HTML attributes vs DOM properties

Attributes and properties are fundamentally different things. You can have an attribute and property of the same name set to different values. For example:

<div foo="bar"></div>
  const div = document.querySelector('div[foo=bar]');

  console.log(div.getAttribute('foo')); // 'bar'
  console.log(; // undefined = 'hello world';

  console.log(div.getAttribute('foo')); // 'bar'
  console.log(; // 'hello world'

It seems like fewer and fewer developers know this, partially thanks to frameworks:

<input className="" type="" aria-label="" value="" />

If you do the above in a framework's templating language, you're using attribute-like syntax, but under the hood it'll sometimes be setting the property instead, and when it does that differs from framework to framework. In some cases, it'll set a property and an attribute as a side-effect, but that isn't the framework's fault.

Most of the time, these distinctions don't matter. I think it's good that developers can have a long and happy career without caring about the differences between properties and attributes. But, if you need to dig down into the DOM at a lower level, it helps to know. Even if you feel you know the difference, maybe I'll touch on a couple of details you hadn't considered. So let's dig in…

The key differences

Before we get to the interesting stuff, let's get some of the technical differences out of the way:

HTML serialisation

Attributes serialise to HTML, whereas properties don't:

const div = document.createElement('div');

div.setAttribute('foo', 'bar');
div.hello = 'world';

console.log(div.outerHTML); // '<div foo="bar"></div>'

So when you're looking at the elements panel in browser developer tools, you're only seeing attributes on elements, not properties.

Value types

In order to work in the serialised format, attribute values are always strings, whereas properties can be any type:

const div = document.createElement('div');
const obj = { foo: 'bar' };

div.setAttribute('foo', obj);
console.log(typeof div.getAttribute('foo')); // 'string'
console.log(div.getAttribute('foo')); // '[object Object]'

div.hello = obj;
console.log(typeof div.hello); // 'object'
console.log(div.hello); // { foo: 'bar' }

Case sensitivity

Attribute names are case-insensitive, whereas property names are case-sensitive.

<div id="test" HeLlO="world"></div>
  const div = document.querySelector('#test');

  console.log(div.getAttributeNames()); // ['id', 'hello']

  div.setAttribute('FOO', 'bar');
  console.log(div.getAttributeNames()); // ['id', 'hello', 'foo']

  div.TeSt = 'value';
  console.log(div.TeSt); // 'value'
  console.log(div.test); // undefined

However, attribute values are case-sensitive.

Ok, here's where things start to get blurry:


Take a look at this:

<div id="foo"></div>
  const div = document.querySelector('#foo');

  console.log(div.getAttribute('id')); // 'foo'
  console.log(; // 'foo' = 'bar';

  console.log(div.getAttribute('id')); // 'bar'
  console.log(; // 'bar'

This seems to contradict the first example in the post, but the above only works because Element has an id getter & setter that 'reflects' the id attribute.

When a property reflects an attribute, the attribute is the source of the data. When you set the property, it's updating the attribute. When you read from the property, it's reading the attribute.

For convenience, most specs will create a property equivalent for every defined attribute. It didn't work in the example at the start of the article, because foo isn't a spec-defined attribute, so there isn't a spec-defined foo property that reflects it.

Here's the spec for <ol>. The "Content attributes" section defines the attributes, and the "DOM interface" defines the properties. If you click on reversed in the DOM interface, it takes you to this:

The reversed and type IDL attributes must reflect the respective content attributes of the same name.

But some reflectors are more complex…

Naming differences

Ok, this is relatively minor, but sometimes the property has a different name to the attribute it reflects.

In some cases it's just to add the kind of casing you'd expect from a property:

  • On <img>, el.crossOrigin reflects the crossorigin attribute.
  • On all elements, el.ariaLabel reflects the aria-label attribute (the aria reflectors became cross browser in late 2023. Before that you could only use the attributes).

In some cases, names had to be changed due to old JavaScript reserved words:

  • On all elements, el.className reflects the class attribute.
  • On <label>, el.htmlFor reflects the for attribute.

Validation, type coercion, and defaults

Properties come with validation and defaults, whereas attributes don't:

const input = document.createElement('input');

console.log(input.getAttribute('type')); // null
console.log(input.type); // 'text'

input.type = 'number';

console.log(input.getAttribute('type')); // 'number'
console.log(input.type); // 'number'

input.type = 'foo';

console.log(input.getAttribute('type')); // 'foo'
console.log(input.type); // 'text'

In this case, the validation is handled by the type getter. The setter allowed the invalid value 'foo', but when the getter saw the invalid value, or no value, it returned 'text'.

