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Whatever type of fish we keep, however we decide to set up our aquariums, the one thing all of us generally agree on is that we need substrate. Technically substrate is anything that covers the bottom of the aquarium.
The substrate can include gravel, sand, soil, crushed coral, crushed lava rock, laterite, clay, and the list goes on.
For many of us, aesthetic appeal (how the substrate looks) is the most important factor when choosing which substrate to use. Usually, price is the next consideration. The funny thing about substrates is, that there are so many different substrates to choose from, and we all have a preference for something different.
In this article, I look at many of the different aquarium sands on the market, most of which I have used over the years, and I share my opinions on what makes them good, or in some cases bad.
Isn’t Sand just Sand?
This seems like a simple enough question. Surely if it is sand, then it is sand. Sorted!
However, the reality is there are different sands for different jobs. Some sands are coarse, others are fine. Some sands have an effect on water parameters and some are totally inert. Some sands aren’t even sand, they are fine, porous clay gravel.
To have success with our sand substrate we need to make sure we pick the right substrate for the job.
Best Sand Substrate for Aquariums
Below I look at 10 different types of sand that are suitable for aquariums.
1. Caribsea Super Naturals Sand
Caribsea Super Naturals Sand is probably my favorite aquarium sand. I have been using this sand for several years, and it works well in my African Cichlid tanks as well as a number of planted tanks.
Caribsea Super Naturals Sand comes in 4 different colors, Crystal River, Moonlight Sand, Sunset Gold, and Torpedo Beach. The grain sizes for these sands vary from 0.25mm to 2.0mm depending on which sand you choose. Caribsea also supplies a range of gravels.
I currently use mainly the Super Naturals Sunset Gold. To my mind, it is the most natural-looking sand. The grains in Sunset Gold are not as fine as the Moonlight, but they are still pretty small. Although I gave this sand a really good wash in a bucket before adding it to my tank, it did cloud the water, but that cleared within about 24 hours or so.
I have used the Sunset Gold Sand in a number of different tanks, including some with plants, and the plants grew really well. My Corydoras spend all day rooting around in it, and I have a small group of Geophagus who are constantly sifting through the sand looking for things to eat. I am pleased to say my water remains clear even though the sand is being churned all day long.
The Caribsea range of sands is suitable for freshwater, marine, and brackish aquariums. They guarantee the sands will not affect pH or water hardness.
Caribsea Super Naturals Sand comes in 5-pound and 20-pond bags. To give you some idea, a 20-pound bag will give a 1″ (2.5cm) layer in a 29-gallon (109 liters) tank. You can find out more about how much substrate different size tanks will need in this article I wrote titled How much substrate does my aquarium need?
In my experience, Caribsea Super Naturals Sand looks great and works well for planted tanks, however, it does make your water murky when first added.
2. Stoney River White Aquatic Sand
Whenever I want to add bright white sand to my aquariums, Stoney River White Aquatic sand is the one I tend to go for.
The Stoney River White Sand is not the finest sand you will ever use. In my opinion, the grains of sand are about the size of grains of salt. However, it does look amazing when spread out in an aquarium. I have used this sand in a tank with black Angelfish and the contrast was stunning. I also use this sand with my blue Neocardina shrimp, again purely for the color contrast.
Stoney River White Sand is manufactured by Estes who is one of the oldest manufacturers in the aquarium sand industry. They have been producing colored sands for the hobby for many years and their sands are used a lot by marine fish keepers.
This sand is suitable for both freshwater and marine fish tanks and in my experience it does not push the pH up.
I do have some plants growing in this sand, and as far as I can tell they are all growing really well. The one downside with such bright white sand however is that you can see every piece of uneaten food and fish poop that lands on the substrate. I am forever getting the hose out to siphon debris off the surface of this sand.
3. Seachem Flourite Black Sand
I love Flourite Black Sand. I have used it in so many tanks. It just looks stunning every time. The great thing about using black sand is that it doesn’t show any of the poop! I have used this sand in a number of my Fantail Goldfish tanks, and they are messy fish, but with this sand, the substrate never looks dirty.
Seachem Flourite Black Sand isn’t actually sand, but rather a specially fracted stable porous clay gravel. This sand has been specially developed for use in planted tanks, and in my experience, plants grow really well in it.
This sand has been developed specifically with the freshwater fish keeping hobby in mind, and it is not recommended for use in marine tanks. It is naturally black and has not been coated or painted like some color sands.
According to Seachem, this is a product that does not degrade over time and does not need to be replaced. Certainly, I have had it in some of my tanks for almost 10 years, and there is no sign of it breaking down.
One thing to be aware of when using Flourite Black Sand is that is a very dusty product. I found it needs a lot of washing before you can use it. In fact, I spent an eternity washing bucket load after bucket load. Even once you place it in the tank, it seems to give dust off. However, I did find that my water cleared within a day or two.
