessor until more browsers support custom properties.

5 thoughts on “Theme switcher using CSS custom properties

  1. I wonder if there would be some easier solution where i would have defined the colors in several :roots with some class and then i would just switch the class. Something like
    …default root styles
    …alernative root styles
    And then just add the class to :root element. But i do not know if it is supported

  2. hexx says:

    You can set fallback in your ‘color’ declaration: ‘color: var(–someVar, #FFFFFF)

    • admin says:

      Unfortunately this won’t work in Browsers which don’t support custom properties as you can see in this demo, so the only reliable fallback is using color: blue; color: var(–blue);

Michael Scharnagl

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A freelance front-end developer focusing on HTML5, CSS, progressive enhancement and web performance.