Aquarium Sand vs Gravel: Which Substrate Should You Choose!

image of aquarium sand vs gravel for fish tank

Everyone loves the excitement of setting up a new tank. In addition to collecting the fish, filter, plants, and tank itself, you’ll have to purchase some sort of tank substrate.

Tank substrate isn’t just to make your tank look prettier to your guests (and your fish!). It’s actually extremely useful to your fish, who love to burrow in the substrate to hide. 

However, there are a few different types of substrate, the two most common being aquarium sand and gravel. 

Many fish tank owners question which substrate is the best, and the answer is ultimately: it depends.

Both aquarium sand and gravel have their own pros and cons. To learn more about which substrate is best for your particular tank, read on!

Why Do You Need Tank Substrate?

Substrate, while it does add an element of attractiveness to your tank, isn’t just for looks. In fact, your fish will seriously thank you for having some sort of substrate in their tank for them. 

Many fish species like to hide because it makes them feel safe. Fish often use plants or caves to hide, but they can also burrow in substrate. 

Burrowing helps them feel safe, which can reduce stress levels and keep your fish healthier in the long run.

By keeping your fish healthy, you can ensure a longer life for them, which means more time spent bonding with your fish. Who wouldn’t want that?

Types of substrate for your tank include:

  • Sand
  • Gravel
  • Clay
  • Crushed coral
  • Peat
  • Aqua soil

The first two on this list are much more common than the rest, and can be found at any pet store that carries fish products. We’ll talk about the pros and cons of using aquarium sand vs gravel below. 

Overview of Fish Tank Sand

Fish tank sand is one of the most common tank substrates available. It produces a nice, natural look at an affordable price, which makes it a top choice for many home aquarium hobbyists.  

Why Do You Use Sand in Fish Tank?

Sand is a simple choice for those wanting a simple setup. It’s not difficult to find and is extremely affordable compared to some other substrates.

While some substrates can only be found online or need frequent cleaning, aquarium sand is easy to spot clean and is more gentle on your fishes’ soft bellies when they try to burrow.

Because sand is often found in the natural environment of your fish species, it also helps them to feel at home. 

Pros of Using Sand

There are many pros to using sand as an aquarium substrate. Overall, sand is:

  • One of the cheapest substrates available
  • Easy to spot clean
  • Easy to find in-store
  • Great for holding down plants
  • Used to create a natural feel to the aquarium
  • Available in many colors
  • Soft on fish bellies when burrowing

When it comes to sand, it’s hard to go wrong. Because the sand is so fine, you can easily see fish droppings along the top of it, which can help signal when it’s time to change the substrate out.

Sand is also lightweight, which makes it easy to handle. Though it is light in small quantities, it can easily hold aquarium plants down as needed.

Plus, you don’t have to go to many stores to find yourself a bag. Aquarium sand can be found at any pet store that sells fish supplies, and other types of sand can be found at most home improvement stores. 

Depending on the type of fish you have, sand is perfect because it is softer on their bellies during burrowing than other substrates. Plus, some species of fish actually ingest sand because it helps with digestion!

Some aquatic species that do great in sand substrate include:

  • Cichlids
  • Kuhli loaches
  • Freshwater invertebrates
  • Cherry shrimp

Sand also works well to decorate, as it comes in a variety of colors. Your fish tank has never looked so good!

Cons of Using Sand

Of course, sand isn’t always the best choice for some. That’s because sand can:

  • Be difficult to swap out once water is already in the tank
  • Create clouds during burrowing
  • Get stuck in a filter and clog it
  • Be a nuisance to some fish species
  • Cause issues if not washed properly first

If you’ve ever been to the beach, you know just how quickly sand can get swept up in the water. That means cleaning the substrate from your tank may be more difficult than with other substrates.

This can also cause issues during burrowing. The more sand your fish stir up, the cloudier your water can become.

Though the cloudiness normally settles, you may not enjoy this look if your fish burrow often.

