Gypsum: Properties, Uses, Formation, Types

What is gypsum?

Gypsum is a very common, soft sulfate mineral composed primarily of calcium sulfate dihydrate, with the chemical formula CaSO₄·2H₂O. Visually, it can be colorless or white, but impurities can also give it a variety of hues. Gypsum has a distinctive feel - it's quite soft, ranking only a 2 on the Mohs scale of mineral hardness.That means you can actually scratch it with your fingernail! It's often found in crystal form, sometimes quite beautiful, with a glassy or silky luster. There are also massive varieties, like the fine-grained alabaster, used for sculptures and decorations, or the fibrous satin spar, with a pearly sheen.

Gypsum deposits most commonly form in evaporative environments where high evaporation rates lead to the concentration of dissolved minerals in water. These environments can be found on land or in shallow marine settings.

The word "gypsum" originates from the ancient Greek term "γύψος" (gýpsos), which simply meant "plaster" or "chalk." This connection makes sense considering the historical use of gypsum for creating plaster and other building materials.

Gypsum uses, examples

How is Gypsum Formed?

Gypsum forms through two primary geological processes:

Evaporative Precipitation: This process occurs in environments with high evaporation rates, such as shallow marine environments, saline lakes, or near geothermal springs. When a body of water rich in dissolved calcium (Ca²⁺) and sulfate (SO₄²⁻) ions undergoes evaporation, the concentration of these ions increases in the remaining solution. As the concentration reaches a saturation point, the solution becomes supersaturated with respect to calcium sulfate. This supersaturation leads to the precipitation of calcium sulfate dihydrate (CaSO₄·2H₂O), which is gypsum. The precipitated gypsum crystals can accumulate on the bottom of the water body or along the shoreline, eventually forming thick and extensive deposits. In some instances, these deposits may be interlayered with other precipitated minerals from the evaporated brine, such as halite (NaCl).

Hydration of Anhydrite: Gypsum can also form through the hydration of anhydrite (CaSO₄). Anhydrite is a calcium sulfate mineral that lacks the water molecules present in gypsum. When exposed to water, anhydrite undergoes a hydration reaction, incorporating water molecules into its structure and transforming into gypsum. This process can occur naturally underground where anhydrite deposits encounter groundwater or during anthropogenic activities that disturb buried anhydrite layers.

Geologically speaking, gypsum deposits are found in strata dating back all the way to the Archaean eon, the earliest known era of Earth's history. This highlights the long history and diverse geological processes that have led to gypsum formation around the world.

Satin Spar Gypsum
Evaporites: Satin Spar Gypsum, Clarke Head near Parrsboro in Nova Scotia, Canada
Photo: Jessica M Winder

Types of Gypsum

Gypsum comes in a few different forms:

Gypsite: This primary industrial form of gypsum is a sedimentary rock consisting predominantly of the mineral gypsum. Gypsite deposits often originate from the evaporation of calcium sulfate-rich bodies of water.

Alabaster: This fine-grained variety of gypsum is distinguished by its uniform texture and translucent quality. The absence of significant impurities and a tightly packed crystalline structure contribute to alabaster's aesthetic appeal, making it suitable for ornamental sculptures and decorative objects.

Satin spar: Characterized by a fibrous morphology, satin spar exhibits a silky luster and pearly white coloration. This specific morphology arises from the parallel alignment of elongated gypsum crystals. Satin spar finds application in the production of jewelry and small carvings due to its unique aesthetic properties.

Selenite: This is the crystallized form of gypsum, and can form some beautiful, large, transparent crystals. Selenite crystals can attain significant size and exhibit a platy habit, with flattened faces. Their optical clarity and ability to transmit light with minimal distortion make selenite crystals valuable for certain scientific applications.

Desert roses: These fascinating geological formations consist of radiating clusters of gypsum crystals that converge in a rosette pattern. Desert roses typically develop in arid environments where windblown sand interacts with gypsum deposits. The delicate nature of these formations necessitates careful handling during collection and preservation.

varieties of the mineral gypsum

Varieties of the mineral gypsum

Characteristics & Properties of Gypsum

Composition: Calcium sulfate dihydrate (CaSO₄·2H₂O). This means gypsum is a hydrated sulfate mineral, containing calcium, sulfur, and chemically bound water molecules.

