Bearded Dragon Substrate: Top 5 Best & Worst

Substrate is a very important part of keeping bearded dragons.

It can have a huge effect on their health and happiness. The wrong substrate can lead to a variety of health issues such as impaction, scale rot, infections and more.

The best substrate for bearded dragons depends on factors like tank setup and budget. Things like newspaper or paper towels, reptile carpet, rubber shelf liner, tile or even bioactive substrate are all excellent choices when it comes to bearded dragon substrate.

You should stay away from loose substrates like sand, soil, play sand, alfalfa pellets, bark, mulch, wood chips, hay or moss.

In this article we share all the information you need to choose the one that works best for you and your beardie…

Bearded Dragon Substrate

Wild Bearded Dragon

Substrate can be any material or bedding that you use in a bearded dragon’s tank for them to live on.

Keeping bearded dragons is not hard, but their health is very dependent on the environment and tank they live in. Proper care and diet is the first step you can take to make sure they live a long and happy life. Things like diet, humidity, lighting, temperature and enrichment are all very important.

Do not make the mistake of thinking your bearded dragon substrate is not just as important.

The wrong substrate can lead to a variety of health issues like impaction, stuck shed, respiratory issues, skin problems, infections and more.

There are also a wide variety of products that claim to be the “best” substrate for bearded dragons, but this is not true in all cases. Loose substrates such as sand, moss, mulch and some soils can be very dangerous and problematic for two reasons.

First, substrates like soil, moss or mulch often retain too much humidity. This can mean tank humidity levels rise far beyond the 35% needed for bearded dragons. Sustained humidity above 50% can lead to skin issues, like stuck shed or scale rot. In severe cases it can lead to respiratory infections.

Second, any loose substrate like mulch, sand, wood chips, or crushed walnut, run the risk of impaction. When these substrates are eaten they can cause intestinal blockage. This blockage is known as impaction and if not fixed quickly can lead to serious health problems like weight loss, mobility issues and even death.

Thankfully it is easy to find a safe substrate for bearded dragons.

Choosing a substrate comes down to what works best for you and your lizard. The exact choice will depend on your tank set up and budget.

Some examples of the best bearded dragon substrate include:

  • Reptile carpet
  • Newspaper
  • Paper towels
  • Tiles
  • Rubber shelf liner

You will notice that all of the options above are a solid substrate. This means they have no risk of impaction and are often easier to spot clean and replace.

If you are a more experienced keeper with a little extra money, you could create a bioactive substrate that mimics their natural habitat. We will talk more about this later in the article for those keepers interested in a challenge.

Best Bearded Dragon Substrate

Substrate Safe Best For Recommended
Reptile Carpet Yes Great for any enclosure. Natural look that has no health risks. Needs to be cleaned thoroughly and often.
Newspaper Yes Great for new keepers and juveniles. Very cheap, safe and does not warp or affect humidity. Not eco-friendly and can get torn up easily by adults.
Tiles Yes Good for all ages and enclosure types. Easy to clean, looks nice and makes a great basking surface. Very difficult and expensive to install.
Rubber Shelf Liner Yes Good for all enclosures. Cheap, safe, durable and easy to fit. Can shrink and crack with high heat.
Bioactive Substrate Yes Experienced keepers. Looks very nice and natural. Needs lots of maintenance and is not for beginners.

Newspaper or Paper Towels

If you are looking for something cheap and easy, look no further than your local grocery store.

Newspaper or paper towels are one of the cheapest and easiest substrates. Paper towels usually only cost a few dollars per roll and newspaper can even be free.

If you have a baby or juvenile bearded dragon this is often the best substrate. Younger dragons can poop a lot and create a lot of waste and mess. Paper products are extremely easy and cheap to replace. This substrate also makes it easy to spot any changes in their poop.

Paper products also have the benefit that they will not affect tank humidity levels or warp under the high heat from basking lamps. The hottest part of their tank will often reach around 100°F which can cause other materials to warp.

Unfortunately newspaper or paper towels will not win any beauty prizes.

If you want a “natural” looking enclosure, paper products are not the right choice for you.

Another drawback is that this substrate is not very durable. Adult bearded dragons can tear it up easily and make a mess. While this can be avoided with heavy décor to weigh down the paper, you still may find yourself replacing their substrate frequently.

Though there are two drawbacks, newspaper or paper towels are still one of the best substrate choices. This is especially true for any dragon under one year old.

  • Pros: Easy to clean, cheap and easy to find. Very safe, no risk of impaction. Won’t warp or affect humidity.
  • Cons: Not “natural” and needs to be replaced frequently.

