Gypsum is a naturally occurring mineral that has been used by humans for various purposes for thousands of years. It is a versatile mineral with a wide range of applications in construction, agriculture, industry, and even art. In this introduction, we’ll explore the definition and composition of gypsum.

Gypsum is a soft sulfate mineral composed of calcium sulfate dihydrate (CaSO4·2H2O). It is commonly found in sedimentary rock formations and is often associated with other minerals such as anhydrite, halite, and sulfur. The name “gypsum” is derived from the Greek word “gypsos,” which means “plaster” or “chalk.”

Gypsum’s chemical composition is relatively simple, consisting primarily of calcium, sulfur, oxygen, and hydrogen atoms. Its chemical formula, CaSO4·2H2O, indicates that each unit of gypsum is composed of one calcium (Ca) atom, one sulfur (S) atom, four oxygen (O) atoms, and two water (H2O) molecules. The two water molecules are structurally bound to the calcium sulfate, giving gypsum its characteristic hydrated form.

The water content in gypsum is essential to its unique properties and versatility. When gypsum is heated, it undergoes a process called calcination, during which it loses some or all of its water content, depending on the temperature and duration of heating. This results in the formation of different gypsum products with varying properties, such as plaster of Paris, stucco, and gypsum board.

Gypsum is known for its softness and can be easily scratched with a fingernail. Its physical appearance can vary from transparent and colorless to white, gray, brown, or even pink, depending on impurities present in the mineral.

Common Uses:

  • Construction: Gypsum is widely used in construction as a building material. Plaster of Paris and gypsum board (drywall) are common products derived from gypsum. Plaster is used for creating decorative finishes on walls and ceilings, while gypsum board is used for interior wall and ceiling construction.
  • Agriculture: Gypsum is applied to soil in agriculture to improve its structure and reduce soil compaction. It provides essential calcium and sulfur nutrients to plants and can help in reclaiming saline or sodic soils.
  • Industrial Applications: Gypsum has various industrial uses, including in the production of cement, as a filler in paper and textiles, and as a component in making molds and casts.
  • Art and Sculpture: Gypsum has a long history of use in art and sculpture. Artists use it to create intricate sculptures and molds for casting.

In conclusion, gypsum is a naturally occurring mineral with a simple chemical composition of calcium sulfate dihydrate. Its unique properties, including the ability to lose and regain water content, make it valuable for a wide range of applications in construction, agriculture, industry, and art. Its importance in various industries and its contribution to the built environment make gypsum a significant mineral resource worldwide.

Name: From the Greek name for the mineral, but more especially for the calcined mineral.

Association: Halite, celestine, calcite, aragonite, anhydrite, dolomite, sulfur.

Diagnostic Features: Characterized by its softness and its three directions of unequal cleavage. Its solubility in acid and the presence of much water distinguish it from anhydrite.

Crystallography. Monoclinic; prismatic. Crystals are of prismatic habit; tabular parallel to clinopinacoid; diamondshaped, with edges beveled by prism and pyramid faces. Other forms rare. Twins common with the orthopinacoid the twin plane often resulting in swallowtail twins. Cleavable massive; foliated; granular massive. Satin spar is a fibrous gypsum with silky luster. Alabaster is the fine-grained massive variety. Selenite is a variety which yields broad colorless and transparent cleavage folia

Chemical Properties

Gypsum, a naturally occurring mineral with the chemical formula CaSO4·2H2O, exhibits several important chemical properties that contribute to its versatility and usefulness in various applications. Here are some key chemical properties of gypsum:

