What Is the Best Substrate for Leopard Geckos (Quick Answer: Never Choose Sand)

The choice of substrate is one of the crucial factors that impact your leopard gecko’s well-being. The right substrate can greatly enhance leo’s quality of life. Choosing the wrong substrate, however, can lead to illness and even death.

Are you looking for the absolute best substrate for your leopard gecko? We did the research for you!

leopard gecko on stone

Terrarium substrate is an essential component of every exotic pet’s life – and even more so for ground-dwelling lizards like leopard geckos.

Think about it – every day, your leopard gecko will walk and run on the enclosure’s substrate, feed on it, poop on it, try to burrow into it, and possibly lay eggs in it. That is why the choice of substrate is very important.

However, it might surprise you to learn that the choice is not (always) easy!

Did you know that there are some substrates that are really unhealthy for leopard geckos, and still, they are readily sold and marketed as fitting?

In a nutshell, what are the good and bad leopard gecko substrates?

Good substrates Bad substrates
  • Arid-type bioactive substrates
  • DIY Topsoil-mix
  • Stone slates
  • Ceramic tiles
  • Special clay substrates
  • Paper towels
  • Newspaper
  • Calcium sand
  • Sand, alone (any type)
  • Crushed walnut shells
  • Wood shavings
  • Bark and other forest substrates
  • Pebbles and sharp stones
  • Linoleum
“Controversial” substrates Moist hide substrates
  • Reptile carpet
  • Coconut fiber
  • Coconut fiber
  • Sphagnum moss

In this article, I will introduce you – in great detail – to the common leopard gecko tank substrates and their pros and cons.

The 5 Best Leopard Gecko Substrate Options (2024 Update)

Over the past few years, we’ve seen significant improvements and changes in leopard gecko substrates. Here are our top favorites.

1. Bioactive-Ready Substrates for Desert Dwellers

Professional natural loose substrates that mimic the real soil of the reptile’s natural habitats.

🥇 Author's Pick
The combination of bioactive-ready loose substrate base and segments of natural solid substrates (slate or tile) is my absolute preference for housing leopard geckos. The combination will give your leopard gecko a naturalistic setup it will love and enjoy.

🦎 We recommend the BioDude Terra Sahara or the Arcadia EarthMix-Arid (link to Amazon)

2. DIY Topsoil-Based Substrate

Many people opt to save money by mimicking new-generation loose substrates at home by mixing and sterilizing 70% store-bought pure organic topsoil and 30% play sand. Some add excavator clay as well.

🦎 We recommend the Zoo Med’s Repti Soil as a DFY mix (link to Amazon)

3. Stone Slate

A solid, completely safe, and natural substrate. Beautifully crafted by nature, stone slates provide a good grip with zero ingestion risk. On the downside, obtaining, setting up, and manipulating for cleaning might be tricky. It can be used in combination with an adequate loose substrate.

🦎 We recommend the JIH Reptile Basking Platform (link to Amazon)

4. Excavator Clay

Not only does it allow you (and your geckos) to build your own burrows and rock formations, but hardened excavator clay also simulates your gecko’s natural habitat to a great extent. However, it has its downsides – more on that later.

🦎 We recommend the Zoo Med Excavator Clay Burrowing Substrate (link to Amazon)

5. Paper Towel

It is an unsightly but still highly practical and very safe substrate, heavily used by leopard gecko breeders. Paper towels are irreplaceable for situations like quarantine or other temporary enclosures. It is also excellent for baby geckos. However, more natural solutions work better in the long term.

🦎 We like the Caboo Tree Free Bamboo Paper Towels (link to Amazon)

👇 Read on to know why we chose these substrates and how to use them.

Leopard Gecko Tank
Photo Courtesy of – Alexis Galloway 

Are Loose Substrate Safe For Leopard Geckos?

Or: Are Loose Substrates Dangerous for Leopard Geckos (and the reason for the 2024 article update)?

For a long time, the consensus in the reptile hobby was to use only solid and absolutely safe substrates, even if they were unnatural (spoiler: most were). 

The recommendation was based on the risk of impaction from loose substrates – sadly, some geckos lost lives after consuming indigestible substrates like sand. 

