When it comes to substrates, we all have our own preferences. Once you move past colorful clown puke, the choice often comes down to one of the various gravels and sands. They provide drastically different looks to the tank, but sand often wins out. If you’re looking for the best aquarium sands, then read on. I’ll show you the best and then answer any questions you may have.
Best Aquarium Sand Reviews
1. Flourite Black Sand
My personal favorite of the myriad sands on the market is Flourite Black Sand. It’s nutritionally balanced for a planted tank while maintaining a great dark look along the bottom of the tank. It’s also pH neutral, allowing it to be used with any livestock.
Flourite Black is a bit coarse, so it may not be the right pick for a smooth and sandy bottom. It’s still fine enough for bottom-feeders and other fish who will interact with the substrate of the tank on a regular basis.
Overall, Flourite Black should be the first stop for anyone looking to use dark sand to accent their planted tank.
2. CaribSea Aquatics Eco-Complete African Cichlid Black Sand
CaribSea makes frequent appearances in substrate lists. They provide a quality product for a reasonable price, at least if you’re aiming for their particular use.
This African Cichlid sand is designed to buffer the pH and raise it to mimic lake conditions in Africa. For those who keep them, it’s known that Africans mostly prefer hard water with a high pH due to their natural environment.
This is a great option for tanks with a lot of blue and red cichlids since the black will help their colors to pop to the forefront.
3. Natural Green Real Sand
While it’s completely inert, this particular sand offers a nice dark green, which is a big difference from many of the options on the market. It may be your best bet to get decent sand while still being able to have a unique color.
This is sold mainly as craft sand, but it’s safe in aquaria. The brand also offers a few other color options, with the white being my favorite apart from this one. It’s a nice moonlit beach sort of white, rather than the beige often sold as such.
Take a closer look if you want unique colors, but remember that despite the coloration, it’s still just sand with no other helpful qualities.
4. CaribSea Super Natural Sunset Gold Sand
CaribSea doesn’t just make offerings for cichlid tanks. This is a pH neutral sand with a soft golden hue. The light background is perfect for some tanks, creating a feeling of openness in larger tanks, especially.
The hint of color here maintains a natural look. It’s especially great for those trying to recreate river environments in their home tank. It takes a bit to clear up as well, owing to the fine grain, but the final effect can be stunning.
I’d recommend this sand for anyone trying to create a feeling of openness in their tank, and it makes a particularly fine part of a layered, low-tech tank’s substrate.
5. Carib Sea Super Natural Peace River Sand
Rivers in nature lack the homogenous makeup we see in many sands, with a few exceptions in far-flung locales. Instead, they’re often a conglomeration of earth tones that create a natural whole. This sand is designed to mimic that.
Overall, it’s light sand but quite coarse, lending a gravel-like effect. It’s also inert, so you can change the water chemistry elsewhere if needed. I’d avoid it for particularly sensitive bottom-dwellers, but it will work with most animals.
In short: if you want a natural look but aren’t concerned with any particular biome, this one might be worth a second,
6. SeaChem Onyx Sand
Think of this as a finer version of my personal favorite, Flourite Black, and you’ll be on the right track. This is deep black sand enriched to help plants grow and reduce the need for fertilizers.
Like Flourite itself… this is dusty stuff. I recommend washing it in mesh before adding it to the tank for the best result. That said, it’s dense enough to not be a problem once the initial cloudiness has cleared from your aquarium.
Overall, it’s a good choice for any planted aquarium. Give it a look if that’s your end goal, but something else may be better if you need chemical assistance with pH or kH.
7. CaribSea African Cichlid Mix
African Cichlids require a bit of special chemistry, especially since the lakes they come from aren’t quite like those in the US. This mix helps to buffer things and keep acid from harming your critters’ health while also providing a natural look.
This careful blend of chemical buffering and natural sand is a bit niche, but this is the first I’d recommend for most people keeping African Cichlids from the Rift Lakes. Unfortunately, the consistency is a bit uneven, so you may want to give it a pass if you don’t like the small bits of gravel.
That said, eliminating the need for buffering the pH in most systems is a great boon. Take a look if you’re in the market for African Cichlids and their needs.
