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6 Best Aquarium Sands of 2021 – Reviews & Top Picks

Nicole Cosgrove

February 2, 2021

Xyrichtys splendens in the sand against aquarium window

Did you know that the first manual for building aquariums was published in 1854? It’s true. An English “natural scientist” by the name of Phillip Henry Gosse was so enamored with building aquatic worlds for his fish and plants to live in that he also created the first public aquarium, displaying it at the London Zoo.

Since the publishing of his manual, titled The Aquarium: An Unveiling of the Wonders of the Deep Sea, it’s become possible for home enthusiasts to build their own aquariums with minimal time, effort, and expense. Once you have your tank picked out and have selected fish and plants, however, there’s still one essential component missing — sand!

One of two commonly used substrates for building aquatic habitats, aquarium sand creates a safe and habitable environment for fish and plants alike. To help you choose the best sand for your aquarium, we’ve put together this list of reviews for the six best aquarium sands available today.

A Quick Comparison of Our Favorites

Image Product Details
Best Overall
Winner
Nature’s Ocean Bio-Activ Live Aragonite Aquarium Sand Nature’s Ocean Bio-Activ Live Aragonite Aquarium Sand
  • Filled with live, beneficial marine bacteria
  • Helps to maintain proper pH
  • Natural white color
  • Best Value
    Second place
    Aqua Terra Aquarium & Terrarium Sand Aqua Terra Aquarium & Terrarium Sand
  • Safe to use in freshwater or saltwater tanks
  • Won’t impact water chemistry
  • Great variety of colors to choose from
  • Premium Choice
    Third place
    CaribSea Super Naturals Crystal River Freshwater Sand CaribSea Super Naturals Crystal River Freshwater Sand
  • Perfectly designed for freshwater tanks
  • Extremely easy to use
  • Naturally maintains a hospitable environmen
  • Carib Sea Super Natural Peace River Sand Carib Sea Super Natural Peace River Sand
  • Will not affect chemical balance
  • Naturally, sustainably harvested
  • Easy to clean and long-lasting
  • Stoney River White Aquatic Sand Stoney River White Aquatic Sand
  • Brilliant white color
  • Safe for freshwater and saltwater tanks
  • Non-toxic and completely safe
  • The 6 Best Aquarium Sands – Reviews 2021

    1. Nature’s Ocean Bio-Activ Live Aragonite Aquarium Sand – Best Overall

    Nature's Ocean Bio-Activ Live Aragonite Aquarium Sand

    The best possible sand that you can use for a saltwater aquarium will always be the sand that most closely matches a fish’s natural habit: the ocean. That’s why we love the Nature’s Ocean Bio-Activ Live Aragonite Aquarium Sand. It’s sustainably harvested right from the ocean and comes fully loaded with live marine bacteria that will quickly condition and stabilize your aquarium.

    By eliminating nitrogenous waste with its natural bacteria, the Nature’s Ocean Aragonite aquarium sand helps to maintain proper levels of nitrate, nitrite, and pH. Choosing it for your aquarium will minimize any shock new fish will experience when added to the tank and reduce overall maintenance requirements over time.

    On top of its remarkably functional features, this sand from Nature’s Ocean also contributes to an attractive, minimal display. It’s naturally off-white, and not prone to clouding the water in your tank.

    In short, there’s no other sand that we’d rather have for our saltwater aquariums than this one from Nature’s Ocean.

    Pros
    • Reasonable price for large quantities of sand
    • Natural white color looks great in any tank
    • Filled with live, beneficial marine bacteria
    • Helps to maintain proper pH, nitrate, and nitrite levels
    • Fish can be added on same day that your tank is set up
    Cons
    • Can sometimes have an “oceanic” odor
    • Fine-grain sand may clog smaller pumps

    2. Aqua Terra Aquarium & Terrarium Sand – Best Value

    Aqua Terra Aquarium & Terrarium Sand

    While many aquarium sands are designed specifically for use in either freshwater or saltwater tanks, there are a few worthwhile options out there that can be used for a variety of purposes. Chief amongst these is the Aqua Terra Aquarium & Terrarium Sand, a natural substrate coated in colorfast acrylic that prevents it from negatively impacting water chemistry.

    Available in seven bright and attractive colors, this sand from Aqua Terra is so reasonably priced that it may very well be the best aquarium sand for the money. If you’re on a tight budget but don’t want to sacrifice aesthetics in your freshwater or saltwater aquarium, it’s an excellent choice — as long as you don’t mind taking the time to thoroughly rinse it before use.

