The Most Popular Types of Sand for Your Aquarium. Pros and Cons.

Types of sand for shrimp tank

I suppose I should begin by highlighting the fact that nowadays the majority of shrimp (or fish) breeders prefer to have a bright mixture of artificial substrates rather than the natural products like sand.

As a result, people who decide to start this hobby usually ask – is it still relevant? Can I use the sand in my aquarium or should I choose manufactured substrates? Of course, the sand is relevant and it will be so until sand exist! That cannot be said about the most popular artificial ones today.

Anyway, enough lyrics. In order to make the right choice, it is better to know the pros and cons of the sand in the first place. It will help to understand what you can expect.

You can read more about “Sand vs Gravel vs Bare Bottom. What is Better for Shrimp and Fish?” right here.

The main characteristics of the sand substrate for the aquarium:

  1. Sand fraction (grain size). Microscopic grains and large pebbles are not good for the tank. The optimal fraction for the aquarium is 0,06-0,08 inch  (1,5-2 mm). The small are the grains, the worse is the aeration in the substrate. As a result, you will get toxic gas pockets. If you have large size grains, they will trap all the debris inside and increase ammonia level eventually.
  2. Sand beds for the aquarium. A layer of 0,5-1 inch (1-2,5 cm) suits most underwater plants (for deep substrate-rooted plants it is better to have at least 2 inches).
  1. Your filter intake should not be too close to the sand. Otherwise, it will suck up the sand and possibly break your filter. You can either place a large smooth rock between the filter and the sand or you can get a piece of sponge or something and put that in the intake. If you do not do that, you can get sand in your filter and it will either stop running or grind stuff away inside, causing it to not work properly at best.
  2. The color of the sand indicates the chemical composition of its particles. For example, red or yellow color means that this sand can contain a large percentage of iron. For the planted tank iron levels should be from 0.1 to 0.5 ppm (parts per million).

Types of Sand for the Aquarium.

 Pill of river sand   River Sand (Builder sand)

If you are looking for a cheap and simple substrate, then the sand from the river is your choice. There is only one condition it should be free from clay. Shallow places are the best spots to collect that. Otherwise, it will take you a great deal of work to disinfect and clean it really well.

Another downside with river sand is that it can give off color for a long time. On top of that, in some cases, it can be sharp. If so, it is not good for bottom dwellers. Large-fraction river sand allows oxygen to get to the entire sand bed (helps oxygen circulation), that is really important for aquarium ecosystem.


Pile of quartz sandBlack Quartz Sand

The color of sand grains comes from ilmenite, magnetite or hematite minerals, which are present in the sand in different proportions. You can use black quartz sand in the aquarium without restrictions because it does not alter the parameters of the water. Therefore, you may not worry about water hardness increase.

Another advantage of the black substrate (compared to the snow-white ground) is that it looks more profitable because all kinds of living organisms look brighter in the underwater world. If you want to reduce the contrast, you need to use a substrate with a slightly grayish tint. It will look awesome as well.




Sea sand underwaterSea Sand (Beach/Marine Sand)

There a lot of talks on the internet about this type of sand and there is no conclusion about it as well. The main concern is that it is difficult to find good sea sand by yourself. Sounds very strange, right?

The real sea sand is best to collect pretty deep in the ocean, let’s say about 30 to 60 feet down.  This way you may collect some beneficial organism in with the sand but who can do it by themselves. Unfortunately, sand, which is picked up on the beaches, usually has a very bad quality (polluted, dirty, too many unwanted chemical components, too many shell grits, crushed corals, not enough beneficial bacteria, etc). It will raise your water pH easily.

In some cases, it can be even illegal to take sand from beaches! Be careful.

Nevertheless, if you managed to find good sea sand, it will serve perfectly for your plants and shrimp or fish breeding purposes. For better calibration, you can clean it through a sieve, separating along the way fragments of shells. It is advisable to find out everything about your water parameters (nitrate, nitrite, ammonia, calcium, copper levels, KH, GH, pH and etc) after filling using ready-made tests.

Pile of filter sandPool Filter Sand

Some people use it in their aquariums although it is not what it was designed for at all! The good thing about this sand that its grains are quite large (0,018-0,022 inch or 0,45-0,55mm) and it is less likely to have an issue with hydrogen sulphide gas. Nonetheless, the grain size is not optimal and the grains are not uniformed, so the problem is not solved completely.

