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CSS Font-Size

em vs. px vs. pt vs. %

One of the most confusing aspects of Cascading Style Sheets (CSS) is the application of the font-size attribute for text size and scaling. In CSS you’re given four different units by which you can measure the size of text as it’s displayed in the web browser. Which of these four units is best suited for the web? It’s a question that’s spawned a diverse variety of debate and criticism. Finding a definitive answer can be difficult, most likely because the question, itself, is so difficult to answer.

Meet the Units

  1. “Ems” (em): The “em” is a scalable unit that is used in web document media. An em is equal to the current font-size, for instance, if the font-size of the document is 12pt, 1em is equal to 12pt. Ems are scalable in nature, so 2em would equal 24pt, .5em would equal 6pt, etc. Ems are becoming increasingly popular in web documents due to scalability and their mobile-device-friendly nature.
  2. Pixels (px): Pixels are fixed-size units that are used in screen media (i.e. to be read on the computer screen). One pixel is equal to one dot on the computer screen (the smallest division of your screen’s resolution). Many web designers use pixel units in web documents in order to produce a pixel-perfect representation of their site as it is rendered in the browser. One problem with the pixel unit is that it does not scale upward for visually-impaired readers or downward to fit mobile devices.
  3. Points (pt): Points are traditionally used in print media (anything that is to be printed on paper, etc.). One point is equal to 1/72 of an inch. Points are much like pixels, in that they are fixed-size units and cannot scale in size.
  4. Percent (%): The percent unit is much like the “em” unit, save for a few fundamental differences. First and foremost, the current font-size is equal to 100% (i.e. 12pt = 100%). While using the percent unit, your text remains fully scalable for mobile devices and for accessibility.

So, What’s the Difference?

It’s easy to understand the difference between font-size units when you see them in action. Generally, 1em = 12pt = 16px = 100%. When using these font-sizes, let’s see what happens when you increase the base font size (using the body CSS selector) from 100% to 120%.

Font-sizes as they increase from 100% to 120%.

As you can see, both the em and percent units get larger as the base font-size increases, but pixels and points do not. It can be easy to set an absolute size for your text, but it’s much easier on your visitors to use scalable text that can display on any device or any machine. For this reason, the em and percent units are preferred for web document text.

Em vs. Percent

We’ve decided that point and pixel units are not necessarily best suited for web documents, which leaves us with the em and percent units. In theory, both the em and the percent units are identical, but in application, they actually have a few minor differences that are important to consider.

In the example above, we used the percent unit as our base font-size (on the body tag). If you change your base font-size from percent to ems (i.e. body { font-size: 1em; }), you probably won’t notice a difference. Let’s see what happens when “1em” is our body font-size, and when the client alters the “Text Size” setting of their browser (this is available in some browsers, such as Internet Explorer).

Font-size as the client changes the text size in their browser.

When the client’s browser text size is set to “medium,” there is no difference between ems and percent. When the setting is altered, however, the difference is quite large. On the “Smallest” setting, ems are much smaller than percent, and when on the “Largest” setting, it’s quite the opposite, with ems displaying much larger than percent. While some could argue that the em units are scaling as they are truly intended, in practical application, the em text scales too abruptly, with the smallest text becoming hardly legible on some client machines.

Conversion from Points to Pixels (and Ems and %)
Here’s a chart that converts points to pixels (and ems and %). It’s an approximation, which will depend on font, browser and OS, but it’s a good starting point.

Points Pixels Ems Percent
6pt 8px 0.5em 50%
7pt 9px 0.55em 55%
7.5pt 10px 0.625em 62.5%
8pt 11px 0.7em 70%
9pt 12px 0.75em 75%
10pt 13px 0.8em 80%
10.5pt 14px 0.875em 87.5%
11pt 15px 0.95em 95%
12pt 16px 1em 100%
13pt 17px 1.05em 105%
13.5pt 18px 1.125em 112.5%
14pt 19px 1.2em 120%
14.5pt 20px 1.25em 125%
15pt 21px 1.3em 130%
16pt 22px 1.4em 140%
17pt 23px 1.45em 145%
18pt 24px 1.5em 150%
20pt 26px 1.6em 160%
22pt 29px 1.8em 180%
24pt 32px 2em 200%
26pt 35px 2.2em 220%
27pt 36px 2.25em 225%
28pt 37px 2.3em 230%
29pt 38px 2.35em 235%
30pt 40px 2.45em 245%
32pt 42px 2.55em 255%
34pt 45px 2.75em 275%
36pt 48px 3em 300%