Context-specific escaping with zend-escaper

Security of your website is not just about mitigating and preventing things like SQL injection; it's also about protecting your users as they browse the site from things like cross-site scripting (XSS) attacks, cross-site request forgery (CSRF), and more. In particular, you need to be very careful about how you generate HTML, CSS, and JavaScript to ensure that you do not create such vectors.

As the mantra goes, filter input, and escape output.

Believe it or not, escaping in PHP is not terribly easy to get right. For example, to properly escape HTML, you need to use htmlspecialchars(), with the flags ENT_QUOTES | ENT_SUBSTITUTE, and provide a character encoding. Who really wants to write

htmlspecialchars($string, ENT_QUOTES | ENT_SUBSTITUTE, 'utf-8')

every single time they need to escape a string for use in HTML?

Escaping HTML attributes, CSS, and JavaScript each require a regular expression to identify known problem strings, and a number of heuristics to replace unicode characters with hex entities, each with different rules. While much of this can be done with built-in PHP features, these features do not catch all potential attack vectors. A comprehensive solution is required.

Zend Framework provides the zend-escaper component to manage this complexity for you, exposing functionality for escaping HTML, HTML attributes, JavaScript, CSS, and URLs to ensure they are safe for the browser.


zend-escaper only requires PHP (of at least version 5.5 at the time of writing), and is installable via composer:

$ composer require zendframework/zend-escaper


While we considered making zend-escaper act as either functions or static methods, there was one thing in the way: proper escaping requires knowledge of the intended output character set. As such, Zend\Escaper\Escaper must first be instantiated; once it has, you call methods on it.

use Zend\Escaper\Escaper;

$escaper = new Escaper('iso-8859-1');

By default, if no character set is provided, it assumes utf-8; we recommend using UTF-8 unless there is a compelling reason not to. As such, in most cases, you can instantiate it with no arguments:

use Zend\Escaper\Escaper;

$escaper = new Escaper();

The class provides five methods:

  • escapeHtml(string $html) : string will escape the string so it may be safely used as HTML. In general, this means <, >, and & characters (as well as others) are escaped to prevent injection of unwanted tags and entities.
  • escapeHtmlAttr(string $value) : string escapes a string so it may safely be used within an HTML attribute value.
  • escapeJs(string $js) : string escapes a string so it may safely be used within a <script> tag. In particular, this ensures that the code injected cannot contain continuations and escape sequences that lead to XSS vectors.
  • escapeCss(string $css) : string escapes a string to use as CSS within <style> tags; similar to JS, it prevents continuations and escape sequences that can lead to XSS vectors.
  • escapeUrl(string $urlPart) : string escapes a string to use within a URL; it should not be used to escape the entire URL itself. It should be used to escape things such as the URL path, query string parameters, and fragment, however.

So, as examples:

echo $escaper->escapeHtml('<script>alert("zf")</script>');
// results in "&lt;script&gt;alert(&quot;zf&quot;)&lt;/script&gt;"

echo $escaper->escapeHtmlAttr("<script>alert('zf')</script>");
// results in "&lt;script&gt;alert&#x28;&#x27;zf&#x27;&#x29;&lt;&#x2F;script&gt;"

echo $escaper->escapeJs("bar&quot;; alert(&quot;zf&quot;); var xss=&quot;true");
// results in "bar\x26quot\x3B\x3B\x20alert\x28\x26quot\x3Bzf\x26quot\x3B\x29\x3B\x20var\x20xss\x3D\x26quot\x3Btrue"

echo $escaper->escapeCss("background-image: url('/zf.png?</style><script>alert(\'zf\')</script>');");
// results in "background\2D image\3A \20 url\28 \27 \2F zf\2E png\3F \3C \2F style\3E \3C script\3E alert\28 \5C \27 zf\5C \27 \29 \3C \2F script\3E \27 \29 \3B"

echo $escaper->escapeUrl('/foo " onmouseover="alert(\'zf\')');
// results in "%2Ffoo%20%22%20onmouseover%3D%22alert%28%27zf%27%29"

As you can see from these examples, the component aggresively filters each string to ensure it is escaped correctly for the context for which it is intended.

How and where might you use this?

  • Within templates, to ensure output is properly escaped. For example, zend-view includes helpers for it; it would be easy to add such functionality to Plates and other templating solutions.
  • In email templates.
  • In serializers for APIs, to ensure things like URLs or XML attribute data are properly escaped.
  • In error handlers, to ensure error messages are escaped and do not contain XSS vectors.

The main point is that escaping can be easy with zend-escaper; start securing your output today!

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