Best Aquarium Substrate – Top 6 Reviews, Guide, FAQs & More!

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You’ll agree with us when we say that, in a lot of cases, your aquarium substrate choice can really make or break your aquarium. 

Considering this, we started experimenting with many popular aquarium substrate products so we could see which ones were the best in order to rank them in this list. 

Today, we’ll discuss everything that goes into buying and setting up aquarium substrate as well as how you can gain the maximum value out of it to make your aquarium run like a dream. 

Top Pick

With its natural appearance and small, unobtrusive rocks, this substrate is sure to blend in perfectly in all types of aquariums. It’s especially easy to spread on the bottom.

Runner Up

This product is packed with many nutrients that are required by aquarium plants to grow properly. You’ll find that even though it’s soil-like, it doesn’t make your water murky.

Also Great

This comes in a ton of colors so you have the liberty to mix and match as you please. Its 2-pound bag makes it perfectly suitable and convenient for smaller household aquariums.

We tested these substrates with all types of fish but in the end, all of them unanimously showed that they were happiest with these three substrates. 

Now, let’s get into more detailed reviews for the top 6 best aquarium substrates. 

Best Aquarium Substrate - Best 6 Reviews

1. All-Around Best Aquarium Substrate - Spectrastone Shallow Creek Regular Review

The Spectrastonestone Shallow Creek Regular is a gravel that has the gift of being incredibly versatile by virtue of the fact that it has a very natural brown color. This brown color allows it to blend into the environment of just about any type of aquarium. No matter what aquarium you put it into, we guarantee it will look great. 

The individual particles are each specially coated with a non-toxic coating which makes them inert so they don’t react with your aquarium water in an unexpected way. Every individual particle is also specially polished so your fish don’t end up cutting or harming themselves while playing with the gravel. 

Features of Spectrastone Shallow Creek Regular – Best Aquarium Substrate

  1. Standard bag size: 5 pounds
  2. Non-toxic
  3. Does not affect pH
  4. Different shades of brown
  5. Individual particle size varies between 2mm and 4mm
  • Polished edges
  • Non-reactive with water
  • Long-lasting
  • Easy to handle
  • Gives your aquarium a natural look
  • Rinsing it can be time-consuming

If you’re unsure of what aquarium substrate to get for your aquarium, this product is definitely your best bet. It looks great and also does a great job maintaining the water chemistry inside your aquarium.

2. Best Aquarium Substrate for Planted Tank - Carib Sea Eco Complete Planted Black Aquarium Substrate Review

Obviously, if you have plants inside your aquarium, they’re going to need nutrients. This substrate provides your plants with all the nutrients they need to effectively grow. Its soil-like texture makes it very easy to spread on the bottom of the aquarium. You can press and shape it in any way you want during setup using your hands. 

We’ve been using this substrate for many months now and it has shown no signs of going bad any time soon. It’s also incredibly easy to clean with a gravel cleaner despite its soily texture. 

Features of Carib Sea Eco Complete Planted Black Aquarium Substrate

  1. Standard bag size: 20 pounds
  2. Brown in color
  3. Soil-like texture
  4. Includes major and minor trace elements
  5. Suitable for freshwater aquariums
  • Does not cloud the water 
  • Long-lasting
  • Easily malleable
  • Encourages root development
  • Rich in minerals 
  • May raise your aquarium pH by too much if left unchecked
  • Is not appropriate for saltwater aquariums

If you’re worried your aquarium plants aren’t getting enough nutrition then this is the substrate you’re looking for. It lasts a very long time and does not make the water murky.

3. Best Aesthetically-Pleasing Aquarium Substrate - BXI Decorative Gravel Pebbles Review

To many aquarists, the aesthetic and look of their aquarium is given very high priority and this is a product that’s aimed specifically at them. It’s a substrate that comes in seven different colors. You can choose to just have one solid color for your substrate or you can also choose to mix and match two or more colors to give your aquarium a very unique look. 

The 2-pound bag ensures that very little substrate goes to waste when filling up smaller aquariums but it might be a bit inconvenient to get several bags and opening them one by one if you have a large aquarium.  

