The Best Aquarium Sand for Planted, Fresh, and Saltwater Fish Tanks

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A beautiful fish tank starts with beautiful substrate, plants, and decorations before adding in those squirmy, scaly guys we plan them for.

The right lighting, the right temperature, the right filtration all make for the perfect aquarium environment. But each item has to blend together to make the right atmosphere for your reef tank or aquarium.

And the right base is the best place to start: aquarium sand.

You’ll find our top picks when it comes to the best aquarium sand below.

Best Aquarium Sand Quick-Find Table

Image Product
  • Stunning, warm, natural color
  • Millions of beneficial bacteria for enhanced biological filtration
  • Perfect for marine and reef tanks
  • Stunning, warm, natural color
  • Millions of beneficial bacteria for enhanced biological filtration
  • Perfect for marine and reef tanks
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  • Great for freshwater fish like cichlids, tetras, angelfish, and live plants
  • Large, natural grains for the most natural environment
  • Makes a great base layer or full substrate for plants and fish
  • Great for freshwater fish like cichlids, tetras, angelfish, and live plants
  • Large, natural grains for the most natural environment
  • Makes a great base layer or full substrate for plants and fish
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  • A great, inexpensive alternative to specially selected aquarium sand
  • Very fine aquarium sand – perfect for saltwater tanks
  • Adds to natural filtration of the aquarium
  • A great, inexpensive alternative to specially selected aquarium sand
  • Very fine aquarium sand – perfect for saltwater tanks
  • Adds to natural filtration of the aquarium
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  • Large white grains for natural environment and brightness
  • Great for freshwater aquariums with bottom dwellers and live plants
  • Uses non-toxic coating for highest quality
  • Large white grains for natural environment and brightness
  • Great for freshwater aquariums with bottom dwellers and live plants
  • Uses non-toxic coating for highest quality
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  • Best black sand
  • Well-trusted brand
  • Fairly dusty and not the best overall
  • Best black sand
  • Well-trusted brand
  • Fairly dusty and not the best overall
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Why Use Sand in Your Fish Tank?

There are some great reasons to use sand in your aquarium instead of other forms of substrate.

best aquarium sand

Sand is More Natural than Other Substrates

Not in all cases, but in most, sand is the most natural form of substrate for fish and live aquatic plants. Most fish we keep tend to come from naturally lower water flow environments, which means sand is a better option than gravel for these fish. C

ertain species of fish are sand sifters and diggers, and the sand emulates more closely their natural habitat than seashells, gravel, crushed coral, or other options.

Sand Tends to be Cleaner than Other Substrates

Gravel and other large substrate options have larger gaps between the pieces, which allows debris to drop between and build up. This means that sand, with little to no room for muck to grow, tends to be cleaner and stay cleaner over time.

With a high enough water flow, most debris comes off the top of sand and works its way through filters and skimmers, which also means a cleaner tank.

Is Sand Better Than Gravel?

There are upsides and downsides to using sand in your aquarium rather than gravel.

For example, sand provides a more natural environment for your fish, but gravel allows for filtration that sand can’t. But if you’ve got burrowing and scavenging critters and fish, they help with that filtration and need sand instead of gravel.

Basically, a blanket statement can’t be given on this debate.

Some cases, sand is better. Some cases, gravel is better. It’s based on your specific aquarium needs, your taste, and what kinds of animals and fish you’ve got in the aquarium.

Many varieties of cichlids need sand substrate to thrive, since eating a little sand can improve their health. On the other hand, goldfish need medium to large gravel as eating sand or tiny gravel particles will cause health issues. Some plants need sand for their root systems, while other live plants thrive in gravel.

Be sure to study what your specific plants, fish, and other animals need before deciding if they should use sand or gravel.

Can Sand Cause Issues in Your Aquarium?

Because sand is a much smaller substrate, there are some issues with it, depending on the specific setup and aquatic life you keep in the aquarium.