However, loose substrates still thrived on the market – not only because the companies still put them out but also because many people find them desirable. 

The Truth About Loose Substrates

True, there are many reasons to like natural loose substrates – from how they look to digging opportunities to the natural grip and support they provide for lizard feet and joints.

They would be a no-brainer if it wasn’t for that one grave concern – the impaction risk.

A new generation of naturalistic loose substrates came from the need for proper loose substrates and the growing popularity of naturalistic and bioactive tanks.

Much better thought-out than their predecessors, the novel substrates usually contain particles that are either too large to swallow, pass easily, or are digestible. Most are based on suitable soil, sand, and clay, sometimes combined with mineral and volcanic rocks.

Of course, you may still use paper towels or other solid, impaction-safe substrates. Still, many have realized that creating naturalistic setups is much better for leopard geckos’ overall quality of life and use paper towels or newspapers in quarantine or emergency situations.

Other artificial safe substrates, such as reptile carpets and shelf liners, have pretty much fallen out of favor (although they can still be used).

But What About Impaction?

For the most part, the reptile community now agrees that the loose substrate impaction threat was exaggerated and that very few products were actually to blame (above all, calcium sand). 

Impaction risk is a complex question. Even when it does happen because of the substrate, the substrate is rarely the only cause. Bad husbandry practices, especially low tank temperatures, play a leading role in impaction risk.

A Complete List of Appropriate Leopard Gecko Substrates

After our quick Top 5 list, here is a full take on substrates worth considering for leos.

Bioactive(-ready) Substrates For Desert Dwellers

In recent years, reptile enthusiasts have put an effort into figuring out the best option for naturalistic substrates for arid-loving species such as leopard geckos. 

The new generation of loose substrates, such as BioDude Terra Sahara or Arcadia EarthMix-Arid, have a much more natural composition and lesser risk of impaction, all while allowing you to plant in them and create a bioactive setup.

Besides common natural components (soil, safe sand, clay), some mixes, like Arcadia EarthMix, are made of natural volcanic rock. The manufacturer claims it is perfectly safe and digestible and an additional source of minerals and micro-nutrients. However, unlike with calcium sand, your lizards won’t feel a craving to consume them.

What’s neat about bioactive substrates is that if you manage to create a true miniature ecosystem with springtails and isopods taking care of the nutrient cycling (that is, cleaning), you can use the same substrate for years. All you need to do is to spot-clean the areas where your leos poop.

There is a debate on whether you can create a true bioactive terrarium when simulating an arid climate (because most creatures that make tanks bioactive need humidity). However, creating a naturalistic setup is good enough for most hobbyists and their pets. The substrates will work well for leo basic needs even if they fail to foster tank-cleaning invertebrates.

How Much Bioactive Substrate Do I Need In My Tank?

For a true bioactive-ready set up – the one that will facilitate plant growth, useful bugs, and natural ground gecko digging behavior, you’ll need to add a layer of substrate that is 4-6 inches tall (six is best).

DIY Topsoil-Based Substrates For Leopard Geckos

I might be cheap, but natural DIY soil-based substrate is my second favorite for leopard gecko tanks.

You need only these easily available ingredients.

  • Pure organic topsoil with no chemical additives (fertilizer, pesticide) or manure.
  • Regular play sand, again with no additives
  • Excavator clay (optional)

Experienced hobbyists often recommend the Timberline Topsoil because it contains a higher portion of clay than most competitors, matching the real leopard gecko habitat. Still, every bag is slightly different.

If you can’t find topsoil and sand that seem appropriate or safe enough, you can use Zoo Med’s Repti Soil (although it contains extra ingredients such as coco coir).

For additional equipment, you’ll require:

  • A bin for mixing the soil and the sand
  • Measuring cup for measuring the amount of sand
  • Protective mask, since pouring dry sand and soil creates dust that’s not really healthy to inhale (optional, but desirable)

Simply measure out 70% of the soil and 30% of the play sand to create your mix.

If your soil seems to be loose and light, you can add some excavator clay to the mix after sanitization. In this case, the percentages go like this:

  • 50% topsoil 
  • 30% sand 
  • 20% excavator clay.

