Documentation Validating, Sanitizing, and Escaping

Validating, Sanitizing, and Escaping

Overview #

Your code works, but is it safe? When writing your theme and plugin code, you’ll need to be extra cautious of how you handle data coming into WordPress and how it’s presented to the end user. This commonly comes up when building a settings page for your theme, creating and manipulating shortcodes, or saving and rendering extra data associated with a post. There is a distinction between how input and output are managed, and this document will walk you through that.

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Guiding Principles #

  1. Never trust user input.
  2. Escape as late as possible.
  3. Escape everything from untrusted sources (like databases and users), third-parties (like Twitter), etc.
  4. Never assume anything.
  5. Never trust user input.
  6. Sanitation is okay, but validation/rejection is better.
  7. Never trust user input.

“Escaping isn’t only about protecting from bad guys. It’s just making our software durable. Against random bad input, against malicious input, or against bad weather.”

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Validating: Checking User Input #

To validate is to ensure the data you’ve requested of the user matches what they’ve submitted. There are several core methods you can use for input validation; usage obviously depends on the type of fields you’d like to validate. Let’s take a look at an example.

Say we have an input area in our form like this:

<input id="my-zipcode" type="text" maxlength="5" name="my-zipcode" />

Just like that, we’ve limited my user to five characters of input, but there’s no limitation on what they can input. They could enter “11221″ or “eval(“. If we’re saving to the database, there’s no way we want to give the user unrestricted write access.

This is where validation plays a role. When processing the form, we’ll write code to check each field for its proper data type. If it’s not of the proper data type, we’ll discard it. For instance, to check “my-zipcode” field, we might do something like this:

$safe_zipcode = intval( $_POST['my-zipcode'] );
if ( ! $safe_zipcode )
$safe_zipcode = '';
update_post_meta( $post->ID, 'my_zipcode', $safe_zipcode );

The intval() function casts user input as an integer, and defaults to zero if the input was a non-numeric value. We then check to see if the value ended up as zero. If it did, we’ll save an empty value to the database. Otherwise, we’ll save the properly validated zipcode.

Note that we could go even further and make sure the the zip code is actually a valid one based on ranges and lengths we expect (e.g. 111111111 is not a valid zip code but would be saved fine with the function above).

This style of validation most closely follows WordPress’ whitelist philosophy: only allow the user to input what you’re expecting. Luckily, there’s a number of handy helper functions you can use for most every data type.

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Sanitizing: Cleaning User Input #

Sanitization is a bit more liberal of an approach to accepting user data. We can fall back to using these methods when there’s a range of acceptable input.

For instance, if we had a form field like this:

<input id="title" type="text" name="title" />

We could sanitize the data with the sanitize_text_field() function:

$title = sanitize_text_field( $_POST['title'] );
update_post_meta( $post->ID, 'title', $title );

Behind the scenes, the function does the following:

  • Checks for invalid UTF-8
  • Converts single < characters to entity
  • Strips all tags
  • Remove line breaks, tabs and extra white space
  • Strip octets

The sanitize_*() class of helper functions are super nice for us, as they ensure we’re ending up with safe data and require minimal effort on our part.

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Escaping: Securing Output #

For security on the other end of the spectrum, we have escaping. To escape is to take the data you may already have and help secure it prior to rendering it for the end user. WordPress thankfully has a few helper functions we can use for most of what we’ll commonly need to do:

esc_html() we should use anytime our HTML element encloses a section of data we’re outputting.

<h4><!--<?php echo esc_html( $title ); ?>--></h4>

esc_url() should be used on all URLs, including those in the ‘src’ and ‘href’ attributes of an HTML element.

<img alt="" src="<?php echo esc_url( $great_user_picture_url ); ?>" />

esc_js() is intended for inline Javascript.

var value = '<?php echo esc_js( $value ); ?>';

esc_attr() can be used on everything else that’s printed into an HTML element’s attribute.

<ul class="<!--?php echo esc_attr( $stored_class ); ?-->">

It’s important to note that most WordPress functions properly prepare the data for output, and you don’t need to escape again.

<h4><?php the_title(); ?></h4>

It’s best to do the output escaping as late as possible, ideally as it’s being outputted, as opposed to further up in your script. This way you can always be sure that your data is properly escaped and you don’t need to remember if the variable has been previously validated.

Here are two examples. In order to keep this straight forward, we’ve kept them simple. Imagine a scenario with much more code between the place where $title is defined and where it’s used. The second example is more clear that $title is escaped.

Example 1:

$title = esc_html( $instance['title'] );

// Logic that sets up the widget

echo $before_title . $title . $after_title;

Example 2:

$title = $instance['title'];

// Logic that sets up the widget

echo $before_title . esc_html( $title ) . $after_title;

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Conclusion #

To recap: Follow the whitelist philosophy with data validation, and only allow the user to input data of your expected type. If it’s not the proper type, discard it. When you have a range of data that can be entered, make sure you sanitize it. Escape data as much as possible on output to avoid XSS and malformed HTML.

Take a look through the Data Validation Codex page  to see all of the sanitization and escaping functions WordPress has to offer.