Sand Isn’t Good for Certain Fish

Certain fish like to eat sand and are healthier for doing so – like cichlids. But others can become ill from eating sand – like goldfish and bettas – and can die from this. So, it’s important to study up on your fish and critters before getting sand for your aquarium.

Cheap Sand May Cause Brown Algae

High-quality sand won’t cause these issues, but some cheaper, poorly pre-treated sands will cause outbreaks of brown algae and other nasty things. Be sure to only purchase high-quality sand from trusted brands and never just collect sand from a seashore for use in your aquarium.

The Wrong Sand Will Raise the pH

Again, cheap sand – or at least the wrong sand – for your aquarium may cause spikes in the pH in your tank. Be sure to use only sands that have been properly treated and cleaned to avoid this issue.

Certain Kinds of Sand Will Clog Filters

Sands that drop to the bottom of the tank quickly will be fine, but if you notice the sand you purchase tends to float or slowly sink, you may have issues with it clogging your filter. Be sure to change to a different brand if you find this happens.

Beneficial Types of Sand for Your Aquarium

If you go looking for “types of sand” on Amazon, you’ll find a wide range of options, some of which are great for aquariums, some of which are not. One of the big questions I’ve seen asked is whether or not play sand in aquariums is okay.

These various sands are made from different materials, like silica sand aquarium options, all-natural aragonite, and others. Let’s take a look at the types of sand and which ones are and are not good for using in your aquarium.

Play Sand

This is probably the cheapest way to add sand to your aquarium. It comes in a range of grain sizes and colors and can be bought pretty much anywhere. The bags are inexpensive and easy to find.

It’s safe to use for many types of aquariums, though may not be as beneficial as some options because of the nature of things like live sand versus dry sand – which play sand is.

toys in play sand

If you choose to use play sand, be sure to clean it properly to prevent health issues for your fish and plants.

If you decide to go this route, many aquarists have commented that Argos has the best play sand in aquarium options.

Silica Pool Sand

This is a specialty sand that’s designed from silica to use in swimming pools. It comes in a variety of colors and grain sizes – more options than the cheap choices – for a wide range of customization.

Blasting Sand

Blasting sand is another cheap way to add some natural feeling substrate to your aquarium. The difference between blasting and play sand is that blasting is more consistent in size and color.

Specialized Aquarium Sand

There are, of course, a wide range of specialized aquarium sand that you can find online, in pet stores, or big box stores like Wal-Mart.

These tend to be more expensive than other options but are one of the best options for quality sand for your aquarium.

Live Sand

Live sand is the best option for your aquarium.

It comes “wet” with water and the living beneficial bacteria that helps improve the health of your aquarium quickly.

This type of sand makes it easier for your fish to transition to a new aquarium, specifically, because it already has good things kicking around in it that your fish need in their environment to help kill bad bacteria, keep plants healthy, and so on.

Mix Sand Types for the Most Affordable, High-Quality Result

While having all live sand would be a great way to get your aquarium going, it would be quite expensive to do so.

Instead, I’d highly recommend getting some live sand – 10 to 40 pounds, depending on the size of your aquarium – to get things started, and introduce with the live sand some dry sand.

I prefer aquarium sand and play sand myself, but the other options can also be combined with live sand to produce a similar effect.

Do Aquarium Sand Colors Matter?

Generally speaking, the color of sand that you use in the aquarium doesn’t matter. Fish don’t really have a preference, assuming the particle size is suitable for their species. A few fish – flounder, cuttlefish, and other fish who hide on the bottom – look for sand they can camouflage themselves in, but otherwise, the color really is up to you. So, since this is an aesthetic thing, that you can be as picky about as you like.

  • Natural/traditional colored sand
  • White sand
  • Black sand
  • Pink sand

The only thing to avoid in colors is anything unnatural. The dyed sand may cause health issues you’re your fish or aquatic plants, so be sure to avoid dyed, decorative sands.

best aquarium sand in a planted tank

How to Choose Your Aquarium Sand

Substrates for aquariums come in a variety of colors, styles, and materials, and should be chosen carefully based on the type of fish and plant life you keep in your fish tank. Specifically, make sure it won’t affect pH levels and is suitable for the type of aquatic life you keep.

