How to Clean Play Sand for an Aquarium

Play sand might have the advantage over other aquarium substrates of being cheap and readily available, but you can’t just dump it straight in the tank. It needs a thorough cleaning, regardless of whether children and cats may have buried various revolting things in it first. Even if it fresh from the store in a sealed bag, to be safe, it also needs sterilization.

Measure the sand required into a bucket. You want enough to create a layer 2 or 3 inches deep in your aquarium, more if you plan to keep deep-rooted plants or burrowing creatures. If the amount of sand you intend to clean fills more than a third of the bucket, wash it in stages.

Pick out any visible pieces of debris from the sand.

Pour water over the sand and stir it vigorously with a long wooden spoon or other suitable nonmetal implement. For this purpose, it is fine to use water straight from the faucet.

Tip out the water once the sand has settled slightly. This water is suitable for use in your garden if you want to be green. Repeat until the water is clear after stirring; this might take 10 or more repetitions: Play sand tends to be full of dust and fine particles.

Scoop the wet sand into baking trays or a large glass pan. Either bake for 20 minutes at about 200 degrees Fahrenheit or, if you’re using a pan, cover with water and boil for the same time. This is to kill microorganisms that could make your fish sick.

Allow the sand to cool before using it in your aquarium.

Items you will need

  • Bucket
  • Wooden spoon
  • Baking tray or large glass pan


  • Sand is trickier to clean than gravel during weekly maintenance, because gravel cleaners are likely to suck up the sand as well as the gravel if you aren’t careful. The Oscar Fish Lover website suggests angling the gravel cleaner and/or holding it a few inches away from the sand. It might take a few goes to get right, but of course, if you suck up sand, you can always just pour it back in.
  • Fish usually do best with a substrate that mimics their natural habitat. Sand is better than gravel for those who come from environments with sand or mud, whereas gravel suits fish who originate from fast-flowing rocky rivers.


  • Boiling for this short time removes chlorine from tap water but not chloramine. If your water supply contains the latter, use water treated with the appropriate product, or spring water, to rinse the sand after sterilization.

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About the Author

Judith Willson has been writing since 2009, specializing in environmental and scientific topics. She has written content for school websites and worked for a Glasgow newspaper. Willson has a Master of Arts in English from the University of Aberdeen, Scotland.