Please Respect My Browser Font Size

TLDR: Hard coding font sizes in px units makes your site hard for me to read. Consider basing your sites font sizes off the user’s default font size, especially for the main body content.

The problem

I have a moderate astigmatism and can no longer read tiny text like I used to, when wearing single purpose “computer glasses.” I also have a laptop with a small and relatively high resolution screen. On this machine I’ve adjusted Firefox’s default font size to 20px, which makes body text easy for me to read.

Yet, many websites override this and hard code body text to something like 16px or, worse, 14px or even 9px!

Easy solution

Fortunately, browsers worth considering today support a simple solution: use rem units instead of px. Or, use some other approach that bases the font size off the user’s default font size, which is the font-size of the :root CSS pseudo-class.

See the Mozilla MDN on font-size, which says:

Note: To maximize accessibility, it is generally best to use values that are relative to the user’s default font size.

One viable choice is leaving font-size entirely alone in your site’s CSS, at least in styles that apply to body text. This is what the MDN does in its own site, and the browser shows me a nice 20px font in body text.

Recommendation: visit https://developer.mozilla.org/en-US/docs/Learn/CSS and see if you like the body text size there. If so, just go with it! Stop setting font-size at all for body text in your site. The MDN doesn’t.

Another choice is using rem units, A rem is a multiplier against the font size set on the :root CSS pseudo-class, which, unless your site’s CSS changes it, is the users chosen default font size. All browsers today default this setting to 16px, but people can choose to make it larger by adjusting their browser settings.

One site which I consistently find quite readable is The New York Times, which uses this relatively simple way of setting font size for body text:

.body-text {
@media (min-width:740px) {
  .body-text {

The body-text class applies to article body text. (Note: I’ve renamed the class to “body-text” here from the cryptic name they actually use on the site.) The CSS above, by default, sets body text to 18px (1.125rem16px * 1.12518px) on narrower windows and 20px (1.25rem16px * 1.2520px) on larger ones. Because my default body text is set larger than 16px the formulas above scale body text even larger, which is great for me. You can see they use a similar trick for line-height. The combined effect is body text that is slightly larger and more spaced out than the default, which is great for reading articles quickly.

A site that does this comparatively poorly is Washington Post. You can see that they scale by roughly the same rem multipliers, but they override my chosen default font size by hard coding a 16px baseline:

:root {
    /* BAD: this overrides my font size preference! */
.font-copy {
@media only screen and (min-width:1024px) {
    .font-copy {
@media only screen and (min-width: 768px) and (max-width: 1023px) {
    .font-copy {
.font--article-body {

Examples of sites doing it well

New York Times
see above
Python Docs
These pages set the font-size to 100% for the <body> tag. Percentages are relative to the parent element’s font size. In this case the font-size of :root and <html> are left at the default. Of interest, these docs are generated with Sphinx, whose own site doesn’t set font-size at all, with the same effect.
Beautiful Racket
Uses a body text of 1em, respecting the user’s default.

Examples of sites doing it not so well

Hacker News
Sets text to 9px – almost half the browser default for body text! I have to zoom that site out 200%.
As bad as Hacker News, for the same reason. What is it with these sites? My guess: they’re developed by people with great eyesight!
Sets text to 14px, a touch smaller than browser defaults. I zoom Reddit to 150%.
Racket Documentation
Much like the Washington Post, these pages hard code the font to 15px. This is smaller but close to the browser default, so few people notice, but I usually need text to be 25% larger. The site then scales body text up by 1.18rem which gives me a 17.7px font. So, the designer here clearly wanted something larger than default, but perhaps inadvertently defeated my desire to have text that was even larger.
For unknown reasons Facebook scales post text with .9375rem, reducing my preferred font size of 20px to 18.75px. Not terrible, but why base a site’s font size off the browser default but reduce it? It is almost as if reading comprehension isn’t the point of Facebook.
This site is a “one-stop technology learning resource” that sets the font-size on the <html> element to 80%, then sets font-size on <body> to 1em, then sets font-size on <p> to 100%. These all cancel out to set the font size on the main content to 80% of the browser default. While this is still based on the browser default, I find that going smaller is a bad idea.

What about browser zoom?

From personal experience: tweaking zoom every time I visit a new site is a drag.

Also, zoom scales everything, including spacing around icons, etc. I generally only want larger main body text, not larger everything.

What about the viewport meta tag?

You might have noticed that many sites include the following incantation in their <head> tag nowadays:

<meta name="viewport" content="width=device-width,initial-scale=1"/>

See the description on Mozilla’s MDN for the full scoop. Longs story short, this is an incantation that tells the browser that the page’s CSS is designed to be “responsive” to the small screens typical of mobile devices. The initial-scale=1 portion opts in to a browser heuristic where even px sizes are heuristically scaled larger based on the DPI of the device’s screen. This generally works pretty well. But, this heuristic is typically not used by desktop browsers.

What about magic/intelligent DPI handling on the host OS?

In theory, the browser and the host the OS font system will have perfect knowledge of the physical size of the screen, the pixel density (DPI), and the user’s preferred text size, and make intelligent choices based on all of these factors. For mobile, this is essentially what the viewport meta tag is all about.

This doesn’t exist on desktop, where the browser’s default font size is still the most reliable way to size a font that the user will be happy with.

Recommendation: use rem or nothing at all

When I come across a site that respects my browser’s default font size it most often takes one of two approaches:

  1. It does not set a font size at all. Simpler sites take this option quite often.

  2. It uses rem instead of px. Sites with more complex CSS and fancier layouts seem to do this.

Less often, the site uses percentages or font sizes like “smaller.” Take a look at one of the relative font size approaches that are standardized and widely supported today and use them. Your readers will be happier for it!