James Aylett: Styling select elements with padding

Published at
Sunday 13th December, 2015

There are a lot of articles around recommending using -webkit-appearance: none or -webkit-appearance: textfield to enable you to style select boxes on Chrome and Safari (particularly when you need to set padding). You then have to add back in some kind of dropdown icon (an arrow or whatever) as a background image (or using generated content), otherwise there’s no way for a user to know it’s a dropdown at all.

In case you don’t know what I’m talking about, c.bavota’s article on styling a select box covers it pretty well.

However this introduces the dropdown icon for all (recent) browsers, meaning that Firefox and IE will now have two icons indicating that you’ve got a select dropdown. The solution many articles take at this point is:

  1. apply -moz-appearance: none to match things on Firefox
  2. apply some selector hack to undo the dropdown icon on Internet Explorer
  3. ignore any other possible user agents

Basically what this does is to introduce complexity for every browser other than the ones we’re worried about. If we ignored Chrome and Safari, we’d just apply padding to our select, set text properties, colours and border, and move on. It’s because of them that we have to start jumping through hoops; we should really constrain the complexity to just those browsers, giving us a smaller problem for future maintenance (what happens if a future IE isn’t affected by the selector hack? what happens if -moz-appearance stops being supported in a later Firefox, or a Firefox-derived browser?).

Here’s some CSS to style various form controls in the same way. It’s pretty simple (and can probably be improved), but should serve to explain what’s going on.

    select {
        background-color: white;
        color: #333;
        display: block;
        box-sizing: border-box;
        padding: 20px;
        margin-bottom: 10px;
        border-radius: 5px;
        border: none;
        font-size: 20px;
        line-height: 30px;

We want to add a single ruleset that only applies on Webkit-derived browsers, which sets -webkit-appearance and a background image. We can do this as follows:

    select {
        -webkit-appearance: textfield;
        background-image: url(down-arrow.svg);
        background-repeat: no-repeat;
        background-position: right 15px center;
        background-color: white;

A quick note before we look at the selector; we’re using a three-value version of background-position to put the left hand edge of the arrow 15px from the right of the element, vertically centred. In the case I extracted this from, the arrow itself is 10px wide, providing 5px either side of it (within the 20px padding) before we hit either the edge of the select or the worst-case edge of the text. It’s possible to do this using a generated content block, but I found it easier in this case to position the arrow as a background image.

The selector is where we get clever. :root is part of CSS 3, targeting the root element; ::-webkit-media-controls-panel is a vendor-specific extension CSS 3 pseudo-element selector, supported by Chrome and Safari, which presumably supports applying rules to video and audio player controls. They’re not going to match the same element, so we can chain them together to make a selector that will match nothing, but which will be invalid on non-Webkit browsers.

Browsers that don’t support ::-webkit-media-controls-panel will drop the entire ruleset; if you want the details, I’ve tried to explain below. Otherwise, you’re done: that entire ruleset will only apply in the situation we want, and we only have to support Chrome and Webkit if they change their mind about things in the future. (And it’s only if they drop support for one of -webkit-appearance: textfield or ::-webkit-media-controls-panel – but not both – that things will break even there.)

Trying to explain from the spec

CSS 2.1 (and hence CSS 3, which is built on it) says implementations should ignore a selector and its declaration block if they can’t parse it. Use of vendor-specific extensions is part of the syntax of CSS (and :: to introduce pseudo-elements is part of the CSS 3 Selector specification, so pre-CSS 3 browsers will probably throw the entire ruleset out just on the basis of the double colon introducing the pseudo-element). CSS 2.1 ( says, about vendor-specific extensions:

An initial dash or underscore is guaranteed never to be used in a property or keyword by any current or future level of CSS. Thus typical CSS implementations may not recognize such properties and may ignore them according to the rules for handling parsing errors.

This is incredibly vague in this situation, because we care about the “keyword” bit, while the second sentence really focussed on properties. Also, implementations may ignore them sounds as if a conforming CSS implementation could choose to accept any validly-parsed selector, and just assume it never matches if they don’t understand a particular pseudo-class or pseudo-element that has a vendor-specific extension. The next sentence probably helps the implementation choice a little:

However, because the initial dash or underscore is part of the grammar, CSS 2.1 implementers should always be able to use a CSS-conforming parser, whether or not they support any vendor-specific extensions.

This suggests, lightly, that implementations should ignore rules they don’t understand even if they can be parsed successfully. Certainly this seems to be the conservative route that existing implementations have chosen to take.