3 Best Sand Substrate for African Cichlids

African cichlids are among the easiest species to keep. They’re very hardy and adaptable. However, they still have specific requirements. And the tank substrate’s one of them. Cichlids can be very particular when it comes to their preferred setup. They need a high-quality substrate, so not everything goes.

There’s a bit of confusion around the best tank substrate. But from personal experience, I’d say that sand always comes out on top. In this article, I’m going to tell you everything you need to know about sand in a cichlid aquarium. Why and how should you choose it, how to manage a sandy substrate aquarium, and more!

Is Sand Good for African Cichlids?

The substrate is an essential part of any proper aquarium. And in the case of cichlids, a sand substrate is the best choice. I recommend choosing a sand substrate for multiple reasons. First of all, most African cichlids are bottom-dwellers and feeders, so you need a suitable substrate to accommodate their needs.

African cichlids need to go through the substrate to pick up food leftovers or sinking flakes. A soft, fine-grain substrate like sand would make scavenging and feeding easier for the fish. Sand is also preferable to more coarse substrates because it’s easier on the cichlid’s stomach.

Cichlids might sometimes swallow bits of the substrate while feeding. Sometimes, they go out of their way to eat some of it. That’s because mineral-rich substrate helps them digest their food easier. It’s not hard to see why a finer substrate is preferable to coarser grinds like gravel and pebbles.

Finally, a sand substrate can better replicate a cichlid’s natural environment. In the wild, most of these cichlids can be found close to coastal regions where there’s a sandy substrate with large rocks. When in their natural habitat, cichlids like digging holes or just sifting through the sand in search of food.

They also use soft sand to make nests and to hide their eggs. If given the chance, they would do the same when kept in captivity. So, choosing a sandy substrate is the best way to make cichlids feel at home.

Best Sand for African Cichlids

Sand is not only good but even the best substrate for African cichlids. However, not all sand substrates are equal. I advise you to stay away from low-quality sand with a high silica concentration. Silica can lead to algae overgrowth, something you don’t want.

For African cichlid aquariums, I often recommend the following three products. These are high-grade, mineral-rich substrates that closely mimic the fish’s natural environment. I’ve also picked these products to fit within various price ranges. Let’s take a look:

African Cichlid Aragonite Sand by AquaNatural

This product hits all the quality standards for the perfect cichlid sand substrate. This substrate consists of 98% calcium carbonate derived from marine aragonite. It has a very high concentration of minerals, including 381,000 ppm calcium and 590,000 ppm carbonate.

Other minerals include magnesium, potassium, molybdenum, and strontium. Thanks to its rich mineral composition, this sand has an unsurpassed buffering capability. It can easily maintain a stable alkaline pH of around 8.2 without any other chemicals necessary. This aragonite sand is also free of phosphate and impurities.

It has a small, fine grain and consistent size, which offers a high surface area for beneficial bacteria growth. Last but not least, if you’re interested in sustainable, reef-safe products, this substrate is perfect for you!

You get a decent quantity (10lb) for an accessible price. Because it’s created by living organisms, this sand is sustainably sourced and naturally renewable.


Landen Namale Aquarium Sand by Landen Aqua

If you’re also into aquarium landscaping, this fine grain, natural-color river sand might interest you. This substrate is made up of only uniform particles roughly 0.3-0.5mm in diameter. The soft wheat color contributes to this substrate’s cosmetically elegant look.

With this Namale aquarium sand, you can replicate a cichlid’s natural habitat effortlessly. This sand also contrasts nicely with plants and other decorations in the tank. Besides enhancing the look of your aquarium, this product also meets the highest quality standards. Each batch is screened layer by layer and this sand undergoes a thorough high-pressure cleaning for sanitization.

This sand is therefore clean of impurities and safe for all aquatic creatures including fish, frogs, newts, turtles, shrimp, and more. Performance-wise, this sand doesn’t disappoint. Thanks to the fine and consistent grain size, it maintains a strong absorption capacity. You’re guaranteed that this sand can quickly and effectively purify the water and maintain a suitable pH value.


Aquatics Eco-Complete African Cichlid Zack Sand by Carib Sea

This product was created with African Cichlids in mind, so it meets all the requirements for a suitable substrate. This sand is, first of all, aragonite rich. That’s exactly what you need to maintain the alkaline pH that most cichlids require.

This substrate is also mineralogically active. It can help you increase the water hardness quickly and effortlessly, thanks to its high concentration of calcium, carbonate, and magnesium.

This substrate also has the added perk of containing live water-purifying bacteria. If you need to cycle your aquarium, this product can help you speed up the process safely and effectively. Also, thanks to its texture and size, this substrate has a very high surface area.

This encourages the beneficial bacteria to proliferate, building up a solid ecosystem in your tank. The dark color creates a beautiful contrast between the sand and the aquarium plants. It also helps replicate the natural environment of certain cichlid species.

This substrate also has high internal porosity for a good carrying capacity. Finally, to make things more user-friendly, this sand requires no rinsing before use. The product comes packaged in a water conditioning solution.


Does Sand Raise pH Level?

