What Is The Best Substrate For Bearded Dragons?

Substrate is one of the most important aspects of your bearded dragon’s enclosure or tank. It is also a matter of debate between bearded dragon owners for quite some time. Some go for reptile carpets while others go for loose substrate. Some even use newspaper as substrate.

The substrate is your bearded dragon’s bedding in the enclosure.

But which substrate is good for your bearded dragon? This article will help you to solve this mystery and to select the best substrate for your bearded dragon’s enclosure.

To make it easy to understand, the article is divided into the following:

You can also read the following articles to learn more about the tank essentials, toys, and activities that you can do with your bearded dragon to keep them happy and healthy:

By their name, it is clear that solid substrate is the bedding that can’t be dug into, they are solid. Common solid substrates are as follows:

  • Reptile Carpets
  • Mats
  • Slate Tile  
  • Newspaper 
  • Paper Towels 
  • They are easy to clean and replace.
  • They reduce the risk of impaction as your bearded dragon can’t eat them. 
  • They don’t provide natural digging opportunities to your pet dragon. 
  • Some options can retain moisture which will increase the humidity.
  • Some solid substrates are porous. Live insects can hide in porous substrates and can bite your dragon which can cause stress and irritation.

The loose substrate is the bedding of your bearded dragon that is made of loose material such as sand or pebbles. Your bearded dragon dug into them. The common examples of the loose substrate are as follows:

  • Sand and soil mixes, are easily available at pet shops.
  • Superfine quartz sand.
  • Excavator clay.
  • Bioactive mixes.
  • They provide natural digging opportunities for your bearded dragon.
  • They require less maintenance as they are bioactive setups. 
  • Impaction risk is greater as your bearded dragon can eat indigestible substrates such as sand or pebbles or substrates containing calcium carbonate.
  • Can be inhaled and cause respiratory issues.
  • Can stick in the eyes and irritate.
  • Can cause several problems if your dragon is ill or recovering from some disease. (Discussed in succeeding paragraphs).
  • Difficult to completely disinfect.

A loose substrate that is not digestive and can stuck in your bearded dragon’s tract can cause impaction. Many other loose substrates are also edible and have a lower risk of impaction. The cause of impaction is not only the loose substrate, many other factors play a part in impaction, such as:

Bioactive substrates are also loose substrates, or you can say that they are a type of loose substrate that can support the growth of a plant, microfauna, and microflora.  

For better understanding, substrates are divided into several sets, i.e. best, better, good, and do not use.

Whenever you need to select the best, always ask, what is the most natural option? And what it’s like in a bearded dragon’s natural habitat? So,

The best substrates are always the substrates which are according to the bearded dragon’s natural environment which is the Australian desert.

The best substrate is according to the Australian desert which is also burrowable and your dragon can happily dig in. These substrates are loose but they do not pose an impaction risk. The reason is, that they are packed well, and composed of natural materials, and your bearded dragon’s digestive tract is built to handle it.

For best results, pack the substrate 4-6″ deep in the tank.

Commonly available options are as under:

Jurassic Natural Australian Desert Dragon Habitat:

The actual Australian soil is harvested from Central Australia which is the bearded dragon’s natural habitat. It is the most natural option.

Jurassic Reptile Substrate:

This is dust-free, natural sand with a very fine texture. It can packed well in the tank.

Zoo Med ReptiSand:

This sand is made of super fine quartz. It is available in white, red, or black colors. These colors are also natural, not dyed. Don’t confuse this sand with Vita Sand or Reptilite which is not recommended.

Exo Terra Desert Sand/ River Sand:

Like Zoo med sand, this sand is also made of super fine quartz and available in yellow, red, black, or brown colors.

The BioDude Terra Sahara substrate kit:

This is bioactive ready sand.

DIY naturalistic mix:

You can also make sand substrate at your home. Mix 50% very fine sand, 30% organic topsoil, and 20% Zoo Med Excavator Clay. This mixture is not bioactive-ready.

If you are still not convinced that loose substrate can be good for your bearded dragon then remember the fact that bearded dragons are habitant to the Australian desert and In the desert, their bedding is loose natural desert sand.

Similarly, many dragon keepers are using loose substrate and there are very less cases of impaction due to substrate. Your bearded dragon’s natural immune system is trained to fight the natural sand. Impaction can be caused only if they eat something which is stuck in their digestive tract like a rock or pebble.

Better substrates are those, that can absorb the heat, and don’t pose a threat of impaction but are not according to the natural environment of bearded dragons.

