Last Updated on April 24, 2023 by Coral Realm

If you’ve come to this section concerning our best sand for reef tanks, then you will know that a reef aquarium seeks to replicate the natural phenomenon of a reef, and will probably include live corals which are important within the reef environment.

The key to success in a Reef Aquarium is to use the best sand for reef tanks possible, as this will play a huge role in helping your coral to survive and develop.

The best sand for reef tanks should first and foremost provide you with a healthy and natural environment for your fish and corals and other marine invertebrates – so a sand substrate that doesn’t alter the pH balance of your tank and promotes healthy bacteria is an essential factor.

After having prioritized the health and well being of your fish and corals, a best reef aquarium sand needs to create an aesthetically pleasing, natural looking environment that will enhance your reef tank. Both nano reef fish and also more advanced saltwater fish need the right reef sand to create a more natural and healthy environment.

So, in the salt-water reef aquarium, a sand substrate aids denitrification and filtration, creates an area for burrowing and finally, of course, provides an attractive appearance and back drop to your corals and decorations to ensure your tank is aesthetically pleasing.

Guide to the Best Sand for Reef Tank


Best Sand for Reef Tanks

As there are many different sand substrates for reef aquaria on the market, we have put together our Top 5 Best Reef Sand options in our Review to follow below.

We have also created a table of products immediately below for ease of reading, and to facilitate the purchase of your products if required.

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Best Sand for Reef Tank Aquaria – New Reviews for 2020

1. CaribSea Seaflor Special Grade Reef Sand Substrate

Carib Sea ACS00050 Aragonite Reef Sand for Aquarium, 40-Pound
  • 100% aragonite sand supports stable ph
  • For use in marine aquariums and hard water freshwater aquariums
  • grain size reduces built up detritus
  • re-create natural reef environment
  • made in the USA

This special grade reef sand from CaribSea is designed for use in both reef aquariums and also in freshwater aquaria if you’re in a hard water region.

Being an excellent reef tank sand, it’s been formulated to recreate the natural reef environment.

It is made from 100% aragonite sand which supports a stable pH environment, so is excellent as a reef tank sand substrate.

The fine grain size helps to reduce the build up of debris and detritus within your tank – again an important quality required of a best quality reef tank sand.

The photograph above is a close up photo which makes the grains look larger than they actually are, so actually it is quite a fine sand which will create a beautiful look for your tank.

Although this is an excellent, best quality sand for your reef tank, it is best practice to rinse this sand thoroughly before use. Once introduced into your tank, there may be a little cloudy water even after having rinsed thoroughly, but it should not take long to clear.

This product is made in the United States and comes in a 40 pound bag.

2. CaribSea Arag-Alive Fiji Pink Sand – 20 pound bag

CaribSea Arag-Alive 20 lb Fiji Pink Sand
  • Functional and beautiful aragonite substrate for all types of marine aquariums
  • Contains millions of beneficial marine bacteria to enhance biological filtration
  • Many styles to help recreate any marine environment

Another product from CaribSea, this is an aragonite substrate for all types of marine aquaria and can be used to recreate any natural marine environment, including a coral reef environment.

A very positive attribute of this Arag-Alive Fiji Pink Sand is that it contains millions of favorable marine bacteria which is a very positive start for your reef aquarium.

This best sand substrate for your reef aquarium comes wet with salt water which is ready to host the beneficial bacteria. Be careful if you intend to wash it prior to adding to your aquarium, as it would eradicate the benefits of the bacteria if you wash it in freshwater. 

It may cloud your reef tank temporarily after adding the sand to your aquarium, but this will soon clear to create a lovely reef environment.

This best sand for the marine aquarium has large enough grains that it remains on the floor of the tank and doesn’t blow around everywhere, but it is fine enough to create a realistic reef sand appearance.

This product is a natural-looking color – although described as ‘pink’, it is a subtle color. There are pinkish grains within it, but it is not a stark or unnatural color; it works really well in a natural reef tank. 

It can be used completely on its own as a sand substrate or can be used in conjunction with other substrates if you prefer.

3. Nature’s Ocean Bio-Activ Live Aragonite Aquarium Sand – Pink Reef Sand – 20 pound bag 

This best quality reef tank sand deserves a place in our Top Five Best Reef Aquarium Sand Review. 

Collected in its natural environment and packaged in its natural state, this lovely reef tank sand will aid in the immediate removal of nitrogenous waste from the aquarium. 

This reduction of harmful nitrate can only represent a distinct benefit to your reef tank environment. This Nature’s Ocean Aquarium Reef Sand also assists in the maintenance of the correct pH balance within your reef aquarium.

This is listed in our Top 5 Best Reef Tank Sands as it helps to create an authentic and natural-looking reef environment within your tank, and the added benefit of the nitrogen cycle bacteria within the sand is a definite advantage. 

