Best Sand For Reef Tank – Review & Guide

One of the biggest visual aspects to a reef tank is the tank substrate.  This is the bottom few inches of the tank and there are a variety of options to choose from.

Sand is, by far, the best option for substrate material in a reef tank.  Certain aquatic species like to burrow or dig, and sand is the preferred material.

Sand is easier to clean and maintain.  The small particles keep debris on top of the tank bed.  This allows the tank’s flow system to pick up the debris and send it through the filter.

A lot of reef aquarium sand options have properties that will affect water chemistry.  These help to maintain specific water quality standards.  This helps you out, lessening some of the cleaning routine.

Sand For Reef Tank Reviews

CaribSea Ocean Direct

Ocean Direct is a line of marine substrate produced by CaribSea.  This is a real “live” sand.  Taken from the ocean without drying or sifting, it relies on natural ocean bacteria.

Crushed aragonite makes up the sand.  This crystal form of calcium carbonate helps to regulate the water quality.  It also provides one of the homes for your beneficial aquarium bacteria.

The Ocean Direct line uses “Sea Breathe” technology to preserve the natural bacteria.  A thin film encapsulates each grain of sand.  This gives you up to 1000 times more bacteria than other preservation methods.

This product is preserved moist instead of submerged.  The packaging uses a special plastic that allows for gas exchange.  This helps to keep a high bacteria count while in storage and through transportation.


  • Comes in 2 grain options, Oolite and Original Grade.
  • Adds needed good natural bacteria to the tank.
  • Uses an aragonite based sand.


  • The Oolite option can get blown around easily by a high flow rate system.
  • It has the potential to stay cloudy or take a longer time to settle in the water.


The CaribSea’s ARAG-ALIVE! line was developed with the help of public aquariums and zoological parks.  This offers accurate ecoscapes to pair with your aquarium inhabitants.

ARAG-ALIVE! is an aragonite based marine sand substrate.  The calcium carbonate property helps to maintain good water quality with less work on your part.  It encourages proper pH levels.

This sand comes from the ocean but is then dried and sifted.  This eliminates most of the dust that would cause a cloudy tank.  Quicker settling time means you get a beautiful looking tank faster.

The sand is wet packaged with a mix of dormant bacteria.  The bacteria awakens when put in an appropriate environment, like an aquarium.  This lessens the possibility of get dead sand instead of live sand.


  • Dried and sifted to reduce dust for faster settling.
  • Lab proven to cycle faster than other live sand brands.
  • Comes in 8 different ecoscape options for a variety of sizes and colors.


  • Buying wet packaged sand means you will get less sand than a dry packaged sand because of the water weight.
  • It is possible to get dead or contaminated sand which makes the water cloudy with organic debris.

Nature’s Ocean Bio-Activ Live Aragonite

Bio-Activ Live Aragonite from Nature’s Ocean is direct from the ocean.  It contains millions of natural bacteria in biofilm covering the sand.  Nature’s Ocean uses their patented preservation process and packaged with patented QX-23 fluid.

Bio-Activ sand provides important trace elements such as Calcium Chloride and Manganese Chloride.  Various sea creatures use these elements to grow healthy and stay happy.

This sand’s natural bacteria produces more efficient biofilm compared to lab cultured bacteria.  This helps cycle toxins better and faster once added to an aquarium.

The aragonite helps to maintain proper reef pH levels.  When the pH drops, the minerals contained in the aragonite dissolve into the water to raise it up.  This, in turn, enhances the water’s buffering capacity.


  • Uses more efficient natural bacteria versus cultured bacteria.
  • Guarantees instant cycling of the toxins in the water.
  • Designed to prevent biofouling.


  • May contain dust particles that linger in the water.
  • Uses small grains of sand that can get swept up by flow system and clog equipment.

Tropic Eden Tonga Reefflakes

Tropic Eden Live Tonga Reefflakes are free from impurities.  It comes from offshore remote islands in the South Pacific and is inspected on site.  This sand contains bacteria found in coral reef sand beds.

