Can You Use Play Sand for Aquarium Substrate?

Last Updated on July 27, 2021 by cmoarz

Saving money is always nice, and play sand is certainly much cheaper than name-brand sands like super naturals and ocean direct. But can you really use play sand for an aquarium substrate without harming your fish?

The answer is yes! Not only is it a cheaper alternative, but Most brands are also safe for fish and plant life and contain no additives, salt, or metals. Pool filter sand is also a great alternative to aquarium sand, and some would even say ideal.

Before you go dumping a bag of play sand or pool sand into your aquarium there are a few things you should know.

You have to rinse pool filter sand and play sand

Before you use these types of sand, it’s imperative you give them a good wash in water to remove the fine dust. Dechlorinated / treated water is always preferred but it’s not absolutely necessary.

Worst case you can add a bit of Aquasafe dechlorinate and conditioner, or whichever brand you prefer.

Simply place the sand in a bucket and run water over it until it runs clear. Pour out the remaining water and add the washed sand substrates to your tank.

Try not to lose too many grains of sand in the process.

What to look for in a pool filter sand or play sand

Grain size is important when choosing the right play sand or pool sand for your aquarium substrate.

You want it to be fairly small grains, as well as rounded out with no sharp angles or edges for your fish to cut themselves one and get red blotch or another bacterial infection.

Burrowing fish will also thank you for not choosing big particles with sharp edges and will find it a more natural erosion-like substrate.

You definitely want to read the bag to be sure the sand is safe for use in an aquarium. Some play sands or pool sands are treated with chemicals that will harm your fish. It’s good to know what you’re buying and if it’s safe.

The bags should say whether they have these additives or not, and what’s in the sand. Consider doing a cursory google search on the brand to get a better idea.

If you can’t find any info on the bag, and you don’t want to take a chance then it’s best not to use that brand. There are plenty more to choose some, here are a few I recommend:

Play Sand will need a bit of fertilizer if you intend on using it in a planted tank

You will also need to apply some nutrients for the plants to grow.

This is true of all substrates, but it’s especially true if you are using sand as your substrate.

You want your sand or gravel to be ‘live’ sand if at all possible because it contains beneficial bacteria that help keep the water quality at ideal levels and better able to handle more fish load.

If you are using sand as a substrate in a non-planted tank, then add fertilizers for nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium (N:P:K) at the recommended dose until your water quality tests show stable parameters.

You can use this, this, or this fertilizer to make life easier. Once again, choose the brand that appeals to you the most.

Follow the directions on the package for each one.

Some words of warning

Avoid any sands that have fillers, heavy metals. Some silica sands will have traces of heavy metals that can poison your fish.

Make sure the brand you buy is reputable and doesn’t have any debris, glass, or anything sharp that shouldn’t be there. Some do so be careful. You want to use the kind that is the kind marketed safely for kids as it will have gone through an extra process of debridement.

Sand that might be safe in a freshwater aquarium isn’t always going to be safe in a saltwater aquarium as some sands might throw off water chemistry balance.

All sand should be rinsed clean thoroughly to remove fine particles and dust.

In conclusion

Using play sand for aquarium substrate in your tank is a great idea. You can easily buy bulk amounts for large tanks or just a 5 or 10-pound bag if you’ve got smaller aquariums. It’s a great cheap alternative aquarium media that many pros and pet stores take advantage of.


Owner of and also owner of actual Aquarium Gravel believe it or not! ;). Setting up beautiful aquarium sceneries and habitats since I was very young. Enjoy!