Reset cascading style sheets are bad practice

Firebug Reset CSS

We’ve all seen them, most of us have used them, almost every CSS framework is built on one and you instantly know one is present when you open Firebug and see a hundred levels of CSS inheritance declarations. Reset cascading style sheets (a.k.a. reset.css).

The idea of the reset style sheet is to globally target every markup element and set all of its possible attributes to zero, default or inherit. This gives the developer a “clean slate” with no browser default styles. Many say that this is the first thing you should add when you start building a web page, but I firmly disagree.

I’m sure that I am one of the small minority of web developers who’s saying this, but reset style sheets are bad practice, and it’s time to stop using them.

Why are reset style sheets so popular?

The trend of using a reset CSS wasn’t always so prevalent, not long ago they were practically unheard of. But in recent years the reset trend has absolutely exploded. Now every CSS framework and many large web sites use them as the base for everything they put on the web.

This happened because designers and developers were tired of dealing with the quirks of the different browsers. Just about every browser has a default set of styles that it applies to pages. 99% of these quirks could be remedied by globally setting margin and padding to zero.

However, this wasn’t enough for some. Designers working with forms and other browser/OS specific elements were tired of having to specifically reset every form element in CSS every time they started a new web site. So someone decided to make a single CSS file to specifically target and reset the CSS on every HTML element. Now all they have to do is link the reset CSS and never worry about it again.

This is quite a time saver, especially when working with forms. The technique gained popularity and eventually became a regular part of web development for many designers.

Why is using a reset CSS bad?

I am not saying that the technique is bad, I’m saying it’s bad practice, for numerous reasons.


Many reset style sheets set outline to zero. Outline is an important feature for usability and accessibility. It is used for keyboard navigation.

The outline property sets an overlay border on an active/selected element that is actionable and/or has a tabindex. This gives users a visual cue as to where there active cursor is (note: tab cursor, not mouse cusor). Without the outline users who cannot use a mouse or who choose to use the tab function to navigate pages can’t see where their cursor is. This effectively makes the page unusable for some disabled people, and less-usable for tabbing power-users.

Unnecessarily large style sheets

There are certain display standards and conventions that all browsers agree on by default. Headings are bold, links are underlined, lists have bullets, etcetera. When using a reset style sheet you have to manually set every single display property for every single element.

Why would you want to repeat the same CSS that every browser gives you by default? It only clutters your style sheet, increases download footprint and slows the browser rendering engine.

Inefficient inheritance and slow rendering

Styles are not simple text properties that are built into your operating system, they are rendering statements that are passed to a large and complicated rendering engine in the browser. This rendering engine must read all of the CSS and build the display rules for the entire page before it will even show you the content.

The browser default styles that reset style sheets are trying to kill will be the foundation of the inheritance tree regardless of what styles you put on top of it. So the rendering engine must add your rules on top of the reset rules, on top the default display rules. As a CSS coder it is your job to optimize your CSS to make this as fast and easy on the rendering engine as possible.

For example: you want h1 tags to be bold.

  • Without a reset CSS you do not have to add any statements to accomplish this effect, it is part of the browser default. So the rendering engine only has to process the already optimized and compiled default to give you this effect.
    h1 { font-weight: bold; } /* Browser Default */
  • With a reset CSS you will be sending not only the h1 reset, but probably the div, body and html reset along with your override, h1{font-weight:bold;}. So the rendering engine sees an inheritance tree that looks something like this:
    html {
    	font-weight: normal;
    	body {
    		font-weight: normal;
    		h1 {
    			font-weight: bold;
    h1 { font-weight: bold; }  /* Browser Default */

You can actually see a view of this when you are looking at the CSS information in Firebug. This is a whole lot of extra work for the browser to have to work through to create your styles. Even if you didn’t want the default bold h1 then it would still be far more efficient to put h1{font-weight:normal;} in your CSS without the reset. After all, the default target is specifically overridden and the engine does not have to process the extra inheritance information.

Firebug Reset CSS

Worst-case scenario with reset CSS.

The image above is an excellent example of what I’m talking about. It’s a worst-case situation where bad markup, bad styles and a reset CSS have all come together to produce a monstrosity. This is a real site that I’ve had to work on. Notice the scroll bar on the style list, because of the outrageous inheritance tree this one element has 30+ self-overridden reset selectors applied to it.

Granted, this example is an extreme case, however the effect is the same even when the site has excellent markup and well designed CSS.

Maintainability and debugging

I am a dedicated Firebug user. I love the tool and I simply cannot live without it for CSS development. But I hate working on pages that have reset styles because they clutter up the interface and I have to scroll through countless overridden selectors to find the one that is applied in each case.

Transmission footprint

A reset style sheet is yet another CSS file and a couple hundred more bytes that the browser has to download. The single most important aspect of web page and server optimization is reducing download size and reducing the number of connections needed to send a single page.

Page optimization is why we use image sprites and minified/combined include files now. Every connection and byte of data that you can remove will make your site faster and scale better. A large majority of the time spent downloading a web page is spent on the latency and over-the-wire transmit time for page dependencies and resources.

Take this very seriously, development on a high traffic web sites is all about shaving every millisecond and every byte you can because you will be able to support that many more simultaneous users.

That was a very long-winded rant, so how do you deal with it?

Simple, the way we’ve been doing it since we stopped using tables and 1px separator gifs.

* {
	margin: 0;
	padding: 0;
	/* possibly border: 0 */

This single statement at the top of your style sheet will give you almost the same effect as a reset style sheet with almost none of the drawbacks or performance degradation.