Cleaning and Sanitizing the DIY Soil Mix

Basic sanitization of non-specialized substrates is something most hobbyists do, and I sincerely recommend it. It ensures the removal of any hazardous germs and bugs (although these are rare).

I recommend washing the sand first to remove the fine dust. Also, go through the soil with your hands or use a large sifter to clear large chunks of wood, stones, or other extra items you may find in the topsoil.

You can bake the soil and the sand for about 2 hours at 200°F to sterilize the mix.

Some bioactive setup enthusiasts do not bake the soil because they grow plants in it. Plus, by sterilizing it, you’re making it less “bioactive.” It is better for plants to use the soil right out of the bag than to bake it, but I like to err on the safe side.

How Much DIY Substrate Do I Need In My Tank?

What goes for commercial bioactive-ready substrates goes for homemade versions, too. You need 4-6 inches of substrate in the tank. This amount will also facilitate the natural digging and burrowing behavior.

Stone Slates

Stone slabs, slates, or pavers are perhaps the most attractive of all non-loose substrates. They have all the benefits of true rocks, including a good grip and a natural look and feel. Also, if they’re not too porous, thus it is easy to clean them.

The slates can be combined with the recommended loose substrates or even with paper towels in more minimalistic quarantine tanks.

For lizards, including leos, slabs with rougher (but not sharp) texture are ideal because they will provide a stable walking surface.

Be careful when setting up an enclosure with slabs – there shouldn’t be any space between the tank wall and the edge of the stone slate(s) where a gecko could hurt himself or get stuck. The slab(s) should also be firmly attached to the bottom of the tank – no wobbling.

How Many Stone Slates Do I Need In My Leo Tank?

A single-layer slate or carefully arranged pieces should cover the entire bottom of your terrarium. Again, there should be cracks or spaces. Note that the size of the slate that will fit your tank perfectly might be hard to find, and it would be best if you could check with a dealer to see if they can provide you with the exact size you need on the spot.

Bioactive Tank
Photo Courtesy of – Alexis Galloway 

Ceramic Tiles

Ceramic tiles are lighter and more affordable “cousins” of stone slabs. They are easier to obtain and easier to cut and install.

The only trouble with ceramic tiles is if they’re smooth, geckos won’t be able to get a grip and can end up hurting themselves because of slipping. Fortunately, there are some textured ceramic tiles with stone-mimicking 3D patterns, like this one.

Like slate, tiles can be combined with loose substrate to create some more solid ground for your pet.

How Many Ceramic Tiles Do I Need In My Leo Tank?

You will need a single layer of tiles that should cover the entire bottom of your terrarium. You can use it in combination with a layer of paper towel beneath the tiles.

Excavator Clay Substrate

Excavator clay is a clay-based substrate substrate that can be molded into shape when wet. The best-known options are Zoo Med Excavator Clay Burrowing Substrate and Exo Terra Stone Desert Substrate.

Both can work as a dry, regular substrate as well.

When you get the clay moist enough, it can be shaped as any modeling clay; when it dries, the shape you created stays firmly in place. This is how this particular substrate lets you have some fun building your own customized leo scenery – caves, burrows, basking spots, etc. Since leos are burrowing lizards, they will enjoy the seemingly-natural burrows. 

Also, you can use the moist clay-based substrate to cover foam or other artificial structures in a DIY naturalistic setup. The fact that you can get totally different properties by wetting the substrate is interesting – you can provide a variety of textures in your tank.

Last but not least, the clay-type substrate is similar to their natural habitat. However, on the downside, some customers find it hard or annoying to work with. Also, many particles will inevitably become loose. While this is not an issue for some, others find it worrisome (although there are no excavator clay impaction cases that I know of).

In its dry form, the excavator clay substrate can be too dusty and heavy to use on its own. Although it’s possible and better than many other options, it is better to mix it with soil and sand.

How Much Excavator Clay Should I Use For My Leo?

Since this is a special type of substrate, you should follow the instructions on the packaging, although the amount of clay you will use will also depend on the structures you want to build.

Medical and Extra Safe Substrates For Leopard Geckos

Substrates in this class are all solid and artificial but definitely have their advantages. This is especially true in situations when you require safe and easily replaceable “gecko ground.”

