The Leopard Gecko (opens in new link) or Eublepharis macularius is one of the MOST popular pet lizards (especially for beginners!) followed in popularity only by the Bearded Dragon.
They are small, easy to care for, accessible, and entertaining. These nocturnal creatures are native to hot sandy areas in the Middle East region, which are typically a semi-desert climate. They eat live insects like crickets.
Knowing all these facts about the Leopard Gecko makes it easier to determine what the best substrate choices are for them because their BEST habitat is one that mimics their natural environment.
Leopard Gecko owners tend to feel strongly about what substrate works best for their terrariums. This is largely because substrates are such a personal choice for individual habitat goals, their climate, or their cleaning preferences.
With all of this being said, read ahead to get an idea of what the best substrate choices are for Leopard Geckos!
In This Article
What to Look for When Purchasing Substrate for Leopard Geckos
Before we dive head first into the best substrates for Leopard Geckos, let’s quickly discuss what you should consider to ensure you find the right option for you AND your pet!
5 Things to Consider When Choosing Leopard Gecko Substrate:
- Price – is it cheap and affordable or a splurge?
- Overall cleanliness – how easy is it to clean?
- Longevity – how often do you need to replace it?
- Safety – will it present any safety or health hazards?
- Realistic to natural habitat – will it mimic what your pet would find in the wild?
This is almost always going to be something as close to the natural habitat as possible.
However, while the obvious choice may be a bioactive, you’ll soon discover this isn’t always the best bet. This is especially true IF you’re a new owner who ISN’T confident can build – not to mention maintain – a bioactive terrarium.
Similarly, if your gecko is young or prone to eat some of its substrate when it feeds, then sand or anything with small particles is not going to work either.
With that being said, keep the 5 considerations above in mind as you progress through the recommendations below to ensure you AND your Leopard Gecko end up happy!
Best Leopard Gecko Substrates
Read below to check out our top recommendations for the BEST Leopard Gecko Substrates, in no particular order. You’ll find options suited for any budget, cage setup, and cleaning preferences!
Leopard Gecko Substrate Option #1: Bioactive
The bioactive terrarium is one of the most interesting choices because it is not just one type of substrate. Instead, it is made up of a variety of material, meant to mimic the natural substrate that would be found in the wild.
You see, in nature, the gecko would not be interacting with a single type of substrate. Instead, some of the earth they travel would be hard, some would be loose, some would be vegetation, and other parts would be rock.
And while you could always create your own bioactive substrate from scratch, it will be MUCH easier to go with one that is already made… especially if you are a first time owner!
Which is exactly where this awesome blend comes in handy. This substrate is well suited for Leopard Geckos and will work well in typically dry and hot environments. However, it can also handle humidity spikes as well.
On a side note, a true bioactive terrarium will ALSO include live, reptile-safe plants, which will better mimic a native habitat.
Leopard Gecko Substrate Option #2: Shelf Liner
Although somewhat of an unusual recommendation, shelf liner surprisingly makes a great substrate option for many reasons…
Shelf liner is a simple, washable surface that provides good traction for your pet and is affordable. Always choose the non-adhesive kind for easy removal and make sure your variety DOESN’T have holes or ridges in it or contain bleach.
You can use shelf liner on its own or add newspaper or paper towel on top.
It needs to be replaced every couple months and should always be checked to make sure crickets or any other food have not become trapped underneath it.
Thorough cleaning is necessary to prevent bacteria from growing as it’s not quite as easy to sanitize as other surfaces.
One con is that this substrate will not allow a gecko to bury in it. But, if you’re prioritizing an easy and affordable substrate solution, look no further.
Leopard Gecko Substrate Option #3: Reptile Carpet
Reptile carpet is perhaps the easiest substrate.
It is commercially available, easy to clean, and designed specifically for reptiles. This means that it is soft enough not to scrape their bellies, but has a stiff, absorbent underside.
It does need to be replaced after three or four washes, which generally requires replacement every six to twelve months.
This may mean it’s not exactly the most cost-effective option if you are able to buy other substrate in bulk for affordable prices.
Leopard Gecko Substrate Option #4: Sand
Sand is one of the most contentious substrates amongst gecko owners.
Some people swear it is the most natural, logical substrate to use. After all, in the wild Leopard geckos are surrounded by sand. Others say it should be forbidden because if a gecko eats it, the outcome is life-threatening because it causes impaction.
However, this is more likely to occur with a sick or young gecko who has not perfected its hunting skills yet.
It’s also noteworthy that while there is sand in their wild habitat, they do not live in exclusively sandy environments. So, if you choose this option it might be best to include it as part of a natural biodome.
One common option for sand is fine quartz sand which is sold sterile by companies like ZooMed that specialize in reptilian care products.
Another option is dune sand which is also sold commercially and clumps like cat litter for easy cleaning. It is designed to reduce bowel impaction if eaten.
Leopard Gecko Substrate Option #5: Newspaper or Paper towel
Newspaper is usually free, which is its biggest perk. It’s also perfect for baby or young geckos, but it is more work…
It needs to be changed daily. This is not a suggestion but a requirement as damp paper will quickly grow bacteria. However, it is easy to throw away and replace.
Likewise, paper towels are simple, available and aren’t usually very expensive. They need to be discarded as soon as they are soiled to avoid bacteria growth or risk of infection.
Both newspaper and paper towels are great in a pinch if you are cleaning the cage and have run out of other substrate. They aren’t attractive but they do the job.
They are also gentle on the gecko’s bodies, but do not mimic a natural habitat and prohibit the geckos from burrowing and embracing all their natural behaviors.