Substrate for the Fish Only Aquarium

When you keep a fish only aquarium, you should aim for finer sand for bottom feeders and other species who dig through the sand. Keep the sand about 2 to 2.5 inches deep – or roughly provide 10 pounds of sand per 150 square inches of tank surface.

Substrate for Marine and Reef Aquariums

For marine and reef tanks, you want to not only go with sand as your main substrate, but you want to provide some live sand to start out the beneficial bacteria colonies. This live sand will help naturally with biological filtration, which also keeps keep your tank clean while keeping your fish healthier.

Substrate for the Planted Aquarium

For the healthiest planted aquarium possible, you want to use a nutrient rich sand level and then another layer of either larger particle sand or gravel to keep your plants grounded and healthy. The nutrient rich substrate should be about 1-2 inches deep – the approximate height of the plant roots – with the second layer being 2-inches or so deep.

Reviews of the Best Aquarium Sands

As you shop, keep in mind your live plant and fish species, whether or not your critters burrow or sift sand, and the type of aquarium you’ve got.

How We Chose the Best Aquarium Sands

To make sure we only recommend the best of the best aquarium sands, we sifted through hundreds of reviews and researched various types of sands. We looked for high-quality sands in the various categories below to ensure that each met the qualities needed for good, healthy sand for the aquarium.

  • Fully treated and cleaned sand
  • Live sand for starting sand for aquariums and reef tanks
  • Particle sizes suitable for various types of fish and live plants
  • Natural, uncolored sand
  • Aesthetic appeal
  • Trusted brands for guaranteed quality assurance

Beyond these things, price considerations and combinations of sands for various types of planted tanks, aquatic life, et cetera are also included in the aquarium sand reviews to make for easier understanding of who should use which sand options.

BEST SAND FOR SALTWATER AQUARIUMS

#1. CaribSea Arag-Alive

CaribSea Arag-Alive 20-Pound Fiji Pink Sand

Fiji Pink Arag-Alive option from Carib Sea is hands-down the best aragonite sand for reef and marine tanks anywhere. The live bacteria provided on the sand adds worlds of beneficial, healthy colonies that will improve the health and life of your aquarium as soon as you finish introducing it to the environment.

Here’s the breakdown:

  • Type of sand: Live
  • Particle size: Intermediate size grain
  • Suitable for: Reef tanks, saltwater aquariums
  • Combine with: Gravel or use solo
  • Pounds of sand: 20 pounds
  • Color: Light pink

What We Loved

We love the beneficial bacteria in this sand. It’s top-rated because it really works. It helps improve biological filtration and is designed specifically to suppress the initial ammonia spike that happens when you add new sand to an aquarium system. We love that the blend of ocean and marine strains of helpful bacteria include heterotrophic, chemolithotrophic, and autotrophic to reduce cycling.

The color is another big selling point for us. The warm, light pink is inviting and gives the feel of a natural marine environment more so than some of the darker or even whiter sands may do.

The love the size of the grain, as well, for marine tanks. The particles are small enough that they feel natural in a reef environment, but large enough that they don’t “blow around” in the water.

And the fact that it never needs to be replaced? Well, who wouldn’t love that?

CaribSea Arag-Alive 20-Pound Fiji Pink Sand
CaribSea Fiji Pink should look like this.

What We Didn’t Love

The only real issue we saw with the sand is that some folks said they received a more beige than pink color. It won’t look like a beach in Bermuda. But you can blend it with other Arag-Alive colors to get a closer to ideal effect, if you prefer.

Our Verdict on the Carib Sea Arag-Alive Fiji Pink Sand

The live bacteria for the sand is the big selling point for us. The warm color and grain size don’t hurt, either.

Overall, since this beautiful live sand doesn’t need to be replaced, we think it’s a real deal and well worth the investment to have a quicker adapted aquarium environment with this than trying to cultivate your own healthy bacteria colonies from scratch.

