How to Clean the Scum Off the Top of the Aquarium

The inventor of the baster probably didn't foresee it as a scum-remover.

The inventor of the baster probably didn't foresee it as a scum-remover.

The oily, sometimes rainbow-colored film that gathers along the surface of your aquarium can reduce oxygen levels and light intensity. You have a few methods to choose from when it comes time to clean the scum, from adding new hardware to wiping up the mess with a paper towel.

Lay a paper towel flat over the oily water surface, holding the edge of the paper towel with your fingers. Let the paper towel soak up the water and scum for a few seconds, and then peel it back and up, like you would for a sticker. If the nasty scum still remains, repeat with new paper towels until the oil is all gone.

Opt for the cup method. Lower a cup into your tank until the water starts trickling over the lip of and inside the cup. Follow the scum along the surface, keeping your cup barely below the water so that most of what filters into your cup is the film. Keep a bucket next to you so you can dump out the water occasionally.

Remove the scum with a plastic baster. Long thought of as cooking tools, basters are also useful for your aquarium. They're often used to feed your fish certain meals, such as brine shrimp and bloodworms, and to target-feed specific fish, but they can also suck up the film along the surface of your tank. Dip the baster a smidgen into the scum. Squeeze the rubber bulb to pull the water and scum into your baster. Squirt the yucky stuff into a bucket.

Add a protein skimmer if you have a saltwater tank or a surface skimmer if you have a freshwater setup. Protein skimmers are much more effective than surface skimmers, but they typically only work in a saltwater tank. A surface skimmer removes organic waste at the surface of your tank, while a protein skimmer removes organic waste throughout your tank. Both help improve water quality and should cut down or completely eliminate the film that forms at your tank's surface. Surface skimmers work in saltwater tanks, but most saltwater setups run more efficiently with a protein skimmer.

Increase surface agitation. Increasing surface agitation disturbs the film and often prevents it from forming. To increase surface agitation, trim plants that have grown close to or obstruct your filter outflow, add a more powerful filter to your tank or add a powerhead, which is a device that pulls water in and spits it back out to increase water flow. If you have a hang-on-the-back filter, try lowering your water level slightly so that when the water flows out of your filter, it makes a splash on the surface. Skimmers also increase surface agitation.

Items you will need

  • Paper towels
  • Aquarium-safe cup
  • Turkey baster
  • Protein skimmer or surface skimmer
  • Bucket


  • Overfeeding your fish can lead to a surface film.
  • Change out 20 percent of your tank's water once weekly to clean up the organic waste that can cause the film.

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About the Author

Located in Pittsburgh, Chris Miksen has been writing instructional articles on a wide range of topics for online publications since 2007. He currently owns and operates a vending business. Miksen has written a variety of technical and business articles throughout his writing career. He studied journalism at the Community College of Allegheny County.

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