Yes, sand can definitely change the water pH level. But it’s not a guarantee. Whether or not the pH is affected depends on two key factors. The first factor is the composition of the sand you’re using. Chemicals, minerals, and even pollutants can have an impact on the water in the tank.

Cheap sand is mostly made of silica, a naturally-occurring mineral with a neutral pH of 7.0. Adding silica-rich sand to the aquarium won’t do much to affect the water pH. Cheap, low-grade sand will certainly not raise the water pH. Sometimes, it might even lower the pH if the sand is contaminated by bad bacteria.

High-quality, mineral-rich sand is a different story. Because such sand contains a very high concentration of calcium and carbonate, it can quickly and drastically affect the water pH. As materials such as calcium, carbonate, potassium, and magnesium leach into the water, the pH climbs up, turning the water alkaline.

Mineral-rich sand can also contribute to an increase in water hardness. This is great because African cichlids naturally prefer alkaline, hard water. The second factor is the water pH. If the water pH is already on the alkaline side (8.0 and up), it’s unlikely that sand will contribute to any further increase. The more alkaline the water, the higher the required concentration of minerals to increase water pH.

How to Keep the Sand Clean?

Unfortunately, the substrate gets dirty very easily. Sand substrates are also trickier to clean due to the fine-grain particles. But with a bit of patience and some trial-and-error, you’ll become a pro at it in no time. Here’s what you should do to keep the sand clean:

First of all, remember to always rinse the sand before introducing it into the tank. New sand can be quite dusty. Adding it straight into the aquarium can cloud the water. Not something you want.

Sift the sand with your fingers. Sand substrates require close attention because they can easily get compacted. This causes problems with bacteria, soil aeration, and can also kill plant roots. Just run your fingers through the sand.

Turn the sand over, roll it with your palm, breaking apart any large hardened pieces. When doing this, you’ll also dislodge a lot of debris and dirt trapped in the soil. Performing a water change right away will remove a lot of the dirt.

Use a gravel vacuum. This works best after sifting the sand. You need to first dislodge the dirt from the substrate for an easier clean-up. Hover the vacuum a little bit above the substrate. Even a lower-powered vacuum can suck up and remove fine substrates like sand. You don’t want to throw away the sand together with the dirt!

How Much Sand Do You Need for an African Cichlid Tank?

This will depend on the dimensions of your tank. If your aquarium has a wide floor space, you’ll need more sand to build a continuous substrate. A good rule of thumb is to go for a substrate that’s 1-2 inches high. I suggest around 2 inches for African cichlids because these fish love digging in the sand.

For most aquarium dimensions, I recommend sticking to a ratio of 1-2 pounds of sand per 1 gallon of water. Considering that most African cichlids need at least 30 gallons worth of space, you’re looking at 30-60 pounds worth of sand for each fish. This quantity will suffice to cover the entire floor of the aquarium and provide enough depth for burrowing. In any case, I don’t recommend a substrate any higher than 2.5 inches.

Thick substrates are more likely to compact, making a breeding ground for anaerobic bacteria. When the soil gets compacted, oxygen can no longer enter the substrate. This will damage the plants in the aquarium, but some bacteria thrive in low oxygen environments. Anaerobic bacteria can change the color and smell of the sand. Besides stinking up the aquarium, anaerobic bacteria are also very bad for your fish.

Why do African Cichlids Move the Sand?

There are three main reasons why African cichlids might move the sand around: they’re looking for food, they’re marking their territory, or they’re creating a nest. Cichlids are bottom-dwelling fish. They swim at the bottom, and most importantly, they feed at the bottom. You’ll often notice cichlids moving sand around with their mouth. They’re just inspecting for algae growth or other leftover foods.

Sometimes, cichlids might even bounce off the sand to release the food fragments buried in the soil. That makes for an interesting show. When they’re moving the sand to dig a hole, they’re most probably trying to build a safe nest to lay their eggs.

This also helps them attract a mating partner. Nesting and territory also go hand in hand. When a cichlid builds a nest, it also claims the surrounding area as its breeding ground.

Whatever the reason, cichlids going through the substrate is very good for your tank. The fish prevent the sand from compacting. This prevents oxygen loss and bacteria build-up. It keeps the plants healthy and it also maintains the water cleaner for longer. Not to mention that cichlids get to eat leftover food before it can start decomposing and rising the ammonia levels in the tank.


Sand, while more difficult to maintain, is the perfect substrate for an African cichlid aquarium. A good sand substrate closely mimics the cichlids’ native environment. It allows cichlids to engage in natural behaviors such as scavenging, digging, and burrowing.

High-quality sand, like aragonite sand, also helps maintain a stable alkaline pH suitable for cichlids. Nutrient-rich substrates add lots of minerals to the water, especially calcium, carbonate, and magnesium. This can increase the water hardness to a level most suitable for hardwater fish species like mbunas.

For best results, I recommend choosing sand substrates that fit these quality standards. You can try any of the products mentioned in this article, or other similar aragonite sand with high a mineral concentration.

avatar Noah
I’m Noah, chief editor at VIVO Pets and the proud owner of a playful, energetic husky (Max). I’ve been a volunteer at Rex Animal Rescue for over 2 years. I love learning and writing about different animals that can be kept as pets. read more...

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