Abstract In order to enhance the compatibility with plastic polymers, magnesium hydroxide sulfate hydrate (MHSH) nanowhiskers were modified through grafting methyl methacrylate (MMA) on the surface of the nanowhiskers by emulsion polymerization. The influences of the reaction time, MMA monomer content, adding speed of monomer and the reaction temperature on the grafting ratio were investigated. Thermogravimetry (TG), Fourier transform infrared (FT-IR) spectroscopy, X-ray powder diffraction (XRD), scanning electron microscope (SEM), energy-dispersive X-ray (EDX) spectroscopy and surface contact angle measurement were used to characterize the effect of surface modification. The results showed that the MHSH nanowhiskers were uniformly coated by polymethyl methacrylate (PMMA), and a well-defined core–shell hybrid structure of MHSH/PMMA was obtained. The surface contact angle of the hybrid whiskers increased to 87.32° from 12.71° and the whiskers surface was changed from hydrophilic to lipophilic.