Choosing the right substrate for your aquarium is very important for the health and look of your tank. Sand, gravel, and soil each have their own benefits and drawbacks. Whether you want a tank full of plants, a natural-looking setup, or the best home for your fish, this article will help you understand the pros and cons of aquarium sand, gravel, and soil so you can choose the best one for your aquarium.


Aquarium Sand

Aquarium sand closeup

Using sand as a substrate in your aquarium is a popular choice for many aquarists. It is the most natural substrate compared to gravel and comes in a wide variety of colors and sizes. Sand is an inert substance, meaning it doesn't provide nutrients for live plants. However, some low-tech aquarium plants can still grow in pure sand!

Aquarium sand is a great choice, especially if you have fish that like to dig, like cichlids or catfish. Sand gives your tank a smooth, natural look and doesn't trap debris as much as gravel, helping to keep the water clean. However, sand can get compacted over time, which might cause problems. To avoid this, you can stir the sand occasionally or add fish that like to dig. When choosing between sand and gravel, think about what your fish need and how you want your tank to look.


Best Aquarium Types for Sand:

  • Large Cichlid Tanks (lots of digging and sifting)
  • Natural Looking Aquariums
  • Aquariums with Fish that Eat Gravel (Bichirs, Catfish, Puffers)
  • Geophagus Aquariums (South American Sifting Fish)




Aquarium gravel closeup

Gravel is a classic choice, offering stability and safety for fish. You can use anything from a pure gravel base to a mixture, depending on the aesthetic you're looking to achieve in your aquascape. Gravel comes in all kinds of shapes and colors. Most colored aquarium gravel is simply natural gravel coated in colored epoxy.

Gravel is an inert substance, so it doesn't provide any nutrients to live plants. However, some beginner plants can still grow in gravel. If you're trying to supplement nutrients for plants in gravel, consider using root tabs. These can be manually inserted into the gravel using tweezers.


Best Aquarium Types for Gravel:

  • Colored Gravel Tanks (Pink, Blue, Yellow gravel)
  • Natural River Bed Aquariums
  • Quartz Gravel Aquariums



Aquarium Soil

Aquarium soil closeup

Aquarium soil is great for creating a healthy, planted tank. Unlike gravel or sand, aquarium soil is full of nutrients that help plants grow strong and fast. This makes your tank look lush and green. It also helps keep the water's pH levels stable and improves water quality, making the tank better for both plants and fish. Aquarium soil is especially useful for tanks with plants that need a lot of nutrients.

Besides helping plants grow, aquarium soil makes your tank look more natural and beautiful. It looks like the dirt found in natural lakes and rivers, which makes your aquarium look more real. The dark color of the soil makes the green plants and colorful fish stand out. If you want a tank that looks like a real underwater garden or a specific natural habitat, aquarium soil is a perfect choice.


Best Aquarium Types for Soil:

  • Heavily Planted Aquariums
  • Natural Type Aquariums
  • Walstad Method Tanks



Which to Choose, and Why?

Choosing the right substrate depends on what you want for your aquarium. Sand is great for a natural look and for fish that like to dig. Gravel is a good, stable choice and works well with many plants, especially if you use root tabs. Soil is the best for a tank full of plants because it has lots of nutrients. By knowing what each type offers, you can pick the best one for your aquarium and create the tank you want.




Explore Aquarium Substrates