Paper towel

Paper towels are cheap, easy to change, and super absorbent, so they make maintenance a breeze. That is why they are favored by breeders and enthusiasts with many enclosures to care for. 

Paper towels are also commonly used with baby leopard geckos, who eat and defecate frequently. Another plus is that if you use white paper towels, you will be able to spot mites or some other health issues much earlier than with other substrates. That is why we call them suitable “medical substrates,” ideal to use in quarantine or with sick animals.

On the other hand, paper towel looks completely unnatural, and it will prevent leos from expressing their natural digging behavior. Also, it doesn’t provide a good grip for adult individuals and doesn’t do any amortization for your leo’s joints.

Although you can make your life easier and just use whatever towels are available, you have many options regarding material, texture, colors, weight, and sustainability.

If you are worried about deforestation and habitat destruction, there are options to get “tree-less” paper towels, like Caboo Tree Free Bamboo Paper Towels ».

Also, you can use towels made out of recycled paper, like the Seventh Generation Unbleached Paper Towels ».

The one thing I would not recommend in any case is using perfumed paper towels. Always go for the ones that are the lowest in chemicals. Naturally bleached (or unbleached) non-perfumed varieties are the best.

How Much Paper Towel Do I Need In My Terrarium?

Many leo owners go for just one layer of paper towel. Personally, I would settle for two. Do not put too much because too many layers will become a paper pulp mush if it gets substantially wet.

Newspapers

Old newspapers are an even cheaper option than paper towels and have many upsides. 

The paper is usually very absorbent. Also, you are recycling/repurposing, so if you are worried about your environmental impact, newspaper is better than paper towels.

On the other hand, using newspapers is unnatural and quite unsightly, although you can tackle this by choosing pages with interesting or funny content for the upper layer of the newspaper substrate. Sometimes, you will get runny ink (especially if the paper gets wet), and the color can even be transferred to your leo!

As a precaution, always leave the newspaper to dry for a week or longer. Although the ink used for printing newspapers these days is non-toxic, you should err on the safe side. Also, drying resolves the problem of the specific newspaper smell.

How Many Newspaper Sheets Do I Need In My Leo Tank?

About five or six layers of newspaper will be about right to make this substrate sturdy and absorbent enough.

“Controversial” Substrates

Some substrates used to be common in the hobby, but gecko owners willing to dive deep into research are abandoning it. Soon, you’ll discover why – let’s look at the pros and cons.

Reptile Carpet

Reptile carpet is an artificial substrate designed to be absorbent and supportive. Unlike the previously mentioned paper substrates, it ensures that reptiles can get a good grip when walking. It is solid, so it doesn’t cause concern regarding impaction. 

That’s pretty much where the upsides end.

Troubles With Reptile Carpets

Reptile carpets come with their problems. First of all, they are a breeding ground for bacteria. It may not be such a big issue with Leos as their poop is not overly messy, and they tend to be potty trained (go in one corner). However, then it makes even less sense to have to wash the entire carpet every week or two; with loose substrates, you could remove and clean that one corner with much less effort.

Washing will cause the fiber to start sticking out eventually, making it more likely for your leo to get his delicate fingers stuck in them. That means you have to change the carpet periodically. Concerns about plastic pollution, especially from disposable plastic, also influence many to opt out of reptile carpets. 

Also, reptile carpets do not allow for natural leo behavior such as digging.

Decent Enough Reptile Carpets

If you still, for any reason, prefer reptile carpets, get one from a proven manufacturer and check if it has been designed with leopard geckos in mind. A wrong kind of carpet can lead to Leo’s claws getting stuck in the fiber. 

Be sure to follow the manufacturer’s instructions on how to wash the carpet and how many times until you have to change it. 

Zilla Reptile Terrarium Bedding Substrate Liner roll is easy to cut to your preferred size. It was pre-treated with biodegradable enzymes to reduce any odors and can be efficiently washed in cold tap water. Its color is a beautiful dark shade of green, which will make a nice contrasting background for many leopard gecko morphs:

Zilla Reptile Terrarium Bedding Substrate Liner »

And if you prefer natural materials, an interesting alternative to plastics to consider are reptile carpets/terrarium liner made out of natural coconut fiber, like this Hamiledyi Reptile Carpet ».

