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How To Set Up A Bioactive Substrate For Bearded Dragons

What is a bioactive substrate, and what does it mean for bearded dragons? 

What benefits might it provide for your reptilian friend?

You may have been researching and come across the term “bioactive.” 

While you’re interested, you want to make sure it will work for you and your bearded dragon before committing to a bioactive terrarium. 

We understand and are ready to help you get closer to enriching your pet’s life.

When done correctly, a bioactive setup will help with your pet’s mental enrichment, support their immune system, and requires less overall cleaning than a standard bearded dragon setup.

bioactive substrate bearded dragon

What You’ll Need

Here’s a video you can refer to for a step-by-step procedure.

How To Set Up A Bioactive Bearded Dragon Enclosure| Common Bioactive Mistakes

how to make a bio active bearded dragon set up it can be overwhelming when starting out. today i made a step by step video on how to make a bioactive enclosure for a bearded dragon.

Setting Up a Bioactive Bearded Dragon Substrate Step By Step

Step 1) A Possible Tank Upgrade

You may have the bare minimum size for a bearded dragon tank. 

While a bioactive substrate may be used in the standard 40-gallon enclosure, it will be more successful and healthier in a bigger tank or wooden setup.

Pro tip: If you are using a wooden enclosure with a glass or wire face, make sure to waterproof the wood before laying down the substrate layers. 

Since you will be adding moisture regularly, you do not want the wood to rot and break over time. 

For extra waterproofing, put a pond liner between the bottom layer of the substrate and the wood.

Step 2) Drainage Layer

While unnecessary, a short drainage layer at the very bottom of the enclosure may help correct problems caused by overwatering. 

Good materials for a porous substrate drainage layer include:

  • LECA
  • Lava rock
  • Plastic egg crate lighting diffuser

If using the lighting diffuser, you may want to zip tie it in for extra support, as it will be under a significant amount of weight.

Gravel is not recommended for drainage of this type since it is too heavy and does not absorb water.

Step 3) Add Substrate Layers

substrate layers in bearded dragon enclosure

Though most owners layer their substrates, keeping the driest on top, if your beardie is a digger, the substrate layers tend to get mixed anyway. 

This is also the step where you would add earthworms into the substrate if you are using them.

Keepers experiment with their substrates depending on how much their bearded dragon digs, fears about digestive impaction, and what will best keep their cleanup crew and plants thriving. 

In any case, we recommend mixing any play sand you use with topsoil to reduce the impaction risk from eating sand.

One setup of percentages to use is 50-60% rinsed silica-free play sand, 30% untreated organic topsoil, and 5-10% coconut husk chips or reptichips. 

The video above goes a slightly different route, mixing 80% soil with 20% play sand.

You will want to put down or layer 6-8″ inches (15-20 centimeters) of substrate for the average bearded dragon. 

The deeper the substrate layer, the better support for good bacteria and insects in your cleanup crew.

Pro Tip: If your female bearded dragon is gravid (pregnant) or needs to lay infertile eggs, you will need up to a foot (30 centimeters) of the substrate. 

Not laying even infertile eggs may cause egg binding or dystocia and be very harmful to your pet.

Step 4) Add The Cleanup Crew

A cleanup crew in a bioactive setup is a mix of micro and macroorganisms, usually naturally occurring bacteria in the potting soil and whatever insects and earthworms you add to the soil’s top layer. 

super worms in bearded dragon bioactive enclosure

If you want your potting soil to pick up even more good bacteria, lay it outside before adding it to your substrate. 

This cleanup crew is mainly in the habitat to combat fecal matter buildup and fight any harmful bacteria in the space. Plus, their constant movement helps aerate the soil.

You want to add insects that will tolerate a drier environment. 

While you should be adding moisture on the cool side of the enclosure, the basking hot side will get drier and more hard-packed as it sits under the heating lamp

Good animals for a desert include:

  • Isopods (dwarf purple recommended)
  • Dubia roaches (added benefit of food source for your pet)
  • Earthworms
  • Fly larvae
  • Superworm beetles and larvae (also a food source)
  • Mealworm beetles and larvae (also a food source)
  • Dermestid beetles and larvae
  • Crickets (also a food source)
  • Compost worms
  • Springtails

Each of these species has different environmental and food requirements for survival. 

You should research each before committing to one. 