4. Landen Namale Aquarium Sand
Namale Aquarium Sand is another natural-looking sand that I have used in a few different tanks in my fish room.
The grains of Namale Aquarium Sand are a little coarser than some other sands, but this is good when it comes to planting. Even plants with strong root systems like Amazon Sword and Vallisneria can struggle to push their roots through very fine sane. I found my plants grew well in this sand.
As this sand is a natural product it hasn’t been painted or dyed, which means it never loses its color. Like so many natural sands, however, it can suffer from algae growth if the light is too bright. This problem can be overcome either by reducing the light or adding fish that disturb the substrate like German Blue Rams or Geophagus. Corydoras also seem to enjoy rooting around in this sand.
5. Pool Filter Sand
When it comes to bang for your buck, you can not beat pool filter sand. Compared to other aquarium sands, pool filter sand is really cheap. I recently bought a 50-pound bag for less than $10.
Pool filter sand has a really nice natural color, although it can on occasions be a little lighter than I might like.
One of the major downsides to pool filter sand is the amount of cleaning it requires before it can go into your tank. It can take gallons of water to run through a bucket of pool filter sand before the water runs clear.
One of the other downsides I have found with pool filter sand is because the grains are very fine, it does sometimes compact, making it difficult for plants to grow in. Sands that compact can also be harder to clean as they sometimes clump up with detritus.
The other major issue with pool filter sand is, that due to the small grain size, it can work its way into the filters. If you have fish that continually disturb the sand, pool filter sand has a tendency to get lifted up into the water column where it can be sucked into the filter. This can clog your filter and also cause additional wear and tear on the filter impellor.
Pool filter sand does not affect water pH.
6. Aqua Terra Sand
This is another sand that looks really natural and is great for using in planted tanks. I use this sand in some of my Shell Dweller tanks, especially my Neolamprologus multifasciatus. I also use Aqua Terra Sand in my Kribensis tank, and those guys are like little bulldozers, always moving the sand around.
The grain size of this sand is neither fine nor coarse, it is somewhere in the middle, but it does tend to be fairly uniform. I have a number of different plants growing in this substrate, and they all appear to be doing well.
Aqua Terra Sand is made in the USA and does not alter the pH or chemistry of the water. I found this sand fairly cheap to buy. However, it only comes in 5-pound bags, which is great if you only have a small tank, but if you wanted to fill a 75-gallon with this sand, you will need dozens of bags!
One major positive I found with this sand was that it really didn’t need much cleaning. I washed it using my regular bucket method, but I probably could have just poured it into the tank.
7. Caribsea Cichlid Mix
This is the second sand from Caribsea on my list, and it is one that I use in a lot of my African Cichlid tanks. This sand has been developed specifically with African Cichlids and other fish that like their water hard with a higher pH. Caribsea Cichlid Sand will help increase and maintain both your pH and water hardness.
This sand is really closer to crushed shells and coral than sand. The grain size is larger than most, typically coming in at between 4.0mm and 10.0mm.
In my experience, the shape, size, and color of the sand in this bag help recreate a really natural-looking tank. Certainly, my own African Cichlids look good against it and they happily dig and root around in it with it clouding my water.
I believe using this sand has helped reduce the chance of the pH in my African Cichlid tanks dropping over time, which it will do, especially in overstocked tanks. Caribsea Cichlid Mix comes in 5-pound and 20-pound bags, and whilst it is not the cheapest sand on the market, to my mind it is worth the investment.
This sand does require a lot of washing before it can be used. I know others just dump it straight into their tanks and leave the filter to clean it up, but I’d rather spend an hour or two washing it now and not have my filter clog up with debris.
8. Caribsea Fiji Pink Sand
Caribsea Fiji Pink Sand is made from crushed aragonite. Aragonite is a naturally occurring, calcium-rich substance that is essentially derived from biological and physical processes, including precipitation from marine and freshwater environments.
Typically Caribsea Fiji Pink Sand is used by marine fish keepers thanks to its ability to help recreate natural marine conditions including stabilizing pH and raising hardness levels. Personally, I use this sand in my African Cichlid tanks and with some of my other fish that like hard water environments like guppies and mollies.
It is said that this sand helps add beneficial bacteria to aquariums, however, I have never really noticed any difference using this sand compared to other sands.
One important aspect to be aware of if you have acidic water is this sand will dissolve over time as the acidic water breaks it down, albeit slowly.
In my experience, although this sand is called ‘Fiji Pink’ it definitely seems to be almost white in color. I followed the advice and didn’t wash this sand before adding it to my tank (apparently washing it in water that contains chlorine will kill the live bacteria contained within the sand) and I have to admit it did not give off much fine dust.