  1. Hydrated Structure: Gypsum is a hydrated mineral, meaning it contains water molecules within its crystalline structure. Specifically, each unit of gypsum contains two water molecules (2H2O) chemically bound to the calcium sulfate (CaSO4) ions. This hydrated structure is crucial to its properties and applications.
  2. Dehydration: One of the most notable chemical properties of gypsum is its ability to undergo controlled dehydration when heated. When gypsum is subjected to heat, typically at temperatures ranging from 150°C to 190°C (300°F to 375°F), it loses some or all of its water content. This process is called calcination. The degree of dehydration depends on the temperature and duration of heating.
    • Partial Dehydration: When gypsum is partially dehydrated, it forms a material known as “plaster of Paris” or “calcined gypsum.” Plaster of Paris is a white, powdery substance that can be mixed with water to create a workable plaster paste, used in various construction and artistic applications.
    • Complete Dehydration: If gypsum is heated to higher temperatures and for an extended period, it loses all its water content, transforming into anhydrous calcium sulfate (CaSO4), commonly known as “anhydrite.” Anhydrite has different properties compared to gypsum and is less commonly used in construction.
  3. Rehydration: One of gypsum’s unique properties is its ability to reabsorb water and return to its original hydrated form when it comes into contact with moisture. This rehydration property is exploited in the production of gypsum-based construction materials like drywall (gypsum board). When drywall is exposed to moisture, it can absorb water, which helps to resist fire and provide a protective barrier.
  4. Chemical Stability: Gypsum is chemically stable under normal conditions but can slowly dissolve in water over time. This property makes it suitable for agricultural applications where it can be used to provide essential calcium and sulfur nutrients to plants. Gypsum can also improve soil structure by displacing sodium ions in sodic soils.
  5. Chemical Impurities: While the chemical formula for gypsum is relatively simple (CaSO4·2H2O), natural gypsum deposits may contain impurities, including small amounts of other minerals or elements. These impurities can affect the mineral’s color, purity, and suitability for specific applications.

In summary, gypsum’s chemical properties, including its hydrated structure, ability to undergo controlled dehydration and rehydration, and chemical stability, make it a versatile mineral used in various industries, from construction and agriculture to art and industry. Its capacity to transform from a hydrated to an anhydrous state and back again is particularly valuable in many practical applications.

Gypsum Physical Properties

  1. Hardness: Gypsum is a relatively soft mineral on the Mohs scale of mineral hardness, with a hardness rating of 2. This means that it can be easily scratched with a fingernail or a pocket knife. Its softness is an important property in applications like sculpting and carving.
  2. Color: The color of gypsum can vary depending on impurities present in the mineral. It is commonly found in shades of white, gray, or colorless. However, it can also exhibit colors such as brown, pink, or yellow when impurities are present.
  3. Transparency: Gypsum crystals can be transparent to translucent, allowing light to pass through them in varying degrees. The level of transparency depends on the crystal’s quality and the presence of impurities.
  4. Cleavage: Gypsum exhibits excellent cleavage in one direction, meaning it readily splits into thin, flat sheets or plates when subjected to mechanical stress. This property makes it suitable for producing gypsum board (drywall) and plaster products.
  5. Luster: Gypsum has a pearly to vitreous (glassy) luster when its surfaces are fresh and unaltered. This property contributes to its aesthetic appeal in certain artistic and decorative applications.
  6. Density: The density of gypsum varies depending on its degree of hydration. Anhydrous gypsum (calcium sulfate) has a density of approximately 2.96 grams per cubic centimeter (g/cm³). Hydrated gypsum (CaSO4·2H2O) is less dense due to the presence of water molecules within its structure.
  7. Solubility: Gypsum is moderately soluble in water, and it can slowly dissolve in contact with moisture over time. This property is utilized in agricultural applications to release calcium and sulfur ions into the soil, improving its structure and nutrient content.
  8. Crystalline Structure: Gypsum typically forms monoclinic crystals with a distinct prismatic or bladed shape. These crystals often grow in clusters or aggregates, creating unique and intricate patterns in natural gypsum formations.
  9. Taste: Gypsum has a slightly sweet taste, which can be attributed to its calcium content. However, gypsum is not typically ingested due to its low solubility and the presence of impurities in natural gypsum deposits.
  10. Weight and Handling: Gypsum is relatively lightweight, making it easy to handle in construction and other applications. This property contributes to its popularity in creating plaster products, lightweight construction materials, and sculptures.