Some properties perform type coercion:

<details open></details>
  const details = document.querySelector('details');

  console.log(details.getAttribute('open')); // ''
  console.log(; // true = false;

  console.log(details.getAttribute('open')); // null
  console.log(; // false = 'hello';

  console.log(details.getAttribute('open')); // ''
  console.log(; // true

In this case, the open property is a boolean, returning whether the attribute exists. The setter also coerces the type - even though the setter is given 'hello', it's turned to a boolean rather than going directly to the attribute.

Properties like img.height coerce the attribute value to a number. The setter converts the incoming value to a number, and treats negative values as 0.

value on input fields

value is a fun one. There's a value property and a value attribute. However, the value property does not reflect the value attribute. Instead, the defaultValue property reflects the value attribute.

I know, I know.

In fact, the value property doesn't reflect any attribute. That isn't unusual, there's loads of these (offsetWidth, parentNode, indeterminate on checkboxes for some reason, and many more).

Initially, the value property defers to the defaultValue property. Then, once the value property is set, either via JavaScript or through user interaction, it switches to an internal value. It's as if it's implemented roughly like this:

class HTMLInputElement extends HTMLElement {
  get defaultValue() {
    return this.getAttribute('value') ?? '';

  set defaultValue(newValue) {
    this.setAttribute('value', String(newValue));

  #value = undefined;

  get value() {
    return this.#value ?? this.defaultValue;

  set value(newValue) {
    this.#value = String(newValue);

  // This happens when the associated form resets
  formResetCallback() {
    this.#value = undefined;


<input type="text" value="default" />
  const input = document.querySelector('input');

  console.log(input.getAttribute('value')); // 'default'
  console.log(input.value); // 'default'
  console.log(input.defaultValue); // 'default'

  input.defaultValue = 'new default';

  console.log(input.getAttribute('value')); // 'new default'
  console.log(input.value); // 'new default'
  console.log(input.defaultValue); // 'new default'

  // Here comes the mode switch:
  input.value = 'hello!';

  console.log(input.getAttribute('value')); // 'new default'
  console.log(input.value); // 'hello!'
  console.log(input.defaultValue); // 'new default'

  input.setAttribute('value', 'another new default');

  console.log(input.getAttribute('value')); // 'another new default'
  console.log(input.value); // 'hello!'
  console.log(input.defaultValue); // 'another new default'

This would have made way more sense if the value attribute was named defaultvalue. Too late now.

Attributes should be for configuration

In my opinion, attributes should be for configuration, whereas properties can contain state. I also believe that the light-DOM tree should have a single owner.

In that sense, I think <input value> gets it right (aside from the naming). The value attribute configures the default value, whereas the value property gives you the current state.

It also makes sense that validation applies when getting/setting properties, but never when getting/setting attributes.

I say 'in my opinion', because a couple of recent HTML elements have done it differently.

The <details> and <dialog> elements represent their open state via the open attribute, and the browser will self add/remove this attribute in response to user interaction.

I think this was a design mistake. It breaks the idea that attributes are for configuration, but more importantly it means that the system in charge of maintaining the DOM (a framework, or vanilla JS) needs to be prepared for the DOM to change itself.

I think it should have been:

<details defaultopen></details>

And a property to get/set the current state, along with a CSS pseudo-class for targeting that state.

Update: Simon Peters unearthed some of the early design discussion around this.

I guess contenteditable also breaks that contract, but… well… it's a opt-in to a lot of breakage.

How frameworks handle the difference

Back to the example from earlier:

<input className="" type="" aria-label="" value="" />

How do frameworks handle this?

Preact and VueJS

Aside from a predefined set of cases where they favour attributes, they'll set the prop as a property if propName in element, otherwise they'll set an attribute. Basically, they prefer properties over attributes. Their render-to-string methods do the opposite, and ignore things that are property-only.


React does things the other way around. Aside from a predefined set of cases where they favour properties, they'll set an attribute. This makes their render-to-string method similar in logic.

This explains why custom elements don't seem to work in React. Since they're custom, their properties aren't in React's 'predefined list', so they're set as attributes instead. Anything that's property-only on the custom element simply won't work. This will be fixed in React 19, where they'll switch to the Preact/VueJS model for custom elements.

The funny thing is, React popularised using className instead of class in what looks like an attribute. But, even though you're using the property name rather than the attribute name, React will set the class attribute under the hood.


Lit does things a little differently:

<input type="" .value="" />

It keeps the distinction between attributes and properties, requiring you to prefix the name with . if you want to set the property rather than the attribute.

And that's yer lot

That's pretty much everything I know about the difference between properties and attributes. If there's something I've missed, or you have a question, let me know in the comments below!

Thanks to my podcast husband Surma for his usual reviewing skills.

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Jake Archibald in a garden with a black cat

Hello, I'm Jake and that's me there. The one that isn't a cat. I'm a developer of sorts.



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