One of the most essential parts of your leopard gecko’s enclosure setup is a substrate.
With so many options on the market, many reptile owners struggle to find the perfect substrate material for their gecko’s habitat.
Thankfully, we’ve compiled a list of the seven best (and six worst!) types of substrates for leopard geckos to help you decide which ones to consider and which ones to avoid; read on to learn more!
Table of Contents
Summary Of The Best (And Worst) Substrate Options For Leopard Geckos
|Reptile Carpet||Best||Fairly inexpensive, easy to spot clean, easy to resize, comfortable||Some carpets have long fibers your gecko’s claws will get stuck in, not the most natural looking|
|Paper Towels||Best||Very cheap, easy to clean and resize, comfortable||Not aesthetically pleasing or environmentally friendly|
|Stick-Down Linoleum||Best||Lots of different designs, easy to resize, easy to clean||Difficult to remove due to the glue adhesive, glue will sometimes melt under direct, intense heat|
|Tiles (Stone/Ceramic/Porcelain)||Best||Sturdy, easy to clean, looks great||Somewhat expensive, heavy, difficult to trim and resize|
|Bioactive Mix||Best||Very natural looking, mostly self-sustaining if set up properly||Initial installation is complicated and expensive, small risk of impaction|
|Newspaper||Best||Very cheap, easy to clean, more environmentally friendly than paper towels||Not aesthetically pleasing, not as soft and comfortable as paper towels|
|Sand Mats||Best||Great alternative to sand or other loose substrates, looks natural||Not as comfortable to walk on, hard to clean|
|Sand||Worst||Looks natural||Significant risk of impaction, very messy, difficult to clean|
|Wood Chips||Worst||Looks natural, inexpensive||Risk of impaction, uncomfortable/dangerous to walk on, difficult to clean|
|Sphagnum/Peat Moss||Worst||Looks natural, soft to walk on||Retains too much moisture, small risk of impaction, prone to molding|
|Gravel||Worst||Looks natural, easy to spot clean, inexpensive||Messy, risk of impaction, uncomfortable/dangerous to walk on|
|Walnut Shells||Worst||Looks like sand, easy to spot clean||Messy, risk of impaction and will damage digestive tract if ingested|
|Coconut Fiber||Worst||Looks natural, inexpensive||Retains too much moisture, risk of impaction|
Reptile Carpet (Best)
As one of the more easily accessible types of leopard gecko substrates available at most pet shops, reptile carpet is ideal for lining the floor of your leopard gecko’s enclosure.
It looks great, is pretty easy to spot clean, and is easy to set up and remove.
Plus, since most reptile carpets are thin and lightweight, they are easy to cut to fit any size or shape enclosure perfectly.
In general, it’s best to opt for solid, flat substrates over loose ones, as they carry a far lower risk of impaction and are typically easier to clean.
Reptile carpet is an excellent example of a flat, solid substrate that carries no risk of impaction.
As far as downsides go, reptile carpet is a bit more expensive than some of the other options on this list, and it is somewhat difficult to deep clean since stains often work their way into the fibers over long periods.
Additionally, if you’re looking for a more natural look, reptile carpet will detract a bit from the enclosure’s overall aesthetic.
Thankfully, most reptile carpet comes in green, brown, and tan colors, which will blend in well enough with most enclosures without sticking out too much or becoming distracting.
These Zilla Reptile Terrarium Liners, for example, come in several different sizes and are in a nice shade of green to better blend in with your pet’s habitat.
When choosing a particular variety of reptile carpets, it’s best to opt for low-pile carpets with short, dense fibers, so your gecko’s feet don’t get trapped in them.
This is especially important to keep in mind if you opt to use a carpet not explicitly designated for reptile enclosures.
Paper Towels (Best)
If you want an easy-to-clean, inexpensive, no-hassle substrate, look no further than paper towels.
While they don’t look particularly stunning in a leopard gecko enclosure by any means, they are straightforward to work with and are comfortable for your pet to walk on.
Another advantage to keep in mind if you choose paper towels as a substrate is they carry no risk of impaction.
If any insects happen to escape your gecko’s food dish during feeding times, they will be effortless to spot and remove quickly.
Ideally, choose paper towels designed for absorbency and softness.
While any paper towels will do the trick, spending an extra dollar or two for a more soft and cushiony product will feel better under your gecko’s feet and likely better absorb any messes, too.
For example, these Brawny Flex Paper Towels are surprisingly durable and absorbent, making them ideal for your gecko’s enclosure.
There are only two main downsides to using paper towels if you opt for them as your preferred substrate.
The first issue is they need to be cleaned and removed more often than most of the other options on this list, making them not exceptionally environmentally friendly and require a bit of extra upkeep.
