Can You Use Play Sand in a Freshwater Aquarium? And How to Clean it

play sand in a freshwater aquarium

When we started our first aquarium, it was very exciting, but we didn’t know what we were doing. It was a little bit costly as well, even though we had a tiny tank. If you have a 20-gallon tank or larger, it is going to cost you some money. You really need to come up with a budget and fit the cost of everything into your budget. When planning on what type of substrate to use, one of the questions people will ask is,

Can I Use Play Sand in My Freshwater Aquarium?

The quick answer is, you can use play sand in your aquarium as long as you wash it thoroughly and as long as play sand is compatible with your fish and plant species. Some people use play sand, mainly for larger tanks because it is cheaper than aquarium sand. Most people prefer pool filter sand which is close in cost and easier to clean.

If you are new to aquariums, this may sound pretty strange. If you are nervous about saving money though, especially for a large tank, this is one of those issues that can save you at least a hundred dollars if your tank is large enough. Take a couple of deep breaths and let me explain.

What in the World is Play Sand?!

Play sand’s main mission is to find its way into a child’s play sandbox. However, many aquarium enthusiasts, in their quest for a cheaper aquarium have discovered it as a way cheaper alternative than ‘made for aquarium’ sand. The most popular kind that I know of is ‘Qwikrete’ play sand from Home Depot.

The sand has been washed, dried, screened, and specially graded but if you are going to use this in your aquarium, you will have to wash it first. If you keep reading, we will get to the washing part later. The bottom line is, you can get a 50-pound bag of this sand for $10 dollars.

Some aquarium sand costs up to $20 dollars for a 5-pound bag. Yeah I know, if you do the math, this is insane. This is only one part of your aquarium as well. If you can save up to a hundred dollars on one part of your aquarium, imagine how much money you can save overall.

Attention! However, if you have the money for a larger budget, or you’re not worried about costs, I highly recommend that you buy aquarium sand that is ready-made for your aquarium.

Why? Because if you buy the play sand you are going to have to wash it for a very long time. Maybe even for hours. It may not seem like a big deal, but it is just a matter of convenience.

You’re going to have to wash sand regardless, even if it is aquarium sand, but play sand will need to be washed much longer. So, if you are still going to buy the play sand your next question should be,

How Do You Clean Aquarium Play Sand?

If you do buy play sand, you shouldn’t dump it straight out of the bag into your aquarium. Some people do but this is an extra headache you really don’t need if you are just starting an aquarium. Plus, it is always a good idea to clean anything that goes into your aquarium.

Remember anytime you wash anything that is going into your aquarium, it is usually just with water. You want to use equipment that is solely dedicated to your aquarium. This is so you don’t get any soap or other contaminants into your tank which could harm or even kill your fish. The contaminants could even get down into your substrate and filters costing you a lot of money, time or even discourage you from keeping an aquarium at home.

The most practical and easiest way I’ve found to wash play sand is to use your five-gallon bucket that is dedicated to aquarium use only. If you have another large plastic type of bucket, that is fine also as long as it is dedicated to aquarium use only.

To keep from wasting the sand, you can measure out the amount you will need for the bottom of your aquarium, but it really isn’t that important as long as you wash more than you need. If you end up with extra washed sand, you can store it away in case you need it in the future.

If you do measure it, you will need 2-3 inches in the bottom of your tank.

You can fill the bucket up to half full of aquarium sand. You need enough room to work the sand with your hands so all of the dust and debris has enough room to float up and flow over the top of the bucket.

It is way easier to do this outside when the weather is nice. However, if it is winter or you are crammed in an apartment, people have rinsed play sand in their bathtubs. The concept is the same wherever you rinse it.

It is perfectly safe to do this outside. It will not hurt any grass, plants, or flowers that you have. It is also more practical to do it outside so you aren’t running dirt or debris down your bath drain. If you are washing it outside, it is easier to use a water hose.