Zoo Med Excavator Clay:

This makes hard flooring in the tank.

Slate tile:

Slate tiles are hard tiles that can absorb heat and are easy to clean. But your dragon can’t dig in.

Good substrates are those that are easy to clean, don’t absorb heat, are cheap, and can be used for shorter periods. These substrates are not recommended for the long-term housing of bearded dragons.

Paper Towels:

Easily available at any shop, pharmacy, or superstore. They make the tank easier to clean as you have to change the sheet.


It has also the same benefits as that of paper towels.

These substrates pose major health risks and you need to avoid them at all costs.

Calcium sand:

Calcium sand is not digestive due to the presence of calcium carbonate and can cause impaction.

Vitamin sand:

Like calcium sand, vitamin sand also possesses calcium carbonate and can cause gut impaction.

Ground nut shell:

Ground nut shells are dusty, which can cause irritation as well as impaction.

Wood products (mulch, bark, shavings):

They can lead to impaction if ingested. 

Linoleum/ Shelf liner:

These products release VOCs which can be harmful to breathe in for your bearded dragon.  

These all substrates are not recommended and you should avoid using those for your bearded dragon.

Baby, young, or Juvenile bearded dragons are fond of food. They lick and eat everything. For this reason, a loose substrate is not a good option for them. A solid substrate such as slate tile, the Zen Mat, newspapers, or paper towels are recommended for them.  

When your bearded dragon is sick, the loose substrate can cause further problems for you, like if your pet dragon is suffering from respiratory infection, metabolic bone disease (MBD), or recovering from some illness or surgery due to mouth rot or yellow fungus infection or prolapse or any other disease, the loose substrate will prolong it. In this situation, always use a solid substrate.

If your bearded dragon is ill or recovering from illness, a solid substrate is recommended.

Some of the examples in which loose substrate is not recommended with reasons are as follows:

The loose substrate can be inhaled from the air which will worsen the respiratory infection.

The loose substrate can worsen the surgery and skin diseases by simply sticking to the bandage or damaging part of the skin.

Furthermore, if your bearded dragon is suffering from some infection, you need to use a substrate that is 100% disinfected and only solid substrate can be that clean and disinfected. Loose substrates are impossible to fully clean. You can also use disposable substrates like paper towels or newspapers which are easily replaceable and ensure cleanliness.

The loose substrate can also cause problems for your dragon when they are suffering from some disease and feels difficulty in movement. The legs or toes of your weak pet dragon can stuck in the substrate which will irritate them and can also cause stress. In this situation, Zen mats are recommended as they can absorb the heat and their texture also prevents the slipping of your bearded dragon.

The main reason for the controversy of loose substrate is owner thinks that their dragons can suffer from gut impaction as their dragon will eat the substrate which will stuck in the respiratory tract and block it.

The main reason for the controversy is gut impaction disease.

Impaction in bearded dragons is a deadly disease that will block the digestive tract of your bearded dragon and your bearded dragon will lose its appetite. With time, he will lose the weight and strength to fight the disease. He’ll not be able to digest any food. As the situation worsens, your dragon will be partially and then fully paralyzed and eventually die from this fatal disease.

Loose substrates are not edible and they can play a part in impaction, but it is not the only cause of impaction in bearded dragons.

Loose substrates only play a tiny part in impaction while other factors also catalyze the situation, and your dragon suffers from impaction.

Bearded dragon owners don’t know that bearded dragons tend to bear the dust and sand which is according to their natural habitat, instead, this sand is good for their well-being. If your bearded dragon is already suffering from other factors and losing its strength to handle the loose substrate, then he will suffer the impaction.

Poor diet:

Poor diet alone can cause impaction and many other fatal diseases like metabolic bone disease. When the diet is unbalanced, your bearded dragon cannot digest it completely. This will lead to constipation which will lead to impaction.

Similarly, if your bearded dragon is already suffering from constipation, then the loose substrate can worsen the situation, and your bearded dragon might suffer from impaction. A well-balanced diet is very important for the well-being of your bearded dragon. It will not only strengthen him but also increase his life span. For this reason, you must know the following:


Like poor diet, dehydration will also lead to constipation which will further cause the impaction.

Poor Tank Setup:

A good tank setup is very important for your bearded dragon’s overall well-being. Consider a tank that doesn’t have a basking spot. Can a dragon live in it? No, he will not. He’ll not be able to digest the food and will suffer from many diseases including impaction.

Poor Heating And Lighting Arrangement:

A good heating and lighting setup is necessary for bearded dragons as heat and UVB exposure help them to digest the food.

