When to use TailwindCSS over CSS

An in-depth look at the use cases for Tailwind CSS over CSS

When to use TailwindCSS over CSS
Harry Bendix-Lewis
by Harry Bendix-Lewis

June 4th 2021

7 min read

I find the premise of TailwindCSS exciting, an un-opinionated CSS framework that has an extensive list of utility classes by which to build UIs.

Coming from a background of using Bootstrap 3 quite heavily before we collectively decided as an industry that Bootstrap is past it (we did do that right? I can't keep up), there was plenty to complain about; their use of !important would keep me up at night, jQuery was great - in 2008, among others.

In their defence, they also did a lot right. The Bootstrap grid system is still fantastic, the modal is equally great and ultimately they made building consistent and functional UIs a breeze. For that alone, I'll always be grateful.

There has been an appetite for something more in recent memory. Something a bit, simpler? I think Tailwind (or rather the creators) realised people were looking for something just like Tailwind, so they made it.

There are whole swathes of developers out there who believe CSS is black magic and anyone that is remotely fluent in it is this all-powerful style-sheet, colour, whitespace, Shoreditch coffee drinking genius. When someone comes to me with a CSS issue they have spent "the last few days trying to solve" and I did it in one line (position: relative folks) from then on I was considered a sorcerer of black magic.

These whole swathes of developers are pre-dominantly backend developers and trust me guys CSS is a bizarre bit of kit, the main difference is exposure (as with most things), so I'm not gunning at ya. I sympathies with never really knowing how CSS works, I still don't think I do.

What I'm ultimately trying to say is, Tailwind came along and said: "don't worry about that nonsense, do it all in HTML and never write another line of CSS again". Immediately interest was piqued and Tailwind became very popular.

I finally found a use-case to try out Tailwind (this website uses it, as well) and thought I write my thoughts about it and how I think it compares to using good ol' CSS (or SCSS/LESS whatever takes your fancy).

So, how is Tailwind?

Tailwind has shined when I've been using it to get something up and running quickly, be it a prototype or a proof-of-concept. You can just focus on building your component (if we were using React, for example), there's no worry with importing stylesheets and ensuring they get parsed correctly.

Tailwind is extendable to be able to interject your styles and colour schemes, add your classes and modify existing ones. Tailwind also allows you to target pseudo-classes right in the class name, which is probably my favourite feature.

I think Tailwind's use of utility classes bodes well for component-based frameworks as it allows you to encapsulate styles to minimise class name bleed. As one component can encapsulate the template and the corresponding style, rather than having them in two separate places. This applies to small components (which they all should be, of course 😝) to not have complicated components made more complicated by hundreds of class names.

Tailwind also comes with the ability to "apply" Tailwind classes in your style sheets. So your button goes from:

<button class="text-blue bg-blue-500 hover:bg-blue-800 hover: text-white" />


<button class="btn-blue" />
.btn-blue {
@apply text-blue;
@apply bg-blue-500;

&:hover {
  @apply bg-blue-800;
  @apply text-white;

Which helps in minimising the class name spam. However, this begs my most important question...

Does it scale?

Increasingly, I am re-writing my applications that are using TailwindCSS and moving all the HTML classes to the SCSS style-sheets. Why?

<div className="flex md:w-2/3 w-full p-2 md:p-8">
<div className="flex flex-col items-start justify-center text-center md:text-left">
  <h1 className="font-black header-text-xl md:text-6xl">{title}</h1>
  <h2 className="text-2xl md:text-3xl mt-2 opacity-75">{description}</h2>
  <div className="flex w-full mt-6 justify-center md:justify-start">
     <Link to={findOutMoreLink}>
        <button type="button" className="bg-red-500 hover:bg-red-700 text-white font-bold py-2 px-4 rounded text-2xl ml-auto">

That is not readable (and that is a very tame example). At the very least, you need to study that HTML block to start to figure out how it is styled or what it is trying to convey.

With a bit of clever SCSS you can transform the block above to something more akin to:

<div className="wrapper two-thirds">
<div className="content">
  <div className="center">
     <Link to={findOutMoreLink}>
           className="btn btn-red"

Sure, you still need to go to the SCSS file and read that understand how it styled, but that is the purpose of SCSS. Are we not crossing streams, muddying the waters, by merging the styling and markup into the same file?

When I view HTML I want to see the semantics of the file. When I view the stylesheet I want to see how the content is styled.

If I've decided to move all my Tailwind classes to custom SCSS style-sheets, then why wouldn't I just use SCSS? Spoiler: this is exactly what I've done.

Now I get complete control over my styling, I can use variables and all the other lovely functionality bundled with SCSS and can apply proven architectural structures to my styling that makes it easier to read and understand.

It is far easier to organise your code when you can have a distinction between your stylesheets and your templates. It also allows you to structure your styles and take full advantage of all the utility that comes with SCSS.

Ultimately I had projects where I was struggling to understand how to tweak the UI as I found following all the class names so difficult.

If I, the author of the code, was struggling to follow it - how would anyone else?

Tailwind fills a niche

It is a great tool, but I can only see myself using it if I need to prototype something fast, or a backend heavy side-project with a minimal front-end. That is where Tailwind shines.

If your project has scalability concerns or it is a style heavy project then I recommend to run your own SCSS architecture and follow something like the 7-1 pattern (which is by far my favourite way of organising my SCSS). This allows you to reap all the benefits of using SCSS and keeps a clear concern between your style-sheets (here be styles) and your HTML (here be HTML).