Best Substrates for Leopard Geckos: A Comprehensive Guide

By Frank Miller •  Updated: 09/19/23 • 

Choosing a substrate can be a life-or-death matter for leopard geckos. The wrong material can pose the risk of impaction or make maintaining sanitary habitat conditions a nightmare. With so many products being advertised as “gecko-friendly,” how do you choose the right one for your pet? Which is the best substrate for leopard geckos?

The best substrates for leopard geckos include reptile carpets, ceramic tiles, shelf liners, and stone slates. Newspapers and paper towels also make safe substrate materials, although they are not the most aesthetically pleasing. Substrates to avoid include sand, gravel, wood chips, and corn cobs.

Read on as we unveil the 7 best substrates for leopard geckos. These are easy-to-clean and maintain materials that pose the lowest risk of impaction. We will also list the worst substrates and explain why we recommend against using them.

Let’s get started!

What Is Substrate?

Substrates for leopard geckos are flooring materials for the enclosure. They serve numerous purposes, the most vital being to help in maintaining suitable temperature and humidity levels. Also, they allow your scaly friend to engage in natural behavior like climbing, digging, and burrowing.

Leopard geckos often use a designated corner of their tanks as their toilet. Some flooring materials absorb moisture from the fecal matter to prevent a mess, while others make it easy to scoop out the poop and spot-clean.

There are two main types of substrates for leopard geckos. They include the following:

Solid substrates include stone, slates, carpets, paper towels, etc. They are easy to clean and sterilize and generally pose no risk of impaction. Furthermore, options like paper towels and newspapers are inexpensive, and you can always replace them instead of cleaning them. On the downside, they don’t allow a Leo’s natural digging and burrowing behavior.

Loose substrates like sand, gravel, and mulch allow your leopard gecko to dig and burrow to its heart’s content. Unfortunately, they pose a greater risk of impaction and have a higher initial cost because you must adequately fill your vivarium.

7 Best Substrates for Leopard Geckos

Are you searching for the best substrate to cover the bottom of your leopard gecko’s habitat? We understand that choosing a suitable material can be an overwhelming task.

Below, we will discuss some acceptable options that are easy to clean, comfortable, and generally safe for leopard geckos.

1. Bioactive Substrates

Bioactive substrates are arguably the best flooring option for leopard geckos. They are a new-generation loose substrate used to create a safe bioactive setup. What makes the soil-based material special is that it creates a naturalistic habitat and contains live bacteria that help break down waste to keep the enclosure clean and safe.

Bioactive Substrate

Bioactive Substrate

Cost-wise, bioactive substrate is not the cheapest option and could cost up to $300. It’s also worth mentioning that the setup process is complicated, especially for folks without an in-depth understanding of creating self-sustaining ecosystems. The final setup must have several layers of gravel for proper drainage and soil and clay mixes to help support live plants.

On the bright side, the bioactive substrate doesn’t require much cleaning because the live bacteria work as a cleanup crew. Moreover, the flooring option allows natural leopard gecko behavior, like digging and burrowing. Because this is a relatively new option in the markets, only time will tell if the substrate will live up to its hype.

2. Paper Towels & Newspapers

Paper towels and newspapers make excellent substrates for leopard geckos. Although they are not the most aesthetically pleasing options, they are cheap and easy to replace. Most importantly, they don’t pose any risk of impaction. Some keepers even use wet paper towels or newsprints in the moist hide to ensure their pets don’t ingest materials like sphagnum moss.

Paper towels and newspapers are also great for use when your pet is in quarantine and you want to monitor his waste. To ensure safety, go for non-toxic, soy-based ink newspapers or paper towels that don’t have fancy scents, bleach, or dye.

Paper Towel Leopard Gecko Substrate

Unfortunately, paper towels and newsprints don’t offer environmental enrichment. Your Leo cannot dig or burrow into the materials. If you have a female Leo, she may hesitate to lay eggs on the solid substrate, leading to an increased risk of egg binding or Dystocia.