It is cheap but there is no color choice. Pool filter sand must be rinsed with a garden hose and a bucket.

Also, pool filter sand is quite heavy so the filter will not suck it.

Tip: if you decide to use pool filter sand for your planted tank, pick stem plants that take nutrients from the water. Otherwise, in case you get root feeder plants you will have to put some root tabs in.


Pile of play sandPlay Sand 

Another sand, which people use in their aquariums. Although the original function of this sand does not have anything to do with aquariums. It is smaller and has lighter weight compared to pool Filter sand. Also, the pool filter sand is coarser.

Some people think that play sand is like “dirty little secret of the aquarium trade”. Because it is cheap and you can buy it in any hardware store.

Well, let me disagree with that.

Of course, it is possible to use play sand. However, you will have to make some extra precautions about it. For example, the “silica free” play sand can have Calcium Carbonate (CaCO3). In this case, it is no good for the freshwater tanks. Also, make sure that it does not say something like “anti-dust” because. It means that the sand was chemically treated.

Another drawback is that water does not flow as easily through play sand. Because the particle size of the play sand usually fall within a range from 1mm down to 63 microns, with the majority falling in the 355 to 125 microns range. So anaerobic pockets will form and harbor dangerous bacteria that produce chemicals dangerous to the health of your shrimp and fish. A further disadvantage of the grain size is that such small particles can get into the gills and literally shred them up.

On top of this, because of the weight, play sand can be easily sucked into your tank filters, where it can cause damage to your equipment.

If you still want to use it, in this case, make sure to clean it really well. Turn off your filter until it is settled, then turn it back on.

Estes bags black and whiteEstes Marine Sand (also known as Ultra Reef)

In my opinion, this sand takes all the best things from all the above-mentioned types of sand.

  1. It has a perfect grain size. On the one hand, it is quite big to allow oxygen to get to the inner areas of the sand bed, on the other hand, it is small enough to keep all the fish and shrimp debris on top.
  2. It does not make toxic gas pockets.
  3. It is neither too dark, no too light. Different colors are available (dark, natural, aqua, pink). The color mix will hide everything that can drop to the bottom.
  4. Estes marine sand is inert because it has a polymer (ceramic) coating and the silicate base is totally sealed off (no brown algae problem).
  5. It is heavy and drops to the ground very quickly, meaning that you will not see any “mess-storms” in your tank and it will not get into your filter.
  6. It will not affect or alter the pH or GH.
  7. Safe for Fresh or Saltwater tanks. Plants are easy to plant and stay planted.
  8. It is sufficiently clean, so you do not have to spend time cleaning and rinsing. Nevertheless, it is better to play safe and rinse it.

The only downside I can think of is the price. It is expensive. 12,29S for a 5-pound bag.

Pile of Live sandLive Sand

This type of sand is coral sand, extracted directly from the ocean. It contains all the living organisms that were in the sand at the time of its collection. Live sand is transported in the same way as fish and corals. Before it gets dry, it is placed in long-term storage packages preserving all microorganisms and beneficial bacteria intact.

It does not undergo the drying process and helps to adjust the water balance faster. It is not allowed to keep Living sand in the air, because it will kill all microflora in a few hours.

Due to its origin, it is not possible to use it in freshwater tanks. Because living sand will increase the pH up to 8.0 or even more, which is not acceptable for the majority of freshwater fish.

The bags of live sand are small and partially filled with water.

It is expensive but if you are not ready to pay that much money, just remember, that eventually, all sand becomes live over time. It is just a matter of time and if you are not in a hurry, you can start with non-living sand.

Pile of caoral sandCoral Sand for Aquarium

Coral sand is mostly composed of limestone fragments of marine organisms. There is a lot of calcium in it. It means that in reality it should be called Limestone sand.

If you put it in your aquarium, you will see how water hardness will skyrocket. That is why it is only used in saltwater tanks and brackish tanks. Unfortunately, there are several negative aspects of coral sand.

  1. You need to know that hard water also reduces the life of your equipment and lowers the efficiency of electric water
  2. There are many complaints about the smallest fraction of coral sand, it simply makes too much mess.
  3. Another downside of this substrate is that it is not good for plants. As a result, the algae problem will hit you sooner, compared to a freshwater ecosystem, because chemical compounds (such as ammonia and nitrate) in the water are not consumed.