How Much Reptile Carpet Do I Need In My Leo Tank?

You only need one layer of reptile carpet in your enclosure. Do everything according to the manufacturer’s instructions. Reptile carpets can come pre-cut to a certain size, or it is up to you to cut it to fit the bottom of your tank.

Important
Reptile carpets are specialized equipment and are NOT the same thing as regular “human” carpets or astroturf. Do not use any of these in your terrarium.

Coconut Coir (Eco Earth)

Coconut fiber, coconut coir, eco earth, or simply coco has probably been one of the most debated substrate types among leopard gecko keepers. Cocontroversy!

Coco is affordable, looks natural, and has antimicrobial properties that prevent rot, mold, and foul odors. It can be used both dry and wet, which means you don’t have to use two different substrates (moisture-retention substrate for wet hideouts and a drier one for the rest) – you just keep the hiding place moist and the rest of the terrarium dry.

However, there are a of issues.

When coconut coir is kept dry (as it should be in an arid leo tank), it can produce fine dust, which can, in theory, harm your gecko’s respiratory system. 

Secondly, coconut coir can be swallowed in quantities that can result in impaction – though most geckos don’t seem to perceive coconut coir as a “nutritional supplement”, so they won’t try to eat it on its own.

Thirdly, although coco coir is a natural material, it is not a natural substrate. No animal on this Earth walks on coconut husk debris, so neither do leopard geckos. They’d much prefer being on an actual, soil-based substrate.

Because of its downsides and possible dangers, I cannot recommend coconut coir to leo hobbyists. Still, I have to say that I have been using it with no issues for more than a decade when no other suitable loose reptile substrates were available locally.

A small disclaimer
In my leo tanks, there was no commotion that would raise some dust in the tank. Also, there are a lot of rocks and a 3D rock background, so my two precious lizards didn’t spend a lot of time on the dry coco itself. Also, I had never offered food on the coco coir itself.

Still, my experience is just one out of many, and we must recognize the potential hazards of coconut coir. With natural, professionally created substrates now widely available, as well as the instructions for making your own natural mix, there is no need to opt for coconut coir anymore – except in the case of some strange emergency.

If you’re still opting for coconut coir, make sure that you get a brand that is made out of organically-grown coconut and, ideally, intended for use in reptile and amphibian tanks. You will usually have two choices: to get loose bagged substrate, like this 10-quart Fluker’s Loose Coconut Bedding for Reptiles ».

The compressed coco bricks or coco blocks, like Josh’s Frogs Coco Block Fine Coco Fiber, will expand to 38 quarts when submerged into (ideally dechlorinated) water.

Josh’s Frogs Coco Block Fine Coco Fiber »

leopard gecko in substrate soil

Unsafe Leopard Gecko Substrates

Now, let’s focus on what substrates you should definitely avoid.

Despite what you may hear in your local pet store, these are not suitable options for leopard geckos in any case. If you already own any of these substrates – look for other options. Some people swear having no problems, but in my opinion, it is just an accident waiting to happen.

Calcium Sand

Why is calcium sand so bad for leopard geckos?

Calcium sand is probably the most notorious loose substrate in the reptile community. Despite many informed negative opinions, this product is still on the market, so a novice person to the hobby may still end up with it.

Here is why you shouldn’t.

Despite its name, the calcisand is not even real sand (made up of quartz and various other minerals). It is sand-shaped, fine calcium carbonate. That’s right, sort of like chalk. 

On its own and ground to “sand,” calcium carbonate is irritating to eyes, skin, and lungs (which you probably know if you’ve ever inhaled chalk dust). 

Even worse, calcium carbonate is an antacid, meaning that it reduces the amount of stomach acid. True, it is digestible – but while your reptile digests it, it gets its stomach acid neutralized. So, besides the mechanical risk of impaction, it actively adds to the risk due to its chemical composition.

I have to acknowledge that there are still people who use calcisand with no (visible) consequences to their reptiles. However, there is no reason you should risk it – it is unnatural in every way and very likely unsafe.

Sand (On Its Own)

Since leos come from a “dry, desert environment,” many people automatically assume this is a Sahara-style sandy desert landscape. In line with that, many pet shops readily recommend sand or calcium sand as the best substrate for leos.

