How to work with users' passwords and how to securely hash passwords in PHP?

When you save users' passwords onto a database, you should NEVER store them in plain-text due to security and privacy concerns. A database where users' passwords are stored could be compromised at some point in the future, and by hashing them, at the very least, it will be more difficult for an attacker to determine the original passwords of the affected users.

<?php

// Plain-text password example
$password = 'secretcode';

Cryptography is a large and very complex field for many people, so a good rule of a thumb would be to leave it to the experts.

One of the once most used ways of hashing passwords, now considered extremely unsafe, was to use the md5() function which calculates the md5 hash of a string. Hashing passwords with md5 (or sha1, or even sha256) is not safe anymore, because these hashes can be reversed very quickly with brute forcing, rainbow tables or finding them in online strings/hashes databases.

<?php

// Plain-text password
$password = 'secretcode';

// Hashing the password with md5
$md5 = md5($password);

A common solution to make hashing algorithm stronger was using a salt.

<?php

// Plain-text password
$password = 'secretcode';

// Add a random number of random characters (the salt)
$salt = '3x%%$bf83#dls2qgdf';

// Hash salt and password together
$md5 = md5($salt.$password);

This is still not good enough though because the hashing algorithm beneath is completely the same.

The right way to hash passwords in PHP

Instead of reinventing the wheel and creating your own hash function, stick to the best practices suggested by experts.

Currently, the right way to hash passwords is to use the latest PHP version and its native passwords hashing API, which provides an easy to use wrapper around the crypt function.

An example for using the native PHP password hashing API:

<?php

// Plain-text password
$password = 'secretcode';

$options = ['cost' => 12];
echo password_hash($password, PASSWORD_DEFAULT, $options);

The password_hash() function currently provides three different algorithm options. PASSWORD_DEFAULT, PASSWORD_BCRYPT, and (as of PHP >= 7.2.0) PASSWORD_ARGON2I. Currently, the options PASSWORD_DEFAULT and PASSWORD_BCRYPT will both result in the use of the BCRYPT hashing algorithm, making them essentially the same. PASSWORD_ARGON2I will result in the use of the Argon2 hashing algorithm. As cryptography and the PHP language as a whole progress, there'll likely be other, new types of algorithms supported. PASSWORD_DEFAULT will likely be changed in the future as recommendations for the best hashing algorithm to use evolve and as new hashing algorithms become available, and so, generally, PASSWORD_DEFAULT is the best option to choose when hashing passwords.

The type of field used for storing passwords in databases should be varchar(255) for future-proof algorithm changes.

Using your own salt is not recommended. It's generally recommended to use a bullet-proof without setting your own salts, allowing the password_hash() function handle this itself (salts are randomly generated by default when using password_hash()).

Another important option to mention is the cost, which controls the hash speed. On servers with better resources, cost can be increased. There's a script for calculating the cost for your environment in the PHP manual. It's good security practice is to try increasing this to a higher value than the default (10).

The hash string returned by password_hash() consists of the following parts:

$2y$10$VCbjoi9DnyQyVxf4/RRoFeyOCeMPnCitAG07ZRpivwglmpbP0jOdW
 |  |  |                     |
 |  |  |                     |_ password (length depends on algorithm)
 |  |  |
 |  |  |_ salt (22 characters)
 |  |
 |  |_ cost (2 characters)
 |
 |_ algorithm (length depends on algorithm)

So, you can extract raw password hash components like this:

$hash = '$2y$10$VCbjoi9DnyQyVxf4/RRoFeyOCeMPnCitAG07ZRpivwglmpbP0jOdW';
list(, $algo, $cost, $salt_and_password) = explode('$', $hash);
$salt     = substr($salt_and_password, 0, 22);
$password = substr($salt_and_password, 22);

Or simply use password_get_info() to get more readable information.

$hash = '$2y$10$VCbjoi9DnyQyVxf4/RRoFeyOCeMPnCitAG07ZRpivwglmpbP0jOdW';
print_r(password_get_info($hash));

Which outputs:

Array
(
    [algo] => 1
    [algoName] => bcrypt
    [options] => Array
        (
            [cost] => 10
        )

)

The password_verify()

Verifying passwords can be done with password_verify():

<?php

// This is the hash of the password in example above.
$hash = '$2y$12$VD3vCfuHcxU0zcgDvArQSOlQmPv3tXW0TWoteV4QvBYL66khev0oq';

if (password_verify('secretcode', $hash)) {
    echo 'Password is valid!';
} else {
    echo 'Invalid password.';
}

The password_needs_rehash()

Another important function is password_needs_rehash(), which checks if the given hash matches the given options. This comes in handy in the event of server hardware upgrades and when increasing the cost option is possible.

<?php

// $password is retrieved from the POST data
// $hash is retrieved from the database

if (password_verify($password, $hash)) {
    // Here provided password matches the one in the database; user can be authenticated.

    // Let's also check if the password needs to be rehashed
    if (password_needs_rehash($hash, PASSWORD_DEFAULT)) {
        // Rehash the password and update the database.
        $newHash = password_hash($password, PASSWORD_DEFAULT);

        // ...
    }
}

Older PHP versions (PHP <= 5.5)

In case you're still using some older PHP version, there is a way to properly secure passwords. Since PHP version > 5.3.7, you can use the PHP library password_compat. The PHP library password_compat works in exactly the same way as the native PHP password hashing API, so when you upgrade to the latest PHP version, you won't need to refactor your code.

For PHP versions below 5.3.6, phpass might be a good solution, but try to avoid these and use the native password hashing API instead.

Password hashing in open source projects

Some of the most widely used PHP open source projects use different hashing algorithms for passwords because they either support older PHP versions where password_hash() wasn't available yet, or they already use the latest security recommendations by PHP security experts:

Project Password hashing
CMS Airship Argon2i
Drupal SHA512Crypt with multiple rounds
Joomla bcrypt
Laravel bcrypt with other options
Symfony bcrypt with other options
Wordpress salted MD5

Migrating legacy code to current hashing algorithms

  • For example, you have table with users and hashed passwords column (and using some old funky and insecure hashing algorithm, like md5).
  • Add a new column to your database table with users - legacy_password_hash.
  • Hash the legacy password hashes with the current and new hashing method:
$legacyPasswordHash = password_hash($oldHashFromTheDatabase, PASSWORD_DEFAULT, $options);
// insert the $legacyPasswordHash in the legacy_password_hash column and repeat for all hashes
  • Refactor your code so it takes the legacy_password_hash into consideration when authenticating users.
username email password_hash legacy_password_hash
doe doe@example.com

Important step here is to have the new hashes when they will be available, and all previous hashes, hashed with a new and more secure hashing algorithm.

See also



Found a typo? Something wrong with this content?

Just fork and edit it.

Content of this work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International (CC BY-SA 4.0) license. Code snippets in examples are published under the CC0 1.0 Universal (CC0 1.0). Thanks to all contributors.