Features of BXI Decorative Gravel Pebbles

  1. Standard bag size: 2 pounds
  2. Inert substrate
  3. Non-toxic coating
  4. Great for freshwater or saltwater aquariums
  5. Individual stone size varies between 3mm and 6mm
  • Color does not fade over time
  • Very easy to rinse
  • Non-reactive with water
  • Great stimulant for fish
  • Gives your aquarium a unique aesthetic
  • Does not hold any nutritional or water-condition altering benefits 

If you want a beautiful aesthetic coming from your substrate that immediately catches the eye of the viewer, then this product is perfect for you. They are very easy to use and also very simple to wash before use. 

4. Best Budget Aquarium Substrate - Seachem Flourite Black Clay Gravel Review

This is a product that’s incredibly popular among the fishkeeping community due to its unique color, its incredible price and its ease of use. The clay-like texture makes it very easy to work with and you’ll find that it lasts a much longer time than most substrates before needing to be replaced. You would think that the clay-like texture would make it very difficult to clean but in reality, cleaning it with a gravel cleaning takes no time at all. 

The fact that it’s rich in iron ensures that you don’t need to add other ingredients to it such as laterite during aquarium setup. 

Features of Seachem Flourite Black Clay Gravel

  1. Standard bag size: 15.4 pounds
  2. Black color
  3. Clay-based substrate
  4. Rich in iron 
  5. Great for all freshwater aquariums 
  • Great value for money
  • Black color looks great and unique
  • Unique texture makes for easy spreading
  • Does not react with water
  • Does not require additional ingredients such as laterite
  • Can cloud the water initially 
  • Only suitable for freshwater aquariums

If you’re running low on cash but still want a dependable and high-quality substrate for your aquarium then this is the product you’re looking for. It looks wonderful and provides a great backdrop for your fish to be displayed. 

5. Best Long-Lasting Aquarium Substrate - Mr. Aqua N-MAR-066 1 L Fine Pet Habitat Water Plant Soil Review

This is another soil-like substrate that has a benefit that no other product on this list has: it prolongs the time between water exchanges, i.e., it does not dirty up the water like most other aquarium substrates so you can go much longer without having to do water changes in your aquarium. This is great for aquarists who have very busy lives and don’t have time to do water changes every 2 or 3 days. 

The soil itself promotes the pH to be slightly towards the acidic side which is good since it helps promote the absorption of nutrients in aquarium plant roots. 

Features of Mr. Aqua N-MAR-066 1 L Fine Pet Habitat Water Plant Soil

  1. Standard bag size: 1.85 pounds
  2. Made from completely organic ingredients
  3. Can last anywhere between 12 – 18 months
  4. Black color
  5. Appropriate for use in freshwater aquariums
  • Does not need additional fertilizer
  • Long-lasting
  • Promotes slightly acidic conditions which are great for root absorption
  • Rich in nutrients
  • Affordable
  • Tends to be coated with a lot of dust initially
  • Not suitable for saltwater aquariums

If you’re frustrated by having to change your aquarium substrate after every few months then this product was made for you. It will last you a very long time and is made from natural ingredients.

6. Best Pre-Rinsed Aquarium Substrate - UP AQUA Sand Review

We were skeptical about this product and its claim that the substrate doesn’t need rinsing before being added to the aquarium. No matter how well you rinse, some sort of dust always tends to get deposited into substrate. However, we decided to test the manufacturer’s claim and added the substrate into our aquarium without rinsing it and to our surprise, it settled down to the bottom of the aquarium in no time and did not make the water cloudy at all. 

We conducted several tests on the water in the upcoming days and it showed no undesirable effects in the water.