The truth is somewhat different. Leos do come from sandy deserts. Leopard gecko’s original habitat is the rocky Asian desert and grassland. The soil is hard and, yes, has some sand in it – but not the consistency you would get in an all-sand enclosure. In fact, even when present in a habitat, most reptiles will actively avoid sandy patches.

So, the fact that the pure sand is unnatural for leopard geckos is the number one reason it is not the best choice for a leo tank.

Secondly, there are safety issues when using pure sand. Leos often take in and swallow some of the substrate material while feeding. This happens the most with younger individuals who are voracious and impulsive eaters, still fine-tuning their hunting technique. Unfortunately, the uncontrolled intake of sand or gravel can lead to impaction.

On the other hand, impaction is easily prevented with the right care, substrate, and food choices. There is no need for any leo to suffer or die of this terrible health issue just because of the wrong substrate.

Bottom line: Your gecko will not miss out on anything if you skip using pure sand. Period.

Loose Plant-Based “Natural” Substrates (Bark, Wood Shavings, Walnut Shells, etc.)

Wood chips and walnut shells might be made from natural materials; however, they are not natural substrates

No reptile – let alone a leopard gecko – naturally lives on crushed walnut shells or pine bark. The texture is weird, the digging behavior is either impossible or feels unnatural, and the particles are indigestible and hard to pass and can cause issues. Wood shavings are a particular risk for impaction.

Linoleum

Linoleum, or lino for short, used to be popular as a minimalist solid substrate similar to paper towels or reptile carpets. It is also easy to clean but doesn’t need to be changed as often.

Still, lino doesn’t offer any enrichment; it is hard on gecko feet and also too smooth to facilitate natural movement. Above all, I’m mostly worried about potential volatile compounds.

While classic lino is made from polymerized natural materials, vinyl-flooring style linoleum made from PVC plastics is widely distributed, especially in the US. We now know that vinyl flooring is potentially health hazardous, and this danger increases when the material is exposed to high temperatures and direct heating, such as in the case of reptile tanks.

River Pebbles 

Larger smooth pebbles – or river stones – can be safely used as a natural substrate, so we used to recommend them as an option before. However, with so many better natural substrates now available, the downsides of river pebbles prevail.

True, large river pebbles and stones are safe and provide some grip. However, they are not a natural substrate for leos or any other land reptile. No land animal regularly walks on smooth river pebbles, so it might feel unnatural (and certainly look that way, too). Rattling noises can also emerge as geckos move. There is no way for leos to dig and burrow, but prey insects such as mealworms will easily burrow in and find their escape among the rocks.

leopard gecko - Greenhill Humane Society
Photo Courtesy of – Greenhill Humane Society

Leopard Gecko Moist Hide Substrates

Whatever substrate you opt to use for the main part of your leo tank, you will have to use another one for the moist hides.

Moist hide substrates need to be highly absorbent and good at moisture retention. Additionally, they shouldn’t be prone to mold or bacteria buildup.

The most commonly used substrates for moist hides are the following.

Coconut Coir (or Eco Earth)

Oh coco, we meet again.

While using coconut fiber as a general substrate has its downsides, there is no issue when you use coco as a moist hide substrate. Coco holds moisture well and will not get moldy easily. Leos will gladly dig and even lay eggs in this substrate.

When you first set up your moist hide, remember the smell of the freshly soaked fiber. If the scent happens to become funkier – it is time to change the substrate.

If you are using coconut coir as a moist hide substrate only, there is no need to get coco bricks or blocks – you don’t need that much of it. Instead, opt for bagged loose coco coir for terrarium use, like Fluker’s above, or this Carib Sea Coco Soft Reptiles Bedding, made out of 100% fresh organic coconut husks:

Carib Sea Coco Soft Fiber »

Sphagnum moss

Although different in texture, sphagnum moss has similar properties to coconut coir. It is a bit more coarse and stringy than coconut fiber. Perhaps that is the reason that moss has a slightly higher impaction potential than coco. In the leo community, there have been occasional reports of sphagnum moss ingestion by the lizards – some of them leading to impaction. Still, sphagnum moss is generally considered a safe moist hide substrate.