Color: Gypsum is typically colorless, white, or gray. However, impurities like iron oxides or clay can introduce colors like yellow, red, or brown.

Transparency: Gypsum can range from transparent to translucent, depending on the crystal formation and presence of inclusions. Transparent crystals allow light to pass through clearly, while translucent specimens allow some light passage but appear cloudy or hazy.

Luster: The shiny surface of gypsum reflects light, giving it a vitreous (glassy) or pearly luster. Vitreous luster is more common, resembling glass, while pearly luster has an iridescent quality.

Crystal System: Gypsum crystals belong to the monoclinic crystal system. This crystal structure has three unequal axes, with one angle between axes being non-90 degrees.

Streak: The streak is the color of a mineral in powdered form. When scratched against a hard surface like unglazed porcelain, gypsum leaves a white streak, regardless of its overall color.

Hardness: Gypsum is a very soft mineral, ranking only 2 on Mohs scale of mineral hardness. This means it can be easily scratched with a fingernail or a penny.

Cleavage: Cleavage refers to a mineral's tendency to break along specific planes of weakness. Gypsum exhibits perfect cleavage in one direction and good cleavage in another direction. This allows it to break into predictable flat or slightly angled pieces.

Fracture: When broken along directions other than cleavage planes, gypsum exhibits an uneven or conchoidal fracture. Uneven fractures have a rough, irregular surface, while conchoidal fractures resemble the smooth, curved shell of a conch.

Habits and Forms: Gypsum can occur in various forms. Crystalline gypsum can be tabular (flat and plate-like), prismatic (elongated with rectangular or hexagonal faces), or fibrous (with thread-like crystals). Massive gypsum forms large, shapeless masses, while granular gypsum consists of tiny, tightly packed crystals.

Density and Specific Gravity: Density refers to the mass per unit volume of a substance, while specific gravity compares a mineral's density to the density of water. Gypsum has a density of around 2.32 grams per cubic centimeter (g/cm³) and a specific gravity of 2.2 to 2.3. This indicates it's denser than water but not exceptionally heavy.

Solubility: Gypsum is moderately soluble in water, with a solubility of about 2 grams per liter at 25°C. Interestingly, gypsum exhibits retrograde solubility, meaning its solubility decreases as water temperature increases – unlike most salts that become more soluble in hot water.

Magnetism: Gypsum is non-magnetic and isn't attracted to magnets.

Fluorescence: Fluorescence is the property of a mineral to emit visible light when exposed to ultraviolet radiation. Gypsum does not fluoresce under UV light.

Pleochroism: Pleochroism refers to a mineral exhibiting different colors depending on the viewing direction. Gypsum is not pleochroic, meaning it appears the same color regardless of the direction light passes through it.

Refractive Index: The refractive index is a measure of how light bends when it enters a material. Gypsum has a refractive index of 1.51-1.53.

Inclusions: Natural gypsum crystals often contain inclusions, which are foreign minerals or materials trapped within the crystal structure during formation. Common inclusions in gypsum can be clay minerals, iron oxides that cause coloration, or even tiny gas bubbles.

Best Field Indicators: When encountering gypsum in the field, some key properties can aid in identification. Its softness (easily scratched by a fingernail), white streak, and vitreous or pearly luster are all good indicators. Additionally, its platy or fibrous crystal habits can be helpful when visible.

Association Minerals: Gypsum is often found in association with other evaporite minerals formed by the evaporation of ancient seas or lakes. Common associated minerals include halite (rock salt), anhydrite (the dehydrated form of gypsum), sulfur, calcite, and dolomite.

Desert roses

Desert roses are clusters of gypsum crystals that form in a rosette pattern.

Uses and Applications of Gypsum

Gypsum, a naturally abundant mineral, boasts a surprising range of applications due to its unique properties. Here's a detailed breakdown of its various uses:

Construction Industry

Drywall (Gypsum Board): This is by far the most prominent use of gypsum. Drywall panels consist of a gypsum core sandwiched between paper liners. They are lightweight, fire-resistant, and relatively inexpensive, making them the go-to material for constructing interior walls and ceilings.

Plaster: Gypsum plaster is a versatile material used for creating smooth finishes on walls and ceilings. It can be applied wet and sets to a hard, durable surface. Additionally, it can be used for decorative purposes like moldings and cornices.