Features of Mr. Aqua N-MAR-066 1 L Fine Pet Habitat Water Plant Soil

  1. Standard bag size: 11 pounds
  2. pH value: 6.5
  3. Comes pre-rinsed
  4. Can last more than a year before needing replacement
  5. Dark-brown/Black-ish color
  • Does not require washing before use
  • Long-lasting
  • Does not make the water cloudy
  • Promotes acidic conditions
  • Easy to clean
  • Quite expensive

If you don’t want to go through the tedious process of cleaning the substrate before adding it to your aquarium then this product is ideal for you. It lasts an incredibly long time and is also very easy to maintain.

best aquarium substrate

Buyers’ Guide

What is aquarium substrate? 

Aquarium substrate is the textured material that you normally see at the bottom of most aquarium floors. It can have many different textures to it, some are big, round and polished while others pretty much look like sand. 

Most beginner aquarists make the mistake of assuming that substrate is present only for aesthetic purposes but in reality, it can affect all sorts of factors inside your aquarium such as water chemistry, the growth rate of your aquarium plants, the calmness of your fish, etc.  

Why do we need aquarium substrate? 

There are a number of benefits that aquarium substrate provides that just can’t be ignored. You may get away with having no substrate inside your aquarium if it’s a smaller one but in most cases, the successful running of an aquarium almost always requires substrate to be present at the bottom. 

Firstly, the most obvious benefit is the aesthetic appeal. Aquarium substrate comes in all sorts of different shapes and sizes and you can really get creative in order to make your aquarium stand out. 

Secondly, we’ve talked in the past about how beneficial nitrifying bacteria are very important for the successful running of your aquarium. They are bacteria that help neutralize ammonia inside your aquarium which is very toxic to fish. So, it’s important to have as many good breeding spots for these types of bacteria inside your aquarium as possible. For most people, this is usually the biological filtration media inside their filter but what a lot of people don’t think about is that if they get an aquarium substrate of the appropriate shape and texture, it can actually work very well as a breeding ground for beneficial nitrifying bacteria. 

If you’re planning on having plants inside your aquarium then an aquarium substrate becomes absolutely necessary since it will act as the material that will anchor your plants and give them a platform to grow their roots into. There also exist many soil-like substrates that contain beneficial nutrients that help aquarium plants grow more efficiently. 

Lastly, if you choose to get an aquarium substrate that has a natural color and aims to mimic naturally found sea gravel, then you’ll be doing your fish a favor. They’ll be happy to see something familiar and it will help them be much more comfortable with the environment they are in. 

What are the different types of aquarium substrate? 

There are mainly two major categories of aquarium substrate: aquarium gravel and aquarium sand. 

Aquarium gravel is the most common type of aquarium substrate. It comes in the form of small rocks that vary in size by a few millimeters. They are usually smoothed out so they don’t hurt your fish or damage any of your plant’s roots. 

Aquarium sand can be further divided into many different types such as coral sand, marble chippings and soil-like substrate. 

Regular aquarium sand is exactly what it sounds like. It’s sand that’s been properly treated to be safe inside aquariums so it doesn’t react with water in any harmful way and also so that it sinks to the bottom of your aquarium. Aquarium sand is quite popular among aquarists that have introverted fish that like burying themselves in the substrate. 

Coral sand is a popular variation of aquarium sand that is used mostly in coral reef aquariums. 

Marble chippings are a form of substrate that slowly dissolve into the water over time and raise the pH of the water as a result. This type of substrate is normally used in aquariums that have a problem of the pH falling from time to time. The constant slow dissolving of the marble chippings helps counteract that fall in pH.

Soil-like substrate is most popular in planted aquariums. It usually contains nutrients that are absorbed by aquarium plants through their roots. 

What should I look for while purchasing aquarium substrate? 

Here are some things you should look for when purchasing aquarium substrate: 

  • Particle Size and Texture 

You’re going to have to look at what type of aquarium you’re running and decide on the particle size and texture of your aquarium substrate based on that. For example, you can’t have aquarium gravel with big-sized rocks if you’re planning to run a planted aquarium. 

  • Reactivity with Water 

Depending on what type of tank you’re running, you may want a substrate that’s reactive or non-reactive. Non-reactive substrates are most popular but in some cases, you may want a substrate that causes your aquarium to have mildly acidic or alkaline conditions. 

