How to Choose the Best Substrate for Your Reptile’s Terrarium

Written by Susan Olayode
Published: August 30, 2022
© Holly S Cannon/Shutterstock.com

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Substrates are the material that you use on the floor of your terrarium if you have a pet reptile. This material is important because it can affect the well-being of your pet. Other roles that substrates play in the terrarium include filtration, humidity control, and nesting.

A simple search online will show you multiple materials you can use as substrates for your terrarium. Not all of them are right for your pet, however. You must be careful not to use a substrate that could cause fecal impaction.

Collecting substrates from the wild is also not a great idea for your pet reptile. This is because it could contain harmful chemicals like herbicides and organisms that could damage your pet’s health. Even when you keep your yard clean of these things, poisons can travel through the air and contaminate.

We’ve taken an in-depth look into the substrates you can use for your pet reptile’s terrarium. We list many of them below and provide information to help you choose the one that will work best for your pet. We also share useful links to places you can get great substrates conveniently.

  1. Zoo Med Eco Earth Compressed Coconut Fiber Expandable Reptile Substrate
  2. Zoo Med Eco Earth Compressed Coconut Fiber Expandable Reptile Substrate
    • Made from compressed coconut fiber
    • Eco-friendly
    • Can be used damp or dry
    • Available loose and in compressed bricks
    Check Chewy Check Amazon
  3. Exo Terra Bio Drain Terrarium Draining Reptile Substrate
  4. Exo Terra Bio Drain Terrarium Draining Reptile Substrate
    • Affordable
    • Porous gravel made from lava rock
    • Perfect for creating water drainage systems
    • Good for filtration and can keep other substrates from contaminating the water
    • Most users combine this substrate with sand or moss to create an aesthetically pleasing natural look for their terrarium
    Check Chewy Check Amazon
  5. Zoo Med Eco Carpet, 10-gal
  6. Zoo Med Eco Carpet, 10-gal
    • Inexpensive: Buy two so you replace the soiled carpet for cleaning
    • No need to worry about your reptile ingesting this substrate
    • High-quality green carpet substrate
    • Fits a 10-gallon tank snuggly
    • Great to try if you're trying to raise the humidity level in your terrarium
    Check Chewy Check Amazon
  7. ReptiChip Compressed Coconut Chip Substrate for Reptiles
  8. ReptiChip Compressed Coconut Chip Substrate for Reptiles
    • Perfect for creating a natural-looking habitat
    • Provides superior odor-control
    • Helps to maintain the enclosure's humidity level
    • Made from eco-friendly coconut husks
    • Clean and dirt free
    Check Amazon
  9. JurassicNatural Australian Desert Dragon Habitat, Red
  10. JurassicNatural Australian Desert Dragon Habitat, Red
    • Ethically sourced soil direct from Australia
    • Perfect for bearded dragons, which are from the Australian desert
    • The consistency is dirt-like
    • Stimulates natural behaviors like burrowing and basking
    • Produces very little dust
    Check Amazon

Types of Substrates

There are many types of materials that you can use as substrates for your reptile’s habitat. Each comes with features that either make it a plus or not for your pet. Below are some materials that pet owners and even pet stores use as substrates.

Paper Products

These include paper towels, shredded paper, unprinted newspaper paper, and even butcher paper. Paper products are one of the best substrates because they are easy to clean, can be burrowed in, and are inexpensive. Also, with most varieties, you don’t have to worry about them being inhaled. Paper products, however, don’t look very natural, so they might not fit your terrarium’s aesthetic.

Sand

There is always a debate among experts when it comes to using sand as a substrate for your reptile. This is mostly due to the risk of impaction if swallowed, and sand is easy to consume. Some adult reptiles, however, know not to do this, so it can be safe for them.

Most reptiles that eat sand do so on purpose to try to get minerals from it. So, with proper feeding, you could avoid this. Sand as a substrate makes cleaning easy as it clumps around dirt, retains warmth, and makes for good digging.

Sand substrates could either be made of silica or calcium, with many preferring the latter. Experts advise using sand for desert reptile species, and you can also use it in aquatic setups. If using it for aquatic environments, please avoid calcium sands as they can dissolve and change the pH of the water.

Stone

Stone substrates are always a great combination with sand substrates. They help to reduce the risk of sand ingestion and make the habitat look more naturalistic. Stones can also be good heat conductors and are generally used as the bottom layer. However, they can take a considerable amount of time to clean and disinfect.

Wood Products

Wood products like bark are great for maintaining humidity and are often used as sole substrates. You can also mix them with sand substrates. Geckos love them. On the other hand, wood products like shavings can be great for reptiles like snakes and some lizards. They can, however, be hard to clean, and some can be dangerous due to volatile natural oils. Experts recommend kiln-dried aspen shavings. Cedar and pine shavings can contain volatile oils that can irritate your pet’s sensitive respiratory tract, so you should not use them as substrates.