This live sand has added strains of symbiotic marine bacteria and microbes.  This will boost your tanks efficiency and complete the nitrification and denitrification processes.

Tropic Eden’s live sand helps to shorten your tank’s cycle time and adds to its buffering capacity.  Shorter cycles help to avoid dangerous ammonia spikes and algae buildup.

Since this is a live sand, it does not need to be rinsed before use.  In fact rinsing could harm the good microbes and bacteria in the sand, or wash them away.


  • Short cycle time which helps keep the tank clean.
  • Rinsing before use is not required.
  • Maintains alkalinity and pH level around 8.2.


  • Will cause your tank to become cloudy for a short period of time when added to your tank.
  • Only comes in one color.

Imagitarium Aquarium Sand

Imagitarium Aquarium Sand is great for use in freshwater or saltwater aquariums.  This makes it a good choice for beginners.  Its particular grain size makes it ideal when live plants are present.

Imagitarium sand is inert by design.  This means that, when added to your tank, it will not alter the pH level or change the hardness of  the water.

The sand is also designed to promote healthy bacteria growth.  The bacteria will help to breakdown toxins produced during the nitrogen cycle.  This keeps the tank cleaner longer.

The solid black coloring sets the stage for striking contrasts with your livestock.  The dark color helps to bring out more intense colors in your fish.


  • Will not affect your tank’s water parameters.
  • Promotes good bacteria growth.
  • Allows room for plants to grow and take root.


  • It is not a “live” sand so the good bacteria must come from another source, like live rock or a water additive.
  • Only comes in two colors: black and white.

AquaNatural Coarse Aragonite Aquarium Sand

AquaNatural Coarse Aragonite comes from the Bahamas and is a sustainable substrate.  Its grain size is great for reef and freshwater tanks, as well as plenum systems and refugiums.

This sand offers chemical purity and small consistent grain structure.   One kilogram provides over one million square centimeters of surface area.   This provides ample space for housing ammonia, nitrite and nitrate reducing bacteria.

It is tasteless, odorless, and dustless causing little disruption to your tank.  This marine aragonite is raw and a good source of trace elements.  These include alkaline earth metal such as calcium, magnesium, and strontium.

This sustainable substrate has an effective and natural buffering capability.  It helps the water to maintain a natural pH balance of 8.2 without adding extra chemicals.


  • Provides an abundant amount of surface area.
  • Consistent grain size.
  • Sustainable raw aragonite created by reef organisms.


  • Coarse texture may leave space for debris to collect and decompose.
  • Only available in one color option.

Pure Water Pebbles African Cichlid Bio-Activ Live Sand

Pure Water Pebbles is a brand of freshwater substrate from Nature’s Ocean.  The Bio-Activ Live African Cichlid sand ensures higher pH levels.  This product is suitable for reef use even though marketed for freshwater tanks.

This sand uses a patented method of preserving natural bacteria and sand together.  The live bacteria immediately begins to stabilize the tank’s water upon introduction.

The natural properties of the product prevent biofouling and restore organic balance.  This is when microorganisms accumulate and decrease the functionality of the tank’s systems.

The aragonite substrate also brings essential elements into the habitat.  Many reef creatures rely on these elements to grow, benefiting the entire aquarium. These also help negate some of the toxins.


  • Slightly larger grain size allowing for faster flow systems.
  • There are 3 options to choose from with differing size or color.
  • Contains live bacteria to begin the nitrogen cycle.


  • Larger grain sizes may allow debris to get trapped in the sand bed causing more cleanings.
  • Clouds from dust and debris mixed in with the sand may linger for long periods.

CaribSea Aragonite

CaribSea’s Aragonite is the brand’s base product line for marine sand substrate.  It is a dry sand and provides a safe way to increase the water’s buffering ability.

Dry sand means it does not contain water when packaged.  Dry also means that it is not “live” sand, so you won’t have to worry whether the bacteria is dead when you get it.