3. Excavator Clay

Excavator clay, or self-hardening clay, is a relatively new substrate that has gathered numerous great reviews from leopard gecko keepers. Mix the clay with water and use the mud to mold the flooring, ledges, tunnels, and hides. The most significant perk of this substrate is that you can give your pet’s enclosure a customized look.

Moreover, excavator clay costs $10 to $15 per 10-pound bag, which is enough for the standard 20-gallon vivarium. The hardened surfaces are easy to spot-clean and can serve you for at least 3 months before a need for replacement.

Excavator Clay Vivarium Substrate

You can create many entertainment features for your scaly friend, including burrows, caves, and a raised basking spot. Although excavator clay is a top choice for many reptile keepers because of the reduced risk of impaction, it does not allow digging opportunities.

4. Linoleum & Ceramic Tiles

Linoleum and ceramic tiles are solid substrates that offer numerous benefits, including ease of installation and maintenance. These materials are also relatively budget-friendly and lightweight, especially compared to stone slabs. While linoleum comes in different styles and patterns, you can choose between smooth and textured ceramic tiles.

With so many options, finding something that suits your décor needs is easy. Unfortunately, linoleum and ceramic tiles don’t allow natural digging and burrowing activities. Linoleum can also be messy and time-intensive to uninstall because of the adhesive below the slates.

Linoleum Leopard Gecko Substrate

On the bright side, these substrates are stress-free to clean and maintain. They are not moisture-absorbent, meaning they don’t require frequent replacement. You only need to be extra thorough during your daily, weekly, and monthly cleaning routines.

> Recommended Reading: A Comprehensive Guide to Care for a Leopard Gecko

5. Reptile Mats

Reptile mats are an excellent substrate for leopard geckos designed to offer a firm grip when walking. Most well-reviewed designs are carefully woven to ensure your gecko’s claws don’t get stuck between the fibers. You can also find “sand mat” options with rocky, sandy aesthetics.

Reptile sand mats offer the same functionalities as regular reptile mats but have an appealing natural look. Regular reptile mats provide more customization options because you can choose a rug color that best matches your home’s interior décor theme.

Reptile mat substrate

Reptile Mat Substrate

Reptile carpets are super easy to install, similar to linoleum and ceramic tiles. You merely need to cut the mat to the size of your enclosure. The main downside is that the absorbent material can get smelly, especially if you don’t take spot-cleaning seriously. Fortunately, these mats are washable and can last up to 6 months before needing replacement.

6. Stone slates & River Stones

Stone slates and river stones have exceptional aesthetics. They are uniquely crafted by nature and can turn your leopard gecko’s enclosure into a breathtaking focal point. Unfortunately, they are expensive, hard to obtain, and challenging to install, especially into a glass tank.

The weight of river stones and stone slates can make installation tricky, especially when relying purely on DIY skills. Moreover, you’ll need to install another substrate at the bottom of the tank, like a reptile carpet, to help with temperature regulation. The stones can get exceedingly hot and burn your pet’s skin if installed directly over heating equipment.

Exo terra Stone Desert Substrate

Exo terra Stone Desert Substrate

Stone is nonporous and super easy to clean. Whether you go for stone slates or river stones, you can keep your Leo’s enclosure sanitary by spot cleaning daily and giving the substrate a deep clean monthly. Although you’ll spend a fortune on the initial cost, the stones don’t need replacement.

7. Shelf Liners

If you are not used to peel-and-stick linoleum slates, a better alternative to consider is shelf liners. Although they are not as visually pleasing as linoleum, they are easy to install and uninstall because they don’t have adhesive underneath.

Moreover, shelf liners are cost-effective, and a standard roll costs roughly $10. They are also easy to spot-clean and replace. Although they are not moisture absorbent, replacing the slates every three months is crucial to prevent bacteria buildup underneath.

Leopard Gecko Shelf Liner Substrate

Another drawback is that the shelf liners insulate heat, making it necessary to increase the output of your heating appliances. They also don’t offer sufficient enrichment because they don’t allow digging and burrowing activities.