As in the case of coconut fiber, always go for the sphagnum moss that has been intended for terrarium use, such as the Josh’s Frogs Sphagnum Moss package. The moss is quite chunky, and it takes a relatively thin layer to hold an optimum amount of moisture.

Josh’s Frogs Sphagnum Moss »

Wet Paper Towels (Not Really Recommended)

Because there is always some risk of ingestion with all loose substrates, some owners prefer to use (wet) paper towels, even in moist hides. However, it is not a 100% safe option either. How’s that?

First, lizards can’t dig in this kind of substrate. If you have a female that needs to lay eggs (this can happen even if you don’t have a male around) but doesn’t have a place to dig them in, she might hesitate to proceed. That increases the risk of egg binding – a condition as critical as impaction.

Also, there have been case reports of leos accidentally ingesting pieces of paper while shedding their skin – which could be even more dangerous than a bit of coconut fiber or sphagnum moss.

It’s Your Turn

I hope you enjoyed finding out more about the various types of leopard gecko tank substrates and the importance of making an effort to get it all right.

In the end, it would be difficult to declare which substrate is truly the best for leopard geckos – only you can decide what is best for your leos. However, the most important thing is to base the decision on solid knowledge!

What type of terrarium substrate works for you? Let us know in the comments, and share with friends – the more opinions, the merrier!

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Katarina Samurovic

Katarina Samurovic

Katarina is an environmental analyst and has been involved in herpetology research. She's been keeping reptiles for 20 years, mostly different species of turtles and leopard geckos. Her 2 lovely leos, Sonya and Mia are 21 and 20 years old.

13 Comments

  1. I have an older gecko that I took home from school for the summer. I was wondering if I could mix eco-earth and large people for more enrichment as he/she has had only reptile carpet it’s whole life. Kevin, the gecko, also only had a single rock and a small little rock watering hole I was wondering what else I could add to help.

    For his heating I’m are currently using a red heat lap but also going to add a heating pad for better heat and turn the light off at night.

    Is there any other advice you could give me? I want to give him a good summer and to continue to take care of him the same at school, when it is back in session.

    Thanks in advice!!

    1. Hi Nadine,
      Wanting to enhance the elderly gecko’s quality of life is very sweet of you. You’re right – reptile carpet is not a natural surface for the gecko to move on. While it is commonly used, it does come with some issues – from poor hygiene to the fact that they can’t offer a leo a chance to dig. Still, they ARE safe regarding impaction and thus still universally recommended (but pretty much only because of that).

      Eco earth (coconut coir) is a bit controversial for two reasons – (1) when it’s still new, it can soak up too much moisture; moist Eco Earth is not a good general substrate for arid-climate species like a leopard gecko (2) when it dries out, it slowly degrades to fine dust which can, in theory, irritate and damage leo’s lungs. However, I have to say that my experience with Eco Earth as a substrate has been a positive one (but maybe I was just lucky). Personally, I believe it could be safer than a reptile carpet that is rarely washed (optimum would be weekly!) or changed and harbors many bacteria.

      Bioactive terrariums are becoming popular, and because of that, there is a new generation of specialized soil-based substrates that could be a better option than Eco Earth – for example, Excavator Clay or Arcadia’s EarthMix and EarthMix-Arid. ZooMed’s ReptiSoil is usually easier to find but has the same potential issues as Eco Earth due to the high peat continent.

      Whatever substrate you opt for, you can certainly use large river pebbles and stone slate to add more elements to the leo’s tank. Just keep the setup simple in case you need to move it to a school setting.

  2. I use coconut coir. I’m not sure but I think he digested some and now he won’t poop. It’s been 4 days now. Is that normal. I’m scared and sad, because I don’t want him to suffer. I’ve giving him a warm bath and even tried oil on his lips. Is it safe to give him Pepto. Please help.

    1. Hi Evelyn,
      I’m sorry for your trouble. Coconut coir and Eco earth (they’re the same) are a bit controversial substrates, but mostly due to their dusty residues that can cause lung issues. However, all loose substrates can, in theory, cause impaction – but even if you saw your leo ingesting some, it doesn’t have to be. If not pooping is the only symptom so far, I would not say it’s 100% intestinal blockage. Has he eaten enough? Are the temps in the tank proper? You can take a look at our special impaction article and decide what to do next (although I hope that the issue is resolved by now). Good luck!