8. Nature’s Ocean Aqua Terra Natural Tan Sand
This is a coated sand, with a thin acrylic layer over the individual particles. That makes them dense, allowing them to settle quickly, and it also means that it’s entirely inert. If you’re going for a beach look, this is great stuff.
The fact that it’s inert can cause some trouble if you’re planning on laying down plants, of course, but it’s not a dealbreaker for planted tanks. It actually makes a great topper for more nutrient-rich substrates as well.
For a beach-look in a non-planted tank, this is just right. However, planted tanks may want to look elsewhere unless you’re up to the task of layering substrates.
9. UP Aqua Shrimp Sand
Are dwarf shrimp on your to-do list? Take a closer look at UP Aqua’s Shrimp Sand, which consists of uniform, tiny pellets that contain particular nutrients for your shrimp. That’s a bonus, and it works for plants as well.
It’s good stuff, albeit a bit expensive. The trace nutrients are vital for shrimp breeding operations, and it looks much better than many of the substrates which are created for shrimp by other companies.
For a shrimp tank, this is worth every penny. However, those who just want black sand may want to pass it up as it has a large price tag.
10. UP AQUA Sand for Aquatic Plants
While the shrimp sand is quite niche, many people prefer live plants in their tank. When that’s the case, you’ll find the right stuff here as long as you’re willing to pay a much higher price than you’ll find on some others.
It has the nutrients needed for plants, avoiding the need to get root tabs for some time. It also has a stark, rich black color that most will find appealing. It will break down over time, so keep an eye on the top layer if you’re worried about it.
For a planted tank, take a look. It’s expensive, but it’s also stylish and perfectly adapted for aquariums that have live plants.
11. Alan Stone Glow in The Dark Home and Garden Fish Tank Aquarium Decorative Sand
As much as I prefer natural-looking tanks, I’m also a big believer in going all out if you want novelty. You’ll have the option here with a glow-in-the-dark sand that comes in a wide variety of colors. I’m partial to the blue, but they’ve all got their own appeal.
Is it a bit problem-prone? Sure, you’ll need some strong light to make sure it glows after all. It’s an excellent option for tanks that are hit with direct sunlight during the day, however, and a UV light will activate the gravel if that’s what you’re going for.
It’s cool, but real applications will take a bit of forethought to get a daily display. Willing to do the work for a unique setup? Then take a peek and see if it still sounds good to you.
Aquarium Sand Buying Guide
Aquarium sand has a few basic properties you’ll need to know about to make an informed decision for your aquarium.
Sand should be a decent size. Things like play sand are ultra-fine, giving the impression of a sandy beach while others may be larger.
There’s more than just looks to picking the right size, however. Planted tanks, where the substrate will be disrupted frequently, are often a bad candidate for ultra-fine sand, for instance.
The smaller the sand, the more cloudiness it will make in the water when it gets disturbed. Smaller particles also take longer to settle down.
Think about what you’re planning with your tank and what kind of creatures will inhabit the bottom. Lots of bottom dwellers will usually appreciate the finer sand as they sift through the bottom for their meal. On the other hand, powerful swimmers like Corydoras catfish will also stir up a lot of it when excited.
While particle size makes a huge difference in the look of sand, it’s the color that most people look for.
Good aquarium sands very rarely come in exotic colors. You’ll have to go down the clown puke route if that’s what you’re looking for, so your choices are relatively basic most of the time.
Dark substrates, ranging from brown to grey to black, often enhance the colors of your fauna. They’re a fast favorite for many. Even plants often look a bit brighter when they’re on a dark background.
This doesn’t work for all colors; of course, blue in particular seems to do better on a lighter colored substrate. In any case, it’s your choice to make.
Any sand which is going into a planted fish tank should have nutrients. Many sands are inert, and you’ll have to carefully use in-water fertilizers and root tabs to keep plants growing.
The NPK ratio doesn’t have to be exact. It just has to be better than having nothing.
Micronutrients are important as well. For newbie aquarists, the main one to keep note of is iron(Fe). Many plants will go yellow when there’s no iron in the soil, and you’ll need to supplement it if your sand isn’t up to par.
Many sands will buffer the pH of a tank, helping to maintain even levels of acidity. They’re primarily used in African Cichlid tanks, but there are many cases where a bit of buffering is desirable.