>> Tap Here to Read More Reviews and See Today’s Price on Amazon.com <<

BEST SAND FOR FRESHWATER FISH AND PLANTS

#2. CaribSea Super Naturals

Carib Sea ACS05832 Super Natural Peace River Sand for Aquarium

Carib Sea Supernaturals Peace River Sand is a gorgeous, natural looking sand specifically cultivated for freshwater aquariums with live plants and fish like cichlids.

The sand is specially selected and crafted to match the natural exotic environments like those found in Sri Lanka, alongside volcanoes, and in the River Negro, where many of our favorite tropical fish dwell naturally.

Here’s the breakdown:

  • Type of sand: Dry
  • Particle size: Large
  • Suitable for: Freshwater, planted
  • Combine with: River gravel for top layer or use solo
  • Pounds of sand: 5
  • Color: Reddish brown to beige

What We Loved

We love the natural, glowing colors that the sand provides for the aquarium. When you see the aquarium from a distance, it feels as natural as possible, thanks to the tumble of grain sizes and colors like you’d find on a riverbed.

We love that this sand is specially selected for use with species like cichlids, but that cories also really love this. The grain size is perfect for burrowers.

We also love that this is the perfect sand for growing healthy live aquatic plants. The grains give a great base for plants to root in, while helping grow the beneficial bacteria the whole environment needs for health.

Most importantly, we love that this natural sand doesn’t change the pH on your aquarium water.

Finally, and very importantly, we love the size of the grains because it doesn’t get sucked up into filters and pumps the way smaller grains do. Some users reported having to replace filters every few months due to smaller particles, but this sand made that issue stop.

Carib Sea Super Natural Peace River Sand
CaribSea Super Naturals should look like this.

What We Didn’t Love

There were a few complaints on how long it takes to clean the sand. All sand requires a while though, but at least there isn’t much that floats with this. Just be prepared to spend the time doing a quality job of getting it ready for your aquarium.

Our Verdict on Carib Sea Supernaturals Peace River Sand

There really isn’t a better option for a natural aquarium environment for your freshwater fish and live plants. The grain size is perfect for burrowers and bottom dwellers. The color is stunning and natural with a warm “brown” glow that will help put your critters at ease and feel at home.

The complaints that seemed valid for the product are minimal and the praise is high among aquarists all over. We couldn’t agree more that this is one of the absolute best aquarium substrate sand options around.

>> Tap Here to Read More Reviews and See Today’s Price on Amazon.com <<

BEST POOL FILTER SAND FOR AQUARIUM USE

#3. FairmountSantrol AquaQuartz

FairmountSantrol AquaQuartz

For those looking for a less expensive alternative to aquarium sand, FairmountSantrol AquaQuartz-50 is a great option. The 50 pounds will cost less than half that in aquarium sand, and won’t change the pH or other levels in your aquarium.

Here’s the breakdown:

  • Type of sand: Dry
  • Particle size: Very fine aquarium sand
  • Suitable for: Freshwater tanks, saltwater tanks
  • Combine with: Live sand, aquarium sand, gravel
  • Pounds of sand: 50 pounds
  • Color: Light beige

What We Loved

We love that the Fairmount sand is uber fine. It’s not the best fit for many environments, for but for sand sifters, this is a phenomenal choice. They’ll love burrowing and sifting in this stuff.

We love the color, as well. It’s a warm, neutral light beige shade that is exactly how you’d describe “sand color.” It’s less bright than a white sand, but still light and airy feeling, lending a comfortable aesthetic to the bottom of your aquarium.

We also love that the sand is 100% natural and chemical-free – in fact, that’s probably our biggest win-over with this one.

What We Didn’t Love

We really didn’t find any downsides to this sand for your aquarium. We’d just recommend combining it with an appropriate live sand for a jump-start on getting your aquarium healthy and active, instead of building it up from scratch yourself.

Our Verdict on Fairmount Santrol AquQuartz-50

FairmountSantrol is the best alternative to expensive aquarium sands. It’s chemical-free, 100% natural, and easy to clean and use in your aquarium. It’s extremely fine, so use with care to avoid getting it sucked up into your filters.