Stucco: This exterior plaster cladding is often made with a base of gypsum, providing a weather-resistant and decorative finish for building facades.

Floor Leveling Compounds: Gypsum-based compounds are used to level uneven floors before laying tiles, carpets, or other floor coverings.


Soil Amendment: Gypsum, also known as land plaster, is used as a soil conditioner to improve its structure and fertility. It benefits various types of soil:

  • Clayey Soils: Gypsum helps loosen dense clay particles, improving drainage and aeration, which is crucial for healthy plant root growth.
  • Sandy Soils: It aids in retaining moisture and essential nutrients in loose, sandy soils.
  • Saline Soils: Gypsum helps replace sodium ions with calcium ions, reducing soil salinity and creating a more favorable environment for plant growth.

Nutrient Source: Gypsum provides calcium and sulfur, essential plant nutrients that contribute to overall plant health and crop yield.

Other Industrial Applications

Cement Manufacturing: Certain types of cement, especially Portland cement, incorporate gypsum as a setting regulator. Gypsum controls the hardening process of the cement, ensuring it sets at a predictable rate.

Mold Making: Due to its ability to form smooth, detailed casts, gypsum is used in creating molds for various purposes, including pottery, dentistry, and art.

Manufacturing: Gypsum finds application in various manufacturing processes, including the production of paper, paint, and textiles. In the paper industry, for instance, gypsum fillers can improve paper opacity and printability.

Additional Uses

Food Industry: Calcium sulfate derived from gypsum is used as a food additive (calcium sulfate, E515) for various purposes. It can act as a firming agent in tofu, a filtering agent in beer production, or a anticaking agent in table salt. It's generally recognized as safe for human consumption by regulatory bodies.

Cosmetics and Pharmaceuticals: Gypsum finds use as a bulking agent or filler in some cosmetic and pharmaceutical products.

Medicine: Gypsum powder is an ingredient in some casts and bandages used for immobilizing broken bones. It's also used as a bulking agent in some medications.

Arts and Crafts: Gypsum powder, especially the fine-grained alabaster variety, is used for creating sculptures and decorative objects.

Oil and Gas Industry: In oil and gas drilling, gypsum acts as a cost-effective and eco-friendly fluid loss control agent in drilling muds. It forms a filter cake on the borehole wall to minimize fluid loss, particularly in shallow wells with moderate temperatures. While it has limitations at high temperatures and salinity, gypsum remains a valuable choice for specific drilling applications.


Alabaster gypsum
Alabaster gypsum

Factors Contributing to Gypsum's Versatility

Several key properties make gypsum such a widely used material:

Abundance: Gypsum is a readily available and relatively inexpensive mineral resource found worldwide.

Workability: Gypsum is easy to mine, process, and manipulate. It can be ground into powder, mixed with water to form a paste, or molded into various shapes.

Fire Resistance: Gypsum releases water vapor when heated, which helps to impede fire spread and provides some fire protection in buildings.

Setting Properties: Depending on the processing methods, gypsum can be formulated to set quickly or slowly, making it adaptable for different applications.

Chemical Properties: The calcium and sulfur content of gypsum contribute to its beneficial effects in agriculture and some industrial processes.

Gypsum Uses and Applications
Gypsum Uses and Applications

Factors Influencing Gypsum Use

The specific application of gypsum depends on several factors, including:

The type of gypsum: Different processing methods can yield gypsum products with varying properties, making them suitable for specific applications.

Desired properties: Whether the focus is on fire resistance, strength, setting time, or other properties will influence the type of gypsum product chosen.

Cost and availability: Gypsum is a relatively inexpensive and readily available material, making it an attractive option for various industries.

In conclusion, gypsum's diverse properties and abundance have made it a cornerstone material in construction, agriculture, and various other industries. From the ubiquitous presence of drywall in our homes to its role in improving soil health and food production, gypsum's applications continue to touch many aspects of our daily lives.


Gypsum Quarry
Gypsum Quarry

Major Gypsum Producing Countries

United States: The United States is one of the leading producers of gypsum, with significant production occurring in states such as Texas, Iowa, California, Michigan, and Oklahoma. Gypsum is used in various industries in the U.S., including construction, agriculture, and manufacturing.