In general, you’ll need to change the paper towels out weekly, but you’ll be able to spot clean as needed in between full deep cleans by simply removing individual towels your gecko has soiled.
Since leopard geckos tend to habitually defecate in the same area of their enclosures, you’ll usually only have to remove and replace a few paper towels at a time during spot cleans.
Fortunately, since paper towels are so inexpensive, you won’t be spending much on them in the long term.
Another potential downside of paper towels as a substrate is that they don’t look very natural or aesthetically pleasing.
Some reptile keepers dislike how paper towels look in their gecko’s enclosure, which is a valid reason to pass these up if you want your pet’s habitat to look like their natural environment.
Still, paper towels are a fine choice of the substrate if you don’t mind the way they look and are okay with cleaning them out a bit more often than other options.
Stick-Down Linoleum (Best)
Another flat, solid substrate we love for leopard gecko habitats is stick-down linoleum floor tiles.
They’re fairly inexpensive, come in many attractive designs and colors, and are very easy to wipe clean when your gecko makes a mess in their enclosure.
Plus, like with the other flat substrates on this list, there’s no risk of impaction whatsoever, which we love!
Linoleum peel-and-stick flooring is also fairly thin and flexible, making it easy to trim and cut to fit any size or shape enclosure.
Just be sure you have it placed properly when installing, as due to the adhesive glue backing, it is difficult to remove if you aren’t happy with it or want to swap it out for a different type of substrate.
If you’re thinking about using linoleum tiles as your pet’s substrate, these FloorPops Peel & Stick Floor Tiles are an excellent candidate.
You’ll get 10 12” x 12” inches tiles in a single package, which will likely be more than enough to fully cover a 20 to 40-gallon enclosure.
The designs the FloorPops tiles come in are attractive and will give your gecko’s habitat a sleek, modern aesthetic.
However, you’ll probably want to pass on these if you’re looking for a natural-looking substrate.
Another great thing about these linoleum tiles is that they are available in various designs and styles.
If you want your pet’s enclosure to look more natural and have their substrate blend in a bit better with their surroundings, you’ll probably want to opt for something like these Achim Home Furnishings 12”-Inch Vinyl Tiles.
These tiles are made to look like a natural slate, which will better complement an enclosure designed to look like a leopard gecko’s native desert habitat.
Regarding potential downsides, keep in mind that the glue adhesive on some linoleum tiles doesn’t fare particularly well under intense heat.
If you put these tiles directly under your gecko’s basking area, be sure the direct heat doesn’t melt the glue underneath, as this will release potentially toxic fumes into the enclosure.
With most properly maintained leopard gecko enclosures, though, this shouldn’t be an issue, as even the heat in the tank’s basking area should only get up to 90 to 95° degrees Fahrenheit (35° C) at most.
Additionally, as we briefly touched on above, be sure you’re happy with the way the tiles look when installing them, as removing them is fairly difficult due to their sticky glue backing.
Stone/Ceramic/Porcelain Tiles (Best)
If you like the idea of linoleum stick-down tiles but want something easier to remove and deep clean, you’ll likely want to look for the actual stone, porcelain, or ceramic tiles instead.
These tiles are an excellent choice of a substrate as they look great, carry no risk of impaction, and only need to be wiped clean.
Plus, unlike the aforementioned reptile carpet or paper towel substrates, tiles won’t absorb and retain any stains or odors.
This makes them an ideal long-term option that requires very little upkeep once installed.
Additionally, stone and ceramic tiles have a very natural look and are aesthetically pleasing for more natural-looking setups.
They look just like the sort of smooth rocks leopard geckos typically climb and bask on in their natural habitats!
Check out these Scabos Travertine 6” x 6” inch Tiles, for example.
Though they’re pricier than most of the other options on this list, they look great and are made of real, durable limestone.
One important downside to note, though, is stone and ceramic tiles are very difficult to resize if you don’t have a tool to properly cut through them.
Sizing them to your gecko’s enclosure will be difficult if you have an unusually sized or shaped tank; in some cases, you’ll need to use another type of substrate to fill in the areas the tiles don’t cover if you aren’t able to trim them.
Ceramic and stone tiles are also significantly more expensive than linoleum stick-down tiles, so be prepared to spend a bit more on the initial installation costs.
They also last much longer, though, so you won’t need to replace them for a very long time.
Bioactive Substrate (Best)
While we don’t recommend this option to total beginners, if you’re willing to take on a bit of a challenge in exchange for a self-sustaining, natural substrate, a bioactive setup is an excellent choice!
Essentially, a bioactive setup is one that closely mimics your gecko’s native habitat.