Caribsea Fiji Pink Sand is a little more spendy than some of the other sands on my list, but if budget is important, you can always place a base layer of more budget-friendly sand down in your aquarium first, then add the Fiji Pink Sand on top. I did this in a 125-gallon (473 liters) tank and I only used about half as much Fiji Pink as I would have done. The other half was just regular play sand.
9. Aquanatural Oolitic Aragonite
Much like the Caribsea Fiji Pink Sand, this sand is made from aragonite. The sand in Aquanatural Oolitic Aragonite is sourced directly from the Bahamas and it has the most wonderful, natural sand look you could hope for. This sand tends to be used more in the marine fish keeping hobby as it is especially good at maintaining a stable pH, something marine hobbyists seek constantly.
The manufacturers of this sand guarantee it to have no harmful tar, organics, or impurities and they say it is the ideal substrate for marine tanks, reef tanks, and African Cichlids.
Although I personally do not have any marine tanks, I do have this sand in a couple of my African Cichlid tanks, and I love the look of it. The color of my male Peacocks against this sand is outstanding.
This sand does come in both fine and coarse grades. In my experience, adding both grades to a tank in a ratio of 2 of one grade to 1 of the other grade gives the most natural look. It doesn’t matter if you have more fine or more coarse, just having a mix gives a natural feel.
In my experience, this is sand that requires A LOT of washing before adding it to the tank, but once washed and it, the effort is worth it.
If you are looking for bright, but natural-looking sand, this might be the best option for you.
10. Play Sand
Number 10 on my list is play sand. Play sand is one of the cheapest sands you can use in your aquarium. Play sand tends to be extremely fine sand, and because it is safe for children, you know it has been sieved and graded and there will be no foreign objects in it at all.
I have a number of tanks that uses play sand as their substrate, and I tend to use it for small Dwarf Cichlids like German Blue Rams and Bolivian Rams. Both species of fish love to dig around in the substrate looking for food, and play sand seems to work really well for them.
Because play sand is so fine, I do find that it compacts a lot, which can make it difficult for plants to grow. Compacted sand also creates dead spots in the sand where anaerobic bacteria can form. However, I usually just add a handful of Malaysian Trumpet Snails to the tank as they travel through the sand, stirring any dead spots up as they go.
Play sand is available all across the country and even if you don’t have a good local fish store near you, there will be dozens of other retailers that sell play sand in your local area.
Is Sand or Gravel Better for a Fish Tank?
The reality is, that it doesn’t generally matter. If you prefer the look of one over another, go with it. There are some species of fish that will require sand, especially the likes of Geophagus species, and to a lesser extent the mikrogeophagus species like German Blue Rams. The word Geophagus translates from the Greek geo, meaning ‘earth’, and phagos, meaning ‘to eat’.
Geophagus species tend to spend their entire day sifting through the substrate looking for things to eat. They can’t sift through the gravel in the same way.
Typically, sand can affect the pH and hardness of your aquarium water, whereas gravel tends to be more inert and will have little to no effect on your water chemistry.
There are many fishkeepers that will tell you sand is bad for plants, but in my experience, providing the right plants are selected, sand can be just as good for growing plants as gravel. Others will tell you that sand compacts and cause Hydrogen Sulfide gas to be released into your aquarium killing all your fish!
Let me assure you from personal experience this just isn’t the case. If sand were likely to cause your fish to die, would those in the marine hobby who typically keep thousands of dollars worth of fish in their tanks use sand?
What Different Types of Sand Are Available?
We as hobbyists have never had access to a wider range of sands for our aquariums. Some sands are specially produced for the hobby, others, like pool filter sand, are produced for a different purpose, but work well in many of our tanks.
If you choose to go for sand that isn’t specially designed for aquarium use, you naturally do so at your own risk, but over the years I have used almost every sand on the market, and to the best of my knowledge, none of them have ever killed my fish.
Pool Filter Sand
This sand is designed especially for use in swimming pool filters. It tends to be made up of varying grain sizes and typically the color can be highly variable. If using pool filter sand in your aquarium, my advice would be to open all the bags and mix the whole lot together, otherwise, you can end up with an odd-looking substrate because the color varies so much, even across a single tank.
Play sand tends to be very fine sand that has been sieved and graded and certified safe for children. Play sand is typically very cheap and very soft. It does have a tendency to compact. I have also found play sand is more likely than other sands to suffer from Cyanobacteria algae growing on it.
Blasting sand also tends to be very cheap. Unlike pool filter sand, blasting sand does tend to have a very uniform grain size. Blasting sand is typically also available in different colors.
As the name suggests, crushed coral is exactly that, coral that has been crushed up to create a sand-like material. Crushed coral is often used when fish keepers have soft, acidic water, but they want to keep hard water-loving fish like livebearers or African Cichlids.