CaribSea Aragonite is free of impurities like ash, metals, pesticides, and silica.  These have the potential to harm you fish or make keeping good water quality a difficult task.

4 different sand options to choose from.  These range in size and offer slight variations in color.  This allows you to pick the one that best suits the needs of your tank systems and fish.


  • The product line has 4 options to choose from.
  • Engineered to be precise and free of impurities.
  • Dry sand eliminates some of the headache involved with adding sand to a tank versus wet sand.


  • Does not come with its own bacteria, you must seed the tank in a different way.
  • Must wash it before adding to the tank to remove dust particles, or you will get a very cloudy tank.

Estes Stoney River Premium Aquarium Sand

Made in the USA, Estes Stoney River Premium Aquarium Sand is great for any type of aquarium.  Estes is an industry leader in the colored sand production market.

A non-toxic polymer coating surrounds each grain of silica sand.  This makes the sand inert, so it will not affect any water properties.  The coating also makes it usable in fish tanks.

A range of seven different colors are available to buy, some more natural than others.  This allows for a varying array of visual displays.  The colors are a result of the non-toxic coating.

The grain size of this sand allows for proper anchoring of artificial plants or other decor.  The sand will compact over time and help to keep debris above the sand bed.


  • There are seven colors to choose from.
  • Non-toxic to aquarium life as long as the coating is intact.
  • Free from organic debris while packaged.


  • This product is not a “live” sand and does not come with its own bacteria.
  • Does not provide help to maintain or buffer water pH levels.

Two Little Fishies Outstanding Selections

TLF Live Aragonite Sand comes from various native sites in the western pacific.  This is a natural bottom sand for marine and reef tanks.  It is quick to provide a beneficial sand bed for your aquarium.

This tan fine grained substrate is easy to add to your aquarium.  No rinsing required due to it being a live sand.  Water cloudiness will dissipate after a few hours.

TLF live sand contains the bacteria that will help your aquarium’s filtration system.  This bacteria will reduce nitrites that would cause harm to your livestock.

The fineness of the sand makes it great for slower moving currents.  If you have strong currents in your tank it may move this sand and push it into your filter, clogging it up.


  • Attractive tan color goes with most tank setups.
  • Provides beneficial bacteria.
  • Shortens time to create biological filtration within the aquarium.


  • Light grain size can cause the sand to move with the current.
  • Fresh live sands can cause temporary ammonia spikes.

Types of Aquarium Sand

Sand comes in plenty of options to choose from.  Each one has a specific use, or designed with a particular species or purpose in mind.  Consider the following types of sand during your build.

Live Sand:  Live sand contains bacteria and packaged with a small amount of water.  It boosts the biological processing power of waste in the aquarium.  It frequently uses aragonite based sand gathered from the ocean.

Dry Sand:  Unlike live sand, it does not contain bacteria or water.  Dry sand can be very pure and void of harmful debris, under going extra processing.

Colored Sand:  Natural sand comes in a variety of colors.  White, black, tan, and pink make up most options.  The location the sand comes from plays a big part dictating the color.  Manufactured sand can come in just about any color.  Some options may glow in the dark.

Beach Sand:  Do not use these sands in your aquarium.  Beach sand is full of parasites you do not want attacking your fish.  Unwanted decaying organic matter and toxic chemical residue may also be present.  It is also bad for the environment.  Taking sand from the beach, or from a reef, is environmentally irresponsible.  It degrades ecosystems the planet needs to survive.

How to Maintain Your Aquarium Sand

Reef tanks can do a decent amount of their own cleaning and maintenance, but not all.  It is important to lend a helping hand to keep your reef in good working order.

There is some debate on the best way to clean the sand in your reef tank.  A lot comes down to your wants and needs.  There are two main methods that you could follow.

The first method is to vacuum the sand bed.  Using a vacuum siphon allows you to pick up debris off the sand.  Be careful, though, not to disturb the entirety of the sand bed.  You still want the good bacteria to be there after cleaning or you risk “new tank” syndrome.