Ceramic Tiles

Bearded Dragon Rocks

Tile may be a less well-known substrate, but it is one of the best.

Ceramic tiles are the most common choice, but other tiles like slate are also popular with keepers wanting a “natural” setup. You can make ceramic or slate look very rock-like and natural.

Tiles are easy to clean and natural heat conductors.

Not only are tiles easy to clean, they do not absorb moisture and will not affect humidity. They will also not warp or bend with high heat from the basking spot. For this reason most keepers use slate as a substitute to rocks to build basking spots.

Ceramic tiles also provide an easy to maintain and safe surface for your bearded dragon. They can be found at most home improvement or hardware stores for $10 to $40 depending on size and color.

While tiles have many advantages, there is one major disadvantage.

Tile often needs to be cut to fit standard terrarium sizes. You will need specific tools to cut and install the tile in a way that is safe. Without proper tools it becomes very difficult to install which can lead to dangerous, sharp edges.

For this reason beginners often chose to add just one piece of slate to their enclosure. This slate can be used as a basking spot and even help your bearded dragon wear down their claws.

Tile bearded dragon substrate is one of the best substrates for adults if you have the time, money and tools to install it.

  • Pros: Natural finish, easy to clean and conducts heat. Very safe with no risk of impaction.
  • Cons: Expensive to install properly.

Reptile Carpet

Bearded Dragon Substrate

Reptile carpet is a liner made from recycled plastic that looks like grass.

This substrate is often sold with starter kits for bearded dragons. It is easy to install, safe, cheap and comes in many different colors and sizes. For these reasons it is commonly used by a wide range of keepers for many different pet lizards.

Reptile carpet is convenient and can be easily cut for any enclosure size. It is usually sold in packs of two for between $5 to $20. It can also be reused for many years and does not have to be replaced nearly as often as newspaper or paper towels.

There is one thing to keep in mind with this substrate, it is very difficult to clean. Reptile carpet is a great bearded dragon substrate if you are willing to put in a little more work cleaning.

Reptile carpet needs to be completely removed and washed at least twice a month to remove bacteria. Bacteria growth can be common with this type of substrate, especially when it is not kept clean. Bacteria can lead to health issues and infections.

Most owners choose to purchase two rolls at a time so they can always have a clean one ready to use. After two years it will need to be replaced as they can fray and cause your Beardie’s claws to get stuck.

  • Pros: Easy to find, reusable and fits in any enclosure. Can be nicer looking than paper substrate.
  • Cons: Needs to be cleaned often otherwise it can house bacteria.

Rubber Shelf Liner

Rubber shelf liners are thin pieces of rubber that are usually used to line shelves or drawers in kitchens. They can be found for $10 per roll and are cheaper than tile or reptile carpet. They are also more durable than paper towels or newspaper.

This bearded dragon substrate is great for someone looking for something cheap and easy that is better than paper products.

Rubber shelf liners are easy to fit in any enclosure and safe. They will not cause impaction or change the humidity levels in the tank.

Unfortunately most shelf liners do have issues with heat.

High heat from a basking bulb or under tank heater can cause them to crack and shrink. These liners are known to hold heat, instead of conducting it like tile would. This means you might also find yourself having trouble maintaining correct tank temperatures with this substrate.

Because babies often need very hot basking spots and shelf liners have issues with heat this substrate is best for adults.

Rubber shelf liners are a very cheap and easy alternative to paper towels or newspaper. They will need to be changed often due to heat wear and tear and temperatures should be checked frequently to make sure the cooler side of the tank does not drop below 85°F.

  • Pros: Cheap and easy alternative to paper towels or newspaper.
  • Cons: Does not look natural, can crack with high heat and is hard to maintain correct tank temperature.

Bioactive

Bearded Dragon On Branch

Bioactive bearded dragon enclosures are self-sustaining “ecosystems”, usually with live plants and loose soil mix substrates. They provide a beardie with lots of digging and enrichment opportunities.

The substrate used for bioactive enclosures is usually a mix of sand, clay and topsoil. The common percentages are 50% rinsed and drained play sand, 40% organic topsoil and 10% clay. More clay can be used for bigger bearded dragons that like to burrow.

This substrate is perfect for someone who wants a challenge and is looking for something more natural.

Bioactive enclosures look very natural, but they can be costly and difficult for beginners to setup.

The price of setting up a bioactive bearded dragon tank can run anywhere up to $400.

You will need to keep a close eye on your Bearded Dragon and ensure that they are not eating their substrate. The soil and sand can cause impaction if not mixed together properly with the clay.

Bioactive enclosures are not recommended for beginners either as you need to make sure the substrate is not holding too much humidity.