In summary, gypsum’s physical properties, including its softness, color variability, cleavage, luster, and density, among others, make it a versatile and valuable mineral in various industries, from construction and agriculture to art and industry. Its ability to be easily shaped, carved, and transformed into various forms adds to its appeal in creative and practical applications.

Gypsum Optical Properties

Crystal Habit Massive, flat. Elongated and generally prismatic crystals
Cleavage Perfect
Twinning Very common on
Optic Sign Biaxial (+)
Birefringence 0.010
Relief Low

Occurrence and Formation of Gypsum

Gypsum is a mineral that occurs naturally in various geological settings around the world. Its formation is closely tied to specific geological and environmental conditions. Here’s an overview of the occurrence and formation of gypsum:

1. Geological Occurrence:

  • Sedimentary Deposits: The most common geological setting for gypsum formation is sedimentary environments. Gypsum is often found in sedimentary rocks, particularly in layers or beds that contain evaporite minerals. Evaporite minerals form as a result of the evaporation of water from ancient seas, lakes, or other bodies of water. Gypsum is one of several evaporite minerals, including halite (salt) and anhydrite, commonly found in such deposits.
  • Desert Environments: Gypsum can also form in arid or desert regions where evaporation rates are high, and groundwater carrying dissolved calcium and sulfate ions seeps to the surface. Over time, as the water evaporates, gypsum crystals can precipitate, leading to the formation of gypsum deposits on the surface.
  • Cave Deposits: Gypsum crystals can form in caves through a process known as speleogenesis. This occurs when groundwater containing dissolved gypsum comes into contact with the cave environment, leading to the deposition of gypsum crystals on cave walls, ceilings, and floors. These gypsum formations are often called “gypsum flowers” or “selenite.”

2. Formation Process: The formation of gypsum involves a sequence of geological and environmental processes:

  • Deposition: Gypsum initially forms as dissolved calcium and sulfate ions in water. These ions can come from a variety of sources, including the dissolution of calcium-containing minerals in rocks and the leaching of sulfur compounds from organic matter and volcanic emissions.
  • Evaporation: In environments with high evaporation rates, such as arid regions or evaporating ancient seas, the water becomes concentrated with dissolved calcium and sulfate ions as it slowly evaporates. This increased concentration of ions makes it more likely for gypsum to precipitate and crystallize out of the solution.
  • Crystallization: As the concentration of calcium and sulfate ions continues to increase, gypsum crystals begin to form. These crystals may grow over time, eventually accumulating in layers or beds within sedimentary rocks or depositing as distinct crystals in caves or other underground environments.
  • Alteration: Over geological time, gypsum may undergo alteration processes, such as hydration and dehydration, depending on changes in temperature, pressure, and the presence of other minerals. These processes can lead to the conversion of gypsum into anhydrite or other minerals.

Gypsum deposits can vary in size and purity, and they are often associated with other minerals and rock formations. The specific conditions under which gypsum forms, as well as the geological history of the region, determine the characteristics of gypsum deposits found in different locations around the world.

Overall, gypsum’s occurrence and formation are closely linked to geological processes and environmental factors, resulting in the wide distribution of this mineral in various geological settings.

Location and Deposits of Gypsum

Gypsum deposits are found in many parts of the world, with varying degrees of purity and abundance. These deposits occur in a variety of geological settings, reflecting the diverse conditions under which gypsum forms. Here are some notable locations and types of gypsum deposits:

  1. Sedimentary Deposits:
    • United States: The United States is one of the world’s leading producers of gypsum, with extensive deposits in states like Texas, Oklahoma, Iowa, Nevada, and California. The White Sands National Monument in New Mexico is known for its vast dune fields of pure gypsum sand.
    • Mexico: Mexico has significant gypsum deposits, particularly in the states of Nuevo León, Chihuahua, and Coahuila.
    • Canada: Gypsum deposits are found in provinces like Nova Scotia, Newfoundland and Labrador, and Ontario.
    • Europe: European countries with notable gypsum deposits include Spain, Italy, France, Germany, and the United Kingdom.
    • Middle East: Gypsum deposits are common in several Middle Eastern countries, including Iran, Oman, and Saudi Arabia.
  2. Desert Environments:
    • North Africa: Countries in North Africa, such as Morocco and Tunisia, have extensive gypsum deposits in arid desert regions.
    • Australia: Gypsum can be found in arid regions of Australia, including South Australia, Western Australia, and New South Wales.
  3. Cave Deposits:
    • Gypsum crystals can form in caves in various parts of the world. Notable examples include the gypsum caves in Naica, Mexico, which contain some of the world’s largest gypsum crystals, and the Cave of the Crystals in Mexico’s Naica Mine.
  4. Volcanic Environments:
    • Some gypsum deposits are associated with volcanic activity. These deposits can form when sulfur-rich gases from volcanic eruptions react with calcium-rich rocks and groundwater. Italy and parts of the United States have gypsum deposits formed in volcanic environments.
  5. Marine Deposits:
    • Gypsum can also be found in marine deposits, often associated with ancient seas that have since evaporated. These deposits can be found in regions with a history of marine sedimentation, such as parts of Europe, the Middle East, and North America.
  6. Industrial Sources:
    • In addition to natural deposits, synthetic gypsum is produced as a byproduct of various industrial processes, including flue gas desulfurization in coal-fired power plants and the production of phosphoric acid. This synthetic gypsum is used in construction materials like gypsum board.

Gypsum deposits can vary in terms of purity, crystal size, and mineral associations. The quality and characteristics of gypsum in a particular location depend on the geological history and environmental conditions of that region.

Gypsum is a valuable mineral resource used in construction, agriculture, industry, and various other applications. Its wide distribution ensures a steady supply for these diverse uses around the world.

Application and Uses Areas of Gypsum

Gypsum is a versatile mineral with a wide range of applications in various industries. Its unique properties, including its ability to undergo controlled dehydration and rehydration, make it valuable for a variety of uses. Here are some of the primary application areas and uses of gypsum:

Gypsum Soil Conditioner
  1. Construction:
    • Drywall (Gypsum Board): Gypsum is a fundamental component of drywall, also known as gypsum board or plasterboard. It is used extensively in the construction industry for interior walls and ceilings. Drywall panels provide a smooth, fire-resistant, and soundproof surface.
    • Plaster: Plaster, made from gypsum, is used for creating decorative finishes on walls and ceilings. It can be applied as a thin coat for a smooth and aesthetically pleasing surface.
    • Moldings: Gypsum-based moldings, including crown molding, cornices, and baseboards, are used for decorative purposes in buildings.
    • Floor Underlayment: Gypsum-based self-leveling underlayment is used to create a smooth and level surface for flooring materials like tile, wood, and carpet.
    • Fire-Resistant Construction: Gypsum board provides passive fire protection and is used to create fire-resistant walls and ceilings in buildings.
  2. Agriculture:
    • Soil Conditioner: Gypsum is applied to agricultural soils to improve soil structure and reduce compaction. It can help in breaking up heavy clay soils, enhancing water infiltration, and promoting root growth.
    • Nutrient Source: Gypsum supplies essential calcium and sulfur nutrients to plants, contributing to healthier crop growth. It can also help correct nutrient imbalances in the soil.
    • Sodic Soil Reclamation: Gypsum is used to reclaim and improve the productivity of sodic soils, which have high levels of sodium that can inhibit plant growth.
  3. Industrial Applications:
    • Cement Production: Gypsum is added to cement clinker to regulate the setting time and improve the workability of concrete. It is an essential component of Portland cement.
    • Paper and Textiles: Gypsum is used as a filler and coagulant in paper and textile industries. It improves paper’s printability and brightness and assists in controlling the pH in papermaking.
  4. Art and Sculpture:
    • Gypsum has a long history of use in art and sculpture. Artists use it to create intricate sculptures, statues, and bas-reliefs. It is valued for its workability and fine detail capabilities.
  5. Dentistry:
    • Gypsum products, such as dental plaster and dental stone, are used in dentistry to create molds, models, and casts for dental prosthetics and restorations.
  6. Medicine:
    • Gypsum is used in certain medical applications, such as orthopedic casts and splints, to immobilize fractured bones during the healing process.
  7. Agricultural and Industrial Byproducts:
    • Synthetic gypsum, generated as a byproduct in industrial processes like coal combustion and the production of phosphoric acid, is used in various applications, including construction and agriculture.
  8. Gypsum Products Manufacturing:
    • Gypsum is used in the manufacturing of a wide range of products, including ceiling tiles, decorative panels, gypsum blocks, and various forms of gypsum-based insulation.
  9. Environmental Remediation:
    • Gypsum can be used to mitigate soil erosion and control dust on construction sites. It is also used in wastewater treatment processes to remove impurities.
  10. Oil and Gas Industry:
    • Gypsum is utilized in drilling muds used in the oil and gas industry to help control fluid loss and maintain stability in boreholes.