Coral Sand and Aragonite Sand are the Same?

There is a lot of confusion and misunderstanding about labels of the product like Coral sand, Aragonite sand or Crushed coral. When I started reading about similarities and differences between these types of sand, I got really confused. It seems like manufacturers of these products did not even try to give us full information.

So, this is what I have.

Those substrates, that we put in our tank, which increase pH of the water, are made out of calcium carbonate and this mineral comes in two different forms:

  1. aragonite form
  2. calcite form

The difference is that those crystals are different. They are different crystal forms of the same mineral.

In the aragonite form, the primary impurity is strontium. It’s a soft alkaline earth metal.

In the calcite form, the primary impurity is magnesium. When the magnesium level reaches 50% of the calcite it’s called dolomite.

So when coral takes aragonite crystals out of the water column, it is aragonite. Crushed coral is just big chunks of aragonite and if you grind the coral, it turns into aragonite sand.

The other form of calcium carbonate is calcite. A lot of sea creatures build their shells out of calcite. There are some sea creatures that also make their shells out of both calcite and aragonite, so you have an item out there called Coral sand.

Now comes an interesting part.

Coral sand is not coral sand. The term they should be using is Limestone sand because limestone is made out of dead sea creatures and dead marine plants. So you have two forms compressed together: calcite and aragonite because you do have some coral mixed in in limestone but the primary ingredient in limestone is calcium carbonate in the calcite form. As we can see Coral sand is an incorrect term and it should be called limestone sand because calcium carbonate is in the mixture in the aragonite form and the calcite form but most of it is in the calcite form.

Therefore since these two minerals come in two different crystal the effect on your water column is different. In the aragonite form it usually increases pH up to around 8.2 and in the calcite form it usually only increases pH up to around 7.6.


7 thoughts on “The Most Popular Types of Sand for Your Aquarium. Pros and Cons.

  1. Thanks michael! I wanted to switch substrate to sand n try loaches,cories asian tank theme. As of now i have bare bottom tanks…well large rocks you cant really see bare bottom. Down to 3 tanks compared to 6 …Im used to cleaning the poop every 3-4 days so non issue of water change etc. I bred angelfish for abt 20 yrs and my oldest fishes are abt 8-9 yrs old and want to do something different aftr they go. Wondered abt sand, i have hob s, not really wanted to sponge filter the intake. I find Doesnt clean water as well. So thanks for recommending a larger grain sand.

  2. Can you use regular builders river sand for betta aquarium and will live plants grow in it?

    1. Hi Natasha,
      Yes, it is possible. However, this sand is very dirty and you will have to rinse it throughly.
      Best regards,

  3. Hi Michael: I want to replace gravel on my 180 gallon freshwater aquarium with black sand. I have an opportunity to buy black sand previously used in freshwater at 50 cents/pound. The owner says the sand was used for three months and was purchased at Petco. Do you think this sand is safe to consider purchasing? Thanks.

    1. Hi Woody,
      I understand that the price is tempting but I would be very careful with any second-hand substrate (sand, gravel, or soil). Pathogens, parasites and other nasty things can be there.
      So, if you decide to use it, at least rinse and clean it again.
      Ideally, I would even sterilize it by baking it in the oven 5-10 minutes.
      Best regards,

  4. Hi Michael,
    Enjoyed reading your article, thankyou.
    I cannot see the grain size on the photos you included above for the stoney-river or ultra-reef.
    So just to be clear, for an unplanted freshwater tank would you recommend larger than 1mm inert, tumbled (non sharp) sand or is 1mm big enough to avoid gas but prevent waste getting trapped?
    I am upgrading to a 240litre tank that i am setting up with my 3 medium sized goldfish (20-25cm long), uv light, two large canister filters, floss, micromec et.c.
    Many thanks

    1. Hi Adrian,
      Thank you for your kind words!
      A grain size of around 1mm is generally sufficient for these purposes. However, going slightly larger (up to 2mm) can further reduce the risk of anaerobic pockets forming and make cleaning easier.
      It’s also important to always keep in mind that the thickness of the sand layer itself will play a significant role.
      However, you’re unlikely to add more than a few centimeters, so the risk will also be lower.
      Best regards,

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