A bioactive setup’s substrate typically utilizes real, live plants, leaves, soil, sand, stones, and mulch to create an attractive, natural-looking environment sustained by microfaunae like tiny isopods or springtails.
These setups are very enriching for leopard geckos, as they encourage these lizards’ natural burrowing habits.
They do, however, present a small risk of impaction, so be sure to feed your gecko using a designated dish and remove any uneaten insects, so they don’t escape into the enclosure and throw off its natural balance.
If the idea of having small, insect-like organisms living in your gecko’s enclosure makes you a bit queasy at first, don’t write this option off just yet!
The isopods typically used for bioactive setups are very small, harmless, and beneficial as they serve as a cleanup crew for your gecko’s waste.
This means bioactive setups, once properly installed, require little maintenance and upkeep!
There are a few potential downsides, though, to these kinds of setups.
While they are very nice to look at and are easy to maintain once installed, they require a lot of research to fully understand the best materials and how to set up each “layer” of the substrate.
Bioactive substrates are typically made up of multiple materials like soil, leaves, gravel, and sand.
They’ll also need a proper drainage layer, so moisture doesn’t build up in the tank and affect the humidity inside.
The drainage layer will need to be emptied from time to time, or roughly every couple of weeks or so.
While bioactive setups look amazing and provide comfortable, natural flooring for your gecko to walk on, it’s probably best to avoid this one if you want something more simple, inexpensive, and straightforward.
Another very inexpensive, easy-to-clean substrate many reptile owners tend to overlook is good old newspaper.
Sure, it isn’t particularly attractive, but it’s easy to install, cheaper than virtually every other option on this list, and fairly comfortable and easy for your gecko to walk around on.
Additionally, since it’s a flat, solid substrate, it carries no risk of impaction.
Plus, if any insects happen to escape your gecko’s food dish during meal times, they’ll be pretty easy to spot against the grey and white paper.
While it isn’t as soft or absorbent as paper towels, a newspaper still does well with gecko waste.
It’s easy to spot clean; just remove the pieces your gecko has soiled and replace them with new ones.
Newspaper is also super easy to cut to any size or shape to fit any enclosure, and it’s extremely lightweight.
Newspaper is a bit more environmentally friendly than paper towels, too, as you’re already recycling them by using them as your gecko’s substrate.
With the newspaper, you won’t be contributing further to the wasteful production of paper products!
If you don’t mind how it looks and have lots of old newspapers lying around, give this option a shot!
If you don’t like it, you’ll always be able to easily remove it and replace it with something else.
Sand Mats (Best)
Sand mats are fairly similar to reptile carpets, though they have a more rough and natural appearance and feel.
They’re also a bit harder to find than reptile carpet, though many pet stores and online retailers will often carry them alongside other popular substrate options.
Generally, sand mats are thin rolls of flexible material with sand, and small rocks glued down to them to give them a sand-like texture and appearance without the risk of impaction.
Sand mats are a bit like sandpaper–while it has a gritty texture, the sand safely adheres to the surface.
These mats are a great terrarium liner for reptile owners who want to mimic their pet’s natural habitat without resorting to loose, messy substrates.
This Exo Terra Sand Mat, for example, is ideal for leopard gecko enclosures.
If you need to resize or reshape it, it’s thin and flexible enough to cut using a sharp knife or craft scissors.
While they aren’t the most inexpensive option on this list, sand mats are far from the most expensive, too.
This makes them a good mid-range substrate option, especially if a natural aesthetic is what you’re looking for.
As far as potential downsides, be aware the adhesive used to keep the sand and pebbles glued down to the mat will sometimes weaken over time, causing the mat to shed small pieces, particularly when handled during cleanings.
Additionally, because of its rough, textured surface, it’s a bit harder to clean than most of the other options on this list.
Still, we highly recommend sand mats as a safe, great-looking substrate for leopard gecko habitats.
Now, it’s time to get into substrate options you’ll want to avoid for your leopard gecko’s tank.
Like we mentioned earlier, most loose substrates should be avoided as a general rule, as they often present the risk of impaction if your gecko happens to accidentally ingest them.
Sand is an especially poor option of a substrate, primarily as it is very finely ground and easy to swallow in small amounts over time, which will lead to an impacted digestive tract.
Leopard geckos, like most reptiles, tend to interact with their surroundings using their tongues to pick up certain scents and tastes from their environment.
This makes sand very problematic, as the tiny particles will cling to your pet’s tongue.
As a result, it has a very high risk of ingestion.
Eventually, as your gecko ingests more and more of the sand in small amounts, it will cause a significant enough blockage of their digestive tract to prevent them from being able to have normal, healthy bowel movements at all.