Crushed coral will have a positive effect on both hardness and pH.
Live sand is typically sold in bags with a little water to keep the sand wet. It is called live sand because it is full of beneficial bacteria that help control waste in your fish tank.
Live sand only remains alive in marine setups as the bacteria quickly dies when added to freshwater. Live sand must not be washed in chlorinated water either as the chlorine will kill the live bacteria.
Considerations Before Choosing Which Sand To Use
There are many factors to consider before deciding which sand to use in your aquarium. Budget, fish type, and aquascape should all be considered before making a final purchase.
As mentioned above, some fish do best when kept on sand. Those species that sift through the sand looking for food, or that use the sand when spawning generally do better when they are kept on sand rather than gravel.
Others, like Fancy Goldfish, do better when kept on gravel rather than sand as they tend to be compacted internally when they consume sand whilst eating.
Fish like African Cichlids are often kept on sand, not because they necessarily interact with the substrate, but because they appreciate high pH and more minerals in the water, both of which typically result from using sand.
The role budget plays in deciding which sand to choose should not be overlooked. If you are scaping a large tank you could easily need 150-pounds to 200-pounds of sand, which for a premium brand could cost you in excess of $300.
Some of the more budget-friendly sands, like pool filter sand or blasting sand, can look just as good as the premium brands, especially if you add 1 bag of premium sand to three or four bags of budget sand. This mix can create the effect of high-quality sand for a fraction of the cost.
The particle size of the sand you choose can have an effect on the success of your tank. If the individual grains are too fine, the sand can clump together and compact, preventing plant roots from penetrating. Sand that is too coarse may be too large for small fish that want to create breeding pits or sift through it looking for food.
There is no doubt, that the day you set your new tank up with a sandy substrate it is going to look superb. Sand always does. However, it can take a lot of work to keep it clean, especially if you are using bright white sand.
I know in the past it has driven me crazy when I set up tanks with pure white sand. They look stunning for about an hour, then a fish will poop and it looks terrible.
If you are the kind of person that likes their aquariums to look immaculate, choose sand that is less likely to show the dirt up.
Sand can be vacuumed just like gravel, but it does tend to throw dust into the substrate, making the water cloudy for a day or two afterward.
Which Fish Prefer Sand Substrate?
There is a huge selection of fish that will happily live with sand. In fact, it would be quicker to write a list of fish that do not do well with sand. In my experience, there are a small number of fish that actually interact with the substrate on a regular basis, and therefore have a preference as to which substrates in the aquariums.
Anyone who has kept Corydoras knows they spend their days swimming along the bottom of the tank looking for food. Their downturned mouths are perfectly designed for seeking out small worms and crustaceans that are lying just below the surface of the substrate.
When Corydoras are kept on a sandy substrate they can easily move the sand around to access whatever lies beneath it. Whilst they can also shift fine gravel, larger pea shingle tends to be difficult for them to maneuver.
Corydoras are schooling fish that like to stick together in large groups, working together to turn over the substrate in the search for food. This natural behavior really becomes apparent when they are kept on sand.
Shrimp like Amano Shrimp and Red Cherry Shrimp spend all day combing the substrate looking for food. They are generally bottom-dwelling shrimp that like to be able to move substrate around to find whatever might be underneath it.
Shrimp find it much easier to search through sand than they do gravel.
One other bonus of keeping shrimp on sand, especially lighter colored sand, is the shrimp will clean up much of the uneaten food and poop that lands on the sandy, helping keep it looking cleaner for longer.
German Blue Rams
German Blue Rams are well known for turning the sand over in search of food. They also dig pits when they are ready to spawn. Although these pits are shallow, the Rams find it much easier to dig them out of sand than they do gravel.
Sand Frequently Asked Questions
Is sand safe for aquariums?
In my experience, yes, sand is safe to use in an aquarium providing it is washed thoroughly before adding it to the tank.
How much sand does a fish tank require?
There is no simple answer to this question. It will depend on how large your tank is and how deep you want your sand substrate to be. I have written a whole article on the subject which includes a table to work out roughly how much sand your tank will need. The article is titled How Much Substrate Does My Aquarium Need?
How long does sand take to settle?
In my experience, providing the sand is well washed before adding it to the tank, the cloudiness of the water should only last for 24 to 48 hours before clearing, and often the tank becomes clearer much quicker than this. Once I have added sand to my aquariums I just start running the filters straight away. That way the water clears much quicker.
I have dozens of aquariums in my fish room and between them, they use many different substrates. I think sand has to be my favorite substrate because to my mind it gives a natural feel to the tank that gravel doesn’t seem to give.
I have tried many different types of sand, and there is certainly a type of sand to suit all budgets and all setups. It is just a case of deciding which one is right for you.