And, if possible, combine with a small amount of live sand to get things going.

>> Tap Here to Read More Reviews and See Today’s Price on Amazon.com <<

BEST WHITE SAND FOR FRESHWATER AND MARINE AQUARIUMS

#4. Stoney River

Stoney River White Aquatic Sand Freshwater and Marine Aquariums

For those looking for a super pretty white sand for their freshwater aquariums, look no further than the Stoney River White Aquatic Sand. This sand is perfect for freshwater tanks and planted aquariums alike. The sand doesn’t use any toxic coatings or chemicals, and comes in a beautiful, natural white shade.

Here’s the breakdown:

  • Type of sand: Dry
  • Particle size: Small
  • Suitable for: Freshwater, planted
  • Combine with: Live sand, gravel
  • Pounds of sand: 5 pounds
  • Color: White

What We Loved

Of course, one of the most important aspects of any sand is that it won’t affect pH levels. Stoney River sand promises it won’t, and from what we’ve seen, it doesn’t. This means, it’s a top approved white sand for aquariums in our book.

Another thing we love is that this sand doesn’t use toxic coatings like some others out there. This means its actually safe to use in your aquarium. Just be sure to thoroughly clean before installing.

Finally, the aesthetics on it are stunning. It’s a beautiful white sand that adds a bright layer to the bottom of any freshwater aquarium.

Stoney River White Aquatic Sand
Stoney River white sand should look like this.

What We Didn’t Love

The main issues we found with this sand is that is floats a bit. I know some people who soaked and soaked and still had floating sand.

Some folks said they have had no issues with this, while others have commented that it’s very dusty and required lots of cleaning.

Our Verdict on Stoney River White Aquatic Sand

Overall, this is a pretty straight forward sand. It’s white and very attractive. The particles are small and uncoated. And it works well in planted aquariums and freshwater aquariums. Bottom dwelling sand sifters love it.

>> Tap Here to Read More Reviews and See Today’s Price on Amazon.com <<

BEST BLACK AQUARIUM SAND

Runner-Up: Imagitarium

Imagitarium Black Aquarium Sand

Imagitarium is a well-trusted brand that offers a variety of aquarium products, including their black aquarium sand.

Overall, it’s a great option to use in freshwater fish tanks and planted aquariums.

The dark aesthetics add a nice bottom layer or work well for a straight up sand bottom tank for your sand sifters and bottom dwellers.

It’s affordable and attractive, though some people said they had to do hours of rinsing to get the clouds of dust to disappear before installing in their aquariums.

>> Tap Here to Read More Reviews and See Today’s Price on Amazon.com <<

How to Add Sand to Your Aquarium

After you choose the right sand and order it, you’ll need to do a few things to ease it into your aquarium.

Clean the Sand Thoroughly

Despite looking for thoroughly cleaned and safe sand from manufacturers, you still need to thoroughly clean the sand you purchase before placing it into your aquarium. This is pretty easy to do, though, so don’t worry.

Grab a bucket – brand new, if possible – and fill it halfway with the sand. Fill it up the rest of the way with clean, pure water. I recommend purchasing a few gallons of purified water from the grocery store for this. Never use tap water.

Stir the sand and water together to help loosen and remove particles clinging to the sand. The water should become cloudy as you do this – which means it’s working. After the water is cloudy, tip the water out carefully, avoiding pouring out the sand.

Repeat the process until all your sand is clean.

fish swimming above the best fish tank sand

Putting the Sand in the Aquarium

Now you’ll need to take that clean sand and spread it as evenly across the bottom of the aquarium as possible. That’s the easy part.

Now, you’ll slowly add in your clean, purified water – pre-filtered for best results – at a very moderate rate. You don’t want to stir up the carefully placed sand by splashing in the water.

Wait for the sand to completely settle back to the bottom of the aquarium before adding in other things like plants, décor items, and, of course, fish.

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