Selecting and Modifying CSS Pseudo-Elements with JavaScript

January 12, 2019 ยท 3 minute read

Vaporwave palm tree art

Since they’re not part of the DOM, CSS pseudo-elements can’t be selected and edited with JavaScript the same way as traditional elements on a page. I ended up going a different route by selecting the regular elements, creating CSS rules for their pseudo elements, and injecting those them into the page.

The Design

One of my recent projects involved creating 10 sections that follow a similar layout. Each section was distinguished by a numbered tab that was incrementally offset to the right of the previous section’s tab.

To create each section’s tabs, I absolutely positioned a ::before pseudo-element at the top of the section. One way to accomplish the design would have been to hardcode the text and numbers in each tab individually and do the same with positioning in the stylesheet. However, I wanted to generate these numbered tabs and their positions programmatically since they followed a reproducible pattern.

Sketch of tabs

The Problem

In the stylesheets, I added the base styles of each section and their pseudo-element tabs.

What I wanted to do with JavaScript was to run through a loop of all 10 tabs so I could add tab numbers to the content attribute and change their horizontal positions.

JavaScript allowed me to select my pseudo elements with the getComputedStyle method and retrieve specific values.

	document.querySelector('section'), ':before'

However, I quickly came to find that it wasn’t possible to target and manipulate pseudo-elements as they’re not part of the DOM.

The Solution

With a little help from some Stack Overflow threads, I learned that the best solution for my situation was to loop through each of my section elements, create CSS rules for each pseudo-element, and then insert the rules inside a style tag in the head of the site.

I started with an empty string called cssRules, and a number value of 7.5 which was used as the initial left position of the tabs. This number was also what each subsequent tab would be incremented by in the for loop. An empty variable, newLeftPosition was used to store the new, calculated left position of each tab in the index.

Within the for loop, the index of each element was used to multiply by 7.5 to give the element a left position. The index was also used to print the number of the tab by way of the pseudo-element’s content property. Both of these properties were assigned to numbered classes that corresponded to each section (e.g. .section-1, .section-2, .section-3) and then added to the cssRules string.

;(function() {
  var cssRules = '',
      origLeftPosition = 7.5,

  $('section').each(function(i) {
    newLeftPosition = origLeftPosition * (i + 1)
    cssRules += '.section-' + (i + 1) + "::before{content:'Tab " + (i + 1) + "';left:" + newLeftPosition + 'vw;}'

  $('head').append('<style>' + cssRules + '</style>')

The cssRules string contained the rules for all section::before pseudo-elements. These were then appended inside of a style tag to the head of the page, which rendered like this:

<style>.section-1::before{content:'Tab 1';left:7.5vw;}.section-2::before{content:'Tab 2';left:15vw;}.section-3::before{content:'Tab 3';left:22.5vw;}.section-4::before{content:'Tab 4';left:30vw;}.section-5::before{content:'Tab 5';left:37.5vw;}.section-6::before{content:'Tab 6';left:45vw;}.section-7::before{content:'Tab 7';left:52.5vw;}.section-8::before{content:'Tab 8';left:60vw;}.section-9::before{content:'Tab 9';left:67.5vw;}.section-10::before{content:'Tab 10';left:75vw;}</style>

It might have taken me a little longer to figure out how to generate this design element programmatically instead of just individually typing each pseudo-elements’s different properties, but I’m pleased with the outcome, the challenge this small hurdle posed, and the knowledge gained along the way.