Using htmlspecialchars correctly

Daniel Opitz
Daniel Opitz
02 Jan 2017

The first question is: When to use the htmlspecialchars function?

You use htmlspecialchars EVERY time you output content within HTML, so it is interpreted as content and not HTML.

If you allow content to be treated as HTML, you have just opened the door to bugs at a minimum, and total XSS hacks at worst.

Now to the next question: How to use htmlspecialchars()?

The problem is that htmlspecialchars is security relevant and at the same time difficult to use in the right (and safe) way.

Look at this strange list of parameters:

string htmlspecialchars ( string $string [, int $flags = ENT_COMPAT | ENT_HTML401 [, string $encoding = ini_get("default_charset") [, bool $double_encode = TRUE ]]] )

The parameter $flags is a bitmask and can be combined with at least 10 different flags.

Let’s play with this function to find the most secure flags:

1. Test: Using the default flags

echo htmlspecialchars('&"\'<> ', ENT_HTML401 | ENT_COMPAT, 'UTF-8')

This result is not secure because the ' is not encoded to html.


2. Test: Using the ENT_HTML5 flag

echo htmlspecialchars('&"\'<> ', ENT_HTML5, 'UTF-8')

This result is not secure because " and ' is not encoded to html.


3. Test: Using the ENT_QUOTES | ENT_SUBSTITUTE flags

echo htmlspecialchars('&"\'<> ', ENT_QUOTES | ENT_SUBSTITUTE, 'UTF-8')

This result looks perfect:


Online Demo


The most secure flags for htmlspecialchars are: ENT_QUOTES | ENT_SUBSTITUTE in combination with UTF-8 encoding.

Helper function

In real life, of course, you don’t use htmlspecialchars that way because it’s too verbose.

So here is a tiny template helper function for htmlspecialchars.

 * Convert all applicable characters to HTML entities.
 * @param string $text The string being converted.
 * @return string The converted string.
function html($text)
    return htmlspecialchars($text, ENT_QUOTES | ENT_SUBSTITUTE, 'UTF-8');