Jungle Substrates

Jungle substrates are great for jungle-dwelling reptiles. One that reptile owners love is coconut fiber. It can retain a lot of water to increase humidity and can be used dry too. This substrate is very resistant to rotting, and burrowing reptiles love it.

Since coconut fiber is a byproduct of the coconut industry, it is extremely inexpensive. It is also considered to be environmentally friendly. Many pet owners use this fiber in combination with bark for their terrarium.

Prepackaged Substrates

Many companies now look into and create substrates with the right nutrients and consistency that your reptile needs. Many of these come as vitamin-rich soils that you can use as bedding in your terrarium. Please ensure that you can use this with your pet without having problems like impaction from feeding on the substrate.

Moss

Moss is great for use as a combined substrate but has a long preparation time. You’ll have to bake it at a high temperature for an hour to ensure it is safe. Most pet owners use it in combination with other substrates to maintain the humidity of their terrarium. It also creates microclimates and pockets where for reptiles like snakes can burrow.

Carpeting

Using artificial carpets like Astroturf for bedding is a great idea. They are easy to clean and look good aesthetically. There is also no risk of ingestion with this substrate as long as you watch out for and remove any loose threads. Carpets are a cheap substrate option and work for any reptile. Experts advise that you keep more than one piece on hand so you can easily switch for cleaning.

The best substrate for your reptile depends on its needs and what you want your terrarium to look like. You should, however, ensure that your option is safe for your pet. Below are some great substrates that you can use and the reptiles you can use them for.

1. Best Overall: Zoo Med Eco Earth

Zoo Med Eco Earth is our best overall substrate for many reasons. First, you can use this substrate for most reptiles: geckos, lizards, snakes, bearded dragons, etc. You’ll also love that you get three bricks for an excellent price.

Zoo Med Eco Earth is made of coconut fiber and looks great in naturalistic setups. It also easily absorbs and breaks down odor and waste products. You can use this substrate dry when making substrate for desert species or dampen it for tropical reptiles to maintain humidity in your terrarium.

You’ll also love that this substrate is eco-friendly. It is a byproduct of the coconut industry and can easily be recycled. Each brick in this Zoo Med pack will make to 8 liters of substrates for your terrarium.

Best Overall
Zoo Med Eco Earth Compressed Coconut Fiber Expandable Reptile Substrate
  • Made from compressed coconut fiber
  • Eco-friendly
  • Can be used damp or dry
  • Available loose and in compressed bricks
Check Chewy Check Amazon

2. Best for Affordability: Exo Terra BioDrain Terrarium Substrate

The Exo Terra BioDrain Substrate is porous gravel that is perfect when creating a water drainage system in your terrarium for reptiles like lizards and bearded dragons. Plus this product is natural and does not decompose.

This substrate is good for filtration and can also help to prevent your other substrates from contaminating the water. Most reptile owners use this substrate in combination with sand or moss to create an aesthetically pleasing look for their pet’s home.

This product works perfectly for tropical terrariums and can be used to create a water table. It is lava rock that has even sizes, but you might have to rinse it off a bit before use. The Exo Terra BioDrain comes at an affordable price too.

Best for Affordability
Exo Terra Bio Drain Terrarium Draining Reptile Substrate
  • Affordable
  • Porous gravel made from lava rock
  • Perfect for creating water drainage systems
  • Good for filtration and can keep other substrates from contaminating the water
  • Most users combine this substrate with sand or moss to create an aesthetically pleasing natural look for their terrarium
Check Chewy Check Amazon

3. Best for Aesthetics: Zoo Med Eco Carpet Substrate

Zoo Med makes our list again, but this time for a fabulous carpet substrate that reptile owners love. You won’t have to worry about your gecko or lizard accidentally ingesting this carpet substrate. It is also easy to clean but, if possible, buy too so you can switch them out for washing.

The Zoo Med Eco Carpet will also look amazing in your terrarium. It is made of natural green products of the best quality, and this particular product fits snuggly in a ten-gallon tank. Owners of pet lizards especially love this carpet for their terrariums.

This is a great substrate to use when trying to get the humidity up in your terrarium. It is also inexpensive, which is why most pet parents buy more than one. The Zoo Med Carpet substrate can also be washed for effective cleaning.

Best for Aesthetics
Zoo Med Eco Carpet, 10-gal
  • Inexpensive: Buy two so you replace the soiled carpet for cleaning
  • No need to worry about your reptile ingesting this substrate
  • High-quality green carpet substrate
  • Fits a 10-gallon tank snuggly
  • Great to try if you're trying to raise the humidity level in your terrarium
Check Chewy Check Amazon

4. Best Natural Substrate: ReptiChip Compressed Coconut Chip Substrate

This is the substrate to go for if you want to create a natural and healthy habitat for your reptile. It comes with superior odor-control helping to keep your terrarium and your home smelling great. It is also good for maintaining the humidity levels of your pet enclosure.

Made from eco-friendly coconut husks, the ReptiChip Coconut Substrate comes to you meticulously clean and dirt free. All you need to do is add water to it, and it is ready for use. Tropical reptile parents love this substrate because of its ability to maintain humidity.

