Bearded Dragon Substrates Guide

Bearded Dragon Substrates: The Ultimate Guide

Bearded Dragon Substrates: The Ultimate Guide

The first thing that you’ll want to do after you’ve decided to adopt a bearded dragon is to ensure that you’ve set up an enclosure with a habitat that promotes your bearded dragon’s health and happiness. A major part of setting up their dream habitat is selecting the best bearded dragon substrate that is both safe for your dragon and has a maintenance schedule that works for you.

Bearded dragon substrates are bedding; the material that is on the floor of a bearded dragon tank, designed to provide them with the ideal environment. They are meant not only to make them feel at home but also to keep them healthy just as they would be in their natural environment. Therefore, substrates that mimic their natural habitat are ideal.

This post will give you a broad idea of some popular substrates so that you can be better equipped to provide your bearded dragon with the safest, healthiest, and happiest pet life imaginable.

You’ll learn about:

The Natural Environment for Wild Bearded Dragons

Bearded Dragon on Rocks

Before we discuss popular substrate options for captive bearded dragons, let’s talk about what the natural environment for these creatures looks like. Everything in their enclosure, from lighting to substrate, should be modeled after what your pet would see in nature.

The bearded dragon originates in Australia. In the wild, they typically prefer to stick to warm, arid areas such as deserts, subtropical woodlands, or savanna and scrublands of Australia. In these places, they naturally live on a range of substrates such as loose sand, leaf litters, fallen branches, and rocks.

Being semi-arboreal, they find it easy to climb and perch around trees, tree trunks, and fence posts or on top of rocky outcroppings. The perching location reflects their status within the dragon community. Therefore, the higher the perching location, the more dominant a dragon is in their community. Perching and busking are their daily activities.

How Wild Bearded Dragons Survive in their Natural Habitat

Wild Bearded Dragon Natural Habitat

Bearded dragons use a variety of techniques to survive in their natural habitat. They will likely attempt to replicate these in their captive environment as well. It will be important to consider these factors when setting up your bearded dragon’s living space.


Bearded dragons like hiding places like tree trunks and rugged rocks. During winter they are hardly seen as they usually go into a semi-hibernation habit known as brumation. During brumation in the natural setting, a bearded dragon will hide and stay dormant to reduce metabolism due to a lack of food.

Brumation can happen in captivity as well, so it’s good to factor in their need for a hiding spot when setting up a habitat. Their ability to burrow in their natural environment is vital when it comes to hiding.

How this Knowledge Factors Into Your Choice Of Substrate

If you don’t want to use a soft substrate to allow your bearded dragon to burrow, then don’t worry too much. You can use different items as a hide, a dark hiding spot where they can relax without being disturbed. You’ll want to have at least one hide in your enclosure at all times.

Food Variety

Bearded dragons enjoy a large variety of food sources when it comes to diet in their natural habitats. They are omnivores, but juvenile bearded dragons tend to eat more insects than greens. The hatchlings can clench and crush hard-shelled small insects like beetles for food. But as they grow, the bulk of their diet will become vegetable matters. They go for leaves, flowers, and occasionally, small lizards or rodents.

How this Knowledge Factors Into Your Choice Of Substrate

When choosing your substrate, make sure to factor in your dragon’s main sources of food.


Bearded dragons are cold-blooded reptilians. They prefer a temperature of 78-88 degrees Fahrenheit during the day and a temperature in the 70s Fahrenheit at night. Their natural environment offers this.

The high temperature of their natural habitat is helpful in warming up their bodies. In the early evening, the rocks are still warm, and at this time, they will be found on these warm surfaces. Even though they like to bask under the sun, they will shade themselves if it is too hot for them. This high temperature and thermoregulation habit is necessary even in captivity.

How this Knowledge Factors Into Your Choice Of Substrate

Some substrates have a tendency to get hotter than others. It’s important to balance out the lighting wattage and substrate type and height to ensure that the temperature in the enclosure is correct for the bearded dragon. Also, bearded dragons don’t have much heat protection on their bellies, so they could suffer from burns if the floor is too hot.