    In the end, the only reason that this sand from Aqua Terra didn’t secure our number one spot is its inconsistency from bag to bag. While some bags you receive may be perfect and require almost no rinsing at all to produce clear water, the occasional bag will require five to ten rinses before it runs clear.

    Pros
    • Great variety of colors to choose from
    • Safe to use in freshwater or saltwater tanks
    • Excellent value for the price
    • Won’t impact water chemistry
    Cons
    • Inconsistent quality from bag to bag
    • May require significant rinsing before use

    3. CaribSea Super Naturals Crystal River Freshwater Sand – Premium Choice

    CaribSea Super Naturals Crystal River Freshwater Sand

    Entirely natural and uncoated, the CaribSea Super Naturals Crystal River Freshwater Sand is akin to our top pick in its ability to create a perfect environment for your freshwater fish friends. Harvested directly from riverbeds, this sand from CaribSea is full of living freshwater bacteria that will purify and maintain the water quality for your aquarium.

    Furthermore, the Super Naturals sand is fortified with a clarifier and water conditioner — making it one of the most convenient and low-effort substrates we’ve ever tested. Simply add it to a tank full of tap water, wait half a day, and your tank will be fully prepared to introduce your fish into.

    The exceedingly small grain size of this sand can give some water pumps trouble, but not if you follow the directions provided with the clarifier. Overall, the CaribSea Super Naturals is our top choice for freshwater tanks, even though it does carry a significantly higher price tag.

    Pros
    • Perfectly designed for freshwater tanks
    • Filled with natural, beneficial freshwater bacteria
    • Extremely easy to use — just add tap water
    • Naturally maintains a hospitable environment for your fish
    Cons
    • On the expensive side
    • Extra-small sand grains can give some water pumps trouble

    4. Carib Sea Super Natural Peace River Sand

    Carib Sea ACS05832 Super Natural Peace River Sand

    One of the only sands in our review to feature a medium to large grain size, the Carib Sea Super Natural Peace River Sand offers a different sort of aesthetic that is suitable for both freshwater and saltwater tanks. Made in the USA from sustainably harvested water sources, it’s an eco-friendly option that is only limited by its hefty price tag.

    As with all the sands produced by Carib Sea, this Peace River Sand is specially treated so as not to influence your tank’s pH levels. The larger grain size makes it easier to remove for cleaning, giving it a longer lifespan than any other sand we tested.

    In short, this is excellent low-maintenance sand for either freshwater or saltwater aquariums but is better suited to small aquariums thanks to its greater cost per pound.

    Pros
    • Suitable for freshwater or saltwater aquariums
    • Will not affect water pH or chemical balance
    • Naturally, sustainably harvested
    • Easy to clean and long-lasting
    Cons
    • Quite expensive

    5. Stoney River White Aquatic Sand

    Stoney River White Aquatic Sand

    When you’re thinking about designing an aquarium, sometimes functional issues can crowd out aesthetic choices. But if you’re committed to the idea of having gleaming white sands in your beautifully arranged aquarium, we have an excellent option for you: Stoney River’s White Aquatic Sand.

    Suitable for both marine and freshwater tanks, this safe and non-toxic sand has been thoroughly coated in a brilliant white exterior. While it won’t affect your tank’s pH or chemical balance, we found that it took a lot of rinsing before our tank water was able to run clear. This, combined with its penchant for clogging water pumps, is a big strike against this sand from Stoney River — but not a total deal-breaker.

    Pros
    • Brilliant white color
    • Safe for freshwater and saltwater tanks
    • Non-toxic and completely safe for your fish
    Cons
    • Fairly expensive
    • Tends to clog water pumps thanks to its fine grain size

    6. Seachem Onyx Sand

    Seachem Onyx Sand

    A perfect counterpart to the previous sand from our list, Seachem’s Onyx Sand is as dark a sand as you can find for your aquarium without introducing artificial chemicals or dyes. Completely natural and suitable to both freshwater and saltwater aquariums, it’s a distinctively colored option that will require a lot of rinsing and preparation before adding to your tank.

    Though the manufacturer states that this sand is pre-washed, after transport we’ve found it to still be incredibly dusty. Be prepared to rinse it a dozen or more times to achieve complete clarity in your tank; if you avoid this step, you can expect to have slightly grey water.