You want them to survive as well as your bearded dragon does to keep the terrarium “self-cleaning.”

Please do not add any insects which may harm your bearded dragon, either through biting or from your pet eating them. Bearded dragons love isopods.

Elder bugs and glowworms are incredibly toxic.

Pro Tip: A predatory insect like a wolf spider in the terrarium may help cut down on pest insects. 

Make sure it cannot bite or harm your bearded dragon before putting it in the environment.

Step 5) Add Other Items

Scatter some leaf litter on top of your substrate layer. 

Leaf litter provides great places for your cleanup crew to hide and cool down. 

Contact your local conservation organizations or plant nurseries for free or low-cost options.

Climbing branches from a pet store or foraged branches make great additions to a bioactive setup. 

Make sure there are no aggressive insects in any foraged branches. 

Mites especially can harm a bearded dragon.

Step 6) Install Safe Plants

Since part of your substrate is made of soil, plants that thrive in somewhat sandy soil make great environmental additions. 

Make sure you install an LED light to help any plants grow at the top of the enclosure. 

Most bearded dragon enclosures are kept out of direct sunlight. 

Either plant them directly into the substrate or keep them in their pots.

live plants in bearded dragon enclosure

Safe plants include:

  • Basil
  • Parsley
  • Mint
  • Prickly pear cacti (trim regularly, keep in mind sharp spines may harm your pet, specimens without spines are available)
  • Dwarf jade plants (regular jade plants are mildly toxic)

These plants will help improve air quality in your bearded dragon’s enclosure, add aesthetic value, and stimulate your pet’s natural behaviors. 

Keep in mind your bearded dragon may step on, dig up, or nibble on any plant in their enclosure. 

Therefore, you want to make sure anything you buy is not toxic and will not harm them if they eat it. 

Make sure any plants you buy are pesticide-free. 

Organic plants have usually not been treated with pesticides. 

If the plants are not organic, make sure to wash them thoroughly or let them grow outside of the enclosure for a couple of months before installation.

Step 7) Mix Up Substrate

Mix up the top layer of your substrate. 

Let it sit for 20-30 minutes to let the dust settle before reintroducing your bearded dragon into its new environment.

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Questions For Bioactive Environments And Bearded Dragons

What Is A Bioactive Environment?

In reptile husbandry terms, a bioactive environment is a captive environment that as closely as possible replicates an animal’s natural environment. 

bearded dragon in its bioactive enclosure

The process has also been described as creating a living environment, especially since a bioactive terrarium will include micro and macroorganisms in a reptile’s native habitat.

Though tropical bioactive environments have been used with tropical lizards like chameleons for a long time, creating more arid bioactive environments is relatively recent. 

Bioactive substrates and environment creation for desert lizards like bearded dragons are somewhat in the experimental stage.

A bioactive substrate will encourage a bearded dragon’s natural behaviors of digging, burrowing, and thermoregulating in a best-case scenario. 

Suppose the balance of organisms in the substrate and the type of substrate is correct.

In that case, the insects and good bacteria present will aid in breaking down fecal matter and combatting bad bacteria in the enclosure.

If you have chosen to set up a bioactive terrarium, we strongly encourage you to research and set the environment up properly. 

Improper setups may lead to illness and even the death of your pet.

Ideally, the substrate will contain enough good bacteria and macroorganisms to combat the bad bacteria produced by waste matter and stagnant air. 

Common substrates like play sand, reptile carpet, and sand mats tend to trap the harmful bacteria rather than work through it. 

Ideally, a few bad bacteria in a bioactive setup will help strengthen your pet’s immune system, much like a vaccine would with a human’s immunity.

Most bearded dragon owners stick with minimalistic and sterile enclosures, which may not be mentally stimulating for their pets but are easier to clean and manage. 

While these terrariums have their advantages, keepers who promote bioactive terrariums suggest these are stagnant environments and not the best for healthy dragons.

What is the Right Substrate Mix?

There are two types of substrates that are common among reptile owners:

  • Loose Substrates
  • Solid Substrates

Let’s look into both these kinds separately.

Loose Substrates

Loose particle substrate includes items like sand, soil, moss, mulch, and bark chips. 

These are organic and, therefore, not toxic. 

But if your bearded dragon ingests loose substrate, it’ll get stuck in their digestive tract and cause a blockage. This is called impaction. 