You should also avoid those that give water a higher pH if you keep fish like Discus, which require softer water and a neutral to acidic environment to thrive.
Porous substrates have a large surface area, allowing bacteria to colonize with the sand itself. Sands are often non-porous. Your typical beach sand is just SiO2, after all. Those that have extra pores deserve a special mention.
While they won’t replace a filter, extra room for your bacteria is always a good idea. A larger load of these helpful cleaners won’t hurt in the slightest.
Keep an eye out for this, especially if you normally have trouble keeping a tank cycled. It can help a lot, but remember that it’s only a supplement to the major bacteria load in your filter and the biofilm on plants and decorations.
Common Aquarium Sand Questions
Is Sand a Better Choice for My Aquarium?
I recommend newbies start with some kind of fine gravel. Sand has a tendency to kick up, obscuring the view within the tank whenever it’s disturbed. However, for 55 gallons and larger tanks, it’s a minor concern except in extreme cases. It’s also a better choice if you have bottom dwellers like Corydoras or one of the various loach species.
How Much Sand Should I Buy for My Aquarium?
For most purposes, following the 1 pound per gallon rule works just fine, but it’s just a recommendation. I’d recommend a bit less for tanks with a lot of highly active fish that will stir things up and a bit more for tanks that have deep rooting plants like Cryptocoryne and Vallisneria. Roughly 1″ of sand is good for most cases. If you wanted a more precise measurement, try for 1 ½ to 2″ for planted tanks, especially if you’re layering the sand over something like Flourite.
Do Fish Prefer Sand or Gravel?
Honestly, it doesn’t matter in the case of the majority of fish. You should go with sand if you have bottom dwellers, although some don’t mind gravel. Sand is also a good choice when you have crustaceans or non-fish animals like African Dwarf Frogs. Your fish will be indifferent towards it for the most part.
How Can I Keep My Tank From Getting Cloudy When I Fill It After Putting Down Aquarium Sand?
The best way to do it is to find some sort of setup that will allow the water to hit smoothly. Sand becomes a problem primarily when it gets heavily disturbed, becoming distributed through the water. An inverted bowl works wonders. When you add water after the tank is set up, you should pour carefully or through something which will break it up. I’ve found a fish net works well, but almost anything will do it.
Is Cloudy Water From Sand Dangerous for Fish?
Nope, fish and other aquatic animals have to deal with silt in the wild after all. Provided the cloudiness is just sand; it will eventually settle harmlessly. What it may harm is power filters, which can get clogged with sand if they have sufficient uptake strength. I recommend checking on your filters after any serious substrate stirring, but it shouldn’t affect things as long as you’re careful.
How Can I Clean My Aquarium’s Sand?
Use a gravel vacuum, preferably one a bit undersized for your tank. It will remove gunk, and fine sand particles will fall back to the substrate due to the change in density. I recommend against stirring up the sand heavily. If something has sunk more than just a bit under the surface, you should let your anaerobic bacteria do their work.
Helpful Aquarium Sand Tips
Aquarium sand can be a bit tricky to lay down and use properly, especially when you’re using ultra-fine sands.
Try the following to make using sand as a substrate easier:
- When layering sand, never pour water directly on the sand. It will quickly expose the substrate beneath. This can cause problems if you are, for instance, setting up a low tech tank with potting soil.
- Rocks are the best way to hold sand for aquascaping. Consider using them as barriers if you want to create a topographically diverse tank. Use small rocks in between larger ones and beneath the substrate’s surface to hold sand in place. Otherwise, fine sands will attempt to reach equilibrium over time.
- Don’t use plants that need frequent moving in sand. I recommend propagating plants like Cryptocoryne sp. and Vallisneria sp. in another tank and then planting the shoots in the sand as they emerge.
- Heavy rooting plants will hold things in place. Think about the composition of a river bank’s flora, and you’ll have a good idea of why removing plants is devastating to an area.
Sand is a bit tricker than gravel, but it’s easy enough to work with if you exercise some patience and basic precautions.
Best Aquarium Sand Summary
Sand is an excellent way to achieve a unique look at the bottom of your tank, but you need to make sure the sand is right to serve your needs. That’s why we’re here to help you choose the best aquarium sand for your tank, whether it’s new or old, planted or unplanted. So, which are you going to use in your next setup?