The second method is to blow off the top of the sand.  A turkey baster makes for a great tool.  It allows you to gently blow any debris that has settled back up into the current of the tank.  From there, the filter will gather it up.

However, if your tank is looking dirty all the time, you may have forgotten two small things.  First, make sure you are not over feeding your fish.  Leftover food could be decaying in the sand.  Second, have a cleaning crew.  This crew can consist of snails, crabs, shrimp, and starfish.  They will feed on leftover food and algae that begin to grow.

Whichever method you choose to use, think ahead.  Being proactive will greatly reduce the need to clean the sand bed yourself.  Keep a regular maintenance routine for each part of your tank.  Water changes and filter checks will decrease the need to disrupt the sand bed of your aquarium.

How Aquarium Sand Works

Sand and sediment make up the largest part of natural reef ecosystems.  It houses microscopic bacteria and tiny invertebrates.  In an aquarium setup, they play an important role in keeping a thriving mini ecosystem.

The bacteria in the sand helps to complete the nitrogen cycle.  In the cycle, the bacteria convert toxic ammonia into slightly less toxic nitrites.  From there, bacteria converts the nitrites to nitrates which are far less toxic.  Plants consume some of the nitrates and water changes remove the rest.

Natural reef sand can do more than provide bacteria housing.  If the sand is aragonite based, it can improve the overall water quality too.  Water in reef systems is more alkaline.  This means that fish and other creatures found in reefs will prefer a higher pH water.  In an aquarium, as time passes, the water will become more acidic and the pH will drop.  Aragonite sand contains important alkaline elements.  These elements will disperse throughout the water as the acid in the tank dissolves the sand.  This process is what increases the buffering capacity of the water.

Sand also plays a role in keeping you fish and other marine creatures happy.  Fish need to feel safe and protected.  A lot of times this means being able to burrow and hide in the sand.  Having a bare bottom tank is not outright bad, but it can stress out your fish.  That stress can even lead to death.  Sand provides security and gives fish a better sense of up and down verse a reflective glass bottom.

Frequently Asked Questions About Reef Sand

What does live sand do?  Live sand has beneficial bacteria in it.

This bacteria can come from natural sources like the ocean, or cultured in a lab.  The bacteria then creates a biological filter in the tank system.  This filter removes toxins in the aquarium.

Is cloudy tank water normal after adding sand?  Yes.  It should clear up within 1-3 days.  If the cloudiness comes from floating sand particles, it does not pose any harm.  If the cloudiness is due to the sand dissolving, remove it from the tank.  Rinse the sand again until the water runs clear and replace the tank water.

Can I use a filter on my tank with sand in it?  Yes, it is very important to have a filter in place to keep the tank clean.  Make sure to let the sand settle before turning on the filter to avoid clogging.  You will not be able to use an undergravel filtration system if you have sand.

Does sand color matter?  No, some people prefer dark colored sand to make the colors in their tank pop.  Light colored sand can help to brighten up a tank.  Either way, the color will not impact the health of your fish.  In general, try to replicate the natural habitat of the fish you are keeping.

Live or Dry sand?  The bacteria that live sand comes with can help to jump start your tank’s ecosystem.  However, it can also introduce harmful bacteria, or conflict with the established bacteria .  Dry sand does not come with any bacteria and will need to have it added.  Both options are good as long as you plan out the process ahead of time.

Wrap Up

Building a reef aquarium can be very daunting by itself.  There are beginner and expert aspects to using sand.  Research before buying.  Make sure it is compatible with all parts of your build.

You decide what sand is best for you be it dry or live, manufactured or natural.  Be proactive with cleaning and monitoring water parameters.  Most of all, have fun in the adventure.

Head to your local pet supply or shop online using the product links.  Leave a comment about your experience with using sand in your reef tank.  If we missed something important, leave us a question.

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