You also need to consider the types of fish you have, as bottom feeders won’t particularly like sand. They prefer thicker substrate such as gravel that they can eat off. 

Sand can also cause issues with your filter. If lots of sand is kicked into your filter throughout the day, this can cause clogs which can result in your filter becoming ineffective or breaking. 

Be sure to research filter types carefully before purchasing if you plan to use sand as a substrate!

Finally, you have to always wash your sand before using it. This is because sand usually comes somewhat covered in dirt and debris, so washing the sand first prevents this dirt from entering your tank.

Though not difficult, this task is time-consuming, so some may want to avoid sand because of it. 

Overview of Fish Tank Gravel

If you’re looking for an alternative to sand, fish tank gravel is a great choice. This substrate is also popular in home aquariums, which makes it easy to find at any local pet store. 

Why Do You Use Gravel in Fish Tank?

Besides sand, gravel is the other most popular substrate for home aquariums. It is heavier and chunkier than sand, which makes it a good choice for some specific fish species. 

Gravel is also quite affordable. It is similar in cost to sand, though it may be slightly more expensive than the finer substrate. 

Plus, some fish prefer gravel to sand, especially bottom feeders. Aquatic species that prefer gravel to sand include:

  • Goldfish
  • Snails
  • Bettas
  • Tetras

This is mostly because fish like these cannot ingest sand, so gravel is much safer. Snails can also move more easily on gravel than sand, so it is a great choice for those with snails in their tank.

Pros of Using Gravel

Aquarium gravel is a great choice for many tank owners for a few reasons. Overall, gravel is:

  • Perfect for bottom feeders 
  • Extremely affordable
  • Easy to find in the store
  • Available in a variety of colors, sizes, and types
  • Easy to clean and replace
  • Resistant to certain bacterial growth 
  • Able to be reused if cleaned properly

Fish that enjoy feeding on the bottom of the tank do well with gravel as they can eat algae off the small pebbles as part of their diet. Sounds… Unappetizing, but glad it works for them!

Gravel is also affordable and easily available just like sand is. And just like sand, it comes in a variety of colors and sizes, so you can create your favorite look for your tank.

Plus, some types of gravel can help change the pH or water hardness in your tank, which can create a healthier environment for your fish.

When it comes time to change out your gravel, you can actually use a gravel vacuum to suck up all the dirty gravel. You can then actually clean the gravel and reuse it rather than buy new gravel!

Finally, because gravel is spaced out between pieces, it is resistant to certain types of bacterial or amoeba growth. This can keep your tank safer so your fish stay healthier and live longer lives!

Isn’t that great news?

Cons of Using Gravel

Though gravel is great, it isn’t for everyone. Some of the downsides of gravel include:

  • Heavier weight
  • Risk of ingestion
  • Can cause lesions in burrowing fish
  • Debris getting stuck between pebbles

Gravel tends to be heavier in weight than sand, though this typically isn’t a major issue once it is actually in the tank itself. 

Though gravel is used to prevent sand ingestion, some fish with large mouths may accidentally ingest gravel pieces as they try to play or eat. If you’re concerned about this, larger gravel pieces may be a better choice than smaller ones. 

You may also want to choose sand over gravel for burrowing fish, as gravel can cause irritation or lesions on your fish’s belly if they burrow frequently.

Finally, you need to consider that debris may get stuck between loose pebbles when it comes to gravel. Food or small organisms that may get stuck in the gravel may cause cleanliness and health issues over time, so you’ll want to clean the gravel regularly. 

Now You’re Prepared

Aquarium substrate is really important to consider before setting up your tank. Before you grab the first thing you find at your local pet store, think about the above pros and cons for both sand and gravel to make a final decision.

Regardless of which you pick, remember that your fish will thank you for a place to burrow and hide comfortably. 

If you have a favorite substrate, tell us about it below. If you have any questions about specific fish or tank setups, ask below and we may write about it next!

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