Steps to Washing Play Sand

  • Fill your bucket half full of sand.
  • Spray the sand down while working it with your free hand. This will loosen any dust or debris that isn’t sand. This is the stuff that you are trying to get rid of (most people like to use a sprayer attachment).
  • Completely fill the bucket with water until the water starts running over. This will force the dust and debris to flow outside of your bucket.
  • Leave the hose in your bucket and let the water overflow as long as dirty water is coming out of your bucket. When the flowing water is clear you need to work the sand again to work up more debris and dust.
  • Keep repeating the cycle until the water that is flowing out of your bucket is clear.

This will go faster if you keep working the sand repeatedly until the water flowing out is clear. However, you can do other things while the water is running as long as the flowing water is dirty. Just keep an eye on it.

If you are not a patient person, it is better to do other stuff while the water is flowing to make sure the sand gets completely clean. Whatever works. They key is to keep working the sand and rinsing it until the water you’re rinsing the sand with comes out clear.

After the water becomes clear always remember to rinse the sand a couple more times just to be on the safe side. The cleaner the sand is before you put it in your tank, the less cloudy your tank water will be when you fill your aquarium.

Use a Wheelbarrow!

wheel barrow cleans sand in a freshwater aquarium

A cool, faster way I found is to use a wheelbarrow outside if you have one. This works with the same concept only you have more area to work with the sand. You can also fit more sand into the wheelbarrow.

Rinse the sand and work it with your hands. You can even prop the wheelbarrow up on something like cinder blocks to make a better angle for the water to rinse through the sand and over the lower edge of the wheelbarrow.

If you don’t prop up the wheelbarrow, it is easy to tip it up after working the sand and letting the water drain out. The sand is heavy enough that it will stay in the wheelbarrow.

Use Paint Strainers

Another easy way is to use paint strainers. Fill the paint strainer with sand and repeatedly dip it into a bucket of water. Keep changing the water out until it becomes clear.

If you’re using the paint strainers, I would spray the strainer with a hose while you’re holding the strainer full of sand up. You can also rotate between spraying it and dipping it into a bucket full of water.

Baking Your Sand

Some people put their sand in baking trays and bake it in the oven for about 20 minutes with the oven set at 225 degrees. This supposedly kills any bacteria or organisms that could make your fish sick.

I haven’t found overwhelming support for this. I would only bake it if you have plenty of free time and you are bored. You should probably bake it if you are using sand from your local beach but that is not the subject of this post.

Some people even boil the sand in a pan with water to kill organisms.

With play sand, it is fine just to rinse it, which brings me to my next point.

You Can Put the Sand In Without Rinsing it

Some people put the sand in the bottom of their aquarium without rinsing it. I wouldn’t recommend this unless you are really strapped for time. If you do this, your water is going to be very cloudy and you will have to let your water filter through your tank for at least a week before it clears up.

Vacuuming Your Sand

Be careful when you vacuum your sand. Hold it at an angle and try to get as close as possible to the sand without touching it. Continuing getting closer and closer to the sand until the vacuum is pulling up detritus or debris without sucking the sand through the vacuum.

You need to vacuum the very top layer of the sand to get uneaten food or poop. The layer of play sand is so thick that there’s not much room for anything bad to sink below the top level anyways. If you accidentally vacuum some up, just put some of the extra sand you had left over from rinsing it.

Pool Filter Sand vs. Play Sand

Pool filter sand is way cheaper than aquarium sand. It is a smaller grain sand that contains silica. Supposedly people prefer this sand to play sand because it is easier to clean. So, again it comes down to convenience. Click here to view our article on pool filter sand.

Is Sand Good for Your Fish?

With any type of sand, you need to make sure that your fish are compatible with it. For example, cichlids love to burrow in sand and actually have to eat it to help digest their food. On the flip side, goldfish may die if they accidentally eat sand. They have to be kept with gravel or something in the bottom of their tank. Some plants also prefer gravel over sand.


When choosing sand in the first place it’s important to know the species in your aquarium. Make sure your fish and plants are compatible with sand. If they are compatible then play sand is a viable option. Don’t sweat it, just clean your sand the right way and enjoy.

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