So, you want to paint a background on your aquarium?
Or maybe you want to paint something inside your tank.
Well, the first thing you need to do is buy some paint.
But not just any old paint…
You need aquarium-safe paint!
Today, I’m going to teach why you can’t use any paint, as well as share my favorite paint brands – they are all safe for aquarium use.
- The danger of using the wrong paint on your aquarium
- Best aquarium-safe paint for inside your aquarium
- Best aquarium-safe paint for outside your aquarium
The danger of using the wrong paint on your aquarium
Your aquarium might look calm and soothing, but it’s actually an extremely harsh environment. Well, for paint, anyway.
Most paint does not do well when exposed to water. The bad news? Your tank is full of it.
Many paints absorb water and soon begin to bubble or peel, breaking off in tiny flakes. To your dumb fish, those flakes of paint look near identical to fish flakes – nom, nom, nom!
I don’t have to tell you that paint isn’t something that should be included in your fish’s diet.
Even paint that appears to hold up just fine can be leaching deadly chemicals into your tank – chemicals that you cannot see!
Not even the best aquarium test kit can detect these harsh chemicals. You won’t know there is a problem until it’s too late and all your fish are dead.
To put it simply:
You are trusting the lives of your fish with this paint. So, make sure you choose the right one!
Which brings me to my next point…
There isn’t really such a thing as aquarium-safe paint. At least not officially.
At the time of writing this, almost none of the big paint manufacturers have tested how their product works in aquariums. And between you and me, I don’t think they ever will. Not enough demand exists for an aquarium-safe paint to justify this expensive research.
As a result, no company is going to declare that their paint is safe for aquariums.
But that doesn’t mean the paint is unsafe…
It just means that these companies don’t want to make these claims and leave themselves open to lawsuits.
Don’t get me wrong, industrial-purpose, non-toxic epoxy paints designed for aquaculture or beer brewing are out there. But these cost hundreds of dollars and likely more than your entire aquarium setup.
Fortunately, the need to paint something inside an aquarium is a fairly common problem. For those of us who can’t afford these premium-priced paints, there are budget options available.
And after years of testing through trial and error, hobbyists now have a good understanding of which paints are considered safe for your aquarium and which should be avoided – and they are affordable.
Let’s take a closer look at the different paint you can use with your aquarium…
Best aquarium-safe paint for inside your aquarium
This section covers paints that will be submerged in your tank, such as on decorations and pipes. These paints won’t peel, flake or leach chemicals when placed under water, keeping your fish safe.
Unless otherwise stated, all paints need to be applied outside of the aquarium and left to dry before being placed inside your aquarium.
The following recommendations are suitable for both freshwater and saltwater aquariums.
1. Best aquarium-safe spray paint
I love spray paint. No brushes, nothing to clean up, just spray and you’re done.
It’s pretty much my go-to weapon when using those horrible white PVC pipes in my aquariums. A quick coat of black paint and they basically disappear into the background.
The trick to applying spray paint is thin, even coats so that it doesn’t drip. You can always add more layers once the previous one dries.
Krylon Fusion is the most commonly recommended aquarium spray paint and is particularly popular for those with reef tanks.
It clings to plastic, PVC and resin and has a clean finish. But the main reason for its popularity is the wide range of colors that it is available in – no other paint used by hobbyists comes in such a selection.
I attest to its effectiveness. I used Krylon Fusion on a tank I owned waaaay back in 2006. I took the tank down four years later, and my PVC pipes showed no signs of flaking.
While Krylon Fusion may dry in as little as 15 minutes, it takes an entire week for it to properly cure and become chip-resistant. Once the week is finished, rinse it in dechlorinated water to remove any leftover residue and dust that accumulated on the surface.
Ignore the fact that Krylon Fusion claims to need no prep-work. If you skip the prep, you are much more likely to experience chipping or flaking. Sand and clean any surface before coating it with Krylon Fusion.
Krylon Fusion is only to be used for painting plastics. If you want a spray paint that is suitable for other materials, including glass, then check out my next recommendation:
While it may look and apply like regular spray paint, this unique product dries into a firm rubber.
It’s this unique property that means Plasti Dip won’t flake or crack, even after years of being submerged in your aquarium. You can even use it to seal decorations that would otherwise be unsafe in your aquarium.
