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AQUARIUM SAND VS. GRAVEL - WHICH SUBSTRATE TO CHOOSE



The Beginning, Part 1.

Aquarium sand

If you want to recreate the smooth and tranquil look of a river or lake bottom, aquarium sand may be your preferred substrate! Sand is an attractive and economical option for freshwater aquarium bottoms.

Sand comes in many shades and colors and can be very fine or almost as coarse as gravel. Natural sand consists of small pieces of shells, stones and/or organic materials with a diameter of 1/16 to 2 mm.

Aquarium sand is usually made from crushed quartz, coral or minerals such as aragonite, or made from a silica base. Unlike natural sand, aquarium sand is uniform in size and shape and has no sharp edges that can damage aquatic life.

Commercial products may be labeled as natural or river sand and are similar to the sand you see on the waterfront. However, unlike sand straight from the river, these bags of substrate have been treated and cleaned.

Varieties of sand

There is no formal way to classify sand other than by particle size. If a substrate has a diameter of 1/16 to 2 mm, it is called sand, regardless of what it consists of. 

Sand varieties 

This can be confusing when looking for the right substrate for an aquarium. Sand is used in many industries, from construction to manufacturing. Many sand products are not safe for freshwater aquariums. 

Here are the main varieties of aquarium sand you may encounter and some comments on the advantages and disadvantages of each type:

  • Live sand. This substrate is called "living" because it contains natural aquatic bacteria and other microorganisms
  • Can prevent "new aquarium syndrome" because the bacteria break down waste and maintain a stable water chemistry
  • No rinsing is required before adding to the aquarium
  • Generally more expensive than other options
  • May not be suitable for some freshwater aquariums, but recommended for aquariums with African cichlids and other underwater creatures that prefer high pH water.

Coral Reef Sand. Reef sand, made from crushed coral or calcium carbonate-based minerals such as aragonite, is a common choice for marine aquariums. These products are not suitable for freshwater aquariums.


River sand. This is a natural product that is often sold for terrariums, cleaned and processed to a uniform size and shape.

  • A wide variety of natural shades to match your aquarium decor
  • Safe for use in freshwater aquariums and does not alter the chemical composition of the water
  • Can clog water or clog filters during cleaning


Vegetable sand. This is not really sand, as this type of substrate is usually made from iron-containing clay crushed into fine particles the size of sand.

  • Provides plants with the nutrients they need to grow
  • The clay's porous particles allow water to pass through, and healthy bacteria thrive in the substrate
  • Chemically inert and does not alter water chemistry
  • Available in a limited number of colors

Pool Sand. This kind of sand, used in filtration systems, is a pale natural product, purified and sifted to a uniform size. 

Pool sand

  • Economical and easy to buy in large quantities
  • Heavier than river sand and less likely to cloud the water in the aquarium and not clog filters
  • Chemically inert and does not change the chemical composition of the water
  • Not ideal for most planted aquariums
  • Limited choice of shades and colors

Artificial sand. This sand, made from silica, comes in a variety of bright colors and natural shades.

  • Economical and easy to buy in large quantities
  • Chemically inert and does not change the chemical composition of water
  • Lighter than pool sand and can clog filtration systems
  • Not ideal for planted aquariums

Advantages of using sand

The main advantage of using sand substrate in a freshwater aquarium is its smooth and natural appearance. 

Sand in the aquarium 

Sand also prevents trash and debris from getting into the substrate. Instead, debris stays on top of the sand, where it can easily be removed by siphoning the substrate. Sand is a desirable substrate for aquariums that contain freshwater invertebrates, cichlids or swarming fish.

Disadvantages of using sand

Sand is not an ideal substrate for every aquarium and imposes some limitations when used in freshwater aquariums.

The small diameter of the sand grains leads to water stagnation in the substrate thickness, which will require bottom filtration and increased water circulation in the aquarium.

Sand also prevents the passage of vital nutrients to plant roots by filtering them out.

If you are planning to create an aquarium with plants, it is best to avoid sand. Many aquatic plants have small roots and do not grow well when planted in sand.

Cleaning and care

Sandy substrates can create problems when cleaning and maintaining an aquarium. Because debris accumulates on the surface of the substrate, sandy bottoms often look dirtier than gravel aquariums.

Sand is also very dusty and difficult to wash away, and the particles are so fine and light that they can easily be sucked up by a filtration system or vacuum hose. You may have to adjust the suction power on the outboard or canister filter to keep them from clogging with sand. It may also take several days and several cycles of water changes before the aquarium is clean after you add sand to it.

Cleaning sandy soil

Considerations for plants and fish

Sand is an ideal substrate for fish and plants such as:


Continued, Part 2.

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