China: China is another major producer of gypsum, with large deposits found in provinces such as Shandong, Hubei, and Inner Mongolia. The country's construction boom has fueled demand for gypsum in plasterboard and other construction materials.

Iran: Iran has extensive gypsum reserves and is a significant exporter of the mineral. Gypsum deposits are found in various provinces across the country, including Semnan, Khorasan Razavi, and Fars. This positions Iran as the world's second-largest producer of gypsum, supplying both its own market and the international market.

Germany: Germany is a leading producer of gypsum in Europe, with extensive deposits and a well-developed mining industry.

Spain: Spain is one of the largest gypsum producers in Europe, with deposits located primarily in the eastern regions of the country, such as Catalonia, Valencia, and Aragon.

Thailand: Thailand is known for its gypsum production, particularly in the provinces of Chachoengsao and Nakhon Sawan. The country exports gypsum to various international markets, including Japan and the Philippines.

Canada: Canada has substantial gypsum reserves, with production occurring mainly in the provinces of Nova Scotia, Quebec, and Ontario. The gypsum industry in Canada serves both domestic and export markets.

Mexico: Mexico is a significant producer of gypsum, with deposits found in states such as Nuevo León, Coahuila, and Veracruz. The country's gypsum industry supplies both domestic construction markets and international export markets.

Australia: Australia has gypsum deposits in various states, including New South Wales, Queensland, and Western Australia. The country's gypsum production supports industries such as agriculture, construction, and manufacturing.

India: India has significant gypsum reserves, particularly in the state of Rajasthan. These resources fuel the domestic construction industry and also hold export potential.

Brazil: Commercial quantities of gypsum are found in cities like Araripina and Grajaú. These deposits play a role in Brazil's construction sector.

These are just a few examples of the major gypsum-producing regions globally. Gypsum deposits are widespread and can be found in many countries around the world, contributing to various industries and economic activities.

The Cave of the Crystals in Mexico is famous for its giant selenite crystals,

The Cave of the Crystals in Mexico is famous for its giant selenite crystals.

Famous Gypsum Formations

Gypsum formations can be quite spectacular, creating otherworldly landscapes and dazzling cave features. Here are some famous gypsum formations around the world:

Cave of the Crystals, Mexico: Located in Naica, Mexico, this mine boasts giant gypsum crystals, some reaching lengths of 33 feet (10 meters) and a diameter of up to 4 feet (1.2 meters). These enormous crystals formed in a unique environment with constant high temperatures and a saturated sulfate solution.

White Sands National Park, New Mexico, USA: Located in New Mexico, White Sands National Park is famous for its vast gypsum dune field, which covers an area of around 275 square miles (710 square kilometers). The dunes are made up of fine gypsum sand, creating a stunning landscape of white sand dunes that shift and change shape with the wind.

Carlsbad Caverns National Park, New Mexico, USA: While not exclusively gypsum, this park features stunning cave formations with significant gypsum deposits. The Lechuguilla Cave, a restricted section of the park, is particularly famous for its "chandelier ballroom," a chamber adorned with sparkling gypsum needles.

Gypsum Karst Landscapes, China: China is home to several gypsum karst landscapes, characterized by unique landforms created by the dissolution of gypsum rocks. One notable example is the Shuanghe Cave in Guizhou Province, which features intricate gypsum formations including stalactites, stalagmites, and gypsum flowers.

Almeria, Spain: Southeastern Spain boasts numerous gypsum caves, some adorned with beautiful mineral formations and speleothems (cave decorations) composed of gypsum. The karst landscape here, sculpted by the dissolving power of water on gypsum, is another fascinating aspect.

White Sands desert New Mexico

White Sands desert, gypsum dune field, New Mexico

Satin spar, Gypsum
Satin spar, Gypsum Crystal, from Blue Springs Cave, White Co, TN


In conclusion, gypsum stands as a versatile mineral with diverse applications spanning multiple industries. Its unique properties, including solubility, hardness, and thermal stability, contribute to its widespread utility in construction, agriculture, manufacturing, and artistic pursuits. Understanding the formation, properties, uses, and types of gypsum is essential for harnessing its full potential and exploring innovative applications in the future.

Read also:

Sahara Desert Rose
Evaporites: Type, Formation, Uses, Occurrence

Next Post Previous Post