These substrates are not edible and are great for tricky geckos who may need a gentle, easy-to-clean substrate due to injury or illness.
Leopard Gecko Substrate Option #6: DIY Blended Substrate
There is NO reason that when you are searching for the perfect substrate you can’t create your own mix! A blended substrate can give you all the benefits of individual types of substrate while being tailored to suit your needs.
It’s also the precursor for a biodome if you think you might be phasing toward that direction.
Blended substrates can include any of the substrates from this list with common DIY recipes calling for organic topsoil, sand, and clay.
It’s important that all your ingredients are inert with NO added chemicals. The topsoil should be sterile and organic so that no surprising and potentially toxic weeds start sprouting into your terrarium.
Clay should only make up about 10 to 20% of the recipe.
Soak the whole mixture, mold it how you want it in your terrarium and let it dry completely. The clay will solidify the substrate making a unique, DIY flooring for your terrarium.
Leopard Gecko Substrate Option #7: Stone, Slate, and Tile
Stone, slate, and tile are all easy additions to a gecko’s terrarium. They add texture and variation and can be arranged to create a natural setting that entertains the gecko.
They are also GREAT for retaining heat if a gecko likes basking. However, they are added in addition to OTHER substrate to complement it and provide variation in a terrarium.
Some people choose to have an all tile substrate on their terrarium floor because it’s easy to clean, but this also restricts the gecko’s ability to dig and bury.
Leopard Gecko Substrates to Avoid
Below you will find some substrates that are a firm and resounding “NO!” among Leopard Gecko owners. These ones should be avoided at all costs.
Substrate to Avoid #1: Coconut Fiber (Coir)
Another contentious substrate, coconut fiber has so many positive features, it’s hard to imagine how it got on the avoid list. It is natural, has antimicrobial properties, and is both affordable and long-lasting.
If you’re thinking it sounds ideal, rest assured you’re not alone! In fact, many Leopard Gecko owners love it. But, there is one con that is serious enough to land it on this avoid list…
A big concern with this substrate is that when it is dry, as it would be in a semi-arid Leopard Gecko habitat, it gives off minute particles in the form of fine dust that enter the gecko’s respiratory system.
Most of the evidence around the harm in this is anecdotal, but it’s consistent enough that it’s best to choose a different substrate.
Another problem is that if eaten it will cause impaction. Of course, this is not a problem with all geckos, so some people use it and their geckos never attempt to eat it. But it’s still a risk you’d be taking.
Hopefully now you can see why this substrate is SO contentious and ultimately a big fat “NO” in the minds of many owners.
Substrate to Avoid #2: Wood Chips and Shavings
This is such a classic bedding for pets. From hamsters to horses’ shavings and wood chips make an excellent substrate because they are absorbent, cheap, and can provide a deep, cozy bedding.
However, as you’ve probably already guesses, this is NOT the case for Leopard Geckos.
Shavings should be avoided at all costs. They cause many risks including impaction, skin irritation (can you imagine a splinter on gecko skin?), hold too much moisture compared to how often the bedding is changed, and allow insects to hide.
There are really NO good shaving choices, although some people say aspen is not too bad in a substrate blend. Fir, pine, and cedar are the worst.
However, it’s better to err on the side of caution and avoid wood altogether.
Substrate to Avoid #3: Walnut Shells
Walnut shells are often sold commercial as a reptile substrate. Unwitting employees at pet stores may recommend them not knowing they don’t work for Leopard Geckos.
At first glance they seem to be quite appealing since they natural, marketed to give off little dust, and absorbent. However, you’d be better off simply avoid them.
Walnut shells are known to be damaging to gecko skin and are also irritating to gecko eyes. The particles are small enough to get stuck to crickets and other live prey making it easy for Leopard Geckos to unintentionally consume them, risking impaction.
Substrate to Avoid #4: Moss
There are a few kinds of moss sold as terrarium substrate, in particular sphagnum peat moss that is sometimes mixed with fir shavings.
Moss is similar to coconut fiber in that it can be safe, in ideal circumstances, but it also puts Leopard Geckos at risk of impaction if it is eaten.
In fact, its characteristics are actually more stringy AND rougher than coconut fiber so if consumed, it’s more likely to cause impaction.
If for whatever reason (seriously, why???) you MUST use moss, check the ingredient list and make sure it ISN’T a blend with wood.
Substrate to Avoid #5: Reptile Sand Mat
Despite being made specifically for reptiles, this is not usually a very popular choice. In fact, this recommendation is tentative at best.
The sand mat is a firm surface that resembles sandpaper. It looks attract and provides good traction but is really NOT the most practical. And while it’s safe to use, it is incredibly hard to clean.
It’s so challenging, in fact, that at best it should be considered a one-time use for each application. This makes it quite expensive and not worth the effort.
Additionally, low quality sand mats may disintegrate quickly with sand particles coming off or the mats not staying in place.
Like most things, they do have their place. They are attractive in displays at shows and because they are lightweight they are practical in these settings rather than hauling around heavier substrate.
They may also prove helpful in circumstances where a gecko needs to be quarantined because it is simple and more natural looking than something like newspaper.
However, 99% of the time this is a substrate that you won’t want to waste your time (or money) on!
Wrapping Up the Best Leopard Gecko Substrates
Choosing the right substrate is quite personal and what seems ideal for one Leopard Gecko owner might sound like a nightmare to another!
Hopefully, now that you have done your research you will be able to make good decisions to create a healthy home for your Leopard Gecko.
But, don’t be surprised if it takes a little trial and error to figure out EXACTLY what works OR if you and your gecko’s needs change over time.
Many people start out with one type of substrate but transition to others as their habitats change and grow.