You’ll love that you can personally tailor the moisture content of this substrate to create your pet’s optimal environment. The ReptiChip Substrate is also easy to clean and contains mixed-sized coconut chips. This chip substrate works great for snakes, geckos, and lizards.

Best Natural Substrate
ReptiChip Compressed Coconut Chip Substrate for Reptiles
  • Perfect for creating a natural-looking habitat
  • Provides superior odor-control
  • Helps to maintain the enclosure's humidity level
  • Made from eco-friendly coconut husks
  • Clean and dirt free
Check Amazon

5. Best Prepackaged Substrate: JurassicNatural Substrate for Bearded Dragons

If you have a bearded dragon, then you know it either originates from the desert or the other dry areas of Australia. This is why the JurassicNatural Substrate for Bearded Dragons is superior. It brings you ethically sourced soil directly from Australia. Your bearded dragon pet will thrive in this.

With a consistency that is more like dirt, this nice-looking substrate helps to stimulate natural behaviors in your pet. Experts advise using this in a terrarium with other natural-looking additions to get the best effect. This substrate is also very easy to clean.

You’ll love the variety in texture and pieces of this substrate. Most users are disappointed that these don’t come in a bigger bag, so they order more than one bag at a time. This substrate produces little dust, and your bearded dragon will love to burrow and bask on this.

Best Prepackaged Substrate
JurassicNatural Australian Desert Dragon Habitat, Red
  • Ethically sourced soil direct from Australia
  • Perfect for bearded dragons, which are from the Australian desert
  • The consistency is dirt-like
  • Stimulates natural behaviors like burrowing and basking
  • Produces very little dust
Check Amazon

How To Choose The Best Substrate For Your Pet Reptile

Ready to choose the best substrate for your pet reptile? Most of the substrates we choose can be used for reptile terrariums, but the best for your pet depends on some important factors. They are:

  • Type of Pet
  • Desired Aesthetics
  • Price

Here are these factors in more detail:

The Type of Pet

The best substrate for your boa constrictor might not be the best for your bearded dragon. So choose a substrate for your reptile based on what works for them. You might also have to select a substrate based on your pet reptile’s age. For example, some adult geckos do fine with a sand substrate, but juvenile geckos could feed on it and become impacted.

Desired Aesthetics

What look do you want your terrarium to have? Some substrates, like the carpet substrate, are aesthetically pleasing and look amazing. You could also use the coconut chip substrate in this list to create a more natural look for your terrarium.

Price

Substrates can be a bit on the expensive side, but there are also some inexpensive options. Our best for affordability in this review has all the features of a good substrate too. Remember that your pet reptile’s health and safety are important when choosing what product to use. 

How to Create A Habitat Your Reptile Loves

Building a great habitat for your pet is important if you’re a reptile pet enthusiast. Your pet needs an environment that is healthy and stimulating to stay happy. Here are some tips to keep in mind as you create the perfect habitat.

  • Consider the natural. What does the natural habitat of your pet reptile look like? This will help you build an environment that your pet loves. For example, a pet snake will enjoy spending the day lounging on substrate, while a pet lizard needs rocks to climb and stay active.
  • The environment is important. So, do lots of research for specific requirements and when you get it, do your best to maintain it. Having a stable environment is important for the health of your pet reptile. Things like humidity and lighting will play a huge role.
  • Use the right measurements. Don’t forget to include tail length when taking measurements for your pet’s habitat. Your pet reptile could also reach impressive dimensions as an adult. When possible, add an inch or two extra to the size enclosure you’ve selected
  • Decorate. Use logs, plants, rocks, and trees to decorate your terrarium whenever possible. Choose a great-looking substrate too. Reptiles love to have places to play and hide. You could also go with a design theme like “tropical island.”

Other Materials You Can Use as Substrate

You can also use materials like soil or even litter as substrates for your pet reptile. You should, however, ensure that this is safe and that your pet will not get injured or poisoned with these options. We’ve even heard of people using towels as substrates too.

Substrates to Avoid

The kind of substrate to avoid will depend on your pet reptile species. Most experts, however, have a problem with sand substrates because they come with a risk of impaction. Moss substrates could also grow a mold that could be dangerous to your health.

Up Next:

How to Choose the Best Substrate for Your Reptile’s Terrarium FAQs (Frequently Asked Questions) 

What can I use as a substrate for a lizard?

This review contains a list of some of the best substrates you can use for lizards and where to buy them. Carpet, coconut fiber, and gravel can be good substrates for your pet lizard.

What substrate is not safe for reptiles?

Generally, sharp rocks are not good for use as substrates for reptiles. There are also other options that are more personal to the kind of reptile that you have. We discuss this and more in the review above.

What do you put in the bottom of a reptile tank?

Substrates like sand, gravel, carpet, moss, and even newspapers make for great reptile tank bottoms. You could also use coconut fibers or soil as your reptile tank substrates.

Thank you for reading! Have some feedback for us? Contact the AZ Animals editorial team.