While some impactions are passed normally or with the help of a warm bath, many cause larger health issues and even require surgery to remove.
In addition, sand is very easy for escaped insects to burrow and hide in if they happen to escape your gecko’s food dish.
This makes it very inconvenient during meal times.
Sand is also very messy and difficult to clean.
While it is possible to simply scoop out your gecko’s waste using a cat litter scoop, full deep cleans are a pain point, as you’ll need to remove and replace all of the sand to eliminate any lingering bacteria.
Overall, avoid any types of sand for your gecko’s enclosure.
Its risks far outweigh its few benefits, and there are so many better, cheaper, and easier to clean options to choose from.
Wood Chips (Worst)
Another particularly awful loose substrate you will want to avoid at all costs is wood chips of any kind.
They’re big, bulky, and have lots of small splinters for your gecko to accidentally ingest or injure themselves on while they walk around their enclosure.
While you might initially think wood chips are large enough to not present any risk of impaction, this, unfortunately, isn’t the case.
The sizes of the individual chips vary significantly, so it’s common for very small pieces to make it into your gecko’s enclosure–small enough to present the risk of accidental ingestion.
Plus, wood chips are very uncomfortable for your gecko to walk on.
The sharp, rough edges and splinters will rub against your pet’s sensitive skin and cause painful abrasions over time.
Finally, they’re difficult to clean.
While it is possible to simply scoop out the parts your gecko has soiled, you’ll need to remove all of the wood chips and replace them during deep cleans.
Like with sand, it’s messy and frustrating to keep clean.
Sphagnum/Peat Moss (Worst)
While this loose substrate doesn’t present nearly as much risk of an impaction as the sand mentioned above and wood chips, it is still problematic due to the amount of moisture it retains.
Sphagnum moss, commonly known as peat moss, has a very high water content, which will, in turn, increase the humidity within your gecko’s enclosure.
Ideally, since leopard geckos are desert animals, the humidity within their habitat should stay within 30 to 40% at most at all times.
By using peat moss, you’ll have difficulty maintaining and minimizing the level of humidity in the enclosure.
Another issue with this substrate option is it is prone to molding and difficult to clean.
Like most loose substrates, it’s very messy, so deep cleans will always be a pain with peat moss.
While it’s large and dense enough to make the risk of impaction minimal, sphagnum moss’ other issues make it one of the worst types of substrate for leopard geckos.
Unless you intend to use it as a small part of a bioactive setup, avoid it completely.
Check out our guide on bioactive substrate for leopard geckos.
Gravel/Pebbles/Small Stones (Worst)
Any kind of small stones, gravel, or pebbles will be terrible choices as a substrate for leopard geckos.
In addition to the clear risk of impaction, gravel tends to be very rough and sometimes even sharp, meaning it’ll be very uncomfortable and perhaps even dangerous for your gecko to walk on.
Plus, gravel is easy for escaped insects to burrow and hide in, making mealtimes tedious and messy.
Deep cleans are also an issue, as you’ll likely find yourself dropping tiny pebbles around the floor of your gecko’s enclosure or possibly in their food and water dish.
The only situation where gravel would be acceptable to use is as part of a drainage layer for bioactive setups.
Otherwise, it’s messy, annoying to clean, and unsafe for your gecko in more ways than one.
Ground English Walnut Shells (Worst)
Yet another loose substrate that is unfortunately quite popular despite its obvious dangers is ground walnut shells.
Don’t be fooled by its advertising touting it as a “natural” and “safe” alternative to sand; in reality, walnut shells are just as unsafe, messy, and uncomfortable for your gecko to walk on.
You’ll often see this substrate marketed as a “desert blend.”
While it looks quite natural and mimics a desert environment, its risk of impaction alone makes it a poor choice of substrate for most reptiles.
In many cases, it’s even worse than sand as far as impaction risk goes, as the ground shells often have very sharp particles which will tear at and irritate your gecko’s digestive tract if ingested.
Avoid this one at all costs, as there are far better and more natural-looking alternatives for a lower price both in the long and short term.
Ground/Loose Coconut Fiber (Worst)
Finally, we’ve come to the last substrate option on our list: coconut fiber.
Like ground walnut shells, this substrate is commonly marketed as a safe and natural alternative to sand, though it is just as dangerous as its impaction risk.
As its name suggests, coconut fiber is made of ground or shaved coconut shells.
While it looks soft enough for your gecko to walk comfortably, it often has small, sharp particles and splinters similar to wood chips.
Like most loose substrates, coconut fiber is also difficult to clean and easy for escaped insects to burrow and hide in during meal times.
If your gecko ends up finding and eating any of the escapees later, they will likely accidentally swallow some of the substrates in the process.