Plus, loose substrate like moss can retain humidity, which is not ideal for desert-dwelling lizards like bearded dragons. 

Too much humidity can cause skin problems, like a stuck shed, or, in worse cases, respiratory illnesses in bearded dragons.

Bonus Info: Some pet stores sell calcium sand as “safe” sand for bearded dragons, claiming it has calcium, which is good for their bones. However, it can still cause impaction. It can also get in your mini dragon’s eyes (and nose) and cause irritation. So, don’t use any type of sand substrate.

Solid Substrates

Many bearded dragon owners prefer using solid substrates for their pets.

They are made from non-toxic materials, are easier to spot-clean, and are simpler to handle. 

Solid substrates include reptile carpets, newspapers, paper towels, slate tiles, and rubber shelf liners. These are good choices if you have a baby bearded dragon.

But, as you can see, these substrates are far from the natural environment that bearded dragons live, dig, and burrow in.

Moreover, if you use solid substrate like paper towels with adult bearded dragons, they’ll tear it up and create a mess.

Substrates You Should Never Use

There are a few substrates that you should never use for your beardie.

Some of these can lead to impaction (if ingested) due to the presence of calcium carbonate, while others may produce volatile organic compounds (VOCs).

These substrates include:

  • Vita sand or reptile sand
  • Ground nut shells
  • Wood shavings
  • Linoleum

Sometimes, a reptile carpet can be dangerous, too. If your pet’s claws get stuck in it, the poor baby might end up with a broken toe.

So, what’s the best bearded dragon substrate for a bioactive enclosure?

A bioactive substrate is the best substrate.

bioactive substrate

But before you commit to it, you must know that it’s high maintenance and requires a higher budget than other substrates. 

A bioactive substrate is made from multiple ingredients, including:

  • Unscented clay
  • Topsoil (free of pesticide and fertilizer)
  • Coconut fiber
  • Sphagnum peat moss
  • Sand (NOT calcium sand)
  • Tree fern fiber
  • Orchid bar 
  • Dried and crumbled leaves
  • Charcoal pieces

These are the most common ingredients in bioactive substrate mixes.

Of course, you can always experiment with different mixtures and ratios of these ingredients.

Here’s a recipe we recommend:

  • Sphagnum moss: 1 part
  • Peat moss: 1 part 
  • Charcoal: 1 part
  • Tree fern fiber: 2 parts
  • Orchid bark: 2 parts

Tips for Making the Right Bearded Dragon Substrate Mix

  • Choose a soil mix comprising soil and coco coir to create an environment that mirrors the moderate to high humidity levels found in tropical and temperate forests.
  • For bearded dragons from arid areas, opt for a substrate mix dominated by topsoil, sand, and clay. This replicates the lower to moderate humidity they’re accustomed to.
  • Charcoal isn’t a make-or-break ingredient for a stellar bioactive substrate.
  • Focus on creating a balanced substrate mix, and it will naturally regulate and control factors like ammonia levels.
  • Adding a layer of leaf litter on top of the soil mix will add another layer for micro and macroorganisms to thrive in. Plus, it’ll create an aesthetically pleasing woodland look in your bearded dragon’s enclosure.

What About Impaction?

Any loose substrate, especially one containing sand, raises fears of digestive impaction. 

Impaction is an intestinal blockage, usually caused by ingestion of substrate. 

More recent research suggests that bearded dragons who are not receiving proper nutrition will eat their substrates to get the right minerals and vitamins, leading to digestive impaction and problems.

No matter what, make sure your bearded dragon is eating a varied, balanced diet that is nutritionally complete. 

Provide a fresh, clean source of drinking water at all times. 

Set up a UVB light in any enclosure to ensure your beardie gets proper amounts of vitamin D3. 

bearded dragon in UVB light

If necessary, add a powdered calcium supplement to your pet’s diet 2-3 times a week.

Bioactive substrates may not be the right choice for baby bearded dragons since they tend to be messier eaters and sometimes accidentally eat substrate.

What About Humidity And Temperature Issues?

While bearded dragons are native to semiarid and arid environments, they tolerate various humidity levels contrary to popular belief. 

Current research suggests the fungal and bacterial blooms in closed terrariums are more likely the result of stagnant air rather than humidity levels, which are too high for bearded dragons.