4. CaribSea Ocean Direct Substrates – Natural Live Sand – 2 Pack. 

Carib Sea ACS00940 Ocean Direct Natural Live Sand for Aquarium, 40-Pound
  • This method preserves real live sand with its own original, natural bacteria
  • Package Weight: 18.37 kilograms
  • Age range description: all stages
  • Package Dimensions : 11.43 L x 50.8 H x 35.56 W (centimeters)

A good quality natural reef sand – great for your reef tank. The grains are quite fine, but not too fine – the sand stays on the reef tank floor and won’t get sucked up by your canister or HOB filter.

As you would expect with a natural sand product, it will cloud the water of your tank initially, but it will clear to provide a good substrate.

CaribSea sand is coated with natural bacteria, which will provide you with a living, natural reef aquarium environment.

The grains of sand are encapsulated in a thin film of ocean water via capillary action. This film of water remains open to the atmosphere to facilitate continued gas exchange. This results in increased naturally occuring and beneficial bacteria, without the obvious disadvantage of the build-up of noxious metabolic by-products.

As an added bonus, each bag of this best quality reef sand substrate comes with a small bag of clarifier to add to the water to aid the clearance of the clouding in the aquarium when you initially introduce this substate to your tank. 

5. CaribSea Dry Aragonite Special Grade Reef Sand – 15 lb bag

This Dry Aragonite Special Grade Reef Sand is made in the United States. It is of particular benefit when you need a deeper substrate bed within your reef aquarium.

Aragonite sand is commonly recommended within the salt water aquarium environment, due to the fact that it is composed of the same chemical material that comprise coral, namely calcium carbonate.

The grain size of this best reef sand is 1.25 to 1.95 mm, which is small enough to produce a natural ocean floor, sand bed appearance but large enough to prevent the grains moving around the tank and/or causing problems with your filter system.

This product is a grade of aragonite aimed specifically at the plenum type nitrate reducing substrate, or where a deeper bed is required.

The grading of this sand substrate facilitates the maintenance of pH balance within the tank, together with the provision of trace elements essential for a healthy reef aquarium environment.

Our suggestion for the best live sand for a natural reef aquarium.

Our top tip for the best live sand for a reef aquarium is the CaribSea Arag-Alive Fiji Pink Sand substrate.

This is an aragonite substrate for all types of marine aquaria and can be used to recreate any natural marine environment, including a coral reef environment.  Attractive either on its own or in combination with other suitable substrates, it offers a realistic reef appearance.

A very positive attribute of this Arag-Alive Fiji Pink Sand is that it contains millions of favourable marine bacteria which is a very positive start for your reef aquarium. 

This best sand substrate comes wet with salt water which is ready to host the beneficial bacteria. It may cloud your reef tank temporarily after adding the sand, but this will soon clear to create a lovely reef environment. Once this reef tank sand substrate has been added to your tank and the water has cleared, it should last for the lifetime of your reef aquarium so represents a good investment.

The sand grains of this product are large enough that they remain on the floor of the tank and don’t blow around everywhere, but fine enough to create a realistic reef sand appearance.

How to clean and maintain the sand substrate in your saltwater reef aquarium.

The bank school of thought in regard to maintaining a healthy reef aquarium, is that prevention is better than cure! 

If you achieve a successful marine reef ecosystem within your aquarium, then nature will take its course and keep your reef tank healthy and sustainable. 

Adequate flow and water exchange is vital and the inclusion of a good ‘Clean Up Crew’ – known as CUC for short!

Effective CUC will aid tremendously in the maintenance of your tank in terms of cleanliness and balance. Your Clean Up Crew are invertebrates that will naturally eat any food left uneaten by other reef tank residents, together with algae and any other detritus that falls and settles on your reef tank substrate. 

Also known as custodians, janitors and cleaners, there are a wide range of creatures that will serve you well as a CUC. As they eat the unwanted residue and debris, they naturally turn over the live reef sand substrate keeping it fresh and clean and helping to maintain the fine natural balance within your reef aquarium. 

Cowries, Trochus and Astreas are good additions to your CUC team, together with Strombus, Ceriths, Collonistas and Stomatella Snails. That said, the rocks within your tank also need to be kept clean and algae free. Your snails will perform a lot of this work, but hermit crabs are a good additional choice for this activity as they love the algae and will rip it off the rockwork within your tank. 

So getting the right team within your Clean Up Crew will save you endless work and actually augment the natural health of your reef aquarium. 

Another important factor to remember is not to overfeed; excess food will obviously settle and decay on the sand substrate floor, and if this is missed or inaccessible to your CUC then it will cause problems.

Whilst we are aiming to provide a natural environment within the reef tank that can sustain itself to a large extent, there are inevitably times when you will need to manually clean the sand substrate. 

That said, it’s still important to maintain a clean surface. Although CUC should keep the substrate clean, even with a good Clean Up Crew there can still be occasional build up of debris and detritus.

Some tank owners vacuum their reef sand substrate with every water change whilst others prefer to do so only occasionally as the need arises. 

