Going back to CSS-only after years of SCSS

All these years I was telling people I was doing CSS, and enjoying CSS, I was lying. Kind off. I was doing SCSS for the vast majority of the last years of my life. Of course, most of the code I wrote was still CSS. But I was utilizing SCSS features as well. When I migrated my website to eleventy, I was thinking was I was needing SCSS. I had issues in the past with moving from node-sass to the dart-based sass library. Do I want this type of headache for my website again?

What was I using that was specific to SCSS?

My primary reason for SCSS was class generation based on arrays of variables. By defining all my design tokens in a central place, SCSS allows me to generate a vast amount of utility classes. Not to the level of tailwind, but enough for what I require in my projects. Let's illustrate this with an example. The code snippet below shows the $spaces SCSS variable. This variable is used to generate utility classes. For example, the .p-0 generates a class that sets the padding to 1rem.

$spaces: (
  "0": 1rem,
  "1": 1.25rem,
  "2": 1.5rem,

@each $name, $space in $spaces {
  .p-#{$name} {
    padding: $space;

Of course, there are a few more features of SCSS I was using. But this was my main reason all those years ago. Do you want to change the value? Boom, all classes are updated. Do you want to add or remove a value? Done.

But throughout the years, CSS gave us custom properties to solve the initial point. So instead of directly putting the values like 1rem into the classes, I put them into custom properties. The generated classes now use those.

:root {
  @each $name, $space in $spaces {
    --token-space-{$name}: $space;

You can see this approach in its full glory in my SCSS framework Feo CSS.

Migrating back to CSS

I came to realize that I was using SCSS-specific features less and less. Of course, I still use it to generate classes. But, in most projects, the design tokens remain stable rather quickly from the start. In addition, there are only so many utility classes I need. Although my approach is utility focused, it is not utility-first. I write bespoke CSS more often. In addition, there are only so many token-based utility functions I use.

Migrating to CSS would require a one-off investment. All tokens need to be converted to CSS custom properties instead of SCSS variables. In addition, all token-based utility functions need to be written one by one. Or more specifically, a lot of copy-pasting. This sounds like a tedious job, and it is.

In the end, it only takes a few hours of brainless work. Setting up a new tool, a plugin for your framework, compile steps, etc. takes an equal amount of time. The only difference is you now already have working CSS code. And if you are selective, you only have the required CSS code, instead of generated a big amount of unused CSS classes.

Re-evaluating some approaches

Essentially I did a big refactor of my CSS approach. And each big refactoring provides you with the opportunity to reevaluate. This exercise is no different. The biggest change can be found in my approach to defining class utilities. Not to be confused with utility classes. The former are classes that change a specific value set by another class. Let's look at a small example for one of the layout classes. In this case .tiles-g-0 would be an example of a class utility for the .tiles class that changes the gap property.

.tiles {
  --tiles-width: 0;
  --tiles-gap: 0;

  display: grid;
  grid-template-columns: repeat(
    minmax(min(var(--tiles-width), 100%), 1fr)
  gap: var(--tiles-gap);

/* the $spaces example used earlier */
@each $name, $space in $spaces {
  .tiles-g-#{$name} {
    --tiles-gap: var(--bp-#{$name});

I use these (token-based) class utilities almost exclusively in different layout composition classes. And guess what? Most of the layout classes have similar class utilities. They are either focused on width, gaps, or amounts. This means we can aggregate all the layout class utilities that are similar.

/* similar to our old spacing example */
.--gap-0 {
  --layout-gap: var(--token-space-0);

Instead of using --tiles-gap, the .tiles class, like any other layout class, uses the --layout-gap property.

.tiles {
  gap: var(--layout-gap, 0);

Applying this in HTML would look like something below. The usage of -- before each class utility makes them recognizable. A nice bonus advantage.

<div class="tiles --gap-0"></div>

This change has some benefits for myself and the CSS produced for this website. The most obvious is that this approach allows me to define these class utilities in one place. Remember that adding token-based classes is still the biggest downside of doing CSS-only? Well, this approach mitigates this a bit. In addition, the CSS footprint gets reduced as well, as a lot fewer classes are required.

Make your CSS production ready

SCSS has a compile step. One of my reasons to migrate back to CSS was to remove this step. I wanted my tooling overhead smaller. This is possible now! But you will quickly notice like I did, that it is suboptimal for a few reasons. The three most important reasons I found were:

This means that I still needed a tool, in particular for bundling, minifying, and targeting specific browsers. I landed on Lightning CSS. This tool allowed me to use a single NPM command in my build step to generate the CSS.

lightningcss --bundle --minify  <file.css> -o <output/file.css>

With all of these types of tools, you get a bunch of additional options. Adding the --nesting allows nested CSS to be compiled to older CSS syntax. With --target '> 0.25%, not IE 11' you can control the target browsers and what they support in CSS for the compile step. Luckily you can define everything in a single NPM command instead of creating another config file.

When does CSS-only make sense?

Would I recommend this move to everybody? No. It is highly dependent on your way of working and approach to implementing a design. If you are utility-focused in CSS, and use a vast amount of token-based classes, you might be better off with frameworks like tailwind or Feo CSS. If the number of design tokens you use is not stable, this approach is again not for you. But, if you are like me and follow conventions like Cube CSS and have a relatively stable set of design tokens, doing CSS-only is a good viable option.

I enjoyed the entire migration and tend to stick with it. CSS has become powerful enough to not require different tools or languages anymore. The resulting code is maintainable and risk-free of breaking tools.

If you are curious about the actual changes, compare Feo CSS and the /styles directory of this website. The previous version of this website used Feo CSS before the migration.