If your humidity levels in a bioactive environment are higher than normal, we recommend correctly cross-ventilating rather than reducing moisture. 

Your cleanup crew will need certain moisture and humidity level to live and operate, and a completely dehydrated environment is not great for your pet either.

Normal levels during the day should be between 30-40%. 

A humidity rise at night is normal. 

Nighttime humidity levels should be between 40 and 60%.

You may see temperature requirements for a bioactive environment higher than usual for a bearded dragon. 

The mid-range for the basking spot will be 100-130° degrees Fahrenheit (38-54° C), but some keepers go much higher. 

bearded dragon basking area temperature

A high temperature will boost a bearded dragon’s metabolism and help keep the cleanup crew healthy and happy. 

The cool side temperatures should remain the same, as thermoregulation will be especially important.

Common Mistakes With Bioactive Environments

Since bioactive reptile setups have become more popular, keepers have gone through a lot of experimentation to get them right. 

However, there are still some common mistakes that make the process harder.

Buying Non-Organic Potting Soil

Though treated potting soil is more widely available and cheaper, the treatment has usually removed all the microorganisms present in organic soil. 

The pesticide content and chemical fertilizers present may also cause harm to your bearded dragon and your cleanup crew.

Not Watering The Soil

This is especially important if you include plants in your setup, but your cleanup crew needs moisture too. 

Humidity should be corrected through cross-ventilation and a drainage layer if you have one.

Not Planning Ahead

While there is always room to correct mistakes or make changes, you should have a plan in place for how you want your bioactive environment to look and how you want to start it. 

If needed, do your research, especially on what cleanup crew will work best for you in an arid terrarium.

Planting The Wrong Plants

While many desert plants are recommended for bioactive setups, you will want to make sure they thrive in your pet’s environment. 

Avoid any plants which are toxic to bearded dragons. 

Though succulents are a popular recommendation, they are both sensitive and expensive.

A bearded dragon may attempt to dig up or walk on any plant in its enclosure, and succulents usually do not survive a trampling. 

Herbs and hardy desert plants are best since they are both inexpensive and may provide a source of fresh greenery for snacks.

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Tips for Maintaining a Bioactive Enclosure

If it’s your first time setting up a bioactive terrarium for your bearded dragon, here are some tips to help you get started and maintain it properly:

  1. Pick plants that can survive your beardie’s robust digging behavior. You can also add rocks at the bottom to protect the roots from being dug up.
  2. Fork the substrate every week to aerate it and prevent anaerobic zones, which can cause bacteria build-up.
  3. Spot clean whenever necessary, especially after feedings or if there are any feces or urine present. This will keep your enclosure smelling fresh and clean.
  4. Keep an eye on your cleanup crew, making sure they stay alive and well-fed. You can add more if needed.
  5. Top up the leaf litter as soon as it gets used by the cleanup crew.
  6. Replace plants when necessary, especially if they have been damaged or eaten by your beardie.
  7. Mist the enclosure before turning the lights on in the morning to create a morning dew effect.
  8. Avoid using heat sources directly under the enclosure, as they may dry out the soil and make it more difficult for plants to thrive.
  9. Check your beardie’s health regularly and keep an eye out for any changes in behavior or appetite, which could indicate a problem with the bioactive environment.

Bonus Tip: Before setting up a bioactive terrarium, make sure you have a healthy bearded dragon.

While they have many advantages over sterile terrariums, bioactive environments are not recommended for lizards with compromised immune systems or those suffering high levels of parasites. 

An injured or ill bearded dragon may need to live in a sterile environment for a while until it recovers.


We hope you have enjoyed this tutorial and have learned how to set up a bioactive substrate for your bearded dragon.

If done correctly, a bioactive substrate is an excellent source of mental enrichment for your bearded dragon. 

You will want to make sure to follow the list of required items above, as well as the step-by-step instructions. 

An improper bioactive setup could be highly harmful to your bearded dragon. 

Bioactive terrariums are also not recommended for unhealthy or injured bearded dragons.

Did the information in this article help you?

At Oddly Cute Pets, we strive to provide the most up-to-date and accurate information for all reptile enthusiasts. 

If you want to learn more about caring for bearded dragons and other reptiles, check out our website for more articles and resources. 

Thanks for reading!

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