It truly is fish-safe. Let’s say you have a pleco that enjoys rasping algae off any surface in your aquarium. You can remain confident that he won’t remove any rubber while gnawing on the algae coating it – same goes for any other algae eaters like snails, shrimp and crabs.
Once you finish the final coat, wait 24 hours to ensure that the coating has cured properly. If it’s going in your aquarium, rinse it in a bucket with dechlorinated water first.
2. Best aquarium-safe paint for everything else
Spray paint is pretty much my go-to for anything I need to paint inside my aquarium. But what happens if you need to paint something unusual, say Styrofoam, concrete, brick or even a terracotta pot?
Well, that’s where my next recommendation comes in.
Drylok is typically used in larger applications, like ponds. But because it is fish-safe, you can also use Drylok inside your aquarium.
In fact, Drylok is commonly used in 3D aquarium backgrounds – you know, the ones that look like real rockwork.
Now, it’s worth mentioning that Drylok isn’t really paint. It’s a water proofer. It seals whatever you coat it in, protecting it from water.
Because of this, Drylok is plain white in color. While Drylok comes in various colors, they likely are not aquarium-safe.
However, you can create your own colored waterproof paint by mixing Drylok with Quikrete Liquid Concrete paint, which is also aquarium-safe.
Quickrete Liquid Concrete Paint is available in:
The more Quikrete paint you add to Drylok, the more vibrant the color. By using more or less, you create different shades of color. With careful application, use these shades to create shadows and highlights.
Now that I have covered paint that is suitable for inside your aquarium, let’s take a closer look at what you can use on the outside.
Aquarium-safe paint for outside your aquarium
This section covers paint that is not going to be submerged under water, such as the glass, trim or even the stand that your aquarium rests on.
But by far the most commonly painted part of an aquarium is the rear glass panel.
FishLab Tip: Want to paint a background on the rear of your aquarium? Make sure you do it before you set up your aquarium and add your fish.
Is your aquarium is already set up? Use a vinyl background like this one instead – it can be easily applied with fish inside your tank.
Painting the rear and sides of your aquarium makes your fish and plants much easier to see. It blocks any distractions that might be present on the other side of your tank.
Black and blue are the most commonly used colors for painting aquarium backgrounds.
I personally paint my aquarium background black – it’s the same color as my heaters, filter plumbing and overflow, allowing them to blend into the background. Blue, on the other hand, is much more commonly used in reef tanks.
But which paint should you use?
Truth be told, it doesn’t really matter what paint you use on the outside of your tank – this isn’t going to come into contact with your fish.
I have seen hobbyists use spray paint, rolled-on acrylic paint, Plasti Dip…
While most hobbyists use flat (matte) paint for their background, it doesn’t matter too much if you use gloss or semi-gloss. The glass is going to add glare when you look at the background from the inside of your tank anyway.
If it’s going on the back glass on the outside of your aquarium, it doesn’t matter too much which aquarium paint you use. They all leave a smooth finish that makes the inside of your aquarium pop.
You need to consider your future plans for your aquarium.
Over time, the paint can scratch, and you might accidentally drag your aquarium net or foil fish food packet along the rear and leave a nasty gash.
Even if you are careful not to scratch it, the paint might just not hold up well to the wet environment that is your aquarium.
To get rid of scratches, you basically have to strip off the paint and start again.
If your paint is designed to go on and stay on, then removing it can be a chore – typically involving hours slowly peeling away the paint with the help of a razor blade.
That’s why I use Plasti Dip. It is easy to spray on the rear of your aquarium, dries smooth and looks great. My Plasti Dip background has been going strong for two years now and shows no sign of becoming brittle or cracking.
But that’s not the best part. When the time comes to remove your background, simply peel it off. Yep, because Plasti Dip is rubber and not paint, it is really easy to remove.
It’s easy to see why Plasti Dip is the go-to background paint of many fish keepers.
As for stands, cabinets and anything your aquarium rests on, use an oil-based paint. Oil-based paints are water-repellent and hold up well to being splashed with water during a water change.
As you see, while there are many different paints available, very few are actually suitable for your aquarium.
Fortunately, you don’t need to spend hundreds of dollars on an epoxy paint. You can make do with these everyday solutions. Best of all, they can be found on the shelf of your local hardware store.
What paint did you use on your aquarium? Let me know in the comments below!