A good aquarium vacuum cleaner will complete the job of maintaining a healthy marine reef aquarium environment. There will always be detritus and debris that secretes itself within the planting and rockwork in the aquarium, that eludes your CUC!

So aim for a natural self-sustaining reef aquarium environment with a carefully selected CUC, but invest in an excellent aquarium vacuum too for those elusive traces of debris.

Is it better to use 100 per cent live sand or a combination?

Some people opt for 100 per cent live sand when creating their reef tank, but this can be costly. 

At the other end of the spectrum is to use 100 per cent non-living sand, relying on the fact that all sand over time will become ‘live’ thanks to the nitrogen cycle. The downside of this approach is that it will take an extended period of time for the beneficial bacteria to colonize within the sand.

Another option is to use half live sand and half non-living sand. This option is known as ‘seeding’, and the beneficial bacteria and organisms present in the live sand will multiply and expand to populate the non-living sand. This is a popular option as it is less expensive that using 100% live sand, but will speed up the creation of a healthy environment within the reef tank aquarium.

How much reef sand is required for a natural marine reef aquarium?

As we have previously discussed, the sand substrate in your aquarium is not just for aesthetic appearance. 

The millions of invisible microbes working within our tanks to remove toxins and recycle nutriments live within the sand substrate of your tank as well as on and within the rockwork you have selected for your aquarium; live rock is an important part of a reef aquarium too.The substrate provides an important environment for these beneficial microbes to colonize.

The depth of the sand substrate together with the type of sand chosen will create different impacts on the type of microbial activity taking place within your aquarium.

One option is a shallow substrate consisting of fine sand with a depth of between 1.5 and 2 inches, which will provide a lot of surface area for aerobic bacteria activity. 

A popular choice for this depth and grain size is the Fiji Pink such as the CaribSea Arag-Alive Fiji Pink Sand substrate.

You may find that with the shallow, fine sand option the grains will get blown around by the pump and may result in some exposed areas at the bottom of the tank.

A shallow bed with a coarser sand grain is another option with different benefits. The heavier sand grains won’t get blown around and dishevelled by the action of the pump, but they may trap excess food and detritus. Excessive build-up of detritus within the substrate is unhealthy for the aquarium, so the Clean Up Crew (CUC) as mentioned in previous sections will be important to sift through the sand.

A third option is a deep substrate bed consisting of fine sand. Giving us that smooth, sleek look that comes with the fine sand substrate, it will provide the benefits of both aerobic and anaerobic zones within the sand substrate. 

For a deep substrate bed consisting of fine sand, aim for a 6 to 8 inch bed. The deeper layers won’t get blown around or exposed to the oxygenated water so will provide the anaerobic zone, with the upper layers providing the aerobic zone.

With a deeper sand substrate, don’t forget that the physical room that it takes up will result in less water volume within the aquarium. This is not a problem per se, but will need to be taken into account when considering fish numbers and sand for reef tanks

The final option is obviously the deep substrate bed comprising coarse grain sand or gravel. This is not a very popular choice as it has many disadvantages.

Even with a good CUC, the deep coarse bed tends to get clogged with debris and detritus creating all the associated problems of toxin build-up. If you’re really keen on the appearance of the deeper substrate bed, then we’d probably advise opting for the finer sand substrates, which won’t create the sludge associated with the detritus build-up.

Whilst this is not a precise science, you will need approximately one and a half pounds of reef sand substrate for each gallon of water within your aquarium. This equates to just over 80 pounds of sand substrate for a 55 gallon aquarium.

So In Conclusion! …

A reef aquarium is a beautiful natural environment which is aesthetically very pleasing. 

Consider your substrate carefully – balance the look you want with the pros and cons of the deep versus shallow bed together with the choice of fine grained or coarser-grained sand substrates. 

Take a look at our Top Five Best Reef Sand Reviews above to aid you in making your choice. All are good options and have been trialed successfully within our own tanks. If you have a freshwater aquarium check out our article on the top gravel suggestions for planted tanks.

Don’t forget the importance of your Clean Up Crew within the reef aquarium environment – they do such an efficient job in turning over the sand and keeping down the debris that collects within the sand substrate. 

Regular water changes are required, but the CUC will keep that sand moving. 

If you’re looking for a good, solid choice of sand substrate for your reef tank, then the CaribSea Arag-Alive Fiji Pink Sand will serve you well as it’s very attractive and your sand-sifting clean up crew will easily move the grains around and will be able to take good mouthfuls to sift through.

CaribSea Arag-Alive Fiji Pink Sand

We are keen on all the products that we reviewed above; another good all-round choice is CaribSea Ocean Direct Substrates – Natural Live Sand. This is a live sand which arrives wet and comes with a small pack of water clarifier to expedite the clearing of the particles from the water. 

Choosing your substrate carefully should mean that it won’t have to be replaced. With the correct balance of appropriate feeding, regular water changes and a good Clean Up Crew, your sand substrate should provide you with years of service within your marine reef aquarium.

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Coral Realm

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