Gypsum’s versatility and widespread availability make it a valuable resource in multiple industries, contributing to the construction of buildings, the growth of crops, the creation of art, and many other applications that improve our daily lives.

Gypsum in Geography and Landforms

White Sands Desert, New Mexico, USA

Gypsum plays a significant role in shaping various geographical landforms, particularly in desert environments and karst topography. Here’s an exploration of how gypsum influences these landscapes:

1. Gypsum Deserts and Landscapes:

  • White Sands Desert, New Mexico, USA: One of the most famous gypsum landscapes is the White Sands Desert in New Mexico. It is the world’s largest gypsum dunefield and covers over 275 square miles (710 square kilometers). The white, sparkling dunes consist of pure gypsum sand. Gypsum’s unique properties allow it to create these massive dunes. The gypsum particles reflect sunlight, giving the dunes their striking white appearance.
  • Desert Playas: Gypsum is often found in desert playas, which are flat, arid areas that occasionally fill with water but then evaporate, leaving behind a crust of various minerals, including gypsum. These gypsum crusts can be found in places like the Great Salt Lake Desert in Utah and the Alkali Flat in California.
  • Salt Flats: Gypsum is a common component of salt flats, which are expansive, flat areas with a salt crust on the surface. These salt flats often form in arid regions where water flows into depressions and then evaporates, leaving behind the salts, including gypsum.

2. Karst Topography and Gypsum Caves:

  • Formation of Karst Landscapes: Karst topography is a unique type of landscape characterized by the dissolution of soluble bedrock, typically limestone, but sometimes gypsum, by the action of water. Gypsum karst landscapes are less common than limestone karst landscapes, but they share similar features. In areas with gypsum-rich bedrock, the dissolution of gypsum by slightly acidic rainwater leads to the creation of distinctive landforms.
  • Gypsum Caves: Gypsum caves, also known as gypsum karst caves, form through the dissolution of gypsum by groundwater. As slightly acidic water percolates through gypsum-rich bedrock, it gradually dissolves the gypsum, creating underground voids and passages. Over time, these voids can enlarge to form intricate cave systems with unique gypsum formations, including selenite crystals.
  • Selenite Crystals: Gypsum caves are often known for their beautiful selenite crystals, which can grow to impressive sizes. These translucent, prismatic crystals are a hallmark of gypsum caves and contribute to their aesthetic appeal. Notable examples include the Cave of the Crystals in Mexico’s Naica Mine, which contains some of the world’s largest gypsum crystals.
  • Sinkholes and Cenotes: In gypsum karst landscapes, the dissolution of gypsum can lead to the formation of sinkholes and cenotes (natural sinkholes filled with groundwater). These features can be found in areas with gypsum bedrock and are often used as sources of freshwater in arid regions.

Gypsum’s solubility in water and its susceptibility to dissolution by slightly acidic conditions make it an essential component of karst landscapes, which are known for their unique geological features. Whether in the form of vast gypsum dunes in deserts or the intricate underground worlds of gypsum caves, gypsum’s presence leaves a distinct mark on Earth’s geography and landforms.


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