Asterisk is the global selector, it will target everything, regardless of type, standards or validity. It is also an efficient rule (when used on its own). Most rendering engines will understand that an asterisk select means everything, regardless of inheritance. So it doesn’t process it as an inheritance, it is simply attached to every element.

It is worth noting that asterisk when joined with another selector (e.g. #navigation *) is actually an inefficient selector because it does have to process an inheritance tree.


I understand that there are times when a reset CSS can be an asset, such as rapid prototyping and very extreme/artsy designs where you would have to override everything anyway. However for the sake of performance optimization and general best practices you should avoid reset style sheets.

Updated: Dec 4th, 2010


  1. Robert

    I’m surprised I haven’t seen more critics of reset styles, but I think part of the problem is that there are a lot of “developers” (read: designers who write code) who don’t understand the impact of reset styles. The problem with this one is that the fix has far-reaching consequences.

    There needs to be a discussion in the web developer community that either:
    a) browsers will display slightly differently and end-users don’t care / don’t notice
    b) there needs to be standardization across the board by browser makers for all default CSS values.

    I think we all know which one of those two is more realistic.

  2. Indeed, it would be nice to have all of the browsers agree on what the default styles should be. But, yeah I doubt that will ever happen.

    If the web browser is standards compliant, which even Internet Explorer is getting pretty close to in IE8, then the good old *{margin:0;padding:0;} will make the layout almost pixel-perfect-exact in every modern browser. The only place you would expect to see differences is in form fields.

  3. Robert

    True. Now if only Safari’s default buttons didn’t look the way they do…

  4. Tim

    Nice article – It’s good to see an alternative opinion to what seems to have become general consensus among the dev community.

    I’m also a user of the simple ‘margin & padding only’ reset. I’ve found that this coupled with some other basic formatting I have evolved over time, provides a pretty robust base from which to work.

    Having tried out a variety of popular resets on previous projects, I was left concluding they are just too intrusive for my liking.

    Speaking of bugbears, how about a nice article on the increasing misuse of JQuery etc. for unnecessary effect, in a similar vein to Flash circa 2002 :)

  5. your article has good points. well observed. now after reading your article i’m thinking to use *global reset in place of eric meyer stylesheet.

  6. carol

    Thank you for the article, very informative with specific examples.

    I have been a self-study XHTML, CSS, JavaScript student (some online classes and a very patient 30 yr career software engineer as a tutor) for about two years. My mid-life career change. I’ve had a couple of real breakthroughs lately, and in reading Meyer’s and others re: CSS reset, seemed as though I had better go along, because, well, two years of study and a couple of sites for local businesses–I’m not exactly in the big leagues–yet ;-D.

    But I kept asking myself, “Why am I adding all this? Why not padding and margin at 0px”?

    And the work, time, tedium of adding *back* all the HTML default structure that was there in the first place–but I took it out so I could add my CSS styles, to put it back in most cases exactly as it would have been there–oh, and get very, very lost in a CSS labyrinth nightmare of my own creation????

    Didn’t seem to make sense, but, hey, I’m new at this.

    Now, of course, I’m sure lots of people don’t agree and want to start with the proverbial clean slate. Fine. As you say, there are cases where resetting everything may be the way to go. But as a regular practice? Couldn’t really call that BEST practice, I think.

    Thanks, again, for the informative article, based on (yes, true) logic!

  7. Parm

    I completely dis-agree

    Without the reset stylesheet the design process would be a nightmare in an environment where we have more browsers than ever.

    The accessibility argument is pointless. If visual clues are required then there are tools out there that can accommodate. You yourself can even put code in there that can switch the style sheet.

    Css files are essentially text files. I fimd it hard to believe that download speed is even an issue. Even on dialup. I have aage that requires 20 css call( no kidding ). Believe me nobody cares that they have to wait for a milisecond longer. After which time the css is cached.

    If you are any good at css then there is no reason why your css cannot be just as clean. Mine is.

  8. TC

    This is genius, so many issues with inheritance just got fixed by that simple fix.

  9. I think CSS reset files are a great way to save you a lot of debugging and browser testing time.
    If you want small code, then just add only the styles you really wish to reset and leave all others out.

    You have a point in the section Accessibility. But I always set the outlines to 0. Then later I can add accessibility by using :focus for example:

    input:focus {

    The reset file I use in most of my projects is just under 400 Bytes, so that should’t affect performance much. Heres a link if anyone cares:

  10. AntoxaGray

    Every time I see big wall of selectors{font:inherit; }, it drives me bananas. Everyone who doing that, they should see how it looks in Firebug.

    What about stop using rough and primitive resets and use more smart, like html5boilerplate reset?

    p.s. firebug should implement option to not show specific css file to partially fix this problem.

  11. AntoxaGray

    I guess people are too lazy to manually delete useless stuff from reset file (such as applet, accronym, center, wtf are they doing in reset? I never use these tags)

    2. Please show me browser that have div as not block and specify font styles. Why do reset files have display:block and font:inherit for divs??


  12. There’s a reason why there are CSS standards and why those standards have default values. Writing your own reset.css to overwrite the defaults of CSS defaults is plain stupid. It’s like saying the hell with CSS standards, I know better!

  13. I too hate css reset. I have absolutely no trouble developing a site from scratch without a css reset and making it look the same across every browser. Sometimes there is a small variation but it’s not due to the css reset. Like the anti aliasing of fonts or the way default check boxes look. Nothing that’s going to keep me up at night. Death to css reset

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