Humidity & Water Availability

A bearded dragon’s natural environment provides a relatively low humidity of between 30-40%. Anything higher than this can cause respiratory issues. They consume water from dew found on leaves and other items in nature, as well as from any moving streams that they can find. Some bearded dragon owners will place small water bowls in their enclosure to allow their dragon to drink at its leisure. These bowls must be placed away from any heat sources, such as basking lights. Otherwise, you will risk raising the humidity in the habitat to unhealthy levels.

How this Knowledge Factors Into Your Choice Of Substrate

Some substrates, such as bioactive and sand substrates, will retain moisture and can raise the humidity levels. You can use a humidity gauge inside of the enclosure to ensure that the humidity level stays within the safe range of 30-40%.

You also can use a de-humidifier to lower the humidity in the room or enclosure. I would recommend the Eva-Dry renewable mini-dehumidifier. It uses silica to absorb the humidity and operates silently as not to disturb your bearded dragon. Also, this dehumidifier is very secure and there isn’t a high chance of the contents spilling out into your enclosure.


Why Choosing the Correct Substrate is Important for your Bearded Dragon

Bearded Dragon In Hide Substrates

There are many opinions when it comes to choosing the best substrate for your bearded dragon. This is because there are endless options from which to choose. That said, bearded dragons need some specific types of substrates that will not only help them feel at home in their tank but also keep them healthy. So, the best substrate should be easy to maintain and encourage natural behavior as though they are in their natural environment.

Some substrates, particularly loose particle ones, pose some health risks such as impaction when consumed (especially to younger dragons). Most solid/non-particle substrates don’t have this effect. Therefore, you should choose the best between these two categories as well as the best among the list in the category you have chosen.

When deciding on the best substrate to use, consider these two important aspects:

1. Impaction and other health hazards for bearded dragons.

Impaction is a serious condition in which a bearded dragon’s digestive tract is not able to fully pass bowel movements due to blockage in the intestines caused by either a solid or semi-solid mass. Several factors, ranging from using a risky substrate, hard to digest feeders, dehydration, high parasite load to inadequate temperature in the tank contribute to this condition.

In addition to impaction, loose substrates can also cause irritation when they come into contact with sensitive areas such as eyes and open wounds. The finer substrate particles can impair breathing or cause infection when inhaled.

For this reason, consider the following criteria when choosing the best substrate for your pet:

► Is there a possibility that the substrate used can be ingested?

If so, is it associated with impaction?

► Will consuming the substrate result in excessive nutrients or impair nutrient absorption?

Some substrates contain nutrients, and, when ingested, destabilize the recommended nutrient requirements of the body of the animal. Such substrates that contain calcium and phytic acids should be avoided if possible.

► Can the substrate be dusty and cause breathing problems?

Some finer particles, when used as substrates, elevate the dust level and can cause breathing issues.

► Does the substrate have the possibility of sticking to soft tissues, like exerted hemipenes, or can it irritate sensitive parts like the eyes and open wounds?

Loose substrates can get into sensitive areas such as the eye, hemipenes, or wounds. Such substrates bring discomfort to the animal and can cause infection as well.

► Will it dry the skin of your pet, like in the case of substrates that contain calcium?

Prolonged contact with a concentrated calcium solution has a drying effect on the skin and likely cause shedding issues for your bearded dragon.

► Can it encourage pathogen build-up?

Substrates, particularly walnut sands and other similar substrates, can harbor a plethora of pathogens. This causes infection to your dear bearded dragon.