How long does aquarium substrate normally last before I have to change it?

Most aquarium substrate lasts at least 6 – 8 months. If you have a high-quality substrate that is long-lasting, you can even expect it to last up to 18 months if you clean and take care of it properly. 

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

Is gravel or sand better for an aquarium? 

Neither of these types of substrates is better than the other. Both of them have their own unique sets of advantages and disadvantages. It all really depends on what type of aquarium you’re running. If you have a planted aquarium, aquarium sand would probably be better for you. If you’re running a fish-only aquarium with mainly medium-level or top-dwelling fish then you may want to opt for aquarium gravel. 

Do aquarium plants need special substrate?

It depends on the type of plants you have. Some plants are water-column feeders and don’t even require to be buried in substrate and can just float in the aquarium water freely. If you only have these types of plants in your aquarium, you’re not going to need special substrate. 

However, if you have plants that are root feeders, you’re going to want to invest in soil-like substrate that is rich in minerals and nutrients. You’ll plant your plants into these substrates and that’s where they’ll get their nutrients from. 

How deep should my aquarium substrate be? 

If you have a fish-only aquarium, you can get away with having a substrate layer that’s only 1-inch deep. 

If you plan on having aquarium plants then you should have a substrate layer that’s at least 2 inches deep. 

Keep in mind that there’s no limit on how deep your substrate should be, you can have it as deep as you want. However, be wary of the fact that the deeper the substrate is, the harder and more time-consuming it becomes for you to clean it thoroughly. 

How can I judge how much aquarium substrate I need? 

First, you need to identify how deep you want your substrate layer to be. Once, you’ve found that out, you can go online and search for a gravel calculator. You’ll have to input how deep you want your substrate layer to be and the dimensions of your tank and the calculator will give you the amount of substrate you’ll need in pounds. 

Can I add more aquarium substrate to my fish tank? 

You can definitely add more aquarium substrate but be sure that you’ve thoroughly cleaned it first. Also, make sure that you’ve cleaned the aquarium substrate already present inside your aquarium before adding more on top of it. 

Can I change my aquarium substrate with my fish in the tank? 

Yes, you can. In fact, most aquarists encourage people to change their substrate while keeping the fish in the same tank. This is because although the process of changing substrates will stress your fish to some extent but the process of first, shifting them to a temporary tank while you do your substrate change and then shifting them back into your main tank will actually stress them out a lot more. 

How do I change aquarium substrate in my established aquarium? 

Start by thoroughly cleaning the old substrate in your aquarium using a gravel cleaner. Afterward, you can scoop it out using a small cup or a plastic container. Once all the old aquarium substrate is removed, start adding your new substrate little by little. Don’t be alarmed if your aquarium starts to cloud up as this is quite common and will get fixed on its own over time. Once you’ve added all the substrate, give it a few hours to settle to the bottom and make any small changes in its shape that you want. 

What color of aquarium substrate would be best for my fish tank? 

There’s really no one color that looks best in all aquariums. You can opt to go for a natural look by getting aquarium substrate that looks exactly like river rocks or sea gravel or you can go for a unique look by getting substrate that has flashy colors. 

Can I use pea gravel in my fish tank? 

You can but there’s a chance it might raise the pH of your aquarium. It’s also quite large in size so it will probably trap a lot more dirt and waste than normal aquarium substrate so you’ll have to do a lot more regular cleanings in order to maintain it. 

Can I put river rocks in my aquarium? 

You can if you want but be sure to properly disinfect them before adding them to your tank as you don’t want to introduce any sort of pests, diseases or bacteria to your aquarium. 

Final Verdict

Aquarium substrate really is a part of the aquarium setup that can enhance the life of its inhabitants tenfold if you get the right one. 

After some heated debates, we’ve concluded the best aquarium substrate to be the Spectrastone Shallow Creek Regular. It’s incredibly versatile, easy to use and also easy on the pocket. 

This brings us to the end of our post for the best aquarium substrates. 

Give us feedback and let us know what substrate you’re using for your aquarium.

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