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David Celis

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Stop Validating Email Addresses with Regex

Just stop, y’all. It’s a waste of your time and your effort. Put down your Google search for an email regular expression, take a step back, and breathe. There’s a famous quote that goes:

Some people, when confronted with a problem, think, “I know, I’ll use regular expressions.” Now they have two problems.

Jamie Zawinski

Here’s a fairly common code sample from Rails Applications with some sort of authentication system:

class User < ActiveRecord::Base
  # This regex is from https://github.com/plataformatec/devise, the most
  # popular Rails authentication library
  validates :email, format: {with: /\A[^@]+@([^@\.]+\.)+[^@\.]+\z/}

If you’re experienced at Regex, this seems simple. If (like me when I first saw this) you AREN’T experienced at Regex, it takes a while to parse. But believe me, it can get way worse…

class User < ActiveRecord::Base
  validates :email, format: {with: /^(|(([A-Za-z0-9]+_+)|([A-Za-z0-9]+\-+)|([A-Za-z0-9]+\.+)|([A-Za-z0-9]+\++))*[A-Za-z0-9]+@((\w+\-+)|(\w+\.))*\w{1,63}\.[a-zA-Z]{2,6})$/i}

Or even worse still…

class User < ActiveRecord::Base
  validates :email, presence: true, email: true

class EmailValidator < ActiveModel::EachValidator
  EMAIL_ADDRESS_QTEXT           = Regexp.new "[^\\x0d\\x22\\x5c\\x80-\\xff]", nil, "n"
  EMAIL_ADDRESS_DTEXT           = Regexp.new "[^\\x0d\\x5b-\\x5d\\x80-\\xff]", nil, "n"
  EMAIL_ADDRESS_ATOM            = Regexp.new "[^\\x00-\\x20\\x22\\x28\\x29\\x2c\\x2e\\x3a-\\x3c\\x3e\\x40\\x5b-\\x5d\\x7f-\\xff]+", nil, "n"
  EMAIL_ADDRESS_QUOTED_PAIR     = Regexp.new "\\x5c[\\x00-\\x7f]", nil, "n"
  EMAIL_ADDRESS_PATTERN         = Regexp.new "#{EMAIL_ADDRESS_SPEC}", nil, "n"
  EMAIL_ADDRESS_EXACT_PATTERN   = Regexp.new "\\A#{EMAIL_ADDRESS_SPEC}\\z", nil, "n"

  def validate_each(record, attribute, value)
      record.errors.add(attribute, options.fetch(:message, "is invalid"))

Yeesh. Is something that complex really necessary? If you actually check the Google query I linked above, people have been writing (or trying to write) RFC-compliant regular expressions to parse email addresses for years. They can get ridiculously convoluted as in the case above and, according to the specification, are often too strict anyway.

Sections 3.2.4 and 3.4.1 of the RFC go into the requirements on how an email address needs to be formatted and, well, there’s not much you can’t do in your email address when quotes or backslashes are involved. The local string (the part of the email address that comes before the @) can contain any of these characters: ! $ & * - = ^ ` | ~ # % ' + / ? _ { }

But guess what? You can use pretty much any character you want if you escape it by surrounding it in quotes. For example, "Look at all these spaces!"@example.com is a valid email address. Nice. Technically, even the @ and domain aren’t strictly required. If omitted, the email address is assumed to be local and mail could still be deliverable to the same machine using that address.

For those reasons, I just run any email address against a much more lenient regular expression:

class User < ActiveRecord::Base
  validates :email, format: {with: /@/}

Simple, right? While email addresses don’t technically have to have an @ symbol, almost every application will require it; you’ll be sending email remotely, after all. This is often the most I do and, when paired with a confirmation field for the email address on your registration form, can alleviate most problems with user error. But what if I told you there were a way to determine whether or not an email is valid without resorting to regular expressions at all? It’s surprisingly easy, and you’re probably already doing it anyway.

Just send them an email already

No, I’m not joking. Just send your users an email. The activation email is a practice that’s been in use for years, but it’s often paired with complex validations that the email is formatted correctly. If you’re going to send an activation email to users, why bother using a gigantic regular expression?

Think about it this way: I register for your website under the email address [email protected]. C’mon. That’s probably going to bounce, courtesy of the preeminent mail daemon, but the formatting is fine; it’s a valid email address. To fix this problem, you can implement an activation system where, after registering, I am sent an email with a link I must click. This is to verify that I actually own that email address before my account is activated. At this point, why keep parsing email addresses for their format? The result of sending an email to a badly formatted email address would be the same: it’ll bounce. If your user enters a bad email address, they won’t get the activation email and they’ll try to register again if they really care about using your site. Of course, having too many of your emails bounce can lead to your domain being marked as spam, so this approach should be combined with rate limiting to avoid being blacklisted.

So eschew your fancy regular expressions already. If you really want to check email addresses right on the signup page, you can include a confirmation field so they have to type it twice. Better yet, use a library like mailcheck to perform a bit of client-side validation that catches some potential common errors. It comes down to is this: if your user enters a bad email address, you shouldn’t make it more of a problem for yourself than you have to. A complex regex validation on the email address doesn’t introduce an additional solution, it introduces an additional problem. If you really, really want to make sure people are typing in an email address, just use the /@/ regular expression and call it done. If that makes you nervous, then check for the dot too: /.+@.+\..+/i. But then send an email! Anything more is overkill.

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