  3. Anyone try using two substrates at one time (coconut fiber and dolomite sand)? I am currently using both but separating the type of substrate based on the section of the enclosure…. wet hide of coconut fiber, middle region for exposed dolomite and a dry section of coconut fiber… also a large smooth pebble on the dolomite to add a buffer for the heating pad.

  4. I have adopted a healthy adult leopard gecko from a relative. I’ve have had them in the past and they did fine on Zoo Med Reptisand, but I am having second thoughts. I have her on Reptisand now and her poops are fine. No sign of impaction. However, I am considering changing over to reptile carpet with pieces of slate for her to crawl on. She never seems to be interesting in digging, so I don’t think that’s going to be an issue.

    What say you?

    1. Hi Mark,
      The problem with sand is that it’s sort of an accident waiting to happen. As with all accidents, the worst – the impaction – may never happen. But we try to minimize the risk. Since you never know if it’s gonna happen, and there is a possibility – it’s best to avoid the risky substrate altogether.
      Besides, leopard geckos don’t naturally live on loose sand but on dry, usually hardened soil and rocks.

      The carpet-slate combo sounds like a fine solution to me. Just make sure you wash the carpet regularly – ideally weekly – to avoid bacterial build-up. You can get two carpets and simply swap them because they need some time to dry.

      Remember to keep the loose, wet substrate such as eco earth or coconut coir inside the moist hide.

      Also, there are new generation loose, naturalistic substrates for bioactive setups marketed as safe for leos. IMHO, time still has to tell if they’re as safe as advertised. But if you want to take some risk and experiment, you can use these (or eco earth) as a base and then cover them with slate and rocks across most of the tank’s surface to minimize potential contact. Good luck!

  5. I read somewhere that a mix of organic potting soil (with no additives) and “play sand” in a 50/50 mix is safe for adult Leo’s and gives them something to dig around in. What are your thoughts on that? I know sand is bad, and we currently just use reptile carpet, but I’d like him to have something for digging/enrichment.

    1. Hey Amy, A mix of organic potting soil and play sand is definitely safe for adult leopard geckos and is a great substrate for them to dig around in. The only thing to keep in mind is that you don’t want to use sand alone, as it can be harmful to leopard geckos. You also definitely never want to use calci-sand, as it can be fatal if ingested.

  6. I have tried a lot of searches and I can’t seem to confirm for sure the difference between excavator clay and regular old…red clay…is there any risk to using natural clay in parts of the Leo gecko habitat? I’ve already created the set up but she is not been introduced to it yet…

    1. Hey, Erin.

      Regular ‘ol red clay should work. Just be sure that it’s not too wet. It may, however, stain your lizard’s skin (not to mention your hands and everything else that touches it). I don’t think I’ve used clay for leos before, but it’s never caused a problem with any other species.

      Best of luck!

  7. Hi. I am using wet paper towels in my gecko’s moist hide. I already know from your article that sphagnum is preferred, but is it ok to use a sponge, preferably a natural sponge? And how about loofa material? I’m looking for something that will stay moister longer. As an aside, I know that my gecko had eggs (I saw them in her tummy) but it seems they have dissipated. Could this be because there wasn’t really anyplace for her to dig? I did set up a small box with torn up paper towels, but after one brief period, she didn’t use it anymore. Thanks!

    1. Hey, Debby.

      Sphagnum is one of the best materials for keeping a damp hide, well, damp. But, that doesn’t mean it is the only thing. A sponge may be a great option; just be sure that you use one that isn’t treated with soaps or detergents. A loofah may also be a good solution, although it may be a bit abrasive on your gecko’s skin.

      Your leopard gecko may have reabsorbed her eggs for any number of reasons, including potentially, the lack of an egg-deposition site. It’s probably a good idea to go ahead and provide her with one, just in case she develops eggs again.

      Best of luck!

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Katarina Samurovic
Katarina Samurovic
Katarina is an environmental analyst and has been involved in herpetology research. She's been keeping reptiles for 20 years, mostly different species of turtles and leopard geckos. Her 2 lovely leos, Sonya and Mia are 21 and 20 years old.