2. Maintenance

To get the best substrate in terms of maintenance assess the following:

► Is the substrate easy to clean and disinfect?
The substrate should match the level of work that you’re willing to put into cleaning the cage. Some substrates are tougher to clean and might need to be cleaned more often than others. If you are new to owning a bearded dragon, I would suggest using tile as it’s easy to clean and should be able to withstand mild scrubbing and soaking if necessary. With loose particle substrates, a lot of effort is needed to clean them.
► Is it economical?
The substrate should be cost-efficient. Assess how often it must be replaced and the cost of replacing it. Tiles, rubber shelf liner, and carpets are durable and thus don’t require frequent replacement.
► Can fluids seep down to the bottom and be invisible at the top layer?
Extra fluids in a bearded dragon’s environment can bring about dangerous levels of humidity as well as invite bacteria into the enclosure. Reptile carpets and sands often retain water below the surface. Also, desert sands and clay-based sand, once moist, will set hard upon drying potentially preventing the animal from getting back out of a dug burrow.
► Is it likely to produce a bad smell within a short period of use?
Substrates like carpets, papers and sand can have an odor. This is something that develops within a short time of use. Tile is the best option when it comes to this problem. A full bioactive enclosure setup can also curb this, as it would include insects that would eat the waste of the bearded dragon.

From the above discussion on the best choice of substrates, it is apparent that most of the loose particles, such as some types of sand, are not ideal choices. Your pet’s consumption of this, which can be deliberate or accidental, can cause impaction.

You might see other bearded dragon owners using loose particle substrates. These become less of a threat as your bearded dragon becomes older. Also, more experienced bearded dragon owners know how to correctly utilize and maintain bioactive options in their enclosure.

Types of Substrates for Your Bearded Dragon

There are several types of substrates that you can use for your bearded dragon. This post will cover some of the more popular options such as:

Reptile carpet

Bearded Dragon Reptile Carpet Substrate
Reptile carpet can cut down on costs because it does not needed to be replaced as frequently as some other substrates. However, the maintenance on this substrate can be high because it has a tendency to hold in moisture and stray food particles.
I would recommend monitoring the cleanliness of this substrate if you do choose to use it.


Bearded Dragon Sand Substrate

Some manufacturers claim that calci-sand, or calcium sand, is recommended because it contains 100% digestible calcium bicarbonate, strontium, potassium, and magnesium, although this should not be confused as a dietary source.

If you embrace the use of calcium due to the fact that it is of nutritional value, please note that it can be consumed to a toxic level. Calcium as a substrate is meant for bedding, not a dietary source.



Bearded Dragon Paper Substrate

Papers, such as newspapers, paper towels, and parchment paper are recommended for use as a substrate. Papers have several advantages associated with their use, but do have their shortcomings as well.

We started out using parchment paper. It worked very well for not keeping in moisture and being easy to switch out. That said, the parchment paper needed to be changed out daily as bits of poop would stick to them and smell up the enclosure. This can be tougher than simply wiping down other substrates, such as tile.


Bearded Dragon Tile Substrate Layout Basking

Tile is a great substrate for new and experienced bearded dragon owners. This is the substrate that we currently use.


Rubber Shelf Liner

This bit of discovery is another great substrate option. For those looking for something fast and convenient, I would recommend this substrate.

Excavator Clay

Excavator clay can be a fun option for your bearded dragon as it closely resembles the burrowing environment that a bearded dragon enjoys in the wild.

Bio-Active Substrates

Bearded Dragon Bioactive Substrate
Bio-active setups for bearded dragons are a nice option to truly give them an environment that is close to their natural one.
I would only recommend this substrate for experienced bearded dragon owners.

Which Substrate is Right for Your Bearded Dragon?

Hopefully, this post has given you enough information for you to feel confident about choosing the best substrate for your situation. Although I haven’t had many good things to say about loose particle substrates, I would like to repeat that there are some experienced owners who use them for their older dragons. So, you’ll probably see pictures of those setups as you browse the internet. That said, I wouldn’t advise that novice owners use them.

My top picks for substrates are:

★ Ceramic Tile ★

For new owners or owners who want to minimize the chance of humidity and bacteria and who want a shorter cleanup time.

★ Bio-Active Substrates ★

For more experienced owners who have the time and funds to devote to the materials and processes involved.

Thanks For Reading!

What substrates are you using for your bearded dragon?

Have I left out any pros and cons on any of the substrates that I’ve listed?

Leave a comment below and let me know.

Leave a Comment