    If you’re willing to put in this extra effort, however, you’ll be rewarded with a strikingly black seafloor that perfectly complements the colors of many exotic fish.

    Pros
    • No artificial colors or dyes
    • Striking black color
    • Safe for freshwater and saltwater aquariums
    Cons
    • Requires a lot of rinsing before use
    • Tends to clog water pumps

    Buyer’s Guide

    Designing and building a suitable ecosystem for your aquatic friends will require knowledge of everything that goes into your fish tank. To better acquaint yourself with the specifics of aquarium sand, read through our mini-guides to the following topics. Once you’ve studied up on every aspect of aquarium sand, you’ll know exactly how to pick out which one is best for your aquarium.

    Aquarium Sand vs Gravel: Which Is Better?

    Seen in one way, sand is just a much smaller version of gravel; they both have the same mineral and chemical composition, after all. What makes each substrate better than the other in your aquarium, then?

    Let’s look at their respective pros and cons:

    Gravel Pros
    • Better for freshwater aquariums
    • Allows water to flow through it, reducing bacteria buildup
    • Heavy enough to resist getting sucked into filters
    • Won’t cloud your water
    Gravel Cons
    • Does not provide any place for burrowing fish to dig
    • Less hospitable to bottom-growing plants
    • Old food or plant matter can fall through the cracks and rot
    aquarium gravel
    Image: Needpix

    Sand Pros
    • Better for saltwater aquariums
    • Perfect for fish that like to burrow and scavenge
    • Food and plant matter rest on top, rather than falling underneath
    • Requires less frequent rinsing and changing than gravel
    Sand Cons
    • Can get sucked into filters and cause problems
    • May make your water cloudy and murky

    Furthermore, many people seem to prefer the look of sand over gravel, thanks to its more “natural” appearance and colors.

    In short, sand is a lower-maintenance option that has the benefit of preventing the buildup of rotting food or plant matter but may not be perfect for all types of fish. Check with your local pet shop if you’re not certain what type of substrate any given fish needs.

    What to Look for In an Aquarium Sand

    Choosing the right sand for your aquarium has much more to do with what is not in it than what is.

    In short, the best aquarium sands are those that are as close to natural as possible, with no artificial dyes or colors added that can cloud your water or harm your fish. Any sand you choose should have a neutral or close to neutral pH rating — otherwise, it may create an environment that’s toxic and potentially deadly for your fish.

    Some of our favorite aquarium sands are the so-called “active” variety — sands that still have all of the lifeforms that you would find in a living oceanic environment. Though they’re often more expensive than standard sand, they have the advantage of setting your aquarium up for long-term success by introducing beneficial microorganisms that help to keep your tank clean.

    How Much Aquarium Sand Do You Need?

    Depending on your design plans and what sort of fish and plants will be living in your aquarium, average depths will range from 1.5 to 2 inches for a shallow bed, or 6 to 8 inches for a deep bed that’s suitable for burrowing creatures.

    As a rule of thumb, you can count on using about 1.5 pounds of sand for every gallon of volume in your aquarium tank.


    dividerConclusion

    For anyone that has their eyes on building a saltwater aquarium, there’s no better choice than the Nature’s Ocean Bio-Activ Live Aragonite Aquarium Sand. It’s an all-in-one solution to setting up an aquatic habitat for saltwater fish. Unlike many sands in our reviews, it also doesn’t require any extra set up or preparation before adding your fish to the tank — which is why we give it our highest recommendation as the best aquarium sand for saltwater tanks.

    A low-cost alternative for anyone designing a freshwater aquarium is the Aqua Terra Aquarium & Terrarium Sand, our pick for the best value aquarium sand. You’ll need to put a little extra work into rinsing and preparing it prior to use, but this is a small inconvenience given the Aqua Terra sand’s bargain price.

    For more reviews on Aquarium gear, check out these posts:

    Best Aquarium Stands

    Best Aquarium Hoods

    Best Aquarium Thermometers

     


    Featured Image: Wikimedia Commons

    Nicole Cosgrove

    Nicole is the proud mom of Baby, a Burmese cat and Rosa, a New Zealand Huntaway. A Canadian expat, Nicole now lives on a lush forest property with her Kiwi husband in New Zealand. She has a strong love for all animals of all shapes and sizes (and particularly loves a good interspecies friendship) and wants to share her animal knowledge and other experts' knowledge with pet lovers across the globe.