Best Substrate For Cichlids: Top 5 Picks

butterfly cichlid
We answer some commonly asked Cichlid substrate questions, and why we feel these particular 5 options are the best substrate picks for Cichlids.

Sand or gravel for Cichlids? It’s a common question for those setting up a tank for their new Cichlid addition. Today we want to give some clarity on subject and we have picked out our 5 favorite substrate picks that feel wor great for Cichlids.

Generally speaking the best substrate for Cichlids is sand, this is because it matches there natural environment and allows them to dig and explore which is natural behaviour for them.

Carib Sea Eco-Complete Our Top Pick 9.5 / 10
Caribsea Super Naturals Natural looking sand 9.2 / 10
Pure Water Pebbles Helps support plant growth 8.8 / 10

Let’s look at a quick comparison on gravel vs sand, how much substrate you actually need and 5 particular substrates that we feel works well with Cichlids.

Is Sand or Gravel Better for Cichlids?

Really, the only option for Cichlids is sand. Sand substrate for Cichlids is the ideal choice for a variety of reasons. For one, Cichlids do like to explore and dig around a bit, which means that they need soft substrate.

Rough substrate like gravel may injure a Cichlid when it digs around, thus making gravel a bad choice of substrate for African Cichlids.

Moreover, African Cichlids, in the wild, generally live in places where the natural substrate is sand. Simply put, sand will mimic the natural environment in which they usually live.

Sand is also ideal because it has small grains, and therefore waste and uneaten food sit on top of it, unlike with gravel where waste sinks down in between the cracks. Sand is relatively easy to clean and maintain in this regard.

Related: 9 Steps to reduce Cichlid aggressive behavior.

How Much Substrate Do I Need For My Cichlid Tank?

When it comes to how much sand you want to use in your Cichlid tank, it does depend on the tank size.

For a smaller tank with 1 or 2 Cichlids, around 2 inches of sand at the bottom will do just fine.

If you plan on having a larger tank with a few Cichlids, and maybe some other fish too, you will want to consider adding up to 4 inches of substrate at the bottom of the tank.

This is especially the case if you plan on having a good amount of live plants in the tank.

5 Best Substrates For Cichlids

Here are our 5 picks that we feel are ideal for African Cichlid aquariums. Here is a quick summary of each.

1. Carib Sea Eco-Complete

This is a very basic substrate, yet completely ideal for Cichlids. As it says on the packaging, this product is intended for use specifically with African Cichlid tanks. It’s some pretty basic sand, golden colored sand for a nice visual effect.

This sand is also designed to add trace amounts of important minerals to the water, to hold beneficial bacteria, and to not alter the pH of the water.

It actually comes complete with beneficial bacteria for fast aquarium cycling. It might cloud up the water for a couple days, but that’s about it.

Check the price at Amazon

2. Carib Sea Aragonite

This particular sand is made out of 100% Aragonite and it has a nice greyish-brown color, making for some nice contrast in the tank. This stuff is made in the USA, something we can all appreciate.

Carib Sea Aragonite is designed to mimic reef environments and it can be used in hardwater freshwater aquariums, as well as in marine or saltwater aquariums too.

It is designed with a special grain size made to reduce the buildup of detritus in the tank. Moreover, Aragonite is ideal for aquariums because it helps to support a stable pH level.

Check the price at Amazon

3. Caribsea Super Naturals Aquarium Sand

Here is another good African Cichlid substrate to consider, some normal looking golden-yellow sand to help mimic a natural environment.

Something we do like is how Caribsea Super Naturals Aquarium Sand is made in the USA. Once again, this substrate is also designed to keep the pH level in the aquarium as stable as can.

Absolutely no artificial dyes or paints are used here. Moreover, this sand is designed with a special grain size ideal for preventing the buildup of detritus.

Caribsea Super Naturals Aquarium Sand can be used for freshwater and marine aquariums alike.

Check the price at Amazon

4. Pure Water Pebbles African Cichlid Substrate

As you can tell from the name of it, this substrate is designed specifically for African Cichlids. It comes in a nice white color, which not only helps mimic a natural Cichlid environment, but also helps to create some nice color contrast in the aquarium.

One thing that really stands out about this substrate is how it comes loaded with beneficial bacteria to help speed up nitrogen cycling.

Another thing which is beneficial about this sand substrate is that it does help support healthy plant growth.

This stuff also provides small amounts of various minerals and other compounds which are beneficial for aquariums.

Check the price at Amazon

5. Carib Sea Ocean Direct Sand

This particular Cichlid sand is another ideal choice to keep in mind, another golden-yellow option for a very natural look. Something worth noting here is that the grain size is ideal for preventing the buildup of detritus.

Moreover, Carib Sea Ocean Direct Sand comes loaded to the brim with beneficial bacteria, live bacteria in their original state, which help to instantly cycle your aquarium so you can add the fish much faster.

Check the price at Amazon

Ideal Water Conditions for African Cichlids

Just like all other fish, African Cichlids require some pretty specific water conditions, so let’s take a quick look at the ideal water conditions for African Cichlids.

  • African Cichlids require the water to be between 72 and 82 degrees Fahrenheit, so you will most likely need an aquarium heater.
  • These fish require the water to have a pH level between 6.5 and 7.5, with a neutral pH of 7 being best.
  • In terms of water hardness, African Cichlids require a general hardness level between 160 and 320 parts per million, or between 9 and 18 DGH.
  • There should be absolutely not ammonia, nitrite, or nitrate in the water, which means that you do need a good biological filter.

Important Things to Consider When Buying Substrate For Cichlids

There are a few things you should keep in mind when purchasing African Cichlid substrate, so let’s take a quick look at the most important factors.

Size & Texture

Perhaps the most important thing to consider for African Cichlid substrate is the grain size and the texture.

Simply put, because these fish like to root around in the substrate, you want something with a small grain size and a smooth texture, or else the fish may end up getting injured when digging.


Beneficial bacteria are required in any tank to breakdown ammonia and nitrates. A tank can take up to 3 weeks for a nitrogen cycle to complete.

To speed up this process when you first put the tank together, adding sand that is already loaded with bacteria is a good idea.


Yes, there are all sorts of colors of sand. Of course, this is a matter of personal preference, but either yellow or white sand tend to look best in Cichlid tanks.

Can I Use Play Sand for African cichlids?

Generally speaking, unless the product in question specifically states that it is aquarium safe, then no, you cannot use play sand for African Cichlids.

Play sand needs to be rinsed very well if you plan on using it, it is very compact and forms hard clumps, and it will raise the pH in the tank by several points.

Technically, you could use play sand as substrate, but it is really not ideal, not in the least.


As you can see, really any decent sand substrate should do fine for African Cichlids, but of course, some are better than others. Today we have reviewed 5 that we personally feel are some of the better options, we hope we have given you some suggestions and answered some of your questions.

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