The Best Cichlid Substrates

Cichlids swimming around above substrate

Cichlid substrates are important for the prolonged health and wellbeing of your fish. Most of these substrates will add buffers to the water to keep the pH at a higher level than most freshwater aquariums. Cichlids thrive in high alkaline pH and higher GH waters. This is mostly due to the limestone rich waters of their natural habitats in Africa. The best cichlid substrates will buffer the water to maintain a higher pH even after water changes. Most of these substrates primarily contain porous crushed coral/aragonite.

Most substrates that are suitable for marine aquariums are also suitable for cichlid aquariums. The best cichlid substrates and gravels will also have a finer, silty nature. Cichlids love to dig, cave and filter through the substrate. Using aragonite sands or finely crushed corals is highly recommended for cichlids.

Below we discus some popular and commercially available cichlid substrates. We will also look at the advantage and disadvantages of each type and why each may be a good choice for you.

Pearl Beach Aragonite

pearl beach substrate with cichlidspearl beach bag of aragonite. One of the best cichlid substrates

Pearl Beach is a natural aragonite substrate suitable for marine and freshwater aquariums. It is very suitable for Cichlid aquarium because of its unique pH buffering capacity. Cichlids require a higher pH and this substrate will provide that. It has a fine subtle texture and is suitable for cichlids to dig and sift through the sand. It can be purchased in 7 and 20 lb bags and comes at a reasonable price for a commercial substrate. Aragonite is essentially crushed coral and calcites from the ocean.  Pearl Beach substrate is white in colour and will light in the aquarium.  Conversely darker substrates will enhance the colour of your fish but will make the aquarium look darker. It is really a matter of personal preference. Always remember to wash Pearl Beach before adding to the aquarium, Pearl Beach is notorious for containing very fine particles.

pearl beach one of the best cichlid substrates close up view

Awesome Because:

  • Buffers aquarium PH to a suitable level for cichlids
  • Is sold at a fairly reasonable price in most major pet stores  
  • Has been used by hobbyists for their cichlid aquariums without any issues. Is proven to do the job.
  • Is bright and white in colour.

Not so Awesome Because:

  • Lighter substrates me wash out the colour of your fish
  • Can be expensive in a large aquarium
  • Unnecessary marine additives in the substrate – not cichlid specific.


Onyx Cichlid Substrate

seachem onyx substrate, a substrate made specifically for cichlidsclose up of onyx substrate


Onyx is another Seachem substrate however this substrate is exclusively made for cichlids. Onyx will buffer the water PH to an appropriate level and it will also provide the appropriate minerals, salts and additives that these fish need on a daily basis. Onyx is one of the best Cichlid substrates due to it being exclusive to these fish. The darker color of this substrate will also help bring out the bright colors of your cichlids. Electric blues and yellows will stand out even more in the aquarium. Onyx can be more expensive because of it narrow use and is usually more difficult to find on sale or in the local fish store. It’s chorus nature also men’s Onyx can be used to grow plants also keeping plans with cichlids can be difficult and is not always recommended. Always remember to wash Onyx before adding to the aquarium.


Awesome Because:

  • Onyx is a Cichlid specific substrate and will buffer the water and add minerals appropriately.
  • onyx is dark in colour and will bring out the colour of your fish
  • Onyx has been proven to work in Cichlid aquariums
  • onyx is also suitable to grow plants due to it’s porous nature.

Not so Awesome Because:

  • Onyx can be more expensive due to it’s niche target of cichlid hobbyists
  • Onyx only comes in one color: black
  • Onyx can be more difficult to source than other substrates and may not be available in your local fish store

CaribSea Crushed Coral


Carib Sea crushed coral is a no frills substrate that is suitable for cichlids. It is a one of the best cichlid substrates for the cost savvy hobbyist. It is an aragonite based, white and slightly coarse substrate. The porous nature of crushed coral makes an excellent biological filter for the aquarium while also buffering the pH. The substrate is white with beautiful textures of crushed shells and seabed. Its texture makes it an excellent playground for cichlids to dig and breed. It is relatively inexpensive and can usually be bought in larger bulk quantities than other commercial substrates. It is a high quality substrate that has been proven to work by cichlid hobbyists. The coarse nature of the substrate is personal preference and can add the character of the aquarium.  Always ensure to wash the substrate before use to avoid fines in the aquarium.

Awesome Because:

  • Cheaper than other commercial aragonite substrates.
  • Buffers pH to an appropriate level for cichlids.
  • Coarse and beautiful texture that adds character.

Not so Awesome Because:

  • Not exclusively made for cichlids like Seachem’s Onyx substrate.
  • Only available in white, may wash out the cichlid coloration.
  • Some Cichlids prefer very fine, sand like substrates for sifting.

The Best Cichlid Substrates Conclusion

All the substrates above are excellent pH buffers that will create the perfect environment for keeping your cichlids. Lighter substrates are usually easier to find and are generally cheaper. They can also have beautiful textures of crushed coral, sea shells and calcites. Darker substrates will enhance the coloration of your fish but are likely to be more expensive and lack the same ‘seafloor’ character. Personal preference is important when choosing the right substrate for cichlids. The best cichlid substrates are the ones that 1. Buffer the water and 2. Look good to you.

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