Surface porosity affects the ability of a substance to adsorb gases. The surface fractal dimension D is a measure that indicates the amount that a surface fills a space, and can thereby be used to characterize the surface porosity. Here we propose a new method for determining D, based on measuring both the water vapour adsorption isotherm of a given substance, and its ability to act as a cloud condensation nucleus when introduced to humidified air in aerosol form. We show that our method agrees well with previous methods based on measurement of nitrogen adsorption. Besides proving the usefulness of the new method for general surface characterization of materials, our results show that the surface fractal dimension is an important determinant in cloud drop formation on water insoluble particles. We suggest that a closure can be obtained between experimental critical supersaturation for cloud drop activation and that calculated based on water adsorption data, if the latter is corrected using the surface fractal dimension of the insoluble cloud nucleus. © 2016, Nature Publishing Group. All rights reserved.