Worst Substrates for Leopard Geckos

There are specific substrates we recommend against because they pose a higher risk of impaction to leopard geckos and reptiles in general. This is when a Leo suffers digestive obstructions caused by ingesting substrate material. Although the condition is treatable, it causes immense pain and discomfort. Impaction can also cause death if not identified and addressed promptly.

The safety of your scaly companion is your number one priority. Some substrates are unsuitable because they can harm your pet and cause skin irritations, especially on the feet and underbelly.

There are also options that may pose humidity control problems or make enclosure cleaning a nightmare.
Here is a list of some of the worst substrates for leopard geckos.

Leopard Gecko Standing on Sand Substrate

Leopard Gecko Standing on Sand Substrate

What Are The Best Substrates For The Moist Hide?

Some substrates are notorious for holding too much moisture and increasing humidity levels. High humidity generally increases the risk of respiratory tract infections. Fortunately, the two main culprits for retaining excessive moisture can be used in the moist hide because they don’t encourage mold growth.

1. Sphagnum Moss

Sphagnum moss or peat moss poses minimal risk of impaction. However, it is not ideal for use in the entire tank because it can make it challenging to maintain the recommended humidity levels of 30 to 40%. Still, their high water retention capability makes moss ideal for moist hides.

Peat moss can be an excellent substrate for leopard geckos when used correctly. Adding a small amount of the material in the moist cave will not increase the enclosure’s humidity levels. This substrate also works well when used sparingly in a bioactive setup.

Remove and replace peat moss monthly during deep cleaning routines to ensure your pet’s safety. Although the substrate can be spot-cleaned, deep cleaning can be a painful and futile process.

2. Coconut Fiber/ Eco Earth

Coconut fiber, also known as eco earth, coconut coir, or coco, poses a high risk of impaction. It also retains high amounts of moisture, making it ideal for use only in the moist hide. Before installing the substrate, check it inch by inch for splinters and sharp edges that can injure your scaly companion.

Like sphagnum moss, coconut fiber is also challenging to clean. It is better to replace the substrate during your monthly deep cleaning routines.

How Often Should I Replace My Leopard Gecko’s Substrate?

Your leopard gecko’s enclosure substrate should be replaced daily, every other day, or after every 3 to 6 months. Some substrates don’t need replacement because they don’t absorb moisture and are a breeze to clean. The ideal frequency of replacing the flooring material depends on your chosen substrate.

Replacing substrate is necessary to maintain sanitary conditions within your leopard gecko’s vivarium. The easiest way to determine the ideal frequency of replacing the flooring material is to consider your substrate of choice. Is it easy to clean? Does it retain moisture?

If you use newsprints or paper towels, you can remove and replace soiled pieces during your daily spot-cleaning routines. On the other hand, some solid substrates like stone and slates can be cleaned and sanitized, making replacing them unnecessary.

Carpets and most loose substrates need replacement every 3 to 6 months. They can hold organic matter and moisture, allowing mold, bacteria, and other disease-causing microbes to thrive. If you have a smaller enclosure, replacing the substrate more frequently may be necessary to ensure your pet’s health and overall well-being.

Final Thoughts

Leopard geckos are ground-dwelling lizards. Although they love to climb, they spend most of their time exploring the ground. Leos also often eat and sleep on the ground, making the flooring material a key feature impacting their happiness and well-being.

The search for the best substrate for leopard geckos can be overwhelming, mainly because there are so many options. We suggest prioritizing options that closely resemble the gecko’s natural habitat and allow natural behaviors like climbing, burrowing, digging, or hiding. Pick something that strikes a balance between ease of cleaning and your pet’s happiness, safety, and comfort.

Frank Miller

Frank Miller is the Founder of Lizard Advisor and owns several pet lizards, from leopard geckos, bearded dragons, crested geckos, chameleons, and others. The mission of this website is to make owning a pet lizard very easy for everyone, but mostly beginners. And each year, he continues to help more people learn more about lizard care and much more.