Pseudo-elements are in use for a long time. However, there are some uses cases that I feel they are not entirely known across developers. I wrote down this article to shed light on them so they can be used more.

Parent-child Hover Effect

Since the pseudo-element belongs to its parent element, there are some unusual use cases for that. For now, let’s explore a straightforward example to demonstrate what I mean.

The design has a section title, with a little circle on the left side of it. When we hover on the section title, the circle gets bigger.

.section-title:before { content: ""; width: 20px; height: 20px; background: blue; /* Other styles */
} .section-title:hover:before { transform: scale(1.2);

Easy and straightforward. Let’s extend that concept to more useful use cases.

Projects/Blog Section

On my website, I have a section that lists all of my projects. I wanted to add a thumbnail for each project, but it wasn’t a top priority thing for me. What’s more important to me is the link itself. I first saw this effect a while ago on Ethan Marcotte website.

The above design mockup shows the idea that I wanted to apply. Each colored link in the paragraph has a pseudo-element paired with it.

<section class="hero"> <p>Hello, my name is Ahmad. I’m a UX Designer and Front End Developer that enjoys the intersection between design and code. I write on <a href="" class="link-1"></a> and <a href="" class="link-2"></a> on CSS, UX Design and Web Accessibility.</p>

1) I added padding to the hero

I want to reserve space for the pseudo-elements, so adding padding is a solution for that.

2) Position the pseudo-elements absolutely

To position them absolutely, I need to define which parent is the relative one. It should be added to the hero section.

Notice in the below GIF how removing position: relative from the .hero section affects the pseudo-elements.

3) Adding pseudo-elements

The final step is to add the pseudo-elements along with their hover effects. Here is how I did it:

.link-1 { color: #854FBB;
} @media (min-width: 700px) { .link-1:after { content: ""; position: absolute; right: 0; top: 20px; width: 150px; height: 100px; background: currentColor; opacity: 0.85; transition: 0.3s ease-out; } .link-1:hover { text-decoration: underline; } .link-1:hover:after { transform: scale(1.2); opacity: 1; }

Notice that I’ve used currentColor for the pseudo-element background. If you don’t know about this keyword, it inherits from the color value of its parent. So at any point, I want to change the colors of the links, it’s easy to change them only once.

See the Pen Pseudo-elements: Example 1 by Ahmad Shadeed (@shadeed) on CodePen.

If you are curious, go to the home page of my website and check the “My Projects” section. I have used the above technique.

Increasing the clickable area size

By adding a pseudo-element to a link, the clickable area around it will get bigger. This is very useful and will enhance the experience for the user. Let’s take an example:

Moreover, it can be used to extend the clickable area of a card component, which has a view more link. I wrote a detailed article about that topic.


Let’s suppose that there is an element with a background image, and the design has a gradient overlay with blending mode set to color. Pseudo-elements can help with that!

.hero { position: relative; height: 300px; background: url("image.jpg") center/cover;
} .hero:after { content: ""; position: absolute; left: 0; top: 0; width: 100%; height: 100%; background-image: linear-gradient(180deg, #851717 0%, #30328C 100%); mix-blend-mode: color;

See the Pen Pseudo-elements: Example 2 by Ahmad Shadeed (@shadeed) on CodePen.

Wrapped Shadows

I’m not sure if the naming is correct, but this is what I got. Back in the days, I used to create a shadow that is skewed at the edges. It has a little subtle effect. Guess what! It’s possible to do them with pseudo-elements.

Creating the element

I created a div element with regular styles as below.

.elem { position: relative; display: flex; align-items: center; max-width: 400px; background: #fff; padding: 2rem 1rem; font-size: 1.5rem; margin: 2rem auto; text-align: center; box-sizing: border-box;

Adding pseudo-elements

Then, I added :before and :after pseudo-elements with a width of 50% for each of them (I added a different background for each one for explaining purposes).

.elem:after { content: ""; position: absolute; top: 2px; width: 50%; height: 100%;
} .elem:before { left: 0; background: grey;
} .elem:after { right: 0; background: #000;

Next, I will add transform: skew(x) where X is 2 degrees. For one of them, X should be negative to achieve the desired effect.

.elem:before { transform: skew(-2deg);
} .elem:after { transform: skew(2deg);

Next, I will add z-index: -1 to each pseudo-element to move it behind its parent.

Once that is done, I did the following:

  • Added filter: blur
  • Reduced opacity
  • Added a gradient from transparent to black (To hide the pseudo-elements edges at the top center of its parent)

Final Code

.elem { position: relative; display: flex; align-items: center; max-width: 400px; background: #fff; padding: 2rem 1rem; font-size: 1.5rem; margin: 2rem auto; text-align: center; box-sizing: border-box;
} .elem:before,
.elem:after { content: ""; position: absolute; top: 3px; width: 50%; height: 100%; z-index: -1; background: linear-gradient(to bottom, transparent, #000); filter: blur(3px); opacity: 0.3;
} .elem:before { left: 0; transform: skewY(-2deg);
} .elem:after { right: 0; transform: skewY(2deg);

There is another option, which is to swap the skewY values between the :before and :after pseudo-elements. That will result in a different effect.

See the Pen Pseudo-elements: Example 3 by Ahmad Shadeed (@shadeed) on CodePen.

Using :after vs :before

In a recent Twitter discussion, I learned that it’s better to use :before instead of :after. Why? Because when using :after, it might require us to add z-index to other nested elements so the pseudo-element won’t overlap them. Let’s take a real-life example.

Here is a simple card that consists of a thumbnail and title. If you notice, there is a gradient overlay below the text to make the text clearer in case the thumbnail is too light.

<article class="card"> <img src="article.jpg" alt=""> <h2>Title here</h2>

To add the gradient overlay under the text, I will need to use a pseudo-element. Which one will you pick? :before or :after? Let’s explore both.

1) After element

In that case, the title will appear underneath the pseudo-element overlay like the below.

The solution to that is to add z-index to the card title. Even if this is an easy and quick solution, it’s not the correct thing to do.

.card-title { /*Other styles*/ z-index: 1;

2) Before element

When using a :before element for the overlay, it works by default! It’s not needed to add z-index to the card title. The reason is that when using :before, the element won’t appear above the other sibling items while it will appear in case the element was :after.

See the Pen Pseudo-elements: Example 4 by Ahmad Shadeed (@shadeed) on CodePen.

If there is a link that has a PDF file, for example, it’s possible to add a PDF icon to make it more clear for the user.

Here is an example of how to show a PDF icon for a link:

<p><a href="example.pdf">Download PDF</a></p>
<p><a href="example.doc">Download Doc</a></p>
a[href$=".pdf"]:before { content: ""; display: inline-block; vertical-align: middle; margin-right: 8px; width: 18px; height: 18px; background: url( center/20px no-repeat; padding: 3px;

See the Pen Pseudo-elements: Example 5 by Ahmad Shadeed (@shadeed) on CodePen.


For this example, there is a separator with “or”. At each side, there is a line. It’s possible to do that with pseudo-elements and Flexbox.

p { display: flex; align-items: center;
} p:before, p:after { content: ""; height: 2px; background: #c5c5c5; flex-grow: 1;
} p:before { margin-right: 10px;
} p:after { margin-left: 10px;

See the Pen Pseudo-elements: Example 6 by Ahmad Shadeed (@shadeed) on CodePen.

It turned out that there is a better way to do this. Mr. Scott Zirkel pointed out that it’s better to use an <hr> for that kind of thing. Check out the CodePen Demo for more details.

The End

And that’s a wrap. Do you have a comment or a suggestion? Please feel free to ping me on @shadeed9.

Thank you for reading.