  • Pros: Allows for digging and lots of enrichment. Looks very natural
  • Cons: Risk of impaction. Needs lots of maintenance.

Substrate You Should Not Use

Substrate Safe Best For Recommended
Sand No Not recommended. Risk of impaction.
Soil No Bioactive substrate. Risk of impaction and retains moisture.
Play Sand No Bioactive substrate. Risk of impaction
Alfalfa Pellets, Crushed Walnut, Wood Chips or Bark No Not suitable. High risk of impaction and increases humidity.
Hay or Moss No Not suitable. Retains moisture and encourages mold. Hay is sharp and can cause discomfort.

Sand

Bearded Dragon On Sand

Most beginners think that bearded dragons live on sand in the deserts of Australia, but this is not entirely true. In the wild the sand substrate they live on is much more compact and claylike.

Reptile sand or calcium sand for bearded dragons is not similar to this claylike substrate. It is very different from what they would have in their natural environment. Sand substrate is a very fine and loose substrate that looks more like beach sand and not a compact clay.

Calcium sand is often sold as safe, natural and great for conducting heat. Some pet shops even claim it is easy for bearded dragons to eat as it contains calcium, however it is still a loose substrate. Any loose particle substrate has the risk of impaction. The sand can also get in their nose or eyes and cause irritation.

For these reasons any type of sand is not recommended for bearded dragon substrate.

If you want sand for bearded dragons then it is better to pick tiles or shelf liners in an orange color.

  • Pros: Easy to clean. Very natural appearance.
  • Cons: High risk of impaction. Cannot be reused.

Play Sand

Bearded Dragon On Gravel

Play sand for bearded dragons is often sold at hardware stores for use in sand play boxes. This substrate is very easy to find and cheap. Some keepers claim that it is better than regular or calcium sand because it is less likely to cause impaction.

Experienced keepers will use play sand as part of the mix in bioactive enclosures.

This substrate is cheap and easy to clean, but impaction risks and hygiene issues are not worth using it alone. When cleaning poop from the sand, you will likely leave small amounts of left-over waste and bacteria.

  • Pros: Natural appearance.
  • Cons: Can leave bacteria and can cause impaction.

Alfalfa Pellets, Crushed Walnut, Wood Chips, Bark or Mulch

Alfalfa pellets, crushed walnut, wood chips, bark and mulch are all examples of loose bearded dragon bedding.

These substrates should not be used for bearded dragons as they can cause impaction. Some better alternatives include tile, reptile carpet or even paper products.

Crushed walnut can create dust that can damage skin

Alfalfa pellets keep large amounts of water and can become moldy easily.

Pine and cedar bedding are toxic to reptiles.

Most of these beddings keep lots of moisture and cause high humidity levels. This can lead to skin issues such as scale rot and even respiratory infections or mouth rot.

  • Pros: Natural appearance.
  • Cons: Can lead to impaction, skin issues, and respiratory infections.

Soil

Soil for bearded dragons is perfect for creating a bioactive substrate, but soil alone is not a good bearded dragon substrate. Soil often holds water, increases humidity levels and can cause impaction.

A great way to add soil is by mixing play sand, organic soil and clay to create a solid substrate.

Rubber shelf liners are much safer and can give you the same look.

  • Pros: Great for a bioactive enclosure.
  • Cons: Not suitable by itself, humidity issues and can cause impaction.

Hay or Moss

Moss and hay are two substrates that should not be used.

It is a common misconception that hay can be used for bearded dragon bedding. Hay is often very sharp and can cause discomfort or even injury to your lizard.

Moss in particular is known to increase humidity levels, which is why it is often used in humid hides. Bearded dragons come from dry environments and too much humidity can cause skin issues and infections like mouth rot. If you still want that nice green moss color then use a green rubber shelf liner.

  • Pros: Moss can look great.
  • Cons: Can cause scale rot, mouth rot and respiratory infections.

Summary

Doing your research on what makes a good substrate is very important.

The substrate you choose can have a big impact on the health of your bearded dragon.

If you have an adult you may be better choosing reptile carpet, tile, or rubber shelf liners. An experienced keeper might choose to use a bioactive substrate.

Hatchlings are best kept on newspaper or paper towels.

What substrate you end up choosing will depend on your budget and what makes your lizard happy.

Let us know what you use in the comments below.

About Nigel Robert

Nigel Robert Nigel is the managing editor at More Reptiles. He is a lifelong reptile lover, biologist and wildlife consultant who brings a decade of experience working in reptile conservation and consultancy. He joined our team in 2020 and when he’s not reviewing reptile care sheets, he’s out looking for reptiles in the wild!

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