Unsuitable Sandy Substrate:

The presence of calcium carbonate in the substrate will cause the impaction. The calcium Carbone when eaten, will absorb the acids in the bearded dragon’s digestive tract and will stop the digestion of food. In short, calcium carbonate along with all the food that you feed your dragon will stuck in the digestive tract and will cause the impaction.

Sand is a controversial substrate. Some dragon owners consider it as the devil’s substrate while others give it priority. But what are the reasons? The main reason is how you use it in the tank. When done correctly, it can be an enriching part of your bearded dragon’s captive environment. The common risks of sand along with circumvents are as follows:

Use high-quality sand to prevent dust. Always avoid playing with sand as it is the dustiest of them all.

Always prefer sand which is in natural color. Avoid dyes and they are pretty easy to spot. If you see sand in an unnatural color it is dyed. The chemicals and color of dye sand can cause many health risks for your bearded dragon.

Sand always sticks to medical ointments and it is simply not avoidable. For this, you can change the substrate to a solid one. When your dragon’s medical treatment is over, you can shift to sand again. Tiles, newspapers, or paper towels are good in this situation.


  • Always change complete sand every 3-6 months to stop bacterial growth in the tank.
  • Spot-clean the substrate daily to keep it clean and odorless.
  • Always remove waste along with surrounding sand, as it is also dirty.
  • Do not use sand that contains calcium carbonate e.g. calcium sand, Vita Sand, etc.

Reptile carpets are also very famous in the bearded dragon community and some bearded dragon owners consider them as best. But still, there are some sidelines that you should know before buying a reptile carpet.

  • There is less risk of impaction as bearded dragons can’t eat them.
  • Easy to replace.
  • Some types are also easy to clean.
  • Bearded dragon’s nails can stuck in the carpet which can cause injury.
  • Carpets can retain moisture which will increase the humidity level and promote bacterial growth in the tank.

So, reptile carpets are also not completely safe and it is not better than the natural environment of bearded dragons, i.e. Australian desert’s sand.

Reptile carpets are not recommended as they are also not completely safe.

But still, if you want to use it, you need to be careful as it will cause problems.

So, if you want to avoid the loose substrate and reptile carpets, you can use slate or ceramic tile or anything similar. This substrate can absorb heat, is easy to clean, and doesn’t catch the claws of your bearded dragon.

The 2nd priority is disposable substrates like paper towels or newspapers. They don’t absorb the heat but they are easily replaceable and provide a clean environment for your bearded dragon. They also absorb the liquid waste of your dragon. However, some people find it difficult to change the substrate regularly.

You must avoid all substrates which are already discussed under, the “Do Not Use / Bad Substrate For Bearded Dragon” heading. Furthermore, you can also avoid calcium sand or silica-like substrates. They are uniformly fine particles and can stuck in the eyes of your dragon, irritating.

Also, avoid all substrates that are made of hard small particles like pebbles or walnut sand. They are dusty, have sharp edges that can cut your dragon, and can cause impaction when eaten.

Similarly, avoid all substrates that hold moisture such as wood chips, potting soil coco soil, etc. They can increase the humidity level and can promote fungal growth in the tank.

When using a loose substrate, you need to ensure that your bearded dragon will not accidentally eat them. For this purpose, you need to take care of the diet of your bearded dragon. Along with diet, a proper heating, and lighting setup is also necessary as it will help them to get all the nutrients from their food.

If your dragon’s tummy is full and he’s also getting all the nutrients, he’ll not eat the substrate. Still, if he eats the substrate, it’s by accident.

If your bearded dragon has eaten his meal and he’s full, he will eat the substrate only by accident. To avoid this accident, you can feed your dragon in a shallow feeding dish. You can feed them greens and insects that don’t escape from the dish in a shallow feeding dish. For the insects, that escape the dish, you can always use insect-feeding tongs or feed the insects outside the tank. In this way, the accidental ingestion of substrate will be avoided.

So, after all this discussion, what’s the best substrate for bearded dragons?

The answer is simple, every substrate can become the best substrate for your bearded dragon if you know the pros and cons of them and you use them according to the specific needs of your bearded dragon.

You need to choose the substrate after considering all the factors that are already discussed in this article.

You can use sand, mats, newspapers, etc according to the situation. The final decision is yours. If your bearded dragon is ill, you can also get advice from the vet while selecting a suitable substrate for him.

Finally, if you have any questions or want to give us feedback, feel free to CONTACT US.

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